The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
In the summer of 1989, the Soviet Union was beginning to falter, and its grasp on Eastern Europe was slipping. But in Hungary, the Soviets were hardly gone yet: Moscow still maintained around 70,000 soldiers, 1,000 tanks, and 1,500 armored vehicles there. Janos Kadar, who had built and led the repressive, Soviet-aligned regime that had run the country for the past three decades, had resigned the previous year, as the economy sputtered and Kadar himself struggled with cancer. But the regime centered on Kadar’s Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party remained intact and still presided over an immense security apparatus and a network of armed militias.
The momentum, however, was with the opposition groups that sought to take advantage of the Soviet decline. On June 16, they organized a massive demonstration in Heroes’ Square, which includes a monument to the founders of the Hungarian state, in central Budapest. Part memorial service and part protest, the gathering was attended by some 250,000 people. On the steps of the monument lay six coffins. Five contained the unearthed remains of men who had been key leaders of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet uprising and who had been sentenced to death in a secret trial and buried in an unmarked grave. The sixth coffin was empty and symbolized the 300 other people who had been executed for their roles in the uprising. The demonstration was followed by the burial of the coffins, giving the remains the dignified resting place the Soviets had denied them.
The demonstration, broadcasted live on Hungarian television, finished with six speeches. The final one was delivered by Viktor Orban, a little-known, 26-year-old activist with a scruffy beard. It was just seven minutes long, but it electrified the crowd and the people watching at home. “If we trust our own strength, then we will be able to put an end to the communist dictatorship,” declared Orban, who the previous year had helped found the Alliance of Young Democrats, or Fidesz, a liberal youth movement.
If we are determined enough, then we can compel the ruling party to face free elections. If we have not lost sight of the ideas of 1956, we will vote for a government that will at once enter into negotiations on the immediate beginning of the withdrawal of Russian troops. If we are courageous enough, then, but only then, we can fulfill the will of our revolution.
In Hungary at the time, it was still unusual for anyone to publicly issue such a blunt rebuke of the Soviets. The speech instantly propelled Orban to fame in his country, and was noticed abroad, as well. Here, it seemed, was a herald of Hungary’s bright, democratic future.
But in the 30 years that have passed since that day, a staggering reversal has taken place, as Orban has transformed from one of the most promising defenders of Hungarian democracy into the chief author of its demise. As Hungary’s prime minister during the past decade, Orban has systematically dismantled the country’s democratic institutions, undermined the rule of law, eliminated constitutional checks and balances, hobbled independent media, and built a kleptocratic system that rewards cronies while sidelining critics. His government does not depend on naked oppression. Rather, through the distribution of sinecures, he has assembled around himself an army of devotees, one that extends far beyond the administration, the police, the secret services, and the military. Today, Hungary is at best an “illiberal democracy”—a term Orban has used to describe his vision for the country. Others argue that the country has left democratic governance behind altogether and is now a crude autocracy.
Looking back, it appears that the young man whose rhetoric stirred Hungarians in 1989 was no idealist; he was, rather, a budding opportunist getting an early taste of power. No great trauma or upheaval can easily account for his wholesale ideological turnaround in the years that followed: it seems to have simply been the result of an extended series of shrewd political calculations. Far from fulfilling the will of Hungary’s revolution, as he exhorted his fellow Hungarians to do in 1989, Orban has instead fulfilled only his own will to power.
Orban was born in 1963 in the tiny village of Alcsutdoboz, not far from Budapest. Initially, he, his parents, and his younger brother lived in the cramped house of his paternal grandparents. When Viktor was ten, as a consequence of arguments between his mother and grandmother, the family moved to a dilapidated house at the end of the main street in the somewhat larger village of Felcsut. The circumstances in which he grew up were orderly but without doubt very poor. Orban has recalled how hard he and his siblings had to work in the fields as young children: pulling beets, sorting potatoes, feeding the pigs and chickens. The house had no running water. Years later, Orban described the “unforgettable experience” of using a bathroom for the first time, at age 15, and getting hot water by simply turning on a faucet.
His family’s fortunes improved in the 1970s and 1980s, as his father completed a university degree and climbed the ranks of the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party. Orban was a bright student, and his parents sent him to a selective grammar school. But years later, he described himself in an interview as an “unbelievably bad child. Badly misbehaved, cheeky, violent. Not at all likable.” He added: “At home, I had constant problems with discipline; my father beat me once or twice a year.” Throughout his youth, his brief compulsory stint in the military, and his university years, his maxim remained unaltered: “If I’m hit once, then I hit back twice.”
One of Orban’s favorite films is Once Upon a Time in the West, a 1968 spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone, which arrived in Hungary only in the 1970s, when Orban was a teenager. The plot involves the slaughter of a family; in the end, an avenging angel character, played by Charles Bronson, shoots the leader of the gang behind the killing. Justice prevails. “To persist and to emerge victorious, it is not enough that the hero can shoot and knows how to use his fists,” Orban once told a biographer, explaining the lesson he took from the film. “He must also use his brain and show magnanimity. That is very important. You must know and understand your enemy, you must find out what in reality makes him tick and then, when things come to a head, you mustn’t shrink from the fight but attack and win!”
Gabor Fodor, a rival of Orban’s who used to be a close friend, once observed that even as a young man, Orban “was already possessed of those domineering, intolerant ways of thinking and behaving that are all too evident in him today.” But, Fodor noted, “he was, in addition to all of this, sincere and likable.” It is a combination of traits that suggests a certain ambivalence in Orban’s character, which perhaps helps explain the ease with which he transformed his political persona later in life.
Orban and his friends initially admired the older liberals but soon came to see them as overweening.
At Budapest’s Bibo Istvan Special College, for law students, Orban became part of a tightly knit group of liberals. One of the college’s chief patrons was the Hungarian-born American investor and philanthropist George Soros, who generously subsidized a student-run journal, language courses, and trips overseas. In 1988, Orban took a part-time job with Soros’ organization, which later became the Open Society Foundations. The organization also gave Orban a grant to attend Oxford University and conduct research on the idea of civil society in European political philosophy.
In 1990, Hungary held its first free elections, which resulted in a center-right coalition government led by Jozsef Antall. Fidesz, which had transformed into a political party, won 22 of the 386 seats in parliament. In opposition, the party remained true to its youthful image; Orban and other Fidesz politicians kept their beards, long hair, jeans, and open-neck shirts. They advocated liberal reforms and were quick to condemn nationalist and anti-Semitic undercurrents in the governing coalition. Orban himself scoffed at the populist rhetoric of the ruling parties, whose leaders “reject criticism of government policy by suggesting the opposition or media are undermining the standing of Hungary, are attacking the Hungarian nation itself,” he said.
Such statements do not augur well for the future of democracy. Such an attitude indicates that the leaders of the ruling parties tend to conflate their parties and their voters with the nation, with the country. Sometimes, in moments of enthusiasm, they have the feeling that their power is not the consequence of a one-off decision of a certain number of Hungarian citizens but that they express, in some mystical manner, the eternal interests of the entire Hungarian people.
This was a fair description of some elements in the Antall government—and a prescient foreshadowing of the populist style that Orban himself would later adopt. Despite their avowed liberalism, Orban and his Fidesz circle had an uneasy relationship with an older generation of liberals, especially those of the Alliance of Free Democrats, many of whom were academics from bourgeois (and often Jewish) families. They were well read, open to the world, and fluent in foreign languages—a stark contrast to the Fidesz leaders, who were mostly lawyers from rural areas or small towns. Orban and his friends initially admired the older liberals but soon came to see them as overweening. In one famous episode at a reception for newly elected parliamentarians, a well-known Free Democrat approached Orban and, with a condescending air, adjusted the younger man’s tie. Orban blushed, visibly incensed.
In 1991, a poll showed that Orban, who was not yet 30, was the third most popular politician in Hungary. Two years later, he became the president of Fidesz. The future looked bright. But in the national elections of 1994, the party suffered a crushing defeat. The former communists of the Hungarian Socialist Party quintupled the number of votes they had received in the prior election and formed a coalition with the Free Democrats; together, the two parties held over 72 percent of the seats. In contrast, Fidesz had become the smallest party in parliament. To Orban and his friends, this vindicated their distrust of the older liberals, who had once radically opposed the communist regime but were now prepared to join a government led by former communists.
Seeing no other path to political survival, Orban committed himself and the party to a rightward political shift. The erstwhile rebels of Fidesz began dressing conservatively and styling their hair neatly. Their speeches were now peppered with professions of faith in the nation, in Magyar tradition, in the homeland, in national interests, in respectability, in middle-class values, in the family, in love of the mother country. This was the first major step in Orban’s decades-long transformation into an autocratic right-wing populist. There seemed to be no deep ideological soul-searching involved—just clear-eyed calculations about what it would require to win power.
The Socialist–Free Democrat government struggled under the weight of an unpopular package of economic reforms and a corruption scandal, and in the elections of 1998, Orban’s party triumphed, and he became prime minister. For the next four years, the Hungarian economy performed reasonably well, and Orban remained extremely popular. Yet Fidesz, to the surprise of many, lost the 2002 elections. Partly, the upset followed from Orban’s failure to clearly distance the party from extreme right-wing groups, which openly trafficked in anti-Semitic rhetoric and even celebrated the Nazi-allied regime that had ruled Hungary in the 1940s.
Orban’s party spent the next four years in opposition and failed to win back power in elections in 2006. But a few months later, a political bombshell exploded in Hungary. An audio recording emerged, on which the Socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, could be heard delivering an obscenity-laced tirade to fellow party members to convince them that some painful economic reforms had been unavoidable:
We had almost no other choice [than the package of cuts] because we fucked up. Not just a little bit but totally. No other country in Europe has committed such stupidities as we have. . . . Obviously, we have been lying our heads off for the last one and a half, two years. . . . And in the meantime, we have, by the way, been doing nothing for the past four years.
Wall-to-wall media coverage of what became known as Gyurcsany’s “lie speech” fueled a massive and passionate attack by the opposition, with Orban leading the charge against what he called an “illegitimate” government. In the years that followed, Orban proved to be a devastatingly effective opposition leader. In the 2010 elections, Fidesz won 57 percent of the popular vote and 263 parliamentary seats. For the first time in the history of democratic Hungary, a political party had achieved a two-thirds majority in parliament. In the near-decade since, Orban has used that majority to transform Hungary’s constitution, institutions, and society.
After what he deemed a “revolution at the ballot box,” Orban did not form a new government so much as pursue regime change. During the electoral campaign, he had said not a single word about constitutional reform, but in 2011, he proudly announced the drafting of an entirely new constitution, called the Fundamental Law of Hungary. The new constitution was rushed through parliament in nine days without any input from the public, much less a referendum. The main victim of the new constitution was the judiciary, especially the Constitutional Court, whose justices would be selected not as they had been before, through an all-party parliamentary committee, but directly by parliament. With Fidesz holding a supermajority in parliament, Orban could pack the court with sympathetic judges. He also chipped away at its authority: among other assaults, in 2013, the Fidesz-dominated parliament voted to strip the Constitutional Court of the ability to review laws concerning state finances and wrote directly into the constitution a number of Fidesz-backed laws that the court had previously overturned.
The media were also in Orban’s sights. Orban blamed his party’s defeat in 2002 on the publicly funded media networks and had long dreamed of hobbling them. With parliament’s support, he brought together all the government-funded television and radio networks under a new conglomerate run by Fidesz supporters. He then established a centralized media authority to oversee the organization and named trusted Fidesz officials to run it, giving them nine-year terms. As a result, the public networks are more tightly supervised today than they were in the final period of the communist regime. Hungary’s position on the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, has plummeted from 23rd in 2010, when Fidesz took power, to 87th this year—one notch below Sierra Leone.
A further erosion of press freedom occurred last year, when all pro-Fidesz media owners “donated” their holdings to a new structure run by three of Orban’s most trusted lieutenants. Dubbed the Central European Press and Media Foundation, the organization now consists of 476 media outlets. The government has exempted it from legal scrutiny and from regulations governing the concentration of media holdings. Except for one television station owned by a German company, a small radio station heard only in Budapest, and a few culture-focused weeklies, every single media outlet in the country is now controlled by people close to the regime.
Although his country and his political survival depend on EU funds, Orban delights in thumbing his nose at Brussels.
Another part of Orban’s strategy has been to create a socioeconomic elite that prospers from ties to Fidesz. Under his watch, the process of awarding government contracts has been corrupted to an astonishing degree, to the benefit of Fidesz-connected businesses. Transparency International has reported that in 2018, about 40 percent of public procurements in Hungary featured only one bidder. Balint Magyar, a sociologist and founding member of the Free Democrats, has called Orban’s Hungary “a post-communist mafia state, led not by a party, but by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s political-economic clan.” A sense of impunity has fueled this crony capitalism, as Fidesz has hollowed out the law enforcement and judicial bodies that would normally investigate and prosecute such misconduct. For example, at Orban’s direction, parliament allowed Hungary’s chief prosecutor, a Fidesz loyalist, to serve beyond his term limit and then extended his term by nine years. Moreover, the prosecutor can no longer be questioned by parliament, and his successor can be nominated only by a two-thirds majority.
Orban claims that he has been a good steward of the Hungarian economy. And it is true that under his government, some Hungarians have done very well: the economist Janos Kornai estimates that tens of thousands of Hungarians have enriched themselves by directly or indirectly exploiting ties to the Orban regime. Falling unemployment numbers, hailed by the government, are partly the result of a sleight of hand: in the first quarter of 2019, 100,000 people who did not have jobs were paid by local or state authorities about half the minimum wage for performing community service; the unemployment figures do not account for them. Another factor in reducing unemployment is the fact that since 2015, more than 500,000 Hungarians are estimated to have found employment abroad, mostly in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom. And despite Orban’s claims to have revived Hungary’s economy, the economist Istvan Csillag has shown that without the funds Hungary receives from the EU, which amount to between 2.5 billion and five billion euros a year (the equivalent of 2.5 to five percent of GDP), the Hungarian economy would collapse. The irony is that even though his country and his political survival depend on EU funds, Orban delights in thumbing his nose at Brussels, where handwringing over his autocratic abuses of power has not been accompanied by meaningful efforts to rein him in.
The damage Orban has inflicted on Hungary is not limited to its government institutions and economy. He has also degraded the country’s political culture by infusing it with forms of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism that could once be found only on the margins of society. Orban has long toyed with such themes, and since the 2015 refugee crisis, they have become central parts of his political identity. That year, as waves of refugees began to arrive from Afghanistan, Syria, and other conflict zones, Orban directed his government to put up more than 100 miles of razor wire to keep them out, labeling them a threat to Hungary and Europe’s Christian values. “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture,” he wrote in an op-ed published by a German newspaper that year. “Most are not Christian, but Muslim.” Around the same time, he warned in a radio interview that “now we talk about hundreds of thousands [of refugees], but next year we will talk about millions, and there is no end to this. All of a sudden, we will see that we are in a minority on our own continent.”
Again and again, Orban has presented himself and his government as “the last defenders of a Europe based on the nation, family, and Christianity.” In the time-honored tradition of populist demagogues, he cast the migrant influx as the product of a conspiracy among hostile foreigners and corrupt elites: “The most bizarre coalition in world history has arisen,” he declared, “one concluded among people smugglers, human rights activists, and Europe’s top politicians, in order to deliver here many millions of migrants. Brussels must be stopped!”
In the years since, Orban’s government has made life for migrants in Hungary extremely difficult. In 2017, parliament passed a law forcing all asylum seekers into detention camps, with some of them housed in converted shipping containers. Amnesty International condemned the measures as “illegal and deeply inhuman” and “a flagrant violation of international law.” A report issued earlier this year by the Council of Europe charged that refugees in Hungary were being deprived of food and denied legal representation. What is more, as The New York Times wrote of the findings, “Civic organizations that have tried to help [refugees] have been harassed and censored. And courts meant to protect the rights of these people are under immense pressure to do the bidding of the country’s increasingly authoritarian government.”
Meanwhile, Orban has taken aim at the cosmopolitan elites who, in the demagogic fantasy he peddles, are conspiring with migrants to despoil Hungary of its Christian purity. In a stomach-turning twist, the main target of these attacks has been his former patron, Soros. In recent years, Fidesz has blitzed the Hungarian public with anti-Semitic attacks on Soros, painting him as a behind-the-scenes manipulator bent on seeing his homeland overrun by migrants and refugees. In 2017, parliament passed a law intended to force the closure of the Central European University, which was founded in 1991 with an endowment from Soros. CEU is technically an American institution. But it was by far Hungary’s most prestigious institute of higher education, led by the respected Canadian human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff and boasting a distinguished faculty and 1,440 students from over 100 countries (including 400 students from Hungary). Despite the condemnation of academics around the world and a series of protests, the largest of which drew 80,000 to the streets of Budapest, the government went ahead with the plan, and in 2018, CEU announced that it was moving to Vienna. “It’s a warning,” Ignatieff told The Washington Post. “Once the rule of law is tampered with, no institution is safe. . . . You can’t have academic freedom without the rule of law, and we’re in a lawless environment.”
Orban and his acolytes disparage those who disagree with them as unpatriotic fearmongers.
Finally, Orban has begun to steadily reorient Hungary’s foreign policy, pulling the country away from the liberal democracies of western Europe and making common cause with other strongmen and populist parties. Indeed, there is barely a dictator in the world for whom Orban does not have praise. He has drawn particularly close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticizing, time and again, the EU’s sanctions on Russia. In 2014, just as the EU and the United States were preparing to sanction Russia for its annexation of Crimea, and at a time when Brussels was urging EU member states to reduce their dependence on Russian energy, Orban announced a deal under which the Russian nuclear agency would build two nuclear energy reactors 80 miles south of Budapest, with Russia providing a loan of $10 billion for the $12.5 billion project.
“To be considered a good European, you have to disparage Putin like he is the devil,” Orban scoffed in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 2018. The Russian president, he countered, “rules a great and ancient empire,” adding that “it needs to be recognized that Putin has made his country great again and that Russia is once again a player on the world stage.” It is difficult to reconcile such sentiments with the memory of a young Orban railing against Moscow’s domination of his country.
Orban has played his hand with great skill, outmaneuvering his opponents and tightening his clutch on power. He has managed to split and corrupt the discredited Socialists. The liberal opposition, fragmented and racked by infighting, has lost almost all credibility. The inescapable consequence of public apathy is a remarkable indifference to the endemic corruption of the Orban regime. Orban makes no secret of his plans to rule the country for the foreseeable future. “I will remain in politics for the coming 15 to 20 years,” he told a German magazine in 2016. “Maybe in the front row, maybe in the third. Exactly where will be decided by the voters.”
Since the end of Soviet dominance in 1989, never has the future for the liberal values of the Enlightenment seemed so bleak: for tolerance, respect for the importance of fair debate, checked and balanced government, and objectivity and impartiality in media. Orban and his acolytes disparage those who disagree with them as unpatriotic fearmongers and traitors to their country, government-controlled media outlets play on historical prejudices and ignorance, and the regime continues to blame the EU for its own failings and mistakes. Even if the opposition develops more credible leadership, it faces a long, hard road ahead. Given the lengths to which Orban has already gone to maintain his position, one must ask: Is there anything he will not do to maintain his grip on Hungary?