The April 8 re-election victory of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party was seen by many Europeans and Americans, including some conservatives, as an ominous sign, given Orbán’s dismantling of institutional limits on his power such as an independent judiciary and free press. In contrast, some U.S. Religious Right leaders celebrated Orbán’s victory as “a beam of hope for Western Christian Civilization” and called him a defender of Hungary’s Christian identity.
Orbán has positioned his opposition to Muslim immigration as a way to defend Europe’s Christian heritage. In December, he declared, “We must defend Christian culture.” At the time, anti-LGBTQ leader Brian Brown gushed over what he called Orbán’s “extraordinary essay on Christian culture, Christmas and the essence of Europe as a Christian continent.”
Orbán’s aggressive actions to consolidate his power have reportedly led some EU leaders to call him “The Viktator.” Orbán himself declared back in 2014, “‘Checks and balances’ is a U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics.” In 2015 author Colin Woodard warned about Orbán’s “dictatorial tendencies.” Freedom House calls Orbán’s Hungary the “least democratic country” in the EU. The New York Times reported that thousands of people took to the streets in Budapest to protest his victory. “Democracy is just inconceivable without the rule of law and free media,” said one protester.
But Brown and his colleague Allan Carlson at the International Organization for the Family and World Congress of Families called Orbán’s April triumph a victory for “true liberty” and “a victory for friends of the Natural Family around the globe.”
As we have noted before, many Religious Right leaders are happy to overlook a regime’s attacks on freedom of speech, press and religion as long as the government promotes policies that align with “traditional” Religious Right views on abortion, marriage, and sexuality. In their open letter of congratulations to Orbán, for example, Brown and Carlson praise Fidesz’s “exemplary” commitments to “the promotion of natural marriage” and “the protection of children from sexual radicals.”
That’s why so many U.S. Religious Right groups have fawned over Russia’s Vladimir Putin even as he restricts the rights of religious minorities. But Orbán’s case may be even more troubling because Hungary is a member of the EU. The Guardian’s Jennifer Rankin called his victory “a profound challenge for the European Union.”
Orbán won re-election with his party winning a big enough majority in parliament that it can essentially do more rewriting of the country’s constitution. Orbán had threatened “moral, legal and political recourse” against his opponents, and shortly after the election a pro-government magazine denounced 200 Orbán critics, including journalists and civil society advocates, as anti-government “mercenaries.” A further crackdown on civil society is expected to top the government’s agenda in May.
In April, a group of academics, writers and activists signed an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling for stronger action against Orbán:
Since he was elected prime minister in 2010, Viktor Orbán has turned public broadcasting stations into propaganda outlets, forced the sale of private stations into the hands of his political allies and taken effective control over the most important courts in the land.
He has also massively impeded the work of the country’s NGOs and independent academic institutions, stuffed the country’s electoral commission with his own cronies and rewritten electoral rules to favor his political party, Fidesz. As a result, leading experts believe that the recent elections in Hungary were less than free and hardly fair.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian government has, over the past months, repeatedly fanned the flames of anti-Semitism. Orbán has used public funds for a mass propaganda campaign that suggested that a Jewish banker is the puppetmaster behind an international conspiracy to destroy Hungary’s Christian culture.
Religious Right leaders from the U.S. and around the world have lavished praise on Orbán’s government, which hosted the World Congress of Families’ global summit in 2017. WCF called Orbán “the hero of pro-family and pro-life leaders.” Brown’s colleague E. Douglas Clark wrote at the time, “Hungary’s heroes are lighting the way for the rest of the world as they protect and strengthen the family, the foundation of their nation and all nations everywhere.” A year before, WCF ally Luca Volontè wrote for Public Discourse, “Hungary has seen a refreshing return to traditional values.”
Peter Sprigg and Travis Weber from the Family Research Council, who were also in Budapest for the World Congress of Families Summit, noted approvingly that the location “was partially chosen because of the pro-family policies of the country’s current Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government helped organize the World Congress.” FRC wrote about Hungarian evangelicals, “Like us, in addition to working against secular cultural forces, they have to contend with those like George Soros—who is of Hungarian ancestry and continues to push his destructive notions of sexuality through Gender Studies degrees at his Central European University in Budapest.”
A 2017 petition on CitizenGo, a right-wing social media platform on whose board of trustees Brian Brown sits, urges European governments to follow Hungary’s lead and “sweep out” non-governmental organizations funded by Soros’ Open Society Foundation.
Among those on the U.S. right celebrating Orbán’s most recent victory was Breitbart, which celebrated Orbán’s win as a defeat for globalists, bureaucrats and George Soros. The Washington Times editorialized on April 17 against the “unelected Eurocrats” and their “politically correct positions.” At National Review, Jack Fowler hailed Orbán’s “Euroweenie-shocking sweep” and said Orbán “can now claim to have the moral and democratic authority of the Hungarian people and others behind his quest.”
In contrast, Yascha Mounk, a senior fellow at New America, called the election “a milestone in the decline of democracy,” saying that Hungary’s trajectory has disproven many political scientists who believed that democracy was “safe” once a country has experienced a few peaceful transfers of power and achieved a measure of economic stability. Mounk writes that too many observers have interpreted the election as conferring democratic legitimacy on Orbán’s regime when in reality Orbán has turned Hungary from a liberal democracy into an illiberal democracy and now “it is effectively a dictatorship with a thin electoral veneer.” Making Mounk’s point at National Review, John O’Sullivan said the size of the victory (just under 50 percent of the vote in multi-party election) “more or less destroys the arguments of his opponents and critics that his governing Fidesz party could win only through authoritarianism, gerrymandering, and the dominance of the media by Fidesz and its business allies.”
Mounk warns that “Orbán’s anti-Semitism is already finding eager imitators in Western Europe.” Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan picked up on Mounk’s theme in a New York magazine article titled “A Democracy Disappears.”
James Kirchick, a conservative who supported Hillary Clinton over Trump, wrote about the Orbán government’s Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation in his book The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. Kirchick writes that the monument is an example of Hungary manipulating its history for political purposes. “This distortion of history obscures both the specifically anti-Jewish nature of the Holocaust and the Hungarian state’s active collaboration in mass murder.” Orbán, in defending the memorial, said that the victims of the Nazi occupation, “whether Orthodox, Christian, or without faith, became the victims of a dictatorship that embodied an anti-Christian school of thought.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Orbán was an early supporter of Trump. For his part, Trump admires strongmen like Putin and Orbán. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright notes in her warning about the rise of authoritarianism and fascism, “Mr. Trump appears to like bullies, and they are delighted to have him represent the American brand.”
Among those admiring Orbán’s moves are populist leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic. Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini slammed the EU for considering some kind of punishment for Hungary after the election.