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The Dangerous Farce of Late-Stage Orbanism

Lashing out at vulnerable minorities is the hallmark of a weak bully who fears losing power.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a press conference at the Visegrad Summit in Lublin, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2020.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a press conference at the Visegrad Summit in Lublin, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2020. Omar Marques/Getty Images

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban started his career as a democrat. He was a bright light in the political scene in the 1990s, beloved by well-intentioned Westerners eager to help Hungary succeed in its post-Cold War transition from communism to democracy.

But Orban built his prime ministerial career as a populist. He has chosen to eschew the hard work of leading as a democrat and instead used his party’s majority as an opportunity to take an easier course—by systematically dismantling the institutions and laws that check democratic leaders and are part of what the legal scholar John MacArthur Maguire once called “those wise restraints that make men free.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban started his career as a democrat. He was a bright light in the political scene in the 1990s, beloved by well-intentioned Westerners eager to help Hungary succeed in its post-Cold War transition from communism to democracy.

But Orban built his prime ministerial career as a populist. He has chosen to eschew the hard work of leading as a democrat and instead used his party’s majority as an opportunity to take an easier course—by systematically dismantling the institutions and laws that check democratic leaders and are part of what the legal scholar John MacArthur Maguire once called “those wise restraints that make men free.”

And, by the looks of it, Orban will finish his career—whenever it ends—as a corrupt bully. Late-stage Orbanism isn’t really Hungarian nationalism or “illiberal democracy.” It is farce.

Last month, Orban and his collaborators pushed new anti-LGBTQ legislation through the Hungarian parliament, and on July 8, the law took effect. It echoes provisions of a similar law advanced by Russian President Vladimir Putin eight years ago and bans—among other things—favorable communication about sexual and gender diversity to minors. The law rightfully drew criticism from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte bluntly called for Hungary’s ejection from the EU.

In some ways, the move was a continuation of behavior we’ve seen before from Orban and his Fidesz party. In recent years, Muslim refugees and the Romani community have found themselves instrumentalized by Orban for political purposes as he capitalizes on popular xenophobia and racism. So, perhaps, needing new grist for the populist mill, Orban landed on the LGBTQ minority as an attractive target. (And perhaps it’s more than coincidence that the law follows a scandal in which one of Orban’s political cronies was caught sneaking out of a gay sex party that broke lockdown rules last year.)

Targeting minorities becomes a tool of distraction: an effort to redirect mounting dissatisfaction with the leader toward some vulnerable group.

Populist leaders target minorities for two different reasons and usually in sequence—that is, even if the target remains consistent, the political purpose evolves. In the first instance, populists leverage popular prejudices as a way of building power: They claim to be a voice for the majority by expressing its fears and distaste toward a minority group. (In the same way, former U.S. President Donald Trump gave a racist description of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals in his campaign announcement speech in 2015.) The second reason for targeting minorities comes later, for eventually populist leaders—whether on the left or the right—inevitably fail to deliver on their promises. At this point, targeting minorities becomes a tool of distraction: an effort to redirect mounting dissatisfaction with the leader toward some vulnerable group.

The first kind of targeting happens as populists build strength; the second happens as they lose power. Populists without support from the people have no claim to authority, for they have lost the sole rationale for their rule. All leaders in nominal democracies care about their popularity, but populists care most because it is so central to their legitimacy. (This is why vote-rigging is so tempting to them, even when they don’t need it to get elected.)

Hungary is no longer a story only—or even predominantly—of democratic backsliding by a member of both the European Union and NATO. It is a story of a leader and a regime that feel themselves losing popular legitimacy amid corruption scandals, one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world, and concerns—especially in urban areas—that Orban has cozied up to China and Russia while sabotaging Hungary’s relationship with the EU.

After a few years as prime minister at the turn of the millennium, Orban returned to power in 2010—and, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel could tell him from personal experience, any leader loses the luster of novelty after a decade or more. The mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karacsony, is emerging as the opposition candidate to run against Orban in the 2022 national elections. If that happens, he looks poised to offer Orban the first serious challenge to his grip on power since 2010. Karacsony presents a striking contrast to Orban: young, optimistic, and enthusiastically committed to the dynamic future he sees for his country in the EU. He is fluent in the issues of his generation, including climate change, education and upskilling, and inequality.

Facing down elections, Orban will seek to perpetuate an aura of invincibility, and Karacsony will attempt to expose as a political myth the idea that Fidesz cannot be beat in national elections. If Orban wins, Hungary will likely continue, politically, to look more and more like a Central Asian country in the middle of Europe. If Karacsony wins, 2022 will be an inflection point for Hungary—an opportunity for a democratic renaissance.

While the coming contest between Orban and Karacsony is for Hungarians to decide, the Biden administration can still have influence on its NATO ally—if it wants to. One way to do this is for the United States to lend its full support to the EU if it decides to mete out consequences to Hungary, not only for its latest violation of EU standards on the treatment of minorities but also for its decade-long slide away from democratic governance that has—not coincidentally—paralleled its increasing tendency to play the role of spoiler in EU decision-making. Like politicians in many red states in the United States who rail against Washington, Orban indulges in fiery rhetoric about Brussels. But, also like many red states with respect to the U.S. federal government, Hungary is a net taker from the EU budget. Orban needs the EU’s money—not just for Hungarian farmers but also to feed the ravenous enterprise of official corruption over which he presides.

Last month, the White House rolled out a new framework for tackling international corruption as a national security issue. Shortly afterward, the administration identified dozens of current and former senior officials in the Northern Triangle countries—Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—as targets for sanctions related to corruption. The administration recognizes the way that corruption in those countries undermines regional security and has contributed to the outflow of migrants and asylum-seekers, including those arriving on the U.S. southern border.

Similarly, the Biden administration could leverage existing sanctions laws and its new anti-corruption framework as a way of delivering consequences for Orban and his cronies in the coming months. Hungary’s democratic backsliding is not only a loss for Hungarians; it degrades the strength of the EU as a key U.S. partner and undermines the values on which the NATO alliance is grounded.

My own childhood gave me some insights into bullies who go after queer people—and one of those insights is that their cruelty is often exceeded only by their weakness.

In the final years of the Obama administration, the Hungarians bristled at the fact that the most senior meeting they could get with Washington was with the then-assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland. (They bristled even further when U.S. statements and sanctions made clear that the Orban government’s growing corruption was the principal obstacle to more senior engagement.) Now back as undersecretary for political affairs, Nuland might advocate to maintain the policy she was once the face of: No Hungarian photo-ops with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken or other cabinet members. If the Hungarians want to do business, they can do it with the assistant secretary for Europe or the future U.S. ambassador in Budapest. And, speaking of the U.S. ambassador, Biden has the chance to send a message with his pick. Whether the nominee is a political appointee or a career diplomat, someone with experience and credibility in dealing with corruption and advancing human rights and democracy would send the message that Washington takes Hungary’s political degradation seriously. And when the invitations for Biden’s planned Summit for Democracy go out, they should go to members of Hungary’s civil society, not the Orban government.

Finally, the Biden administration could—in cooperation with the U.S. Congress—surge resources to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and begin robust broadcast and digital programming in the Hungarian language as a way of compensating for Orban’s systematic dismantling of independent media in Hungary. Political coverage of Hungary in the lead-up to the 2022 elections will be especially useful—Karacsony is a charismatic politician who could match Orban’s penchant for providing good content. But coverage should also include the ongoing political and cultural debates about democratic values in Germany, France, Britain, and the United States. Hungarians need to know not just about their own political landscape but also about the broader community of democratic societies from which Orban and his cronies have increasingly isolated them. After all, it should be their choice, not Orban’s, whether to be part of that community of values or not.

Above all, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to be prepared for more craven behavior by Orban in the months to come. Nothing should surprise us now. My own childhood gave me some insights into bullies who go after queer people—and one of those insights is that their cruelty is often exceeded only by their weakness. This doesn’t make them less dangerous; indeed, a desperate bully is often the most dangerous of all.

Daniel Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

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