Even supporters of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán acknowledge privately that the Pegasus scandal is a hard blow to the embattled leader. Last month’s news that government spies had employed Israeli software to commandeer the smartphones of journalists, activists and government opponents confirmed the worst authoritarian stereotypes of Orbán, who will be running for his fourth consecutive term in 2022.
These allegations, if true — and many Orbán backers with whom I spoke assume that they are — will likely displace what was Orbán’s greatest liability heading into next year’s vote: that he and his Fidesz party oversee a vast web of public corruption.
In the three months that I have been living in Budapest, I have had countless conversations with people — many of whom intend to vote Fidesz in next year’s election — who complain that the Orbán government is far too indulgent of corruption. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by a recent survey by the anticorruption NGO Transparency International, which revealed that 69 percent of Hungarians believe that government corruption is a big, or very big, problem in their country.
To be fair, the European Union average is 62 percent, according to Transparency International, which, while depressing, puts the high Hungarian number into a more favorable context. Plus, corruption is a regrettable legacy of communism, one that affects every country in the former Soviet bloc. Still, there’s no gainsaying the corruption issue. A Western diplomat told me that while the Americans and Europeans focus on culture-war issues in Central European countries, corruption is a far bigger deal.
Nevertheless, European Union leaders have declared culture war on Hungary, in response to a new law passed by the Fidesz majority in parliament. The law makes it illegal to promote LGBT content to children and minors, requiring that sexual education in schools be regulated so as not to undermine parental control over what their kids learn.
Across the EU, heads of states’ hair spontaneously combusted, with Dutch PM Mark Rutte saying he intended ‘to bring Hungary to its knees on this issue’. He said: ‘They must realize that they are either part of the European Union and this community of values, which means that in Hungary…no one can be discriminated against and [everyone] can feel free on grounds of sexuality, skin color, gender, whatever.’
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen trashed the law, saying it ‘clearly discriminates against people on the basis of their sexual orientation’.
Well, no, it doesn’t discriminate against ‘people’ in general, but does draw a line between LGBT advocates and minors — a line that most Hungarians, who are not a religious people, but are nonetheless socially conservative — likely favor. Even some liberal Hungarians with whom I have spoken find transgenderism and the ideology around it to be strongly inappropriate for children.
Yet for many liberal Americans and Western Europeans, this is a starkly black and white moral issue, and anyone who sincerely disagrees with them is simply wrong, even evil. This is what motivates a great deal of Western discussion of Viktor Orbán and Hungary. Orbán is regularly accused of encouraging anti-Semitism, of strangling freedom — and now of being Europe’s chief homophobe.
It’s a popular view, but it’s neither a fair nor an accurate one.
Take the commonly heard accusation that Orbán traffics in anti-Semitism — this, because of his fierce criticism of Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish.
Whatever the political background of some of his Western detractors, Soros devotes himself to funding the kinds of progressive, globalist causes diametrically opposed to Orbán’s socially conservative politics and determined defense of Hungary’s national sovereignty against EU diktats.
On a recent visit to London, Orbán rebutted the anti-Semitism accusation. ‘George Soros is a talented Hungarian businessman,’ he told media gathered outside 10 Downing Street. ‘He is very much in favor of migration, financing and helping the NGOs who are doing that. We don’t like it, but it has nothing to do with ethnic identity.’
If Soros were not Jewish, he would simply be a left-wing oligarch trying to undermine Hungarian sovereignty and conservative social values, as his Open Society network of NGOs does throughout Europe. The Hungarian government would still oppose him. Besides, it’s hard to feel sorry for Soros as a political scapegoat, given that in 2015, his Open Society Foundation translated Saul Alinsky’s infamous Rules For Radicals into the Macedonian language and distributed it in that Balkan country to undermine the conservative government.
Alinsky’s 12th rule is, ‘Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.’ Orbán is giving Soros a taste of his own medicine — which, come to think of it, is Alinsky’s Rule 3: ‘Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.’
In any case, the Orbán government has on balance a strong relationship with both the state of Israel and Hungary’s Jews — though a complicated one, in the latter case, given that Hungarian Jews tend to be mostly secular liberals, and live in Budapest, where the party is weakest. Under Orbán, the government has spent generously to restore Jewish sites destroyed by the Nazis, and polls suggest that Hungary’s 100,000 or so Jews they feel safer from anti-Semitic violence than do Jews elsewhere in Europe.
And they are. When this May’s violence between Israel and Hamas led to spikes in anti-Semitic incidents in London, Paris and New York, I expected to see police deployed to protect synagogues in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter, through which I pass twice a day on the way to my office. There were none. In fact, Jews — including easily-identifiable Hasidim — walked the streets with no apparent anxiety. This, in a country supposedly led by an anti-Semite of the far-right. Meanwhile, enlightened, multicultural Britain in May recorded a monthly record in the number of reported anti-Semitic attacks. Meanwhile, around 10 percent of France’s Jews have left in recent years following a series of anti-Semitic terror attacks.
Hostility to Hungary increased from 2015 when Orbán famously opposed Angela Merkel’s controversial invitation to Syrian war refugees — and many others — to enter Europe. Most Europeans opposed such a huge movement of people, but the Hungarian leader became the figurehead of the resistance. The series of terror attacks that followed in Germany, France and Belgium seemed to confirm Orbán’s view that the ‘misguided’ immigration policy ‘threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe’ — and this only made him more of a bogeyman.
Coming from a country which endured decades of ideological extremism, the Hungarian leadership believe in the power of ideas to motivate political action. Along those lines, Orbán now faces withering criticism for taking actions against Hungary’s universities. He infamously pressured the Soros-founded Central European University to leave Budapest. More recently, Orbán withdrew government accreditation and funding for gender studies programs within universities. Though not a fan of gender studies, or any of the other grievance studies fields, I once would have been appalled at the state interfering in the academic life of universities.
No longer. As an American, I have seen how the madness of gender studies has migrated in the blink of an eye from a once-fringe academic discipline to a commanding ideology of the Western ruling class and its institutions. Along with critical race theory, gender ideology is tearing American apart. To dissent from gender ideology in any way — even, as J.K. Rowling did, as a left-wing feminist — is to risk your career. Academic freedom is an important liberal value, but it cannot be society’s suicide note.
In late spring, I spoke with Peter Kreko, a widely admired Budapest professor who is a well-known liberal critic of the Orbán government. He told me that he strongly opposes the government’s policies against gay marriage and gay adoption, but added, mildly, that ‘I don’t follow the logic’ of transgenderism. Later in our interview, he conceded that for all his criticism of Orbán and Fidesz, he can say whatever he likes in his classroom without fear of retribution.
I pointed out to him that in many American universities, he could not say what he had earlier in our talk — that he strongly supported gay rights, but was slightly uncertain about the trans phenomenon — without facing swift denunciation from his students, and pressure to resign. The college administration probably would not stand by his right to academic freedom, and would find some reason to cut him loose. His reputation as a bigot secured, he would never work in academia again.
None of this would come from the state. It would all come from the militant, illiberal ideology that has seized control of American academia. So who is more free to speak his mind: a professor in Orbán’s Hungary, or a professor in the US?
Orbán’s recognition that universities have become seedbeds of radicalism, and that defending the social order from ideologies may require interfering in their internal affairs, looks prescient. And his liberal opponents look hypocritical. When the New York Times reported this summer about the supposed outrage of the Orbán government infusing Matthias Corvinus Collegium, a right-of-center educational institution, with taxpayer money, my conservative American academic friends laughed. What do these New York Times people think that the constellation of US public universities are, if not taxpayer-supported propagators of left-wing thought and ideology? I have been told that it’s the same in Hungary’s established universities.
The problem is that progressive journalists and academics assume that the left-liberalism of universities and journalistic institutions is in the natural order of things. Orbán challenges that orthodoxy through brash policy maneuvers that appall the left, but which, unlike Donald Trump’s empty own-the-libs antics, produce a substantive outcome.
Similarly, there is the trend whereby Orbán’s allies have bought up critical media outlets in order to shut them down or transform them, with his support. This is clearly true, although the numbers are misleading. While pro-Orbán papers and websites greatly outnumber opposition ones, by far the biggest circulation newspapers remain critical of the government. When I attacked the state’s heavy hand in cultivating the media landscape, a Fidesz supporter said, ‘What you have to understand is that without it, conservatives would be totally invisible in Hungarian media.’ I repeated that claim to a Hungarian political reporter with over three decades of experience, asking him if it’s true. No question, he said.
As someone intimately familiar with the monochromatic progressivism of the US media, which have grown more stridently left-wing than ever, that sounds plausible and familiar. I am neither criticizing nor defending Orbán’s strategy; I am merely saying that the left in the US and western European media remain blind to how they exercise ideological hegemony over news coverage.
In the American media landscape, liberals tend to assume that their point of view is neutral, perhaps because nearly everybody they work with believes the same thing. Their claims that their journalism is somehow ‘independent’ sound risible outside the progressive echo chamber. So charges that Orbán has somehow strangled the independent media in Hungary should be evaluated in this context. For conservative Hungarians, Orbán’s media strategy can be seen as using state power to help create ideological media diversity and more equitable news coverage. Western progressives enamored of the critical race theory idea that disproportionality means unacceptable bias that should be remedied by government action should ponder that principle in light of the Hungarian government’s media moves.
This brings us back to the issue that has Hungary’s prime minister facing threats from other heads of government: homosexuality and transgenderism. In the US, the one-sidedness of the media coverage on LGBT issues has been worthy of Pravda or Izvestia back in the old days. For many years, it has been all but impossible to find any critical coverage of LGBT issues in major print or broadcast media, or any positive coverage of critics of LGBT goals.
Back in 2005, I was told by a colleague at the major newspaper where I then worked, that our publication no more owed fair coverage to opponents of same-sex marriage than we would owe it to the Ku Klux Klan. For that writer — and I would say for most journalists — the issue was so clear-cut that normal journalistic standards did not apply. This long ago became the attitude of the ruling class and its institutions. They genuinely do not see those who disagree – including a large number of orthodox Christians and other social conservatives — as having a valid perspective on LGBT matters. And they have mobilized immense resources — governmental, corporate, media, and otherwise — to delegitimize and even demonize dissent.
In the US, the propaganda has become overwhelming. Children’s breakfast cereal boxes during Pride month feature instructions to kids to choose their own pronouns. Kermit the Frog is set to host a Disney-sponsored Pride concert for children, featuring the same drag queen (Nina West) that sang a Pride parade marching song for the popular pre-kindergarten show ‘Blues Clues & You’.
Thanks to the new Orbán-backed law, Hungarian parents won’t have to deal with their kids coming home from school asking them what gender they are, really. They won’t have to worry, like many American parents do, that their children’s school is conspiring to keep their child’s gender identity secret from them. They won’t have to worry, like British parents, about a 4,000 percent increase in youth referrals for gender treatment in just a decade.
I imagine that most Hungarian parents will support this, and if not, Hungary remains a democracy; on July 21, Orbán announced an upcoming national referendum on the law. In the meantime, Hungary retains a free press, which is at liberty to criticize the supposed homophobia and transphobia of the government, and to call on voters to reject the law in the referendum and throw the bigots out in 2022. Hungarians remain free to protest the state’s policies, as thousands of Pride protesters did in Budapest in late July. Of course, everything came off peacefully; some ‘Viktator’, that Orbán.
This is how things are supposed to work in a democracy. But now a coalition of democratic European leaders are ganging up on Hungary, threatening to smash it for daring to assert its own cultural sovereignty. They are vowing to withdraw EU funding over Hungary’s moves to keep NGOs and broadcasters from indoctrinating Hungarian children with cheerful songs featuring sexually mutilated beavers, in an effort to destroy what religious tradition, their mothers and fathers and common sense says is true about gender.
At the European summit earlier this summer, French president Emmanuel Macron, furious at Hungary’s new law, lashed out at conservative central European for undermining ‘what has built the core of our western liberal democracy for centuries’. Macron called it ‘a cultural, civilizational battle that we must fight’.
You might not agree with them, but for Hungary and its allies, they are defending a way of life rooted firmly in the Christian faith, which has been at the core of European identity for at least 1,500 years, and whose vision of humanity made in the image of God birthed modern conceptions of human rights.
Macron’s assertion that to oppose propagandizing children and minors for LGBT liberation is a violation of centuries of European tradition is absurd in the extreme, a breathtakingly ignorant thing for a European leader to say.
Still, President Macron is right in one sense: this is a cultural, civilizational battle that we must fight. And Viktor Orbán, who despite his many flaws has more courage and conviction than countless US and Western European conservative politicians, is on the right side of it. A young Hungarian woman I asked about the corruption issue, including the Pegasus scandal, admitted that it troubles her, but it’s not going to change her pro-Orbán vote next year.
‘Not all corruption is the same,’ she told me in the taxi we were sharing across town. ‘We can live with ordinary corruption. But things like filling our kids’ heads with the idea that they might be one of 50 genders? That’s evil. We can’t survive that.’
This week, the TV host Tucker Carlson, now the most influential figure on the American right, arrived in Hungary to spend a week having a look around. He met the prime minister, and will be speaking at a youth conference in Esztergom on the weekend. Where Tucker goes, more conservative intellectuals and media figures will surely follow. Good. It’s time for intellectually depleted Anglo-American conservatives to take a fresh look at Hungary.
Several years ago, I was present when Orbán told a group of visiting conservatives that he hoped we would consider Budapest to be ‘your intellectual home’. A couple of weeks ago, at a drinks party for European, British and American conservatives held in the new downtown Budapest coffee shop named for the late Sir Roger Scruton, it was clear to me that this is becoming a reality.
Rod Dreher, a senior editor of the American Conservative, recently completed a term as a visiting fellow at Budapest’s Danube Institute.