Hungarian Nationalism Is a Dead End

Hungary's brand of nationalism generates not just cronyist domestic policy but tawdry foreign policy as well.


For the growing majority of Americans who do not approve of Joe Biden's job performance as president, scanning the landscape for potential successors reveals a depressing reality: The road to the GOP presidential nomination apparently now runs through Budapest. It's a lovely city but a revealingly inappropriate setting to locate inspiration for the new American nationalism still being workshopped by the professional political right.

In September, hot on the heels of Fox News host Tucker Carlson, former Vice President Mike Pence became the latest high-profile American conservative to trade bon mots with the proudly "illiberal" Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on his home turf. "I want to applaud Prime Minister Orbán for choosing to make family the central focus of Hungary's government policy," the former veep said at the fourth-ever Budapest Demographic Summit.

The "demographic" concern that brought together elected populists, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, was the insufficient number of native-born residents from the dominant tribe within each relevant nation-state.

"Within 30 years Nigeria—just one African country—will have more inhabitants than the entire European Union, more inhabitants than the United States of America," warned Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, three weeks before losing reelection, lamented that within 30 years, Irish people will be a minority in Ireland: "It is just not right that we should look on idle and see how indigenous populations are becoming a minority and are under pressure."

Milorad Dodik, a Serb, is the current rotating president of Bosnia and -Herzegovina—a country he has long worked to dissolve, for which he was individually sanctioned by the U.S. State Department in 2017. "Who will live in Europe 50 years from now?" Dodik wondered. "Will there be Europeans? I live in a region only four and a half hours from here, where migrants come from the Middle East. Do you think it is far from Europe? No, it is not."

Such zero-sum notions of who should and should not be considered fully fledged citizens of a country used to be anathema to most on the American right. Our "nation" was creedal, not ethnolinguistic or religious, and open to all "who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage," including "those later immigrants who were willing to leave the land of their birth and come to a land where even the language was unknown to them," as Ronald Reagan put it at the inaugural Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 1974. "Now," Reagan crowed, "we are a nation of 211 million people with a pedigree that includes blood lines from every corner of the world."

In the ensuing 47 years, American conservatism has gone from valorizing the mixing of blood to regarding mongrelization as a Democratic plot. The same week Pence was in Budapest, Carlson reiterated his oft-repeated claim that the Biden administration was actively seeking to "change the racial mix of the country," explaining ominously that "in political terms, this policy is called 'The Great Replacement,' the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries."

Such "replacement" language in American politics used to be limited to its more paranoid and marginalized corners, like the 2017 Unite the Right tiki-torch march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where "You will not replace us!" was one of the demonstrators' chants. But now we're beginning to hear the conspiracy theory from elected GOP officials, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.), Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Rep. Scott Perry (R–Pa.). "For many Americans," Perry said at a committee hearing in April, "what seems to be happening…is, we're replacing national-born American—native-born Americans—to permanently transform the landscape of this very nation."

You can almost predict the next U.S. conservative to swoon for Viktor Orbán by seeing whether he has publicly quit the long, messy slog of democratic persuasion in a rights-based republic and instead begun to view the Enlightenment itself as part of the problem. American Conservative writer Rod Dreher, the John the Baptist to Orbán's Jesus, preceded a visiting fellowship in Budapest by arguing in 2017's The Benedict Option (Sentinel) that Christian conservatives should exile themselves from institutions corrupted by the decadent left.

"The key insight about Orban is that he believes that the future of his nation and of Western civilization hangs in the balance," Dreher wrote in August, after supping in Budapest with Carlson. "He's right about that….I prefer the (possibly flawed) ways that Orban is meeting the crisis than the ways that the American Right is failing to do same."

The Hungarian prime minister makes for an odd champion of American-style Christendom. Abortion is uncontroversially legal in Hungary, the people aren't particularly religious, and Orbán has exercised kleptocratic control over churches that dare to dissent from his policies. Dreher's contention that "Orban protects European Christianity better than Pope Francis" notwithstanding, the key reason for trad-con attraction to the Carpathian nationalist is that he fights the right enemies (globalists, the media, liberalism, George Soros) and wins elections. "We are inoculated against the woke virus in Central Europe," Orbán bragged at the Demographic Summit, ever aware of what words please conservative American ears in 2021.

By prioritizing culture war pugilism, the Magyarphilic American right has turned a blind eye not only to Orbán's own considerable corruptions but to many of its own erstwhile principles. Like virtually all European nationalists, Orbán is a pro-welfare-state mercantilist, intervening early and often in economic activity, centralizing the federal government's power, and doling out favors to friends and family. Partly as a result, Hungary, which as recently as 1993 led the entire post–Warsaw Pact bloc in per capita gross domestic product, now sits at the bottom with the also-nationalist-run Poland, while the Baltics and the former Czechoslovakia zoom ahead.

Hungary's brand of nationalism generates not just cronyist domestic policy but tawdry foreign policy as well. Trumpist Republicans and other globalism skeptics may get a thrill from Orbán's nose thumbing toward Brussels. But as Pence learned in his one Budapest applause line that bombed (when he encouraged the audience "to stand with the U.S. against China"), the Euro-nationalists are notoriously cozy with both Moscow and Beijing, which are only too glad to help stoke division within the West's multilateral institutions.

In Reagan's CPAC address, which would become famous as the "shining city on a hill" speech, he spun a long tale about America nearly going to war in 1853 over the fate of a single Hungarian immigrant who had been seized by Austria soon after applying for his U.S. citizenship papers. It was an example, Reagan said, "of government meeting its highest responsibility." Nearly a half-century later, CPAC announced in September that its 2022 annual convention, at which a parade of GOP presidential aspirants is expected to make its usual appearance, is relocating from the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to a new temporary home: Budapest.