Rod Dreher first met Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2019, he told me. A conservative writer from the United States, Dreher had traveled to Budapest to speak at a conference about religious liberty. At the end of the event, while the speakers were having lunch, a member of the Hungarian government approached them and said that the prime minister would like to meet everyone. They were all put on a bus and soon encountered Orban. “I thought we would go shake his hand, take a picture, [say] goodbye. He sat down with us for an hour and a half. And in very good English, answered all of our questions,” Dreher said.
At the end of the meeting, according to him, Orban said: “For those of you who are conservative, I hope that you will consider Budapest your intellectual home.” Dreher thought that was a nice idea, but that it would never actually happen. At that time, the prime minister wasn’t yet very popular among Americans. “Well, it’s actually starting to happen,” he said to me. “And they have been putting money into it.”
For the past decade, international bodies, Hungary’s opposition, the Hungarian independent press—or what is left of it—and parts of the international media have accused the prime minister of using authoritarian measures to keep his party (Fidesz) in power. They argue that Orban has eroded the rule of law. V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), one of the leading institutes that measure the quality of democracies around the world, categorizes the country as under an electoral authoritarian regime.
To fight the accusations of democratic erosion and defend his own narrative, Orban has invested billions of dollars in Hungarian conservative foundations—including two of them that have closely worked with Dreher since 2021. I met him in late 2022 in a café named after the British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton near the parliament building in Budapest. By that time, he had already become the leading voice among the foreign researchers who had spent time in Hungary, frequently writing articles for the American Conservative in which he portrays Orban and his government in a positive light.
Dreher is not alone. Many of the foreign researchers and writers aligned with conservatism who spent time in Hungary at the expense of institutes and foundations funded by Orban’s government have become vocal defenders of the prime minister. The pilgrimage of conservative Americans to Hungary is not a coincidence, of course, but a government policy. It’s a deliberate soft-power strategy—one that seems to be working precisely as planned.
Dreher is now in his third position in Hungary—the first permanent one. He was hired by the Danube Institute, a conservative think tank located on the banks of the namesake river. His job is to travel around and help build a network of conservative intellectuals and religious leaders for conferences. “It’s something I love doing, this intellectual work. And I find that nowadays, a lot of conservatives who never thought about Hungary before are interested in it. Wherever I travel, they want to know more.”
He sees two reasons why the government has invested so much money in the development of conservative institutes. First, he says, Hungary is very isolated in Europe because of its right-wing policies, and it needs friends. Intellectuals like him can “provide a counternarrative to the one that prevails in Washington and Brussels and among the American and Western European media.”
The second reason, and perhaps the most important, is that this network of conservative institutions will remain even when Orban or Fidesz are no longer in power. “I think one of the reasons that the Orban government is building up all these institutions using government funds and government power is because he knows he’s not going to be prime minister forever. Fidesz is not going to be in government forever,” Dreher said. “And he wants to have some sort of deep state built that will be able to survive whoever is coming.”
Orban’s policies to turn Hungary into a right-wing intellectual powerhouse have skyrocketed his popularity among American conservatives. Especially after Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News host, presented his show directly from Budapest for a week in 2021—an arrangement that Dreher takes credit for. Dreher said that he contacted Balazs Orban, the prime minister’s political director (no relation) and a key player in building the conservative intellectual apparatus, to suggest that Carlson, Dreher’s friend, travel to the country to interview the prime minister.
“You saw that [Viktor] Orban went to the CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference], which was really, really surprising. I don’t think that would have happened if Tucker Carlson hadn’t come here and you know, made Orban something of a rock star among American conservatives,” Dreher said.
In August 2022, Orban spoke at CPAC in Texas and received a standing ovation from the audience of Republican activists and politicians. At one point, he mentioned the strangeness of having his presence requested by the “most distinguished conservatives of the United States.” He added, “I was wondering in the last two or three weeks, what do you want to hear from me?” Orban recognized that Hungary is “far from being a global superpower,” and he went on: “The U.S. is a global superpower. Your leaders should give an opening speech at our conferences in Hungary.”
He had a point. It is really quite unusual that Hungarian politics should serve as an example for Americans today. In May, for the second year in a row, CPAC was also held in Budapest and attended by several foreign conservative politicians, such as Kari Lake, the 2022 Republican candidate for Arizona governor. So why do conservative Americans admire Orban so much, and what do they think they can learn from him?
Hungary has become a model for them by having a conservative government elected with a two-thirds supermajority since 2010 (although this is thanks to a very disproportionate electoral system), anchored in agendas dear to the global right. The Orban government is rooted in anti-immigration, anti-wokeness, and anti-liberal discourses, with the goal of defending the nation-state, Christianity, and the traditional family formed by a man, a woman, and their children. And unlike Republicans in the United States, historically aligned with the free market and opposed to state intervention in the economy, Orban represents a right wing that supports a strong state, conductive of conservative social policies.
An associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas, Gladden Pappin applied for a two-year fellowship at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) in Budapest. The institution provides training for young people, with the goal of renewing the intellectual elite in the country. MCC frequently hosts events with conservative guest speakers—Hungarians and foreigners. It received more than $1.7 billion in government money and assets in 2021, according to a report in the New York Times, and it has Balazs Orban as chairman of its board of trustees. Pappin’s plan during his fellowship at MCC was to research the policies adopted by Orban to boost marriage rates and to reduce divorces and abortions.
By 2050, Hungary’s population is expected to fall from 9.7 million to 9.2 million, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In the same period, the percentage of the population that is economically active should drop from 65 percent to 58 percent. To try to solve the demographic crisis, the government has used aggressive public policies to stimulate families to have more children. The most recent one, announced in January of this year, exempted mothers under the age of 30 from paying personal income tax. The same policy already applied to mothers with at least four children. Policies like these have become a flagship of the government.
“I’ve talked to countless Hungarian families who would say, well, we wouldn’t have a house if it wasn’t for the Family Support Program,” Pappin told me. “And it’s not really a political thing. They are not ideological right-wingers, you know, trying to have children. It’s just a normal thing.”
In April, with the end of the fellowship at MCC, the Hungarian government appointed Pappin as president of the Hungarian Institute for International Affairs (HIIA), a think tank connected to the state. This year, according to the institute’s website, the Orban government reorganized HIIA to make it more effective in supporting the Prime Minister’s strategic decision-making process in foreign policy. The website also states that the institute has the goal of “gathering information from the academic world and international think tanks, disseminating the principles of the Hungarian foreign policy to academic and broader audiences, and actively communicating with the public on international affairs.”
In our meeting at the end of 2022, I asked Pappin what he thinks Orban’s biggest successes are. He mentioned the economic recovery promoted by the government, which had to deal with a serious unemployment problem. “They undertook a policy called ‘workfare,’ which is sort of a work-oriented welfare program, where they were trying to create more job opportunities, as well as provide a supportive state,” he says. “This tradition doesn’t exist in the United States because the right wing is very hostile to state services and social support.”
Pappin is referring to one of the policies of the so-called Orbanomics. After taking office for the second time in 2010, two years after the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression, Orban made the receipt of unemployment benefits conditional on public work. In order to continue to receive state money, Hungarian citizens must accept jobs offered by the local municipality, regardless of their level of education. These are usually manual labor jobs, such as gardening and cleaning parks. Those hardest hit by the new policy have been the Roma, the largest ethnic minority in Hungary, who are often poor and face discrimination.
“We have to acknowledge, even if it is difficult, that the concept of welfare state is over,” Orban said in a 2013 speech. “Instead of that, we have to build up workfare states and replace entitlements with a merit-based society.” In 10 years, with the building of what Orban calls a “workfare state,” the unemployment rate has dropped from 11 percent to 4 percent. On the other hand, critics say that the new policy does not allow people to reintegrate into the primary labor market, offers an income lower than the minimum wage, and makes citizens too dependent on local power.
Government welfare measures have not been completely cut. What Orban has done is to prioritize new measures aimed at the working middle class. This is the case for the policies to promote family growth, which are linked to tax cuts and housing subsidies. At the same time that they became a pillar of the government, the universal family allowance, which is also granted to unemployed families, decreased.
The role of the state as a conductor of social policies is one of the lessons Republicans should learn from Orban, Pappin said. “In the United States, you have a lot of socially conservative Hispanic voters who vote for the Democratic Party because it is more favorable to the concerns of labor, as well as providing generous public benefits,” he states. “Republicans unfortunately have a long-standing policy of wanting to reduce government spending, wanting to limit major social programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. And voters, in my opinion, rightly feel that it can be risky to vote for Republicans.”
Pappin believes that to be successful the Republican party must adopt policies more like those of Fidesz, rewarding its voters with measures that are beneficial to them. “I came here for the reasons a lot of people did. To see, what is the kind of genius behind the stable Hungarian government?” he said. “So I’ve tried to write about family policy in order to show that this is a viable path for the conservative party in the United States.”
Dreher also thinks that the Republicans have something to learn from Orban. In his view, the prime minister understood that the most powerful institutions in most societies are not political, but corporate and cultural. And Dreher believes that, at least in the United States, they have been wholly captured by the left. “The Republican Party is still operating on this 1980s mindset that says the private sector is the private sector,” he says. “But what happens when the private sector—all of its institutions, academia, big business, law, medicine and so forth—have been captured by not even the liberal left but the woke progressive left? You have an extreme imbalance in power.”
Dreher believes that free speech is being suffocated in the United States, especially in spaces such as universities. So I asked him whether he thinks that when they return to power, Republicans should fund conservative institutions, as Orban has done. Dreher replied that he is not sure what American laws would allow them to do, but that he believes that the government should be more aggressive in making universities more classically liberal. “I would like to see the government, in some ways that are legal, push these institutions to quit discriminating against conservatives and against Asian people or white people on the basis of scholarships, things like that.”
But for ideas similar to Orban’s to be taken seriously, it will require an economic collapse, Dreher said: “You can’t just pull out the best policies and plug them into America. But at least he makes you think differently. He makes you think about what would [it look like], a conservative government that cared more about the family than about Wall Street?”
Dreher mentioned Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the only Republican who may have learned from Orban’s example. For him, the Parental Rights in Education (known to critics as the “Don’t Say Gay”) bill, which prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students up to the third grade, is “straight Orban.” “If DeSantis picks up these commonsense cultural wars, that most people agree with, and stands up to the woke forces, then he could be popular,” he said.
The latest move in the attempted export of the Orban government’s values has been the launch of a new MCC branch in Brussels, where the European Parliament is located. In recent years, the Euroskeptic Hungarian government and the European Union have been bumping heads constantly. The EU expects its members to follow democratic principles and ensure the rule of law, putting Hungary against the wall. Orban denies having resorted to authoritarian measures and says he is only defending Hungarian sovereignty. The relationship has eroded, between threats to cut funding on one side and vetoes that work as blackmail on the other.
With the launch of the new think tank, Orban marks his presence in the heart of the European Union, standing up to the Western liberal values safeguarded by the group. “It is our goal for Hungary to become an intellectual powerhouse, in which MCC plays a key role,” Balazs Orban wrote on Twitter in October 2022, when he announced the news.
The director of the new office, the scholar Frank Furedi, mentioned the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci to explain why foundations like MCC are important to the government. “Have you ever heard of Antonio Gramsci?” Furedi asked me during a video call in early January. I nodded my head yes. Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony. He theorized that institutions such as schools and the media play an important role in disseminating the ideology of the ruling class, ensuring its control over society.
“The long-term survival of the kind of project that he [Orban] has requires a degree of intellectual hegemony within society,” Furedi continued. “So he [Orban] needs to create a counter intelligentsia, a counter intellectual elite, if they’re going to be able to create the foundation for a more durable sort of political regime,” he said.
In the 1980s, Furedi was one of the main leaders of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a far-left, Trotskyist-oriented British organization. Now, on Twitter, he defines himself as a “democratic populist.” Born in Hungary, Furedi migrated with his family to Canada as a child. He later moved to the United Kingdom, and after many years and published books, he became emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent. “I’m still the same person, but the world has changed,” he said. “And the way that I look at it, the distinction between left and right, liberal and conservative, is not as clear as people think it is.”
The invitation to run MCC Brussels was the result of a fortuitous encounter, Furedi said. In the summer of 2022, while walking down the street in London, he came across Balazs Orban, who was drinking in front of a bar with some friends. Balazs then introduced the subject, and they talked informally about the possibility of Furedi taking over the new office. The two mentioned the need to establish an “alternative voice” in Brussels. He returned home and asked his wife, Ann Furedi, what she thought. “She said to me, go to Brussels and have some fun, you know, sort of shake things up a little bit.”
At the end of August, Furedi decided that he would accept the position. “I’ve been very interested in trying to play more of an active role in terms of the cultural wars that exist,” he says. “And the reason why I felt it was important is because both sides are just yelling at each other, and very rarely have the kind of ideological or intellectual or theoretical substance to know what it is that underpins their view of the world.”
One of the briefings published by the institute earlier this year concerns the principle of rule of law in the European Union. In line with the Orban government, the paper argues that discussions about the concept “are a cover for disagreements about values and the EU project of imposing so-called EU values on sovereign countries.”
MCC Brussels has also organized some events with writers and academics. One of them, held at the end of January, dealt with the topic: “The politicization of history teaching in the EU: Is the past being cancelled?” The presentation was given by British writer Joanna Williams, author of the book How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement that Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason. Furedi insists, however, that he has been trying to bring together at the institute people who have different points of view.
He says that what worries him most is that society has become so polarized that people only talk to those who think in a similar way. “When I was your age, I used to have very close friends on the left and on the right. And although we disagreed about politics, we could still go drinking together, go to parties together, have nice discussions. Now it’s impossible,” Furedi said. “So I’m trying to create a dynamic background where people can feel comfortable [with the idea] that it’s okay to disagree. And who knows, you might even learn something from the other side. Even if all you learn is why they think the way they think.”
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