In the late 1980s, as the Cold War was coming to a close, Viktor Orban was at the head of the anticommunist liberal resistance, leading the fight for democracy in Hungary. But over time, as he faced electoral difficulties, he drifted to the political right. In 2010, when his party, Fidesz, won a stunning legislative supermajority, he set to work making sure he’d never lose an election again. Today, Republicans like Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson are cheering him on as a model leader, as Ron DeSantis seeks to emulate some of his policies. But not long ago, John McCain dubbed Orbán “a neofascist dictator.” This is the story of Viktor Orban, and the story of just how dangerous the siren song of illiberalism can be.
Just weeks ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stepped onstage in Texas and took his place among leading figures of the American right like Steve Bannon, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and, of course, Papa John.
But this isn’t a story about pizza.
It’s a bizarre story of the Republican fascination with a country the size of Indiana and an economy no larger than Washington DC’s.
Today, they invite Orban to speaks alongside Republicans in Texas, while his anti-LGBT legislation back home inspires lawmakers in Florida. And last year, Tucker Carlson visited Budapest and had this to say:
"He believes families are more important than banks. He believes countries need borders."
But despite Tucker’s portrait of Orban as a family man, the reality is more sinister.
Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has basically dismantled Hungarian liberal democracy, rendering elections all but meaningless.
But Orban, who began his career as a liberal reformer, wasn’t always like this. And neither was the Republican party. Just eight years ago, John McCain even called Orban a “neo-fascist dictator.”
So, who is Viktor Orban? And why do Republicans now love him so much?
The answers reveal disturbing but urgent truths about the fragility of liberal democracy and the looming threat of nationalist populism.
CHAPTER I: THE YOUNG LIBERAL
Our story begins in 1989, at the end of the Cold War.
Now you probably know the buzzwords: nukes, mutually assured destruction, the space race, Vietnam, ...
As the usual story goes, the US and Soviet Union have been engaged in an ideological competition for about four decades—a struggle between communism and liberalism, that liberalism is about to win.
But what is liberalism? It can be confusing, mainly because in the US today “liberal” usually means “left” or “progressive.”
But in most other times and places “liberalism” means an ideology that centers individual freedom, property rights, equality before the law, and other things—in essence, the foundational components of democracy.
As the world found itself entering this dramatic period of change, in Communist Hungary a young Viktor Orban was at the forefront of the liberal resistance.
In an illegal move that put him in potentially mortal danger, he founded Fidesz, a youth activist organization committed to upending communist rule and establishing liberal democracy.
As Fidesz’s leader, he delivered a major speech in Budapest in further defiance of Hungary’s communist government and helped negotiate the country’s democratic transition.
By October 1989, the communist government gave up. When the country held its first free and fair elections in 1990, Orban led Fidesz as a center-left — and liberal — political party, but when all his hard work was rewarded with a stinging defeat at the polls, Orban determined to change course.
CHAPTER II: A RIGHT TURN
Over the course of the next eight years and two election cycles, Orban steadily steered the party toward the political right, though without abandoning a commitment to liberalism.
By the 1998 elections, his rightward maneuvering paid off. Fidesz won the most votes, and Orban became prime minister.
He “governed as a relatively conventional European conservative,” but for all his patience and adaptation, he was rewarded with only this single, short term. In 2002, he lost a close election to a coalition of the left and center. In 2006, the results were worse.
Frustrated, Orban returned to his old tactics, taking Fidesz even further to the right and ramping up criticism of his opponents as more beholden to globalists than the Hungarian people.
And soon, Orban would look like a prophet.
Ferenc Gyurcsány: "We obviously lied through the past one-and-a-half to two years. It was perfectly clear what we were saying was not true. We did not actually do anything for four years. Nothing! Divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy, and hundreds of tricks, which you do not have to be aware of, obviously, have helped us survive this."
That was the leader of the left party after their victory in 2006. It was exactly the kind of anti-elite fodder Orban needed for his populist rhetoric.
As if that wasn’t enough, just two years later, back in the United States, the American housing market collapsed, taking the global financial system with it. Chaos ensued.
Hungary’s economy, highly dependent on foreign investment, was acutely exposed and hit hard.
What followed was a devastating crisis of confidence in the political elite, globalization, and liberalism writ large. In both Hungary and the US, nothing would ever be the same again.
Ever a man of the moment and now seeming even more prophetic, Orban was once again well-positioned in this changing world.
CHAPTER III: RISING STAR
By the time the next Hungarian election rolled around in 2010, the ruling coalition was in ruins. Orban’s Fidesz, on the other hand, secured fully 68% of the seats in Parliament.
I mean, look at this map! They won every single district in the country but three!
With that supermajority, Orban and his party set to work totally reshaping Hungary’s legal and political system, passing an entirely new Constitution in 2011.
That same year saw a new electoral law, redrawing the country’s districts and shrinking Parliament. This would prove invaluable to Orban in 2014, when his party’s share of the vote dove to a mere 44%. Thanks to the gerrymandered map, Fidesz held onto 67% of seats — still a supermajority.
Orban was emboldened. After all, with that kind of job security, why not be? So, just months after the election, he went, as they say, “mask off,” and declared his intention to build an “illiberal state” in Hungary — his own words exactly.
Hungary, Orban promised, was on a path away from liberalism, away from how free democracy had been understood for hundreds of years. Still, few outside Europe took notice of the man or his project.
But one year later, as the 2015 migrant crisis swept Europe, Hungary found itself on the front line; Orban, himself suddenly in the spotlight.
While countries like Germany opened their doors, Orban proclaimed Europe in the grip of madness and the crisis a threat to Christianity, as he built a barbed-wire fence along the border to halt crossings.
Meanwhile in America, Donald Trump rode a similar wave of populist resentment as he led chants of “Build the Wall” and decried Mexican immigration [Trump: "They're not sending their best."] as a threat to America ["Drugs, crime, rapists"].
Orban was thus a righteous leader in a struggle Republicans shared, and they took notice. This was Orban’s time to finally shine.
CHAPTER IV: TIME TO SHINE
But Orban wasn’t merely setting an example for immigration policy. By 2015, his all out war on liberal democracy was well underway. He’d packed Hungary’s highest court, turning it into a rubber stamp for his agenda, and subdued the free press, forcing opposition media into bankruptcy, making them bargain buys for wealthy allies.
As he dismantled the separation of powers and squashed civil society, Orban also sought to reduce some Hungarians to second class citizens, paying straight couples to have children while making it illegal for same-sex partners to do the same or adopt, and placing age restrictions on media with any depiction of homosexuality.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s top advisor, Steve Bannon, recognized Orban’s efforts, dubbing him “Trump before Trump,” as Donald himself tried and failed to achieve similar ends.
In the aftermath of his 2020 defeat, Trump and his allies began to study Orban more closely, looking for the keys to his success. After a number of leading conservative intellectuals journeyed to Budapest, Fox News superhost Tucker Carlson finally made his own pilgrimage to interview Orban.
Tucker lavished Orban with praise, and mocked observers concerned with the rapid erosion of Hungarian democracy. Since the interview, Orban and the Republican Party have only grown closer.
In May, the Conservative Political Action Conference held a major event in Hungary, with Orban as headliner. And in August CPAC welcomed him again with open arms in Dallas, despite Orban denouncing “race mixing” only weeks prior, all while offering the constant refrain that it’s just about immigration or family-friendly policy.
[Al Pacino, Godfather: "It's strictly business."]
CHAPTER V: THE MAN & THE PARTY
In a very real sense, the story of Viktor Orban is also the story of the Republican party.
The man who went from liberal [1989 speech] to anti-liberal [CPAC Texas: "The globalists can all go to hell. I have come to Texas!"].
And the party [Reagan: "Anyone, from any corner of the earth, can come to America and become an American."] that did the same [Trump: "Build that wall! Build that wall!"].
And just as the stories are the same, so too are the plot-holes.
In Budapest, Orban fingers the European Union as the source of Hungary’s woes, while Brussels bankrolls Fidesz vanity projects.
He touts himself a warrior for the Hungarian people, yet uses his office to enrich himself and his friends.
And in America, Trump proclaimed himself a champion of the working class, a swamp-draining vanquisher of corruption, even as he cut taxes for the rich and funneled taxpayer dollars to his golf courses, hotels, and resorts.
Even worse, both these men capstone their hypocrisy with the most profoundly anti-liberal lies.
Orban and his adherents defend Hungary as democratic, even as information is restricted, speech is limited, and a warped electoral map returns predictably disproportionate and pro-Fidesz results, while Trump and his loyalists defend the fantasy that the 2020 election was somehow stolen.
Regardless of what inspiration people like Tucker Carlson and others may claim they take from Orban [Tucker: "Family, history, tradition, language: it's not hard to have a decent country. It's not complicated!], Orbán's example is more complicated—and dangerous.
While he may promise that democracy can be maintained without liberalism, his cronyism, corruption, and callous discrimination give the lie to illiberalism’s rotten fruits.
The story of the decline of Hungarian democracy is an important one, especially with so many trying to whitewash this history while endorsing Orban, so thank you for tuning in. If you enjoyed, please leave a like, and subscribe for more stories that matter to democracy and to help us continue telling them.
Editing, Audio: Harry Clennon
Animation, Voice: Philip Brain
The Political Economy of Hungary, by Adam Fabry
The Post-Communist Mafia State, by Balint Magyar
The American Right’s Hungary Hearts, Know Your Enemy
“Explaining Eastern Europe: Orbán’s Laboratory of Illiberalism,” by Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi in Journal of Democracy
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00:36 — “Ron DeSantis is following a trail blazed by a Hungarian authoritarian,” via Vox
00:42 — “Hungarian prime minister hits back at Biden calling him a ‘thug’ on ‘Tucker’,” via Fox News
00:58 — “Freedom in the World 2010: Hungary,” via Freedom House
01:04 — “Freedom in the World 2022: Hungary,” via Freedom House
01:13 — Photo from Fortepan, donated by Zoltan Szalay
01:14 — Senate Session Part 1, 2 December 2014, via C-SPAN
01:45 — “President Reagan's Remarks at Arrival Ceremony for Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1987,” via the Reagan Presidential Library
02:35 — Photo from Fortepan, donated by Peter Horvath
02:40 — Photo from Fortepan, donated by Zoltan Szalay
02:43 — Photo from Fortepan, donated by sitakri
02:47 — Photo from Fortepan, donated by Violinist Judit
02:53 — Photo from Fortepan, donated by Zsolt Szigetváry
02:56 — Photo from Fortepan, donated by Zsolt Szigetváry
03:08 — “Hungary Declares Itself a Republic,” via United Press International
03:15 — “Opposition Leads in Hungary’s Vote,” via the New York Times
03:24 — “Political Pluralisation in Hungary: The 1990 Elections,” by Barnabas Racz in Soviet Studies
03:34 — “From a suppressed anti-communist dissident movement to a governing party: the transformations of FIDESZ in Hungary,” by Mate Szabo in Corvinus Journal of Sociology and Policy
03:47 — “Hungary: Elections Held in 1994,” via the International Parliamentary Union
03:47 — “Hungary: Elections Held in 1998,” via the International Parliamentary Union
03:52 — “It happened there: how democracy died in Hungary,” via Vox
04:09 — “Hungary: Elections Held in 2002,” via the International Parliamentary Union
04:11 — “Election for Hungarian National Assembly,” via ElectionGuide
04:29 — “Oszöd Speech”
05:18 — “Hungary, GDP Growth: 1999-2009,” via the World Bank
05:53 — “Hungary: Elections Held in 2010,” via the International Parliamentary Union
06:14 — “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the ‘Frankenstate’,” by Kim Lane Scheppele in European Politics and Society
06:22 — “Electoral System for the National Legislature - Hungary,” via the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
06:38 — “Hungary: Elections Held in 2014,” via the International Parliamentary Union
06:56 — “Full text of Viktor Orbán’s speech of 26 July 2014” via The Budapest Beacon
07:30 — “Migration crisis: Hungary PM says Europe in grip of madness,” via The Guardian
07:48 — “Donald Trump Presidential Campaign Announcement Full Speech,” via C-SPAN
07:57 — “President Trump Hosts the Prime Minister of Hungary,” via the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library
08:22 — “Hungary, defying EU, limits powers of top court,” via Reuters
08:27 — “Freedom of the Press—Hungary,” via Freedom House
08:45 — “Hungary tries for baby boom with tax breaks and loan forgiveness,” via BBC
08:48 — “Hungary’s parliament passes law effectively banning same-sex adoption,” via Reuters
08:53 — “Hungary passes law banning LGBT content in schools or kids’ TV,” via The Guardian
09:00 — “Steve Bannon Has Found His Next Trump,” via the New York Times
09:08 — “Trump rescinds transgender bathroom rules from Obama era,” via BBC
09:20 — “Orban Meets Conservative US Political Scientist Deneen,” via Hungary Today
09:24 — “Hungarian prime minister hits back at Biden calling him a ‘thug’ on ‘Tucker’,” via Fox News
09:40 — “Viktor Orbán tells CPAC the path to power is to ‘have your own media’,” via The Guardian
09:48 — “Viktor Orbán turns Texas conference into transatlantic far-right love-in,” via The Guardian
09:53 — “Viktor Orbán sparks outrage with attack on ‘race mixing’ in Europe,” via The Guardian
10:26 — “President Reagan's Remarks at the Ceremony for the Medal of Freedom on January 19, 1989,” via the Reagan Library
10:44 — “The Money Farmers: How Oligarchs and Populists Milk the E.U. for Millions,” via the New York Times
10:57 — “Viktor Orban’s oligarchs: a new elite emerges in Hungary,” via The Financial Times
11:04 — “Trump: The Forgotten Men and Women ‘Forgotten No Longer’,” via NBC News
11:08 — “Secret IRS Files Reveal How Much the Ultrawealthy Gained by Shaping Trump’s ‘Big, Beautiful Tax Cut’,” via ProPublica
11:11 — “Secret Service has paid rates as high as $650 a night for rooms at Trump’s properties,” via The Washington Post
11:45 — “Tucker: Why can't we have this in America?,” via Fox News
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