The Viktor Orban Effect: Why US Conservatives Love Hungary

The Viktor Orban Effect: Why US Conservatives Love Hungary

The Catholic Church in Poland is a more widely popular and legitimate institution, because of the role it played in resisting communism. This winter, in Krakow, I met the philosopher Ryszard Legutko, a former anti-communist dissident who became increasingly disenchanted with liberal democracy in the 1990s, in a way that enlightened skeptics of liberalism. His 2016 book, “The Demon in Democracy,” has become a canonical text for post-liberal conservatives. Legutko, 71, has argued that Democrats can behave just like communists. While admitting that liberal democracy is superior to communism, he nevertheless argues that certain features of communist ideology—the belief that it will eventually triumph worldwide, that it is the apotheosis of human nature, that it is the pinnacle of history represents – are true for liberal democracy as well. Both, he says, are totalizing ideologies: there is nothing “natural” about individual rights, “no such thing as a person wearing rights,” Legutko told me.

Legutko is a member of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and was elected to the European Parliament, where he sits on the Committee on Culture and Education. On the wall of the drawing room in his pied-à-terre hung a painting of the Polish cavalry who repulsed the Red Army in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet war. Through the window, the colors of the Polish landscape were so subdued that the city looked like a sepia photograph. “A few decades ago there was a theory that the era of ideology is over, that in a liberal democracy we only solve problems, nobody is interested in big ideas,” Legutko told me. “They couldn’t be more wrong than that. We are prisoners of certain intellectual patterns.”

What Marxists and liberals had in common, he continued, was “this idea of ​​the progress of history, you can’t go back, you made the omelette, so the eggs aren’t there anymore.” After the end of communism in 1989, the Polish economy was quickly liberalized through privatizations and foreign investment, and a push for Poland to join the EU brought social reforms with it. “They said to us, ‘Okay, the old regime is gone and now we live in freedom,'” Legutko said. “Now that you live in freedom, you must do this, you must do that. Come on. If it’s freedom, should we do it? We don’t have to do it.” According to Legutko, liberal democracy would not tolerate the family, the church and other non-liberal institutions that Poland was trying to preserve.

Referring to America’s cultural struggles, Legutko says attempts to change traditional views on gender lead to “social engineering.” I have pointed out that arguments about nomenclature are a matter of struggle against derogatory language and the derogatory treatment that results. “But you can insult Catholics in Poland and the judge will say: that is an individual opinion or artistic achievement,” he said. It wasn’t necessarily about hate, he argued, but about power. “You say something about gay activists, and you are immediately punished, because that is hate speech.” Mastery of the language, Legutko emphasized, was another similarity between liberal democracy and communism. “Language is dictated to you by the powers that be, and if you don’t conform, you’re punished.” Legutko’s party has attempted to pass a law that would fine tech companies for regulating any speech that is not strictly illegal (even if the party has exercised control over how to describe Poland’s involvement in the Holocaust), a measure in which American conservatives have aroused great interest.

“My friends from the United States, they see here a country where conservatives are not cornered,” Legutko said. “We won the elections, we have the institutions and that is why we are considered illegitimate by this liberal machine.” The problem for the modern mind, he continued, was that there were no alternatives. “So if we succeed in making Poland the country where there is an alternative, that would be something,” Legutko said. “We are almost an extinct species. The world would be lost without us.”

During the summer, the United States got a taste of what the implementation of such ideas might look like on this side of the Atlantic. The introduction of bills in state legislatures to control or ban the public school education of what conservatives describe as critical race theory was probably the first attempt by post-liberals to use state power in cultural regulation. Christopher Rufo, one of the key activists behind the effort (his ideas were spread during Tucker Carlson’s show), told The New Yorker that the goal of his movement was to “create rival centers of power” within government agencies. In a debate with conservative writer and lawyer David French, Rufo challenged the “strain of naive libertarianism that says that any meddling with the state accepts a state ideology, and so we must unilaterally renounce any authority or any guidance or any form of state institutions.”

In electoral politics, the post-liberal influence is reflected in JD Vance, the author of the bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, who is a distant second, though gaining ground, in the Ohio primaries for the Republican Senate nomination. Vance is a close friend of Dreher’s and is enthusiastically supported by Tucker Carlson, who called Vance one of the very rare figures to “run because they really believe something,” a comment that seems to ignore the total turnaround in Vance’s politics, from from a formerly mild-mannered anti-Trump moderate, to a hard-swinging cultural warrior blasting beyond the boundaries he once embraced. Vance also converted to Catholicism in 2019—Dreher attended his church reception—because, he has said, he found “Catholicism was true.” Vance punctuated his speech with terms from the post-liberal lexicon of the right. On Carlson’s show, he argued that conservatives should “seize the assets of the Ford Foundation” and redistribute them among people whose lives had been devastated by the “radical open borders agenda,” a very Orban-esque, if not very American-sounding, proposal.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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