Westernization by Preemptive Rejection: How Viktor Orbán Sells to U.S. Conservatives Their Own Obsessions

by Ferenc Laczó

“It is better to be notorious than to be reputed, if you cannot be both.” An illiberal pupil of Niccolò Machiavelli might well prescribe to such a statement in our age of polarized political cultures. This advice has apparently already been taken to heart by Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán.

Moderately talented as a philosopher of history, but with a penchant for courting conservative intellectuals in symbolic and material ways, the Hungarian Prime Minister has been making a grand bet with his strategic use of divisive statements and controversial policies: Orbán’s wager is that a conservative revolution shall dawn soon.

To improve the chances of this bold bet, Orbán’s regime has developed an original and still little understood political strategy: Westernization by preemptive rejection.

This strategy prominently employs Western culture war issues (the Westernization part of the equation) to paint a derogatory image of the liberal West. Its proponents pretend that they are successfully battling “liberal hegemony” in Hungary in order to reject preemptively the spread of contemporary liberal values – values that, as I will aim to show below, have never had more than a limited impact in the country. Crucially for my purposes, Westernization by preemptive rejection also helps them forge new alliances with the European and American far right from a position of heightened symbolic importance.

If the growing salience of Western culture war issues in Hungarian public life are clear signs of the Orbán regime’s increasingly tight control over the national agenda, they also point to a paradoxical cultural Westernization. As Eszter Kováts’ detailed research – discussed previously here on RevDem – concerning how the regime battles the shadow of “gender ideology” reveals, the Westernization of Hungary under right-wing hegemony has indeed taken a paradoxical form: Western culture war issues are avidly contested in order to preemptively fight “external threats” coming from the liberal West. In other words, what might appear to Orbán’s admirers on the far right as a radically conservative and powerful form of engagement in divisive Western debates amounts to little more than the preemptive rejection of contemporary liberalism in Hungary.

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No Central and East European politician in recent memory has done as much to damage his country’s standing in the eyes of mainstream Western politicians as the current Hungarian Prime Minister. As Viktor Orbán’s methodical efforts to centralize power were gradually exposed, his party Fidesz was practically forced to depart from the center-right European People’s Party bloc in the European Parliament. In recent months, EU institutions have also shown growing willingness to take their own Rule of Law criteria seriously by enforcing EU law mechanisms that predicate budgetary allocations upon proven respect for EU values. This clearly threatens the Hungarian regime’s balancing act between repeatedly committing subversive acts and its well-understood interest in remaining a major beneficiary of European integration.

In recent years, as Orbán’s most important political bedfellows outside the EU (such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Jair Bolsonaro) have either lost power or disgraced themselves (or both), Orbán has been seeking new alliances outside the European and Western mainstream. Since the escalation in February of Russia’s aggression against their mutual neighbor Ukraine, the Hungarian regime’s controversial foreign policy has deeply irritated and perhaps even alienated the Polish government which was previously Hungary’s closest and most important regional ally and partner within the EU, especially when it came to the former’s open conflict with the EU on judicial issues.

Currently, the Orbán regime’s best bets appear to be Italy’s far right parties, who have just joined forces to lead the country’s new government, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who apparently possesses nine political lives) and, of course, the resurgent far right movement in the US. For the moment, worsening marginalization looms for the country within the EU just as Orbán’s regime asserts its domestic control ever more tightly amidst a major socioeconomic crisis. This is arguably the worst possible combination for Hungarian citizens.

His growing isolation within the EU notwithstanding, no Hungarian politician has ever received nearly as much international attention as Viktor Orbán.

When it comes to news headlines, chapters in prominent volumes, and often contentious public debates, Hungary’s strongman has clearly managed to punch above his weight in recent years – with an increasing emphasis on the punching.

As Fabio Wolkenstein has recently noted here on RevDem, Orbán is “excellent, and I think almost brilliant, at presenting us with what seems like a big ideological project, while his policies perhaps do not bear that much resemblance to that project.”

The PM’s sovereigntist rhetoric notwithstanding, his regime remains heavily reliant on European funding, and it is eager to offer special deals to foreign investors. Despite the lavish state support for religious organizations and the abundant public display of religious symbols, Hungarian society remains predominantly secular. Despite the regime’s hard anti-immigrant public stance, immigration to the country has grown in recent years. Fidesz’s new constitution, which was introduced with little consultation and much fanfare a decade ago with the intention to provide a solid new foundation, has been amended no fewer than ten times by now. The yawning gap between the regime’s bold symbolic politics and its inconsistent and unimpressive accomplishments could be illustrated through a host of further examples. (None of this is meant to imply that the governing party has consistently pursued agendas that are unpopular in society, nor is it meant to suggest that its concerted communication campaigns have been unwilling or unable to respond to changes in the public mood.)

Whereas there is little to argue in favor of unfair elections, massive corruption, a largely centrally controlled media, or lack of earnest commitment to allies, culture war issues are, by definition, meant to remain contentious. As the Hungarian PM apparently understands well, so long as his ideological project built around “conservative values” is being debated, institutional changes and the effects of his concrete policies may be scrutinized less.

What makes the Orbán regime’s self-declared attempt at “battling liberal hegemony” in Hungary all the more convenient is that such a hegemony did not exist prior to Fidesz’s methodical attempt to remake the country’s political system.

Orbán acquired his supermajority in 2010 when illiberal and far rightist ideas had already been dominant in Hungarian public life for several years. The two major right-wing populist and far right parties in the country (Fidesz and Jobbik) got around 70% of the vote in that year’s landslide election – whereas no liberal party came close to passing the threshold of 5%. Is it any wonder then that “battling liberal hegemony” has remained an urgent task ever since?

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In recent months, many have tried to decipher the deepening alliance between the rightist parts of the U.S. establishment and Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary. It is significant, not to mention revealing, that influential members of a self-declared conservative establishment in the U.S. are quite fond of a regime that many analysts consider the worst example of de-democratization in the European Union’s history.

It is unprecedented for the leader of an EU and NATO member to be so bold as to fall out with an U.S. administration to the extent that Orbán has with the current one. It is similarly unprecedented for such a leader to ally himself so openly with the latter’s staunchest internal opponents who have aimed to undermine the Biden administration’s very democratic legitimacy. Hungary’s stark exclusion from the U.S. Department of State’s The Summit for Democracy in 2021 and the Hungarian PM’s appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas this summer are only two of the latest striking manifestations of a highly unusual, even wayward foreign policy for a small, formally Western-allied state in the middle of Europe.

As repeatedly noted, the deepening ties and sympathies between the Republican far right and Orbán’s Fidesz are closely connected to their shared narrative of the West as a realm of sovereign ethnocultural communities and their common agenda of separating the political project of the West from its liberal foundations. What has received less attention until now is how come Viktor Orbán and his regime has managed to capture so much attention in the United States. Which ironies and paradoxes might U.S. debates referencing the Hungarian regime have missed in their apparent self-centeredness?

I argue that Orbán’s reception as a hero of early 21st-century radical conservatism who is supposedly able to implement policies that U.S. Republicans can only dream of – a notion currently prevalent both among Orbán’s American admirers and his liberal and progressive critics – can be seen as the crowning achievement of a conscious strategy of political manipulation: this is Westernization by preemptive rejection.

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The Orbán regime has secured an ever-tighter grip on power in recent years while also radicalizing further in terms of its exercise. It has also consciously adopted the favorite culture war issues – immigration and gender, to name only two of the most prominent ones – of the Western far right. Among Republicans, Orbán has thus come to be known as the European leader in power who is fighting the culture war on their side.

This is clearly an achievement for his regime. After all, it is much preferable to be known as a grandiose culture warrior than a petty autocrat.

However, it should give us pause that – until very recently – the culture war issues in question had only limited relevance in the Hungarian political and cultural context.

A peripheral country within the Schengen area of free movement, Hungary remains a country of emigration rather than immigration. The continued mass departure of the young and talented has been a particular cause for concern. Meanwhile, progress on gender and LGBT issues has remained rather limited in recent decades. The gender pay gap is among the highest in Europe today while the percentage of women in the Hungarian Parliament is the lowest in a union of twenty-seven member states. Panels with only male participants apparently continue to be perfectly acceptable on television as well as in numerous academic circles. Fidesz’s politically not unsuccessful employment of “anti-gender” discourses have intentionally mixed questions of child protection, homosexuality, and queer and trans issues – which may be seen as indicative of Hungarian society’s basic ignorance when it comes to LGBT issues and rights. The need to include the voices of non-white people in public discussions has hardly ever been considered.

Liberal progress being so limited in these areas after 1989 means that talk about a rightist backlash – rather than a rightist strategy of preemption – would exaggerate the significance of earlier achievements.

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When framed and constantly repeated by regime propaganda, the “threat” of mass immigration and the spread of “gender ideology” can still mobilize fears of the unknown. Such propaganda of fear has proven apt at building conservative hegemony in a linguistically isolated and nationalistically inclined country where the media have been ever more tightly controlled and a heavily underfunded system of education does too little to help people develop the crucial skill of critical thinking.

At the same time, issues of migration and gender also constitute ideal subjects for international propaganda built around the supposedly unique strength of Hungarian conservatives. They provide perfect foci to sell a flattering self-image to those in the West who obsess over liberal hegemony and yearn for a conservative revolution.

Conservative revolution may be a complex and rather tainted concept with origins in inter-war German discussions. It is a concept that has been consistently propagated by some of the leading ideologues of the current Hungarian regime. The attraction of such a conservative revolution in Hungary has partly derived from despair in the face of “the post-communist condition.”

Influential Hungarian conservatives came to believe that post-communism was characterized by the dominance of a rationalistic, technocratic, and essentially apolitical spirit of governance alongside an egalitarian social consensus – both of which they intensively disliked.

Under such a condition, self-declared conservatives could identify too little worth preserving, which in turn legitimized the use of radical methods in their eyes – methods that consciously disrespect the goal of gradual progress via conservation. Close affiliated with a rightist party using and abusing its constitutional supermajority since 2010, their agenda of a conservative revolution has in fact licensed arbitrary decisions in the name of often newly invented traditions.

As far as regime propaganda is concerned, Hungarians should be preoccupied with problematic developments in the West and should adopt the views of one of the sides in the polarized Western debates to make sure that their country does not come to resemble the contemporary West.

Hungarian political and cultural debates – heavily influenced as they are by media outlets close to the governing party – have thus come to imitate, and partly caricature, Western ones in an increasingly authoritarian setting. Such a manipulated import of Western themes is part of a conscious effort to undermine the attraction of the liberal democratic model.

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Orbán’s project of illiberal state building has explicitly questioned the normativity and universality of liberal democratic standards. He has also repeatedly challenged the idea that Hungary should closely align itself with its European and Western allies. Being a member of NATO heavily dependent on EU support, a key foreign policy goal under his post-2010 rule has been to diversify the country’s alliances and thereby increase his space to maneuver. This strategy has implied, above all, ever-tighter connections to Moscow and Beijing as well as an increasingly ambiguous balancing act between Russia and the West – even if the terms of the “special deals” with the Putin regime have been much less favorable to the Hungarian economy.

A strange kind of balancing act could nonetheless be observed even this year when West–Russia relations have reached a new low. Like influential voices in German public debates, Orbán’s prime goal appears to have been the preservation of significant parts of his country’s “neutrality” even after February 24.

This has meant a lack of a clear and substantial commitment to the self-defense of a neighboring country under brutal military invasion by a revanchist anti-Western power. The Hungarian PM has preferred to propagate vague notions of peace instead.

The massive fallout in West–Russia relations caused by Putin’s merciless escalation has obviously made Orbán’s balancing act even more controversial – and has exposed the dire consequences of his bold challenge to Western liberal normativity. Notwithstanding that, the Fidesz regime apparently only needs to update powerful Hungarian traditions of ethnonationalism, revive the political use and abuse of Christianity, and recode them for contemporary international consumption to oppose “migration” and “gender ideology,” and significant parts of the US American conservative establishment will openly appreciate its supposedly bold political vision.

We ought to recall in this context that ethnonationalism, the politicization of the Christian religion as well as the struggle against the emancipation of women were key features of Hungary’s authoritarian interwar regime, colloquially known as the Horthy regime – a regime that temporarily achieved some of its territorial revisionist goals in alliance with Nazi Germany and, with the assistance of German experts in genocide, willingly organized the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to their certain death in 1944. It is difficult to discern whether US American thinkers such as Rod Dreher or Patrick Deneen are sympathetic to Orbán’s conservative revolutionary agenda because they are ready to overlook such deeply uncomfortable historical connections – or rather because, their celebration of Hungarian political traditions notwithstanding, they remain blissfully ignorant of modern Hungarian history.

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As its centralization of power has become ever more difficult to deny, the Hungarian regime has only become more eager to polarize international public opinion with radical stances on hotly contested issues of the day. This has meant, among others, a rhetoric opposed to migration as such, attacks on the concept of gender, legislation against the equal treatment of LGBT persons, the repeated propagandistic use of conspiracy theories (such as, to cite only the most prominently employed one, the “Soros plan”), and even the use of openly racist language (such as by the PM who has declared himself opposed to “racial mixing” in a major pre-scripted speech this summer). The just mentioned rhetorical choices have clearly amounted to much more than facets of symbolic politics.

Policies derived from these radical stances have had a negative impact on the rights and opportunities of numerous people in Hungary.

To take just three examples: Hungarian legislation limiting the right to asylum and criminalizing support for asylum seekers – which a 2021 decision by the European Court of Justice declared to be in breach of EU law – has caused damage to asylum seekers as well as local citizens. The anti-Soros campaign and connected legislation led to what was in effect the expulsion of the Central European University from Budapest – a university that has been accredited in New York State since the 1990s and has been widely recognized as the leading U.S.-style graduate school in the entire post-communist region. The Hungarian law resulting in this major defeat for academic freedom has also been struck down by the European Court of Justice, if too late to make a real difference. (Note that the Review of Democracy is the online platform of the CEU’s Democracy Institute.) Third, the recent law banning what the regime calls “homosexual and transsexual propaganda” not only explicitly contributes to the further stigmatization of a sizable part of Hungarian society but also raises serious questions regarding freedom of expression. The discriminatory intention behind these laws has barely been veiled – and their damaging impacts are all too easy to demonstrate.

While the damage has been all too real, we can assume that the regime’s “ideological crusades” have been launched not least so that it can label the factual criticisms of its anti-democratic record as ideologically motivated. Apologists of the regime have indeed repeatedly responded to probing questions concerning the quality of democracy, the rule of law, or press freedom in the country by condemning the excesses of hegemonic liberalism, by lashing out at the supposed power of “the LGBT lobby,” and by exposing nefarious plans to consciously foster migration.

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For the purposes of international consumption Orbán’s regime has been succeeding to a remarkable degree at translating key aspects of Hungarian ethnic nationalism into a wider panic about the future of Western civilization. And it has done so via an ingenious, not to say cunning strategy of Westernization via preemptive rejection.

When such a strategy of Westernization by preemptive rejection succeeds, it can achieve three goals at once. It can help a far rightist regime deflect factual criticisms of its anti-democratic record by further ideologizing discussions; it can help them paint a convenient enemy image at home and make their supporters even more skeptical towards liberal democratic criticism coming from the West; and it can also capture international attention and strengthen such a regime’s illiberal reputation and far right alliances.

It is a special achievement for the current Hungarian regime that the Western far right and significant parts of a self-declared conservative establishment in the U.S. are lauding it for what is in effect a strategy of Westernization by preemptive rejection – and a truly special one at a time when Orbán’s controversial stance on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has furthered his isolation within the EU. However, this ingenious, not to say cunning strategy of becoming more notorious when one can no longer be reputed should have limited chances beyond such circles.

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