“Don’t pay attention to what I say, but to what I do,” Viktor Orbán once told Western diplomats concerned with his illiberal rhetoric. Had they only heeded his advice, they might have dealt with him more quickly, before he became a general European headache. And yet even today, having been played by him for years, people continue to focus more on Orbán’s words than his actions.
Over the weekend, Orbán gave another one of his provocative speeches, making headlines around the world for his remarks about “race-mixing” and endorsement of replacement theory. The comments were certainly unworthy of a serious statesman, but the speech should be viewed more broadly in terms of what it says about both Orbán’s political ambitions and what he’s done to Hungary.
We’ll return to the speech in a moment, but first, a few words of historical background that will help us to better understand Orbán’s record and his aims: Those seeking to understand him could learn a lot by studying the work of a little known Hungarian dissident named István Bibó. In the midst of the Hungarian Revolution, on November 3, 1956, Bibó—a legal scholar and political philosopher—was appointed as a minister in Hungary’s briefly independent government. The next day, Bibó refused to flee the Parliament as the Russians moved into Budapest. As the story goes, when Soviet troops occupied the building and began searching for members of the revolutionary government, they found Bibó in his office, calmly typing. They demanded to know what he was doing. Bibó replied, “I’m writing”—upon which the Soviets, convinced that no writer could do them serious harm, left Bibó alone and moved on to look for the dangerous revolutionaries.
A central theme in Bibó’s thought is the threat posed to democracy by “political hysteria.” Bibó believed political hysteria took on a special form in Eastern Europe, partly because of the region’s history of repeated conquest, and partly because Eastern European nationalities were distributed in ways that did not align with established boundaries. The combination of these factors means that the nations of Eastern Europe frequently live in existential fear. They fear that geopolitical forces may conspire to produce their extinction.
Even when objectively speaking these fears are exaggerated, they are rooted in historical experiences that give them psychological power. Poland was partitioned out of existence for more than a hundred years. The Baltic states were absorbed into the Soviet Union and subjected to a policy of Russification. The Balkan states were possessed by the Ottoman Empire. Königsberg, the birthplace of Immanuel Kant and once a part of Prussia, is today called Kaliningrad and is found in Russia. And so on and so forth. Even the origins of Nazi Germany can be traced back to political hysteria rooted in existential fear: Modern Germany was shaped by Prussian militarism, which itself was a defensive response to the fact that the French and the Russians had dismantled Prussia in the Treaty of Tilsit.
In Bibó’s analysis, existential fear leads to “anti-democratic nationalism,” a form of nationalism that appeals to ethnic or national groups that fear they will lose out in a democracy. In his essay “The Misery of the Small States of Eastern Europe,” Bibó describes at length the manner in which fear in Eastern Europe undermines democratic structures. In one oft-cited passage, here in my own translation, Bibó writes:
To be a democrat means first of all not to fear; not to fear other opinions, other languages, other races; not to fear revolution, conspiracies, or the hidden evil intentions of the enemy; not to fear hostile propaganda and insults; in general, not to fear all those imaginary dangers which only become real once we fear them.
According to Bibó, collective fear generates a distinct type of Eastern European politician, what he calls the “false realist.” The false realist is a strongman who claims to understand the dangers threatening the nation, and who uses this as an excuse to centralize power. Often the false realist, in Bibó’s words, “enters into politics on the wing of democratic movements [and] alongside his indisputable talent, is characterized by a certain shrewdness and aggressiveness, which makes him exceptionally suited to become the caretaker and custodian for the falsification of democracy, for anti-democratic governance conducted within democratic structures” (emphasis added).
What Bibó calls false realism was very much on display in the speech Viktor Orbán delivered to an admiring audience this past Saturday in Romania. To suggest that Hungarians are in the grips of collective hysteria would be grossly misleading, but what is true is that Orbán knows how to play on the deep-seated fears of the Hungarian people. After stirring them up, Orbán manipulates those fears to build a cult of personality, cultivating an image of himself as a great statesman. The indispensable figure of a non-democratic political regime, Orbán has managed to become the political embodiment of every latent pathology in the Hungarian national character.
Orbán delivered his speech in Transylvania, a fact that by itself is significant. Although Transylvania is part of Romania, for most of its history it either belonged to, or was ruled by, Hungarians. Many great Hungarians were from Transylvania, and to this day well over a million ethnic Hungarians live there. The Treaty of Trianon, one of the treaties that ended the First World War, transferred Transylvania to Romania. During the Communist period, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu attempted to implement a brutal policy of Romanization, which included plans to bulldoze Hungarian villages. Had the plan been fully implemented, it would have eradicated the Transylvanian Hungarian population completely. Thus, when Hungarians visit Transylvania, they remember both their history and the precariousness of their very existence.
Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has been holding annual summer festivals in Transylvania for a long time. I myself attended part of one in the late 1990s before Orbán became prime minister. In recent years, however, these festivals have become televised political events. Orbán uses the occasion to deliver wide-ranging, semi-philosophical speeches in which he sets forth his view of the world. His notorious 2014 illiberalism speech was delivered in Transylvania. And so it is fitting that what might be called Orbán’s “false realism” speech was also delivered there.
Much commentary about Orbán’s speech has focused on what he said about race. But as Ákos Hadházy, one of Hungary’s contemporary political dissidents, pointed out, Orbán’s racial comments were a “rubber bone”—that is, a toy Orbán’s liberal critics can’t stop chasing and tugging on, when they ought to be focusing on more substantial political matters. That is exactly what Orbán wants, because the misplaced focus helps him to deflect attention away from his serious and more dangerous intentions.
The true significance to the speech lies in what it reveals about Orbán’s ever-expanding and overweening political ambition. Over the course of an hour, Orbán skillfully weaved together half-truths, untruths, and internal contradictions to create the impression that he is a great statesman who understands the world and knows how to lead Hungary to greatness. Orbán believes in, and is banking on, the demise of the West. His comments on race should be understood in that context.
Orbán started by noting that, even though in many respects quality of life continues to improve, people nevertheless feel that the world is getting worse. The reason is that they sense the West is in decline. According to Orbán, 90 percent of crude oil, natural gas, and coal was controlled by the United States and Europe in 1990. Today, the United States and Europe control only 35 percent of these resources. “Negative feelings about the world arise from the fact that the energy and natural resources necessary to sustain economic development are no longer in Western hands” (again, my translation).
A second problem is that Europe has split in two. In the West, European and non-European peoples live together. “These countries are no longer nations. These countries are nothing more than conglomerations of people. I could even say, this is no longer the West, but the post-West.” The final demographic change will take place around 2050, because at that point more than 50 percent of the people living in Western European cities will be of non-European origin.
Oddly enough, after describing Western decline, Orbán begins complaining about American power and hegemony. Although no one knows it, 2013 was one of the most significant years in recent history. That was the year, Orbán tells his audience, that the Americans began fracking. The Americans now have greater energy independence, and they intend to use it as a foreign policy weapon. The United States has been trying to compel Europe into dependence on American energy for years now. The fact that Americans “accuse others of doing the same thing should not lead anyone astray.” Economic imperialism, in fact, explains why the United States is currently pressuring European governments to implement sanctions against Russia.
Moreover, the war in Ukraine is fundamentally America’s fault. On this point Orbán expresses himself with what one might call—depending on your point of view—careful nuance or specious subtlety. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was morally wrong, says Orbán, but one has to search out the deeper reasons for it. Russia was threatened by NATO expansion. Although Russia expressed these concerns frankly, NATO ignored them.
Even worse, Orbán says, the West’s current war policy is leading Europe toward catastrophe. That policy, in his analysis, rests on four assumptions: 1) that Ukraine can win the war with NATO assistance; 2) that sanctions will weaken Russia; 3) that the West can handle the economic pain caused by sanctions; and 4) that there is global support for what the West is doing. But all four assumptions are false, he says. Of course, in calling them false Orbán is not naming facts, but making predictions. He believes Russia will win the war and outlast the West, and he’s planning to take advantage of the situation.
“The thing to know,” Orbán says, “is that we’re preparing for 2030. . . . That’s when we expect the problems in the West to accumulate and reach their tipping point. There will even be a serious crisis in the United States.” By 2030, according to Orbán, the dynamics of power within the EU will fundamentally shift. The countries of Eastern Europe, instead of being a net recipient of EU money, will become net contributors, and that will give them leverage. And one more thing is certain: Orbán will still be in power in 2030. “We have a supermajority, and a government with a supermajority cannot be toppled.” The time of Hungarian glory is finally on the horizon. Hungary has European ambitions.
We have always given more to the world than we have received. The world has always taken more from us than it has given. The accounts are not yet reconciled. . . . But the world owes us, and we intend to cash in.
For those who aren’t Hungarian, these comments may sound absurd, even comical. But they offer a window into Orbán’s ambitions and deepest fantasies. Orbán not only expects the West to fail, he’s counting on it. A Europe in crisis will not ask about his corrupt use of EU money; it will not inquire about the independence of Hungary’s judiciary; it will not express concern about the lack of a free press or the manipulation of Hungary’s elections. A Europe in crisis will leave Viktor Orbán alone. Even more, a Europe in crisis might allow Orbán to achieve his grandest ambition.
The far right is on the move in a way it hasn’t been in decades, and Orbán has constructed a political system that secures his hold on power indefinitely. This allows him to launch unceasing attacks on the European Union and the Western alliance without paying a domestic political price. If things break just right, Orbán could emerge as a European statesman, a man who leaves his mark on history.
Many years ago, when my children were young, we owned two pet rabbits. One of them was quiet and timid, the way a rabbit ought to be, but the other was bold and daring. The bold rabbit would always escape from his pen and out into nature, where we needed to chase him down before he was eaten by a fox or coyote. Every time we’d catch him, I’d say to my kids, this little rabbit should have been born a dog or a lion, his personality is much better suited for a large animal. Then one day the bold little rabbit escaped from his pen and was never seen again. No doubt he ended the day as some big animal’s dinner. Whether he has a big personality or a small one, a rabbit, as Gertrude Stein might say, is a rabbit is a rabbit.
I’ve thought about our rabbit often in recent years as I’ve watched Viktor Orbán strut and posture on the European stage. The leader of a poor, small, insignificant country in Europe, he knows how to punch above his weight. No country of consequence has bothered to put him in his place for twelve years, and Orbán has convinced himself that he’s a genius. Even more, he has convinced the Hungarian people of his genius. They see in him a seasoned statesman with a strong, stable hand on the rudder, and they believe him when he conflates the interests of his regime with those of his country.
Yet in playing a high-stakes game for personal gain, in casting his lot with Russia and the extreme right, Orbán has placed the well-being of his country in jeopardy. A rabbit on the loose, if he becomes an irritation, can be easily dealt with. And so too, the greater an irritation Orbán becomes and the more success he has in undermining the Western alliance, the more important it will become for countries of consequence to put him in his place.