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Why Do American ‘Postliberals’ Swoon Over Viktor Orbán?

Rod Dreher, the American orbánistas, and the art of cherry-picking.
June 9, 2021
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

There is a striking pattern of behavior among those who think that, as Rod Dreher wrote a year ago, “on balance, [Viktor Orbán] has been good for Hungary, and for Europe.” Not unlike diehard supporters of former President Donald Trump, the American orbánistas seem far more vexed by every bit of unfairness in media coverage of Hungary or its treatment by Western allies than by the gradual entrenchment of Hungary’s governing elite and by the damage they are doing to the future of their country.

Although Dreher has built a reputation for emphatically approving of the Hungarian prime minister’s purported efforts to defend Christianity in Central Europe, he stresses that his high regard “does not mean I support everything he does.” And when it comes to controversies surrounding Orbán, such as the ‘enabling act’ adopted in the early days of the pandemic, Dreher confesses with admirable candor that he does not “know enough about what’s going on in Hungary to have a confident opinion.”

Yet, for an admittedly casual observer of the region, Dreher is very apt at picking on every slight directed at Orbán. Here is Dreher last Friday: “Once you live in Central Europe, as I have been doing for the past two months, it really opens your eyes as to how unfairly people and countries here are treated by the West.” The most recent case in point? Pope Francis’s refusal to meet with Orbán during a trip to Hungary scheduled for September.

In Dreher’s opinion, that should be a badge of honor for Orbán, whose “policies have done more to protect Europe’s Christianity than the pontiff’s.” As evidence for this claim, Dreher offers two points. First, Hungary’s government took a critical stand on Muslim immigration to Europe, particularly during the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016 when it rejected the proposal of EU-wide relocation quotas for asylum seekers. Second, Orbán’s government banned by decree gender studies programs at Hungarian universities, including at the George Soros-founded Central European University, which was later expelled by the government from Hungary altogether.

But is that a sufficiently impressive track record? For one, the European Commission’s poorly conceived idea of relocation quotas was eventually shelved, and not just because of Orbán. More importantly, quotas or not, Hungary was never at risk of being overrun by immigrants from the Middle East. At the height of the refugee crisis, it served as a transit country for those who wanted to apply for asylum in countries such as Germany or Sweden, rather than in the first EU country that they reached (typically Greece).

Likewise, treating the end of (two) graduate-level programs in gender studies as a putative game changer in the war against wokeism is not only oblivious to the chilling effect on Orbán’s opponents in academia at large but is also indicative of American parochialism. Although ideas travel, the expansive American views of gender and race exercised exactly zero influence on Hungary’s political and cultural elites.

Then, there is the rest of the story, which Dreher and others leave out—presumably because they do not “know enough about what’s going on.” Orbán’s highly unconventional economic policies of renationalization and cartelization of parts of the economy might resonate with American “postliberals,” but the fact of the matter is that on the current prime minister’s watch the country has lagged behind its neighbors. At 73.5 percent of the EU’s average, Hungarian real incomes are lower than in the other Visegrád countries, as well as Estonia and Lithuania.

“I would have a lot more confidence for the future were I living [in a] country governed by Viktor Orbán than by Angela Merkel,” Dreher wrote last year. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who voted with their feet beg to differ: 200,000 Hungarians live in Germany, another 100,000 in the UK. Close to 100,000 live and work the neighboring Austria, where they represent the second-largest group of migrant workers.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s own population has shrunk from over 10 million at the beginning of Orbán’s era to 9.78 million last year. The catastrophically low fertility rate (1.55) has not budged significantly over the past decade and remains firmly below the likes of Sweden (1.76), France (1.88), Denmark (1.73)—and even Germany (1.57).

The evidence for a spiritual revival is also thin. Only 17 percent of Hungarians consider themselves highly religious—a lower proportion than in practically all post-Communist countries, with the exception of the notoriously secular Czech Republic and Latvia, and places Hungary on par with the likes of Norway and the Netherlands.

Finally, there is the ugly stuff—the incumbent entrenchment, which has forced the entire opposition, from left liberals to former neofascists, to join forces in order to stand a fighting chance in the 2022 election; the grotesque corruption, which is worse than in other countries of the region; the siding with Russia, Belarus, and China against its neighbors and allies. Just this past weekend, thousands of Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest to protest against the planned construction of a new campus of China’s Fudan University in Hungary. The project is expected to cost $1.8 billion, more than the annual budget of all Hungarian universities combined, funded largely by a Chinese loan.

Is Dreher fine with all of this? Does he think that Orbán’s symbolic and arguably disingenous bows in the direction of social conservatism justify dragging a country which was once a success story among the post-Communist transitions to Europe’s periphery, economically and politically? As an aside, the symbolic part of Hungary’s current politics is not unproblematic either—consider the efforts to whitewash Hungary’s role in the Holocaust or, more recently, the anti-Semitic bile directed by one of Orbán’s close associates at U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “you are completely a ROOTLESS Hungarian as you are a rootless American.”

There is no doubt that Dreher belongs to the more intellectually honest segments of the American postliberal right. However, there is a world of difference between advocating, as he did in his 2017 book The Benedict Option, for a bottom-up revival of Christian life in an era when organized religion has seemingly gone out of fashion, and shilling in an admittedly underinformed way for one of the most ruthless Machiavellians in European politics today. All those who made the transition from the former to the latter ought to double-check their premises, their reasoning, and the care with which they assess evidence.

Dalibor Rohac

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.