Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a pariah in Europe and darling on the American right, is set to deliver an address Thursday titled “How we fight” at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, two weeks after drawing international condemnation for a speech railing against the mixing of European and non-European peoples.
“Migration, which you could call population replacement or inundation,” Orbán said July 23 in Transylvania, Romania, to an audience of ethnic Hungarians, “has split the West in two. One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. These countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples. I could also say that it is no longer the Western world, but the post-Western world. And around 2050, the laws of mathematics will lead to the final demographic shift: cities in [that] part of the continent…will see the proportion of residents of non-European origin rising to over 50 per cent of the total.”
Europeans concerned about these demographics, Orbán continued, “are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race….Today the situation is that Islamic civilization, which is constantly moving towards Europe, has realized…that the route through Hungary is an unsuitable one along which to send its people up into Europe….[N]ow the incursion’s origins are not in the East, but in the South, from where they are occupying and flooding the West….The time will come when we have to somehow accept Christians coming to us from there and integrate them into our lives.”
Orbán’s remarks drew an unusual amount of criticism inside Hungary, where in April he won a landslide election to a fourth term as prime minister. Hungarian Chief Rabbi Róbert Frölich compared Orbán’s words to various “onion-headed theories of race.” The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities said in a statement that the speech “triggered serious concerns within the Jewish community.” And Orbán’s longtime envoy for social inclusion, Zsuzsanna Hegedüs, wrote in a blistering resignation letter that his “openly racist speech” was a “pure Nazi text worthy of Joseph Goebbels.”
In American political discourse, the speech was quickly boiled down to the essence of white nationalism, and lassoed around the neck of domestic conservatives. “A hero of the Trump right shows his true colors: Whites only,” went the headline on Dana Milbank’s piece in the Washington Post. Predictable (and predictably endless) back-and-forths ensued between domestic Trump critics and indefatigable Orbánologists. As I wrote a year ago, “The pattern is eye-glazingly familiar by now in the age of Donald Trump: Politician does or says something provocative…an appalled political class overreacts; the anti-anti brigades man their battle stations; and around we go, dumbly, until the next controversy.”
Mostly lost in this hubbub, however, are two interlocking points of policy significance. Orbán is stoking the possibility of dangerous instability on the European continent, in ways that have very little to do with skin color. And he’s doing so while promoting a paranoid anti-Americanism of the type that conservatives used to reject.
Like many of his most incendiary orations, the prime minister’s speech was delivered abroad in front of some of the more than two million ethnic Hungarians who live in the bordering states of Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine, Austria, and Slovenia. Those Magyars were left stranded outside of Magyarország after the 1920 Treaty of Trianon lopped off two-thirds of Greater Hungary’s ahistorically swollen land-mass after the end of World War I.
For Hungarian nationalists—Orbán’s base ever since he engineered his party’s decisive pivot away from liberal cosmopolitanism in the early 1990s—Trianon is the Original Sin, the crime perpetrated against the once-proud Hungarian nation by a vindictive and possibly jealous world order. Concern over Hungary’s Trianon-fueled fantasies of restoring old maps is why NATO made as a precondition of its first post-Cold War expansion that prospective entrants first enshrine their existing borders in treaties while also guaranteeing basic rights to national minorities.
The single most destabilizing thing Orbán has ever done has nothing to do with his controversial views on migration, or his kleptocratic corruption, or even his consolidation of power over Hungary’s shrinking civil society. Rather, it’s the law, passed a decade ago, giving ethnic Hungarians abroad the right to Hungarian citizenship (and therefore, the vote). A century’s worth of bloody European experience has demonstrated what can happen when a national bloc in a neighboring country is encouraged to pledge ultimate loyalty to a country not their own.
Orbán’s closing paragraph in his Transylvanian speech is a festival of paranoid and potentially disruptive small-country nationalism:
Hungary has ambition. Hungary has communal ambitions, and indeed national ambitions. It has national ambitions, and even European ambitions. This is why, in order to preserve our national ambitions, we must show solidarity in the difficult period ahead of us. The motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together. This ambition, Dear Friends, is what propels us, what drives us—it is our fuel. It is the notion that we have always given more to the world than we have received from it, that more has been taken from us than given to us, that we have submitted invoices that are still unpaid, that we are better, more industrious and more talented than the position we now find ourselves in and the way in which we live, and the fact that the world owes us something—and that we want to, and will, call in that debt. This is our strongest ambition.
Such delusional tub-thumping could be more easily dismissed in a less tumultuous time and place. But war—involving disputes over treaty-enshrined borders and national minorities—rages immediately to the east, and Orbán, who is Vladimir Putin’s closest friend among leaders of NATO countries, senses opportunity amidst the danger.
“We must be emotionally and financially ready to accept the Hungarian people and/or the Hungarian territory inside Ukraine,” Csaba Belénessy, Orbán’s friend and former hand-picked head of the Hungarian news agency MTI, wrote in March. “The fact is that Transcarpathian Hungarians are not in a good place, one might say persecuted in Ukraine.” Dangerous stuff, at a time of rising tensions and diplomatic antipathy between the two countries.
The Ukrainian government isn’t the only mad neighbor. The Croatian Foreign Ministry squawked in May after Orbán said in an interview that Hungary would have a seaport “if it hadn’t been taken from us”—a reference to Trianon’s reallocation of the now-Croatian town of Rijeka. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis last week said that “It is wrong and inadmissible in principle for a high European dignitary to deliver a speech on the public scene built on the race theory that led to the most terrible catastrophe of the 20th century,” adding that “the fact that this happened in Transylvania is a problem for us.”
Orbán’s irredentist flirtations at a time of European instability remain of little expressed concern to his American fanbase, who prefer to extol his apocalyptic, clash-of-civilizations visions about how “This is the great historic battle that we are fighting: demography, migration and gender.” (Part of the gender component, as expressed in the Transylvanian speech: “In this corner of the world, there will never be a majority in favor of the Western lunacy,” which he defined as “not only same-sex marriage, but also such couples’ right to adopt children.”)
The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher, having previously proclaimed Orbán “the leader of the West now,” read the same words that alarmed so many, and declared: “Extraordinary speech by Hungarian PM shows why he is a Thatcher figure to a future Ronald Reagan.” Only the champion of “illiberal democracy” seems to fully share Dreher’s prophetic understanding that “liberal Westerners…are so full of self-hatred they are talking themselves into their surrender and annihilation.”
A funny thing about those latter two words. Annihilation is what has been happening the last five-plus months to Ukrainian civilians at the business end of Russian bombs. And surrender is what Orbán counsels they do to their desire to have a security guarantee—or rather, what he advises the Americans to negotiate with the Russians after Republicans hopefully re-take the White House in 2024.
There’s nothing wrong with having a different view on how the transatlantic alliance should approach the Russia-Ukraine war, and there’s something genuinely heartening about conservatives who were once gung-ho about invading Iraq now counseling American restraint. But in lashing their mast to a small-country nationalist, domestic philo-Magyars are cheering on some unseemly Russia-apologia and America-blaming.
For example, Orbán claimed in his speech that with the advent of fracking in the U.S., “America made no secret of the fact that it would use energy as a foreign policy weapon. The fact that others are being accused of this should not deceive us.” And: “Americans are able to impose their will because they are not dependent on energy from others; they are able to exert hostile pressure because they control the financial networks.” Are these the words of “the leader of the West”?
In one remarkable passage, the same politician who, as a young man in 1989, became famous for chanting “Russians, go home!” in front of Communist Party headquarters now casts aspersions on Washington’s role during the Cold War:
Historically the Americans have had the ability to pick out what they identify as an evil empire and to call on the world to stand on the right side of history—a phrase which bothers us a little, as this is what the communists always said. This ability that the Americans used to have of getting everyone on the right side of the world and of history, and then the world obeying them, is something which has now disappeared….It may well be that this war will be the one that demonstrably puts an end to that form of Western ascendancy which has been able to employ various means to create world unity against certain actors on a particular chosen issue.
This is the new Thatcher to our (purely mythical) Reagan 2.0?
Orbán states as fact that the reason for Russia’s invasion was NATO’s unwillingness to guarantee in treaty form that Ukraine would never be a member. “The consequence of this refusal is that today the Russians are seeking to achieve by force of arms the security demands that they had previously sought to achieve through negotiation,” he said, adding: “I have to say that this war would never have broken out if we had been a little luckier and at this crucial hour the President of the United States of America was called Donald Trump.”
In his bottomless defenses of his hero’s excesses, Dreher has repeatedly made the point that “Hungarians are WAY more sensitive to preserving their identity among the nations because there are so few of them.” Quite so! It’s a key reason why no self-respecting American should aspire to Hungarian-style nationalism.
The difference is that Dreher believes, apocalyptically, that Hungarians are “threatened with extinction of their identity through assimilation or some other means,” and that somehow the United States is, too. I know our Magyar friends are good at geometry, but that’s one Transitive Property application too far. Whatever ails America will not be fixed by aping irredentist Putin-enablers obsessed with books about dusky hordes.