Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of Our Authoritarian Future?
By Andrew Marantz* – The New Yorker
American conservatives recently hosted their flagship conference in Hungary, a country that experts call an autocracy. Its leader, Viktor Orbán, provides a potential model of what a Trump after Trump might look like.
The Republican Party hasn’t adopted a new platform since 2016, so if you want to know what its most influential figures are trying to achieve—what, exactly, they have in mind when they talk about an America finally made great again—you’ll need to look elsewhere for clues. You could listen to Donald Trump, the Party’s de-facto standard-bearer, except that nobody seems to have a handle on what his policy goals are, not even Donald Trump. You could listen to the main aspirants to his throne, such as Governor Ron DeSantis, of Florida, but this would reveal less about what they’re for than about what they’re against: overeducated élites, apart from themselves and their allies; “wokeness,” whatever they’re taking that to mean at the moment; the overzealous wielding of government power, unless their side is doing the wielding. Besides, one person can tell you only so much. A more efficient way to gauge the current mood of the Party is to spend a weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as cpac.
On a Friday in February, I arrived at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort, in Orlando. It was a temperate afternoon, and the Party faithful were spending it indoors, in the air-conditioning. I walked into a rotunda with potted palm trees and chaotically patterned carpeting. Shabbat services were about to begin, and a minyan of young men, give or take, roamed around in maga-themed yarmulkes. The cpac dress code was big-tent: pants suits, sweatsuits, bow ties, bolos—anything, pretty much, except for an N95. A merch kiosk near the entrance sold Nancy Pelosi toilet paper, gold-sequinned purses shaped like handguns, and Trump 2024 T-shirts in every size and color. Even the staircases were sponsored—one by Fox News and another by Gettr, a social-media platform founded by Trump-campaign alumni. If you aligned yourself with it at just the right vantage, you could parse Gettr’s slogan, “Making Social Media Fun Again!” Otherwise, it looked like red-white-and-blue gibberish.
Political rallies are for red-meat applause lines; think-tank conferences are for more measured policy discussions. The American Conservative Union, the group that organizes cpac, tries to have it both ways. On Saturday, I spent a while in the main ballroom, watching a panel called “Put Him to Bed, Lock Her Up and Send Her to the Border.” “Him” referred to Joe Biden, “the hair-sniffing dementia patient in the White House”; the first “her,” of course, was Hillary Clinton; the second was Kamala Harris, who was lambasted as both an “empty pants suit” and a wily “Cersei Lannister.” That afternoon, Trump arrived, hosted a V.I.P. gathering featuring a spread of Big Macs under heat lamps, and took the stage, giving a ninety-minute stump speech to an ecstatic crowd, all but confirming his intention to run for President again.
The policy discussions were mainly tucked away upstairs, in conference rooms with a tiny fraction of the foot traffic. One panel, on European populism, was called “More Brexits?” The moderator, an American named James Carafano, introduced the first speaker: Miklós Szánthó, the director of a Hungarian think tank called the Center for Fundamental Rights. (According to Átlátszó, an investigative-journalism outlet in Hungary, the Center for Fundamental Rights is secretly funded by the Hungarian government.) “He’s a real European,” Carafano, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said. “I know that because I saw him in Europe!”
For decades, at conferences like cpac, international exchanges were mostly assumed to flow in one direction: Americans exporting their largesse, and their ideology, to the rest of the world. At the first cpac, in 1974, the keynote speaker, Governor Ronald Reagan, gave a rousing address about soldiers who had shed their “American-melting-pot blood in every corner of the world, usually in defense of someone’s freedom.” In recent years, as the future of the Republican Party has seemed increasingly up for grabs, American conservatives have shown more willingness to look abroad for ideas that they might want to try out back home.
Szánthó, a stout man with a smartly tailored suit and a waxed mustache, began by quibbling with the panel’s title. “There will be no so-called Huxit,” he said, despite his country’s disagreements with “the deep state of Brussels.” Szánthó lives in Hungary, but he spoke fluent Fox News-inflected English. “When it comes to border protection, when it comes to the Jewish-Christian heritage of the Continent and of the European Union, or when it comes to gender ideology,” he continued, the Hungarians, nearly alone among citizens of Western nations, “step up for conservative values.”
Hungary has a population comparable to Michigan’s and a G.D.P. close to that of Arkansas, but, in the imagination of the American right, it punches far above its weight. Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister since 2010, is now the longest-serving head of state in the European Union, and one of the most fiercely nativist and traditionalist. Starting in 2013, he made a political foil out of George Soros, the Jewish financier who was born in Hungary but hasn’t lived there in decades, exploiting the trope of Soros as a nefarious international puppet master. During the refugee crisis of 2015, Orbán built a militarized fence along Hungary’s southern border, and, in defiance of both E.U. law and the Geneva Conventions, expelled almost all asylum seekers from the country. Relative to other European nations, Hungary hadn’t experienced a big influx of migrants. (Out-migration is actually more common.) But the refugees, most of them from Syria or other parts of the Middle East, were an effective political scapegoat—one that Orbán continues to flog, along with academics, “globalists,” the Roma, and, more recently, queer and trans people. Last year, Hungary passed a law banning sex education involving L.G.B.T.Q. topics in schools. Nine months later, in Florida, DeSantis signed a similar law, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. DeSantis’s press secretary, talking about the inspiration for the law, reportedly said, “We were watching the Hungarians.”
Experts have described Orbán as a new-school despot, a soft autocrat, an anocrat, and a reactionary populist. Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of international affairs at Princeton, has referred to him as “the ultimate twenty-first-century dictator.” Some prominent American conservatives want nothing to do with him; but more have taken his side, pointing to Hungary as a potential model for America’s future. That afternoon, on the cpac main stage, Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, singled out Orbán for praise: “If you cannot protect your own borders, if you cannot protect your own sovereignty, none of the other rights can be protected. That’s what the Prime Minister of Hungary understands.” The house lights dimmed and a sort of political trailer played, set to melodramatic music. “For over a millennium, to be Hungarian meant to sail the rough seas of history,” a narrator intoned over a horror-movie-style montage: Mongol invaders, migrant caravans, a glowering George Soros, drag-queen story time.
The lights came up, and Szánthó walked to the lectern, waving stiffly. “Hungary has fought wars, suffered unthinkable oppression, to gain and regain our liberty,” he said. In the current war, he went on, the enemy was “woke totalitarianism,” personified by George Soros (he paused for boos); the hero was “one of the true champions of liberty, a man you know well, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán” (a generous round of applause). He praised “President Trump” and tried to initiate a cheer of “Let’s go Brandon,” a substitute for “Fuck Joe Biden” used by right-wing culture warriors who spend too much time on the Internet. He quoted the old chestnut “Hard times create strong men,” although, the way he said it, it sounded like “strongmen.” And he invited the audience to join him at the next cpac conference, the first to be hosted on European soil: cpac Hungary.
“You do not have to have emergency powers or a military coup for democracy to wither,” Aziz Huq, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Chicago, told me. “Most recent cases of backsliding, Hungary being a classic example, have occurred through legal means.” Orbán runs for reëlection every four years. In theory, there is a chance that he could lose. In practice, he has so thoroughly rigged the system that his grip on power is virtually assured. The political-science term for this is “competitive authoritarianism.” Most scholarly books about democratic backsliding (“The New Despotism,” “Democracy Rules,” “How Democracies Die”) cite Hungary, along with Brazil and Turkey, as countries that were consolidated democracies, for a while, before they started turning back the clock.
Szánthó mentioned “Jewish-Christian heritage,” but there aren’t many practicing Jews left in Hungary. Orbán, in his speeches, often uses the phrase “Christian democracy,” which he portrays as under continual existential threat. Given that the vast majority of Hungarians, apparently including Orbán, do not attend church regularly, it seems plausible that his audience hears the word “Christian,” at least in part, as code for something else. “If we manage to uphold our country’s ethnic homogeneity and its cultural uniformity,” he said in 2017, “Hungary will be the kind of place that will be able to show other, more developed countries what they lost.” His constant theme is that only he can preserve Hungary for the (non-Muslim, ethnically Magyar) Hungarians—about as close as any European head of state will come to an explicit rejection of ethnic pluralism in favor of state-sanctioned white nationalism. For many of his American admirers, this seems to be a core element of his appeal. Lauren Stokes, a professor of European history at Northwestern University, told me, “The offer Orbán is making to global conservatives is: I alone can save you from the ravages of Islamization and totalitarian progressivism—and, in the face of all that, who has time for checks and balances and rules?”
In recent years, Orbán or institutions affiliated with his government have hosted, among others, Mike Pence, the former Vice-President; new-media agitators including Steve Bannon, Dennis Prager, and Milo Yiannopoulos; and Jeff Sessions, the former Attorney General, who told a Hungarian newspaper that, in the struggle to “return to our Christian roots based on reason and law, which have made Western civilization great . . . the Hungarians have a solid stand.” In his hilltop office with an imposing two-story library, Orbán has met with conservative figures including Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson. “If these people think the extreme left is hijacking American society in dangerous ways, then, yes, I agree,” the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan told me. “But to go from that to ‘Let’s embrace this authoritarian leader in this backwater European country, and maybe try out a version of that model with our own charismatic leader back home’—I mean, that leap is just weird, and frankly stupid.”
In Orlando, I followed the energy of the crowd to media row, where Sebastian Gorka, a bellicose conspiracy barker with a Vandyke beard, was doing a live broadcast of his radio show, “America First.” In the nineties and early two-thousands, Gorka was a Hungarian politician and government adviser; in 2017, he served as a counterterrorism adviser in the Trump Administration, focussing on “radical Islamist ideology.” (He did not have the credentials that most comparable appointees have held; he had, however, worn a medal from the Order of Vitéz, a Hungarian military society historically associated with the Nazis.) “What would you like to hear from tomorrow’s speech by the President?” he asked Representatives Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. (He meant, of course, Trump, whom he generally referred to as “my former boss.”) Greene replied, “I want to hear him say that his entire policy, his entire agenda, is for our country, our country only, and the rest of the world can frankly go to hell.” Gorka, who was born in London to Hungarian parents, said, “I like that menu.” He dismissed Gaetz and Greene and introduced his next “big-ticket guest”: Kyle Rittenhouse. Later, I ran into Gorka, who was now wearing a tuxedo, and asked him for an interview. He declined. (To be specific, he shouted, “Go to hell, scumbag,” and “You’re smoking crack.”)
I saw him the next day in the V.I.P. lounge, near a spread that was both lavish and pedestrian: silver, scalloped carafes of coffee with Starbucks to-go cups; a tureen of lukewarm fettuccine Alfredo. (My press pass did not technically allow me access to the V.I.P. lounge, but cpac, as it turned out, did not have very tight border security.) A graffiti-style portrait of Trump hugging and kissing an American flag, just auctioned off for more than twelve thousand dollars, was propped against a cardboard box and a pile of plastic wrap, waiting to be shipped to the lucky winner. J. D. Vance, a former anti-Trump venture capitalist who had rebranded himself as a pro-Trump salt-of-the-earth Senate candidate, chatted with Eric Bolling, a news anchor who left Fox News amid allegations of sexual harassment, which he denied, and was later hired by Newsmax. The pro-Brexit politician Nigel Farage waited in the buffet line next to Devin Nunes, a former member of Congress who now runs Trump’s struggling media company. Father Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest wearing his clerical collar, chatted with Todd Starnes, a pundit whose Fox News contract wasn’t renewed after he appeared to endorse the view that Democrats may worship Moloch, the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice. “The networking here is amazing!” Pavone said.
In the hallway, I shook hands with Szánthó and Schneider, the two lead organizers of cpac Hungary, and told them that I planned to fly to Budapest to cover it. “You will be welcome,” Szánthó said. “Please just send an e-mail.” One of the speakers on the European-populism panel had been Raymond Ibrahim, an independent scholar from California who contributes to a variety of right-wing outlets, usually to argue that Islam is a global scourge. “The word ‘multiculturalism,’ it sounds nice, but what is exactly the culture?” he said during the panel. “Things like polygamy . . . or killing the apostate . . . these are the culture of Islam.” Ibrahim exchanged phone numbers with Gorka, and they later started texting, as Ibrahim told me, “mostly about Islam, and about how Hungary’s fighting back.” A few days after the conference, Gorka, on his show, interviewed the chairman of the A.C.U., who plugged cpac Hungary. “It’s no longer about policies,” Gorka said, paraphrasing something another conservative leader had told him at cpac. “Now, as a movement, we have to take back the Republic, and we have to take back our civilization.”
Igot to Budapest on May 16th, the day Viktor Orbán was sworn in for his fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister. “Congratulations to him,” a Hungarian journalist named Gábor Miklósi said. “What an achievement.” This was sarcasm—a dark, dense form of sarcasm, polished from years of use.
We were having a beer at a “ruin bar” in what is still known as the Jewish district, a neighborhood that the Nazis turned into a ghetto in 1944. (In the course of two months, with the collaboration of the Hungarian government, the Nazis deported nearly half a million Jews from this ghetto to Auschwitz; others were later lined up on the banks of the Danube and shot.) Miklósi—slightly stooped, perennially tired—is an editor at 444, one of the few independent news outlets left in Hungary. “He controls most of the national papers, most of the radio and TV stations, all the local papers in the countryside,” Miklósi said. “He doesn’t do it in obvious ways—he does it slowly, by putting his cronies in charge, or by subtly making life difficult for his critics. But eventually he gets what he wants.” The “he,” of course, was Orbán, who is, like all despots, his country’s default antecedent, the implied subject of virtually every sentence.
From the nineteen-fifties through the nineteen-eighties, during the period when Hungary was within the Soviet sphere of influence, Moscow allowed it a bit more latitude than other Eastern Bloc countries, a unique mixture of subjection and relative exemption that came to be known as Goulash Communism. As the Iron Curtain began to lift, Orbán emerged as a leader of the youth resistance, giving impassioned speeches against totalitarianism; in 1989, he went to Oxford to study political philosophy, on George Soros’s dime. During his first term as Prime Minister, starting in 1998, Orbán, who still identified as a liberal democrat, vowed to build up the country’s civic infrastructure. President Bill Clinton hosted him at the White House, extolling Orbán’s “youthful and vigorous and progressive leadership.” Then, in 2002, Orbán lost a reelection campaign to a Socialist coalition and, according to the biographer József Debreczeni, resolved to return to power and change “the rules of the game” so that he would never lose again.
He enlisted Arthur Finkelstein, a political consultant from Brooklyn who had worked to elect Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and Ronald Reagan, among others. “Try to polarize the election around that issue which cuts best in your direction, i.e., drugs, crime, race,” Finkelstein wrote in a 1970 memo to the Nixon White House. In 1996, Finkelstein put this principle to work on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu, a candidate for Prime Minister of Israel who was then about twenty points down in the polls, and who started alleging that his opponent, Shimon Peres, planned to divide Jerusalem. This was a lie, but it stuck, and Netanyahu won. In 2008, Netanyahu introduced Finkelstein to his friend Orbán; Finkelstein became so indispensable that Orbán reportedly came to refer to him, dotingly, as Finkie. One of Finkelstein’s protégés later told the Swiss journalist Hannes Grassegger, “Arthur always said that you did not fight against the Nazis but against Adolf Hitler.” Orbán had been running against globalism, multiculturalism, bureaucracy in Brussels. These were abstractions. By 2013, Finkelstein had an epiphany: the face of the enemy should be George Soros.
After Orbán returned to power, his rhetoric grew more sharply nativist, laden with Islamophobic and anti-Semitic dog whistles: “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.” In 2018, several parties to the left of Orbán’s, and even a couple of neo-Fascist parties to his right, ran separate candidates for Prime Minister, splitting the opposition vote. “After that, the common narrative was that next time all we had to do was unite behind one opposition candidate, and we would definitely win,” Szilárd Pap, a left-wing writer, told me. “Well, we did unite the next time, and we lost even worse.” In Budapest, I met plenty of Hungarians who openly railed against their government. One was Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition candidate in the most recent election. Márki-Zay continues to accuse Orbán of corruption and mendacity, and he doesn’t seem worried that his sushi will be poisoned with polonium. The regime’s defenders see this relative freedom as evidence that all the talk of autocracy is reckless alarmism. Its critics see it as evidence of a cost-benefit decision: certain egregious breaches are not worth the trouble, at least for now.
“Orbán has managed to preserve the appearance of formal democracy, as long as you don’t look too closely,” Anna Grzymala-Busse, the director of the Europe Center at Stanford, told me. Since 2010, most of Hungary’s civic institutions—the courts, the universities, the systems for administering elections—have come to occupy a gray area. They haven’t been eradicated; instead, they’ve been patiently debilitated, delegitimatized, hollowed out. There are still judges who wear robes, but if Orbán finds their decisions too onerous he can appeal to friendlier courts. There are still a few independent universities, but the most prestigious one—Central European University, which was founded by Soros—has been pushed out of the country, and many of the public universities have been put under the control of oligarchs and other loyalists. There are still elections, yet international observers consider them “free but not fair”: radically gerrymandered, flush with undisclosed infusions of dark money. The system that Orbán has built during the past twelve years, a combination of freedom and subjugation not exactly like that of any other government in the world, could be called Goulash Authoritarianism. Scheppele contends that Orbán has pulled this off not by breaking laws but by ingeniously manipulating them, in what she calls a “constitutional coup.” She added, “He’s very smart and methodical. First, he changes the laws to give himself permission to do what he wants, and then he does it.”
On the day I arrived, Orbán delivered a forty-five-minute speech in a gilded neo-Gothic chamber of the Hungarian Parliament Building, warning that Europe was entering “an age of danger,” and that Hungary, “the last Christian conservative bastion of the Western world,” was one of the only nations prepared to weather it. He predicted that, given the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and an incipient energy crisis, “migration toward rich countries will intensify with tectonic force.” If other Western nations continued to implement “waves of suicidal policy,” such as lax border control, the result would be “the great European population-replacement program, which seeks to replace the missing European Christian children with migrants, with adults arriving from other civilizations”—a clear reference to the racist talking point known as the great replacement theory. A few years ago, this idea was propounded most visibly by white-power extremists such as the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik (or, more recently, the shooter in Buffalo). It’s now routinely parroted by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, many leading Republican politicians, and, in Hungary, the head of state.
In 2010, Fidesz, Orbán’s party, won more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, above the threshold required to amend the constitution. Within a year, it had made a dozen amendments; when these didn’t provide enough latitude, it threw out that constitution and wrote another one. In 2022, Fidesz won a supermajority once again. I asked Miklósi whether the next four years of Orbán’s reign would be different from the last. “It always gets worse,” he said. This time, he wasn’t being sarcastic.
Of all the Anglophone Orbán apologists, surely the most genial, and arguably the most influential, is a British journalist named John O’Sullivan, who turned eighty in April. When William F. Buckley retired as the editor of National Review, in the eighties, O’Sullivan took over. During Margaret Thatcher’s third term as Prime Minister, he was one of her top advisers; after she left office, he helped her write her memoirs. “Mrs. T. would take us on these lovely trips to various places—a manor in the South of England, a villa in the Bahamas—and we would talk over breakfast about some episode in her life, and then we’d each go off and write,” he recalled. “It was great fun.”
O’Sullivan had invited me to lunch at an Italian bistro near his apartment in Budapest. (He still fancies himself a classical liberal, at least insofar as “I’m always up for a good chat, even one that may involve disagreement.”) He is known for knowing everyone, and he drops names with an equanimous smile, describing people on a spectrum from “a good friend” to “a friend” to “an ex-friend.” He wore a pin-striped suit and a tie from Liberty, the London clothier once favored by Oscar Wilde. Even in this, O’Sullivan can’t help but out-conservative the conservatives: “I prefer the older patterns, I confess, most of which they’ve now discontinued.”
In 2008, O’Sullivan moved to Prague to help run Radio Free Europe; in 2013, two Hungarian friends, a “well-known modernist poet” and a “former teacher of Orbán’s,” hired him to start a conservative think tank. O’Sullivan and his wife, Melissa, have lived in Budapest ever since. “You really must meet Melissa,” he told me. “She’s an American—a proper American, from Alabama.” A friend of the couple’s told me, “Melissa is much more naturally Trumpy, in terms of her sympathies. John gets the Trump phenomenon intellectually, but he finds Trump too fickle and sort of gross.” Orbán—a family man and an articulate lawyer who purports to set aside one workday a week exclusively for reading—is more to O’Sullivan’s taste.
His think tank is called the Danube Institute. It is funded entirely by a foundation that is funded entirely by the Hungarian government. This foundation sponsors international conferences and three handsomely designed periodicals, all in English: European Conservative, Hungarian Review, and Hungarian Conservative. In 2015, O’Sullivan, dismayed by the anti-Orbán consensus among Western journalists and academics (“They all seem to be making the case for the prosecution, don’t they?”), put together an essay collection of his own in which he wrote that “the death of liberal democracy in Hungary has been greatly exaggerated.” After all, O’Sullivan and other apologists often argue, Orbán has a popular mandate. Rather than delegating gay rights, the handling of asylum claims, and other matters of domestic policy to international bodies—with their adherence to such abstractions as “the rule of law”—isn’t it arguably more democratic to simply put them to a vote?
Even as the Hungarian constitution has been dismantled, O’Sullivan, Pangloss of the post-Soviet bloc, has continued to insist that Orbán is still basically a liberal democrat, if you squint. The problem with this sanguine view is that it has been repeatedly refuted, even by Orbán. “The new state that we are building in Hungary is an illiberal state,” he declared in 2014. O’Sullivan told me that, as soon as he heard this, “the first thing I said to myself was ‘I’m sure that isn’t really what he meant.’ A few weeks later, when I saw him for lunch at the Prime Minister’s office, I told him straight out, ‘You’re going to regret saying that.’ And, actually, I don’t know that he has.” At times, Orbán seems to mean “illiberal” in the partisan sense, as in owning the libs; often, he seems to mean it more sweepingly, expressing skepticism about a wide range of individual liberties. It’s true, as the Orbánists like to point out, that Hungary is not the most repressive country in the world. China, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea—all are, by many measures, less free. But then there are no major political factions trying to make the United States more like North Korea.
During his first few years in Budapest, O’Sullivan had trouble generating interest in the Hungarian model of conservatism. “I went wherever I could—the Anglosphere Society, in New York, Grover Norquist’s Wednesday Club, in Washington,” he said. “The usual response was a yawn, basically. Until Brexit, and then Trump—and then, suddenly, people were open to radically different ideas.” In 2020, the Danube Institute started hosting fellows—writers and scholars from abroad who were invited to Budapest for a few weeks or months, given a stipend and a comfortable apartment, and asked to work on articles or books that might help the cause. “We couldn’t predict exactly what would come of it,” O’Sullivan said. “You just put the billiard balls on the table, you know, and wait to see where they end up.”
The most dynamic billiard ball turned out to be Rod Dreher, a prolific American author who became a Danube Institute fellow in 2021. Dreher has long been a conservative and a Christian, but, within those traditions, he has experienced a number of mini-conversions. In a 2006 book, “Crunchy Cons,” Dreher, then a kind of hipster exile from the Deep South, posited that conservatives ought to wear some of their cultural markers more lightly—that Republicans can shop at farmers’ markets, too. In “The Benedict Option,” in 2017, he argued that conservative Christians had already lost so many decisive political battles (same-sex marriage, abortion) that they should arrange a “strategic withdrawal” from the public sphere, building localist communities rather than contesting for national power. After his Danube Institute fellowship, though, he retreated from his retreatism: actually, conservatives could win real power, and Hungary could show the way. “Orbán was so unafraid, so unapologetic about using his political power to push back on the liberal élites in business and media and culture,” Dreher told me. “It was so inspiring: this is what a vigorous conservative government can do if it’s serious about stemming this horrible global tide of wokeness.” By the time Orbán ran for reëlection earlier this year, Dreher had completed his transition from aspiring ascetic to partisan booster. “Mood here at Fidesz HQ is increasingly cheerful,” he tweeted on Election Night. “ ‘Lights out, libs!’ say Hungarian voters.”
One April day in 2021, while Dreher was strolling through Budapest, he texted Tucker Carlson. “We text all the time, whenever I see something he might want to mention on his show, or just something he might find interesting,” Dreher told me. Carlson knew what the Western media said about Orbán, but Dreher encouraged him to ignore it and come see for himself. “If somebody has all the right enemies, if the liberal establishment is obsessed with treating them as a hate object, then it’s natural for a right-populist like me or Tucker to react by going, Huh, maybe there’s something interesting there,” Dreher said. Carlson told Dreher that he had already thought about visiting, but that he’d been encountering some bureaucratic hurdles with the Hungarian Embassy. A few days later, Dreher met Balázs Orbán—not related to Viktor, but one of his closest advisers. (Many Hungarians I spoke to described him as a sort of Karl Rove figure.) “I tried to convince Balázs that Tucker was somebody who could be trusted,” Dreher recalled. He offered personal assurances that, on the big questions, Tucker and Orbán were in alignment. By the summer, the red tape had cleared. (Carlson declined to comment.)
On August 5th, Carlson anchored his show from a rooftop in central Budapest. Behind his left shoulder was an ornate stone façade, bathed in sunlight, and, beyond it, a bank of looming storm clouds. “Good evening and welcome to ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight,’ ” he said. “Of the nearly two hundred different countries on the face of the earth, precisely one of them has an elected leader who publicly identifies as a Western-style conservative. His name is Viktor Orbán.” Carlson was spending the week in Budapest, delivering each day’s American headline news in his selectively apoplectic style. “Representative democracy—it’s been our system for nearly two hundred and fifty years,” he said in one night’s lead segment. “Apparently, it’s now over.” The ostensible cause of the death of American democracy was a temporary eviction moratorium enacted by the Centers for Disease Control. The next night, Carlson aired an obsequious one-on-one interview with Orbán—fifteen minutes without a single challenging question, and certainly no warnings about the potential death of Hungarian democracy.
Carlson’s work vacation got a lot of press. Dreher defended him (“Tucker in Budapest: Blowing People’s Minds”); Andrew Sullivan lambasted him (“The Price of Tucker Carlson’s Soul: Going Cheap for a Corrupt, Fashy Kleptocrat”). Online sleuths followed the money. The Hungarian Embassy in Washington has had contracts with Connie Mack IV, a Republican former representative from Florida, and David Reaboi, a bodybuilder and former Andrew Breitbart protégé who touts his skills in “national security & political warfare.” In 2019, the Embassy paid two hundred and thirteen thousand dollars to Policy Impact Communications, a D.C.-based P.R. firm staffed by well-connected lobbyists. One of its board members is Dick Carlson—the director of the Voice of America under Ronald Reagan, the Ambassador to the Seychelles under George H. W. Bush, and, as it happens, Tucker’s father.
By the standards of sponsored diplomacy, though, a six-figure contract is hardly unusual. (In 2018, the government of Saudi Arabia paid American lobbyists more than thirty-eight million dollars.) Normally, six figures might buy you a full-page ad in the Financial Times, say, or help your ambassador secure a speaking slot at an obscure thought-leader conference; it’s presumably not enough to get your head of state a long softball interview on one of the most popular shows on American TV. The payments surely don’t hurt, but it seems that Carlson, Dreher, and O’Sullivan are true believers, exuding the contrarian thrill of forbidden knowledge. When I was in Budapest, Dreher, seven time zones away and in the midst of a messy divorce, texted me assiduously, including before 5 a.m. his time, trying to steer my story. “I really do care about Hungary, and I want to help you do a good job,” he wrote. “God knows it’s not paradise, but it’s important to understand Hungary as it is.” That’s the sort of P.R. that money can’t buy.
In some ways, Orbán conducts himself like any other strongman. He built a big soccer stadium in his small home town, and he loves to go there to watch the games. In the mid-two-thousands, Lőrinc Mészáros, one of Orbán’s childhood friends, was a pipe fitter receiving welfare checks; shortly after Orbán returned to power, in 2010, Mészáros became the richest person in Hungary. This year, when Márki-Zay ran as the opposition candidate, he was given five minutes on TV to make his case to the voters, and the rest of the allotted time went to Orbán.
But, unlike Putin-style autocrats, Orbán is often keen to maintain plausible deniability. “He’ll use such obscure methods that it might take months to figure out what he’s done,” Scheppele, the Princeton professor, told me. In 2010, Orbán established a relatively small antiterror police unit. Bit by bit, in disparate clauses buried in unrelated laws, he increased its budget and removed checks on its power. “I was reading Article 61 of a bill on public waterworks, literally, and I came across a line that said, Oh, by the way, the antiterror unit now gets to collect personal information on all water-utility customers, which basically means everyone in the country, without notifying them,” Scheppele went on. She contends that the unit now functions, essentially, as Orbán’s secret police. “His claim is always ‘Everything I’m doing is legal’—well, of course it is, because you made it legal,” she said. The goal, as the scholar John Keane puts it in his book “The New Despotism,” is a kind of bureaucratic gaslighting: the ability to insist that what everyone knows is happening is not in fact happening.
I was experiencing a tiny microcosm of this while trying to register for cpac Hungary. I had sent an e-mail, as instructed—then another, then another. Each time, I encountered a new bureaucratic hurdle: wait a week, call this phone number, try this link. The organizers maintained that the event would be open to the press. “We are fighting for everyone’s right to speak,” Balázs Orbán, who was scheduled to appear at the conference, said in a radio interview. A few days later, I met him at a café where jaunty, self-help-y aphorisms had been written on each table in sidewalk chalk. (“Take others’ opinions lightly—very lightly,” our table read.) I asked him about the government’s suppression of same-sex marriage and gay adoption. “If the state is pushing for the policy where the marriage is only between a man and a woman, and seventy per cent of the people want this, it’s not tyranny of the majority,” he said. The popularity is beside the point, I argued, if the policy is a violation of human rights. “According to my understanding, it’s not,” he said. When our conversation was done, he asked me to pose with him for a photo. I mentioned that I was having trouble getting into cpac and asked if he would put in a good word with the organizers. His response, which I had to admit was quite clever, was that, as a government official, it would be improper for him to intervene.
Dreher assured me that there must be some innocent mixup. When I met O’Sullivan at his office, he agreed: “I’m sure it’s merely an oversight.” I told him that I had been in touch with journalists from the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vice, and a range of independent Hungarian publications, none of whom had heard back from the cpac organizers. A few hours later, all our requests were formally denied, and Vice published a piece titled “CPAC Just Decided to Not Let Any US Journalists Inside.” In the American context, this sort of thing—for example, the Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano banning press from a campaign rally—is still rare enough to raise eyebrows. In Hungary, it has become so commonplace that some reporters didn’t even bother applying to cpac. “They’ll be very polite, and then at the last minute they’ll tell you, ‘We’re so sorry, space constraints,’ ” another journalist told me. (When I sent an e-mail to the government’s International Communications Office, asking to fact-check the relevant claims in this piece, the official response read, in part, “We appreciate the possibility you offered us, however, we do not wish to participate in the validation process of leftist-liberal propaganda.”)
When I was about to leave O’Sullivan’s office, he asked whether he would see me again that night, at the cpac welcome reception. At this point, I couldn’t tell whether I was being elaborately trolled. “I didn’t get an invitation, but I’d love to go if I can,” I said. “Where will it be?”
One of his staffers helpfully piped up: “Some hotel near the Elisabeth Bridge. The Paris something or other?”
On my way out, Googling frantically on my phone, I found a five-star hotel fitting this description: the Párizsi Udvar. I went back to my room (in a perfectly nice, decidedly not-five-star hotel) and grabbed a sports coat and a notebook. A few minutes later, I was standing outside the entrance to the Párizsi Udvar, not sure what to do next. “Event?” a white-gloved doorman asked. “Event? Event?” I nodded, and he ushered me inside.
The hotel’s courtyard, a former shopping arcade covered with a vast stained-glass dome, was one of the most opulent interiors I’ve ever seen. There were marble columns, floors of intricate Moorish tilework, and glass display cases stocked with jeroboams of fancy champagne. (In the 2011 film version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” an M.I.6 agent is double-crossed by a Hungarian general, shot, and captured by Soviet spies. The scene was filmed in the courtyard of the Párizsi Udvar.) About two hundred people were there, holding drinks and sampling Hungarian-American-fusion finger food. I ran into O’Sullivan (“Ah, good, you made it!”) and spotted Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, who was due to appear on a panel with Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of the Brazilian autocrat (and a scheduled speaker at the following American Conservative Union conference, cpac Brazil). Candace Owens, the YouTube culture warrior and the author of “Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation,” leaned against the bar, visibly pregnant, as a crush of admirers lined up to shake her hand. (Her husband, George Farmer, the C.E.O. of the social network Parler, stood next to her, looking down at his phone.) I’d heard that, while Owens was in town, Viktor Orbán had requested a closed-door meeting with her and a few others in his book-lined office, to discuss culture and politics. Owens later confirmed, in a cpac promotional video, that she’d met with Orbán for about two hours: “It was really amazing. He’s so on it.”
Miklós Szánthó appeared on a dais, holding a microphone, and quieted the crowd. “Why are we doing this?” he said. “We are doing this to make the liberals’ nightmare true.” He addressed the Americans in the room: “We do hope that you can learn from us the political mind-set how to be a successful conservative, as we also learn from you, and from Ronald Reagan. As he put it so many years ago, ‘We win, they lose.’ That is what the Hungarian right has done.”
Dan Schneider, the executive director of the A.C.U., told me that he was especially excited for cpac Israel, coming up this July, in Tel Aviv. (I didn’t know it at the time, but another speaker in Budapest would be an old political ally of Orbán’s, Zsolt Bayer, a notorious Hungarian talk-show host who has used racist epithets for Black people, has referred to Roma people as “animals” who must be “stamped out,” and has argued that the widespread anti-Semitism in twentieth-century Hungary was “understandable.”) I also met Mark Krikorian, a severe immigration restrictionist whose American nonprofit, the Center for Immigration Studies, has been classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. “I can’t get a speaking gig at an American cpac to save my life, but I fly four thousand miles over here and I’m welcomed with open arms,” Krikorian told me. I asked him if he was worried about being, as O’Sullivan had put it, “tarred with the brush of Orbánism.” “What are they gonna do, call me an ultra-hate group?” Krikorian said. “Fuck them!”
After an hour or so, Schneider pulled me aside. “I haven’t eaten dinner yet,” he said. “You wanna get out of here?” We strolled aimlessly, eventually stopping at an upscale bistro in a picturesque square. I ordered the venison goulash; Schneider picked something called the Hungarian Rhapsody. He kept his phone next to his water glass, occasionally tapping out a text. Though he never said so outright, it seemed clear that he had the personal cell numbers of several Republican senators, perhaps a Supreme Court Justice or two, and presumably at least one ex- and potentially future President.
“So what do you make of the Hungary thing, really?” he had asked me earlier. I tried to answer honestly but also diplomatically. “Clearly,” I began, “there are issues with the way Orbán wields state power.”
“Wields state power! ” Schneider said, spitting the words back in my face. “You make it sound so nefarious!” I brought up Hungary’s not entirely independent judiciary. “Oh, so he appoints judges he likes,” Schneider said, rolling his eyes. “Is that so different from what we do?” He meant to normalize Orbán’s behavior, but I couldn’t help interpreting it the other way around: the brazen opportunism of the Republican Party—for example, refusing to give a hearing to the opposition’s judicial nominees, then ramming through its own, in obvious violation of precedent and basic fairness—did seem undeniably Orbánesque. He called himself “a classical liberal,” adding, “You can’t secure individual liberty unless you secure national sovereignty first.” I made the obvious rejoinder that Orbán, for one, clearly does not consider himself a classical liberal. “Well, maybe I just haven’t read enough about it,” Schneider said.
At dinner, he was midsentence when a man approached us and, without a word, grabbed Schneider’s phone from the table and ran off. Before I could process what was happening, Schneider, a former track athlete, was already in pursuit. He slipped and fell, then got up and kept running, following the thief around a corner. By the time I caught up with them, Schneider had tackled the man and recovered his phone. We walked back to our table. “I think I broke a rib,” Schneider said. “And I definitely scuffed my shoes, which were not cheap.” The man followed a few yards behind us, shouting expletives, at one point even brandishing a brick. Eventually, the police came and took him away. “I’m so sorry,” our waiter told us, in English, when we were seated again, catching our breath. “Nothing like that ever happens here. I am sure that this man was not really a Hungarian.”
There was no single moment when the democratic backsliding began in Hungary. There were no shots fired, no tanks in the streets. “Orbán doesn’t need to kill us, he doesn’t need to jail us,” Tibor Dessewffy, a sociology professor at Eötvös Loránd University, told me. “He just keeps narrowing the space of public life. It’s what’s happening in your country, too—the frog isn’t boiling yet, but the water is getting hotter.” He acknowledged that the U.S. has safeguards that Hungary does not: the two-party system, which might forestall a slide into perennial single-party rule; the American Constitution, which is far more difficult to amend. Still, it wasn’t hard for him to imagine Americans a decade hence being, in some respects, roughly where the Hungarians are today. “I’m sorry to tell you, I’m your worst nightmare,” Dessewffy said, with a wry smile. As worst nightmares went, I had to admit, it didn’t seem so bad at first glance. He was sitting in a placid garden, enjoying a lemonade, wearing cargo shorts. “This is maybe the strangest part,” he said. “Even my parents, who lived under Stalin, still drank lemonade, still went swimming in the lake on a hot day, still fell in love. In the nightmare scenario, you still have a life, even if you feel somewhat guilty about it.”
Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, tweeted last year, “Anybody serious about commenting on the state of US democracy should start reading more about Hungary.” In other words, not only can it happen here but, if you look at certain metrics, it’s already started happening. Republicans may not be able to rewrite the Constitution, but they can exploit existing loopholes, replace state election officials with Party loyalists, submit alternative slates of electors, and pack federal courts with sympathetic judges. Representation in Hungary has grown less proportional in recent years, thanks to gerrymandering and other tweaks to the electoral rules. In April, Fidesz got fifty-four per cent of the vote but won eighty-three per cent of the districts. “At that level of malapportionment, you’d be hard pressed to find a good-faith political scientist who would call that country a true democracy,” Drutman told me. “The trends in the U.S. are going very quickly in the same direction. It’s completely possible that the Republican Party could control the House, the Senate, and the White House in 2025, despite losing the popular vote in every case. Is that a democracy?”
In 2018, Steve Bannon, after he was fired from the Trump Administration, went on a kind of European tour, giving paid talks and meeting with nationalist allies across the Continent. In May, he stopped in Budapest. One of his hosts there was the XXI Century Institute, a think tank with close ties to the Orbán administration. “I can tell, Viktor Orbán triggers ’em like Trump,” Bannon said onstage, flashing a rare smile. “He was Trump before Trump.” After his speech, he joined his hosts for a dinner cruise on the Danube. (The cruise was captured in unreleased footage from the documentary “The Brink.” Bannon’s spokesperson stopped responding to requests for comment.) On board, Bannon met Miklós Szánthó, sipping a beer and watching the sun set, who mentioned that he ran a “conservative, center-right think tank” that opposed “N.G.O.s financed by the Open Society network.”
“Oh, my God, Soros!” Bannon said. “You guys beat him up badly here.” Szánthó accepted the praise with a stoic grin. Bannon went on, “We love to take lessons from you guys in the U.S.”
In 2018, “Trump before Trump” was the highest compliment that Bannon could think to pay Orbán. In 2022, many on the American right are trying to anticipate what a Trump after Trump might look like. Orbán provides one potential answer. Even Trump’s putative allies will admit, in private, that he was a lazy, feckless leader. They wanted an Augustus; they got a Caligula. In theory, Trump was amenable to dismantling the administrative state, to pushing norms and institutions beyond their breaking points, even to reaping the benefits of a full autocratic breakthrough. But, instead of laying out long-term strategies to wrest control of key levers of power, he tweeted, and watched TV, and whined on the phone about how his tin-pot insurrection schemes weren’t coming to fruition. What would happen if the Republican Party were led by an American Orbán, someone with the patience to envision a semi-authoritarian future and the diligence and the ruthlessness to achieve it?
In 2018, Patrick Deneen’s book “Why Liberalism Failed” was admired by David Brooks and Barack Obama. Last year, Deneen founded a hard-right Substack called the Postliberal Order, on which he argued that right-wing populists had not gone nearly far enough—that American conservatism should abandon its “defensive crouch.” One of his co-authors wrote a post from Budapest, offering an example of how this could work in practice: “It’s clear that Hungarian conservatism is not defensive.” J. D. Vance has voiced admiration for Orbán’s pro-natalist family policies, adding, “Why can’t we do that here?” Rod Dreher told me, “Seeing what Vance is saying, and what Ron DeSantis is actually doing in Florida, the concept of American Orbánism starts to make sense. I don’t want to overstate what they’ll be able to accomplish, given the constitutional impediments and all, but DeSantis is already using the power of the state to push back against woke capitalism, against the crazy gender stuff.” According to Dreher, what the Republican Party needs is “a leader with Orbán’s vision—someone who can build on what Trumpism accomplished, without the egomania and the inattention to policy, and who is not afraid to step on the liberals’ toes.”
In common parlance, the opposite of “liberal” is “conservative.” In political-science terms, illiberalism means something more radical: a challenge to the very rules of the game. There are many valid critiques of liberalism, from the left and the right, but Orbán’s admirers have trouble articulating how they could install a post-liberal American state without breaking a few eggs (civil rights, fair elections, possibly the democratic experiment itself). “The central insight of twentieth-century conservatism is that you work within the liberal order—limited government, free movement of capital, all of that—even when it’s frustrating,” Andrew Sullivan said.“If you just give away the game and try to seize as much power as possible, then what you’re doing is no longer conservative, and, in my view, you’re making a grave, historic mistake.” Lauren Stokes, the Northwestern historian, is a leftist with her own radical critiques of liberalism; nonetheless, she, too, thinks that the right-wing post-liberals are playing with fire. “By hitching themselves to someone who has put himself forward as a post-liberal intellectual, I think American conservatives are starting to give themselves permission to discard liberal norms,” Stokes told me. “When a Hungarian court does something Orbán doesn’t like—something too pro-queer, too pro-immigrant—he can just say, ‘This court is an enemy of the people, I don’t have to listen to it.’ I think Republicans are setting themselves up to adopt a similar logic: if the system gives me a result I don’t like, I don’t have to abide by it.”
On the morning after the reception, I arrived at the building where cpac Hungary was being held—a glass-covered, humpbacked protuberance known as the Whale. Orbán was due to speak in thirty minutes. I walked up to an outdoor media-registration desk, where a Center for Fundamental Rights employee named Dóra confirmed that I would not be allowed to enter. “I have to get back to work now,” she said, although there was no one else in line. She called over a security guard, who stood in front of me, blocking my view of the entrance, and demanded that I go “outside.” I made the argument that we were already outside. Within five minutes, he was threatening to call the police. (The Center for Fundamental Rights later declined to comment on specific claims in this piece, writing, “Unfortunately there is a lot of fake news in the article.”)
I texted Rod Dreher, who seemed to think that his allies were making a tactical mistake: surely, antagonizing journalists would make the coverage worse. He and Melissa O’Sullivan scrambled to find attendees willing to pop out between sessions and talk to me. I spoke with a friend of Dreher’s, an urbane descendant of Hungarian aristocrats and a study in cultivated neutrality: “I am a businessperson, so I believe in the win-win-win, which means that no one is on the wrong side, ever, you see? No one is the Devil, even the Devil.” Later, I talked to another friend of Dreher’s, who, after chatting for a few minutes, said, “I’ve got one of these badges. Why don’t you put it on, try to walk in, and see what happens?”
It was calmer than I’d expected inside the Whale. cpac Orlando had been a manic circus of lib-triggering commotion; cpac Hungary was less flashy, more focussed. Young volunteers wearing business suits passed out policy papers printed on thick stock. “He’s made it in again!” John O’Sullivan said, smiling and clapping me on the shoulder. Schneider, who had spent much of our dinner disclaiming the most wild-eyed, conspiratorial members of his coalition, was now chatting with Jack Posobiec, who has made a career out of promoting election disinformation, child-groomer memes, and other bits of corrosive propaganda.
The speaker onstage was Gavin Wax, the twenty-seven-year-old president of the New York Young Republican Club. (For most of the twentieth century, the club endorsed liberal Republicans, but, after an internal coup in 2019, it endorsed both Trump and Orbán for reëlection.) There were about a hundred people in the audience, most of them listening to Wax through live translation on clunky plastic headsets. “Hungary has frequently become a target because it is a shining example of how easily the globalist agenda can be repelled,” Wax said. “We demand nothing short of an American Orbánism. We accept nothing less than total victory!” From the outside, the Whale had looked vast, airy, translucent. Inside the main hall, there were various camera setups and artificial-lighting rigs but not a crack of sunlight.
Tucker Carlson recorded a message from his home studio in Maine. “I can’t believe you’re in Budapest and I am not,” he said. “You know why you can tell it’s a wonderful country? Because the people who have turned our country into a much less good place are hysterical when you point it out.” Trump also sent a greeting by video: “Viktor Orbán, he’s a great leader, a great gentleman, and he just had a very big election result. I was very honored to have endorsed him. A little unusual endorsement, usually I’m looking at the fifty states, but here we went a little bit astray.” During his keynote address, Orbán said, “President Trump has undeniable merits, but nevertheless he was not reëlected in 2020.” Fidesz, by contrast, “did not resign ourselves to our minority status. We played to win.”
In 2002, when Orbán lost his first reëlection campaign, he left office, but neither he nor his followers ever really accepted the result. “The homeland cannot be in opposition,” he said—in other words, he was still the legitimate representative of the Hungarian people, and no election result could change that. Trump, of course, has been perseverating on a similar theme for the past year and a half, and he, too, has a cultural movement, a media ecosystem, and a political party that will echo it. At cpac Orlando, most of the speakers ritually invoked the shibboleth that Trump had actually won the 2020 election, despite all evidence. Several attendees told me that, if the Republicans had any backbone, they would win back the House in 2022, amass as much power as possible at the state level, and then do whatever it took to deliver the Presidency back to the Party in 2024. A free but not fair election, captured partisan courts, the institutions of democracy limping along in hollowed-out form—these seemed like telltale signs of early-stage Goulash Authoritarianism. Now here the Americans were, studying at Orbán’s knee.
Trump may run in 2024, and he may win, fairly or unfairly. What worried me most, sitting in the belly of the Whale, was not the person of Donald Trump but a Republican Party that resembled Orbán’s party, Fidesz, more by the month—increasingly comfortable with naked power grabs, with treating all political opposition as fundamentally illegitimate, with assuming that any checks on its dominance were mere inconveniences to be bypassed by any quasi-legalistic means. “There are many things that the Americans here want to learn from the Hungarians,” Balázs Orbán had told me. “We’re going to keep our heritage for ourselves, our Christian heritage, our ethnic heritage . . . that’s what I think they want to say but they can’t say, and so they point to someone who can say it. If they want us to play that role, we are fine with that.” After I got back to the U.S., I spoke to Dreher, who mentioned that he was thinking about moving from Louisiana to Budapest, where he had been offered a job with the Danube Institute. “I really like the Hungarian people, and I think it could be useful to build a network of Christians and intellectuals who are thinking about the future,” he said. “We in the West still have so much to learn.”
Published in the print edition of the July 4, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Illiberal Order.”
*Andrew Marantz is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American