The Meaning of Viktor Orbán

On Holy Saturday, 1921, leaving his exile in the Swiss Alps, King Charles IV of Hungary discreetly entered Budapest by way of Szombathely with a falsified Spanish passport. He had come to reclaim his throne.

The regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, had sworn fealty to the Habsburg king three years before at Schönbrunn Palace. Now, under foreign and domestic pressure, he refused to keep his word. The jilted king returned to Switzerland two weeks later by train, as quietly as he had come.

In October he would try again. Crossing the border in a clunker of a monoplane, Charles assembled an army to march on Budapest. For three days it seemed he would succeed, but as the opposition of the other European powers (not to mention Woodrow Wilson’s United States) became apparent, the monarch’s efforts faltered. The tide turned quickly, and as some of his loyalists readied for a last stand, Charles—always a man of peace—stopped them short and made his surrender. Arrested by Horthy’s government, he conceded every term but abdication.

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Hungary’s last apostolic king died in exile on Madeira five months later, just 34 years old. He is remembered today not just as the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, nor as the last Habsburg to wear a crown, but as a deeply pious and holy man declared Blessed by the Catholic Church. He was perhaps the last Christian monarch to understand what both words truly mean.

Horthy would remain in power until 1944, allying with Adolf Hitler in the Second World War, an ill-fated attempt to buttress Hungary against Soviet encroachment from the east. Despite Horthy’s (perhaps second) bargain with the devil, Hungary became a Soviet satellite state in the aftermath of the war.

For nearly half a century, Hungarians suffered under communism. Catholicism, the national religion since the time of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king, was brutally subjected to a hostile secular authority. The family, too, was subordinated to the state, as were most other aspects of public (and, consequently, private) life. Through force, a millennium of history and tradition was dismantled. Thousands were killed and countless more fled, never to return to their ancestral homeland.

The story of Hungary in the 20th century is a microcosm of the collapse of the Christian West. But it does not end there.

Communism, because it was unnatural, could not endure. By the end of the 1980s, as other communist states in Europe likewise began to founder, Hungary’s communist experiment stumbled to its end. Having had already adopted a slightly less brutal “goulash communism” after an anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, Hungary’s regime-change was less calamitous than some. Free elections were held in 1990, followed by NATO membership in 1999 and entry to the E.U. in 2004.

But the story of Hungary after communism is not, as certain Republican partisans might hope. It’s not a simple story of liberalization and integration into the prevailing international order. On the contrary: the first few years of post-communism saw oscillations between center-right and hard-left domination in each election cycle. Then, after widespread protests over a rigged election, voters delivered a supermajority to the right-wing party Fidesz in a 2010 sweep.

In the ensuing decade of Fidesz dominance under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary has been a lightning-rod for international controversy. To critics, the briefly democratic state seems to be backsliding into illiberal authoritarianism. To supporters, Fidesz’s nationalism, with its strong emphasis on the Christian character of the Hungarian nation, demonstrates the viability of non-liberal alternatives after the “end of history.”

Now, certain Americans are beginning to take note of the Orbán government—and option is starkly divided.

On the one hand, some leading lights of the New American Right are paying close attention to the Hungarian experiment. Fox News host Tucker Carlson—perhaps the single most prominent voice of conservatism in the U.S. since Donald Trump’s unpersoning—recently returned from a trip to Budapest that included an audience with Orbán himself. Gladden Pappin, associate professor at the University of Dallas and deputy editor of American Affairs, recently announced that he will be spending the next academic year as a visiting fellow at Budapest’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium. Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative who has long been interested in Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” has spent the last few months in Hungary on a fellowship at the Danube Institute. The Institute itself is led by former National Review editor John O’Sullivan, one of the first Westerners to take a sympathetic (though not uncritical) view of the Orbán government.

On the other hand are the frantic critics of Orbán’s admirers. On Twitter, right-liberal pundit Jonah Goldberg mocked Professor Pappin’s announcement and the suggestion contained therein that “There are few places left for an open discussion of today’s political problems—& few places other than Hungary that are confronting them.” A cacophony of online outrage has likewise been directed at Dreher for his sympathy with Orbán. The worst of all, however, has been reserved for Tucker—likely for no better reason than that he is the biggest target. The mere fact that an American cable news host would go to Hungary (we are told in the gaps between bouts of wailing and hyperventilation) is a sign of the rise of something sinister in the GOP and the coming end of the great liberal enterprise that is America.

This hysteria, which sees fascism lurking around every corner, is an inversion of the “socialism is when government does things” mindset that has so long infested the secular American Right. But it is precisely in its political story of the past decade—ten years and more of stabilizing, activist conservative rule in the wake of a destructive revolutionary interlude—that Hungary’s example is most valuable to us.

Though our situation is perhaps a little less black-and-white, and there is disagreement on exactly when we turned our backs on the Christian social order that built the West (put me down for 1688!), it is hard to deny in 2021 that such a break occurred. We, too, find ourselves subject to a tyrannical ordering of the market that destroys the bonds of place. We, too, find ourselves subject to a domineering social philosophy that finds no room for the family in the future. We, too, face a gnostic fanaticism that hates history and truth as much as it hates us.

We should not overburden the comparison. Politics are particularistic. Our problems are not identitical to Hungary’s; nor will our solutions be. Our revolution has been slower, more prolonged, and less dramatic than theirs; so, too, will our recovery be. But the general principle applies: the response to the destruction of the West is not to sit back and “let the market figure it out,” nor to reconcile ourselves to the pressures of secular, technological, and liberal modernity. What post-Christian societies need is a deliberate effort to restore social order, to reassert the prerogatives of Church and family in the face of hostile forces.

The proposal is, as its critics suggest, illiberal. But liberalism—which cannot be confused with liberty, as it so often has been—is (like communism) an unnatural system that cannot endure. On the one hand, we can let it run its course. We can pay the price in deaths of despair, family destruction, deracination from place, the death of tradition, and a million other untold miseries. On the other, we can do something.  We can do something.

Viktor Orbán, whatever his faults, has chosen the latter. But the choice is also less severe than the frightened prophets of liberalism would have you think. Perhaps the primary Fidesz effort to gain a following in the U.S. is the deliberate and generous government support given to family formation. This may scare fiscal hawks, but it is hardly cause for raising the fascist alarm. Likewise, efforts to quell the corruption and sexualization of children may fluster First-Amendment absolutists, but they hardly seem beyond the pale in an America rife with drag queen story hours and systematized curricular race hatred.

In fact, both measures are starting to seem—dare I say it—necessary. You can fight fire with fire, or you can fight fire with water, but you cannot fight fire with sitting still and saying, “Well, now, I really think if you stopped to consider it, you’d realize that your unrelenting attempts to turn me to ash and smoke violate the implicit principles of the Declaration in these important ways…”

American conservatives have spent a century standing athwart history yelling Stop, and we’ve wound up with nothing but bootprints on our faces. It might be time to stand up, dust ourselves off, and finally realize that Blessed Charles had the right idea in marching to Budapest.

[Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis/]


  • Declan Leary

    Mr. Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative.

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