Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, once described Hungary’s Viktor Orban as “the most significant guy on the scene right now”. Hungary’s self-professed champion of illiberal democracy nowadays looms even larger on America’s populist right.
US conservatives used to admire Orban from a distance. Now they want to emulate him from close-up. The reasons for Orban’s ascent in the eyes of Republicans also offer a road map on how the party plans to return to power.
It is not only about re-electing Trump in 2024 — although the ex-US president has made no secret of his Orban envy. After Germany’s Angela Merkel steps down, Orban will become Europe’s longest-serving leader — a cumulative 15 years so far. Budapest is the first, and often only, stop on the foreign itinerary of US conservative thinkers. In August, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson conducted an admiring interview with Hungary’s leader. Others, including the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher and the University of Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, have talked glowingly about Orban. The Conservative Political Action Committee, which holds the US right’s largest annual gathering, is planning a conference in Budapest in 2022, its first on European soil.
What makes the leader of a small central European country so appealing to conservatives in the world’s richest democracy? Because Orban shows how the switch to illiberalism can be done. Success breeds imitation. The first time Orban was in power — in 1998 — he led a pro-small government free market party. He was defeated in 2002. In those days his Fidesz party had a lot in common with Reagan Republicans. When Orban returned to power in 2010, it was with a very different ideology. He was “Trump before Trump” as Bannon put it. The libertarian philosophy had been replaced by the politics of resentment. European identity made way for talk of defending Hungary’s Christian civilisation. The new Orban was an enemy of independent media, courts and universities. He also became Europe’s chief scapegoater of immigrants.
Unlike Trump, who promised to build a wall on the US-Mexico border, but only partially delivered, Orban blanketed Hungary’s southern borders with barbed wire fencing. In 2015, the year after his party won the two-thirds majority he needed to overhaul Hungary’s constitution, Orban said: “We are experiencing the end of all the liberal babble. An era is coming to an end.” The jury is still out on whether he was right. Among US conservatives, however, the road map he has provided is too relevant to ignore.
Orban’s example is two-fold. Peripheral Hungary is a surprisingly good model for the Republican heartlands of small town and rural America. Just as Orban harvested resentment of the networked metropolitans of Brussels, Berlin and Paris, so today’s Republicans rail against New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Red state America is subsidised by its more urban Democratic counterparts — the fiscal transfer from urban to non-urban America grows larger every year. Hungary, too, is dependent on huge subsidies from the EU. Both resent the cosmopolitan hands that feed them.
Orban has tilted Hungary’s electoral system against opposition parties and shown how to win super-majorities without a majority of voters. In the country’s 2018 elections, Fidesz won 67 per cent of the seats with 49 per cent of the vote. Orban’s governance model is even more relevant. Having secured a stranglehold on power, he has parcelled out EU-funded largesse to allies on a grand scale. Almost half of Hungary’s public contracts have just one bidder. This would be hard to replicate in a federal democracy the size of the US. But there are many pages that can be taken from Orban’s book, including how to win a culture war with the urban elites.
The US right’s love affair might well outlast Trump. Last month, Mike Pence, the former vice-president, and 2024 hopeful, visited Hungary and praised Orban’s pro-family policies. On the Christian right, Orban is seen as anti-LGBTQ, hostile to immigration and a defender of western civilisation. With US-Mexico border crossings rising, and a growing backlash against more diverse curricula in US schools, including “critical race theory”, Orban’s playbook is too pressing to ignore. The Hungarian leader’s strategy could prove as relevant to the Republicans’ future as Trump himself.