In geology there is a phenomenon called geomagnetic reversal. About once every 450,000 years the whole planet’s magnetic field flips. Magnetic north becomes magnetic south and vice versa.
We seem to be living through just such a reversal in our politics.
As someone who was weaned on stories of leftist intellectuals and journalists traipsing off to communist countries to pay obeisance, I can only shake my head as a parade of right-wingers are making their way to Hungary to sing the praises of authoritarian Viktor Orbán. Tucker Carlson of Fox News is the highest profile rightist to make the trek, but the path was already well-trod.
Former National Review editor and Margaret Thatcher speechwriter John O’Sullivan has moved to Budapest to head the Danube Institute, a think tank funded by Orbán’s government. He likes his nationalism straight up.
A few years ago, at the “National Conservatism” conference Washington, D.C., Orbán was an honored guest, which was a bit head-snapping for those inattentive to the drift toward authoritarianism on the right. Speakers at the conference (and a follow-up one held in Rome) have featured mainstream figures like John Bolton, Chris DeMuth, Peter Thiel, Oren Cass, and Rich Lowry. In addition to Orbán, other questionable invitees included Marion Marechal (she has dropped Le Pen from her surname), and Steve Bannon pal Matteo Salvini.
I’d wager that all of these conservative opinion leaders, along with more recent pilgrims traveling to Budapest (Dennis Prager, Rod Dreher, and Patrick Deneen) are deeply versed in the sad and reprehensible pattern of Western intellectuals becoming seduced by leftist authoritarian regimes. From Lincoln “I have seen the future and it works” Steffens to George Bernard Shaw to Noam Chomsky to Norman Mailer to William Sloane Coffin, intellectuals have fallen into this trap repeatedly since the 1930s. Paul Hollander’s 1981 book Political Pilgrims was updated numerous times because intellectuals never tired of finding new autocrats to worship. When the Soviet Union was no longer viable as a model (purges, show trials, the Hitler/Stalin pact, and all that), the eager acolytes switched to Mao and then to Castro and then to Ortega (Bernie Sanders, we’re looking at you). Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer even wrote glowing praise of North Korea’s Kim Il Sung.
As any number of conservative critics observed, you can tell a lot about people’s hierarchy of values by the regimes they admire. Leftists were so focused on equality of condition that they were willing to overlook or whitewash the brutal repression of individual rights. Basics of liberal democracy like free and fair elections, freedom for workers to organize, free speech, free association, religious liberty, property rights, and more were virtually non-existent in those nations. Yet that didn’t dim the enthusiasm of the Susan Sontags and Ramsay Clarks.
The ironic plot twist was that the communists never delivered the equality and widespread prosperity they claimed. They didn’t even do as well for workers as the “running dog capitalists.” And at their worst, the communists starved and shot scores of millions of people. As George Orwell put it, the communist world was “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” It was revealing that so many leftists were willing to sacrifice the precious rights we enjoy—a free press and trial by jury, for example—on the altar of equality.
The American Orbánistas are likewise revealing themselves. Though they are familiar with the folly of political tourism, they are lining up now to laud a leader who no longer even pretends to be democratic. The nations best prepared for the future, he declared in a 2018 address, were “not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.” The new state Hungary is building, Orbán said “is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Freedom House agrees. It no longer lists Hungary among the world’s democracies.
Orban used his supermajority in parliament to increase the size of the constitutional court from 11 to 15 (appointing four new members of the Fidesz party), and then lowered the mandatory retirement age for judges and prosecutors, freeing up slots for party members. Fidesz has used its control of the judiciary to hound competing political parties with fines and investigations. Orbán has also taken control of 80 percent of Hungary’s news media, and these crony-controlled outlets now constitute an enormous propaganda machine. Voting, which never had a long history in Hungary, was hamstrung by gerrymandering to give Fidesz a huge advantage. As the Economist noted, “In the general election last year, Fidesz won 67% of the parliamentary seats—maintaining its supermajority—while taking just less than half of the popular vote.” At the start of the COVID pandemic, Orbán was granted sweeping powers to rule by decree. The newly empowered state immediately made spreading “misinformation” a crime.
Orban’s nationalism is appealing to American conservatives. You can sense their excitement when he says things like “We do not want to be diverse. We do not want our own color, traditions, and national culture to be mixed with those of others.” The trouble for the American Orbánistas is that Hungary, a central European nation of 10 million, is not diverse. The United States is and—this cannot be stressed too often—always has been. The “conservatives” who thrill to talk of a monoculture are not preserving an American tradition, they are seeking to import something else.
Some of the American political pilgrims (Prager?) might also want to reflect on the less than subtle anti-Semitism Orbán employs when it suits him. He has made the Hungarian-born financier George Soros a demon figure and forced the university he founded out of the country. Describing his opponents, Orbán said in 2018: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”
The leftist intellectuals who lent their prestige to vicious regimes discredited themselves in the eyes of conservatives. We said they were apologists for anti-democratic ideas and justifiers of repression. We said their infatuation with unchecked power was a worrying sign. Every word of that is true today of the conservative pilgrims, who, one would have thought, had more attachment to the American experiment in ordered liberty than to the lure of blood and tribe.