“Hungary is no model for the American Right,” declared David French in his column in the Vichy Conservative publication The Dispatch last week. While very few people, excepting David French, would even try to argue that he—the man who called drag queen story hours a “blessing of liberty” and more recently tried to advance a “conservative case” for teaching public schoolchildren that they are racists—would know what a good model for just about anything is, he touched a nerve among his confederates.
A number of real and far more popular conservatives—including Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, Tucker Carlson, and Dennis Prager, among others—have recently visited Hungary, a European parliamentary democracy, EU member state, and NATO ally governed since 2010 by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s center-right Fidesz Party. This has French’s hair on fire.
In a lengthy article, the Vichy French (pun intended) analysis proceeded with highly selective data trying to prove that Hungary—which had enjoyed nearly five percent annual GDP growth in each the six years prior to the pandemic, has increased its citizenship by about a million people since Orbán came into office, and has experienced one of the world’s greatest flowerings of cultural and intellectual life in the past decade—is in fact a miserable, benighted wasteland of horror and hypocrisy where no respectable person would ever want to be.
There is no indication that French has ever visited Hungary, but the idea that leading figures of an American political movement in which he no longer possesses even a crumb of influence or credibility feel affinity for that country clearly angers and frightens him.
Not to be outdone, the far-left Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum, an old neocon hand, was so affronted by Carlson’s one-week visit to Budapest, which culminated in a televised interview with Orbán, that she could not attribute his interest to anything less than the wicked desire of a “nihilist” to show “how much he despises the United States, its Constitution, and its heritage;” “annoy Americans and everybody else who believes in the ideals of America;” and, simply, “make people angry.” We can pause here to note that Applebaum’s previous Atlantic article offered an apparently serious argument that MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell “really could destroy democracy,” so her paranoid hysteria might not be Tucker- or Magyar-specific.
Heroically posting on Twitter, George W. Bush Administration alumnus David Frum piled on that Americans who admire Orbán really admire “plunder of the public for the benefit of a complicit few; suppression of media that report the plunder; racism and reactionary religion as cover for the gullible and/or hypocritical.” One could wonder what he thinks about Hunter Biden’s laptop and paintings, but in addition to being off limits in his current job at MSNBC, such musings might be overwhelmed by a subsequent post in which Frum claimed, based on one visit to Hungary in 2016, that people he encountered there feared for their jobs for expressing the wrong political opinions. For a man of such sensitivities, it is probably a good thing that he does not hold government, corporate, non-profit, or academic employment in the United States, where polls indicate that nearly half the population employed in the white-collar professions actually do have that fear.
Sometime neocon fellow traveler Matthew Yglesias also pronounced on the issue, sententiously declaring that “Hungarian nationalism is not the answer” and ominously suggesting that American “reactionaries” are so twisted and cynical that they have “turned against the country” and “might want to import dictatorial methods to the United States.” Yglesias admits to having little knowledge of anything bad that people say might be happening in Hungary, but still compliantly chimed in on why he believes American liberal democracy is better than Hungarian conservatism.
On the surface, the Vichycons’ ire is perplexing. Just as they angrily denounced Orbán’s government, they also denigrated Hungary as a backwater, a “second-rate” and “rinky-dink” country, as Yglesias called it, boasting a population of just under ten million and living in the landlocked shadow of faded Habsburg imperial grandeur. The Vichycons have long since given up on political pragmatism, but assuming for a moment that they could muster even a modest figment of strategic thought, would a physical, or even just spiritual, exodus of red-meat American conservatives to Budapest not be a welcome development for them, depleting, as it would, the ranks of their main opponents in today’s media?
This paradox raises a question that no one has yet answered—though New York Times token conservative columnist Ross Douthat came close in a thoughtful if inconclusive op-ed on the subject. If Hungary is, in fact, so very small and unimportant, why are his disoriented colleagues so exercised by it? Would it not be better simply to ignore or dismiss right-wing engagement with that country as a bizarre flight of fancy, much as the American Right long regarded leftist interest in equally small and arguably unimportant Scandinavian social democracies as a distraction so whimsical that it scarcely merited discussion?
Instead, the Vichycons write with a confusing mixture of fear and fury, as though World War II-era quasi-Nazi Arrow Cross militants were deployed out on the Pannonian plain training American agents in the service of some kind of Fascist International to be saboteurs of a neoliberal world order so self-evidently good and precious that anyone who would even slightly disagree with any of its tenets must be some kind of dangerous subversive.
Lest this mirror image of pernicious Soviet propaganda efforts sound like an exaggeration, it is hardly a coincidence that Frum meretriciously compared those on the American Right who have recently visited Hungary—a democratic ally of more than two decades—to “Western intellectuals who toured and gushed over Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s PRC, Castro’s Cuba,” while Applebaum scolded her audience of Atlantic-reading wine moms with a similarly accusatory comparison to “intellectuals and journalists who were disgusted by capitalism and democratic politics, and who believed the Soviet Union’s lies about its own prosperity.” “Orban’s visitors” she intoned to those still awake after reaching the end of her article in bed over yet another bottle of Sancerre, “serve the same end as Stalin’s.”
Therein lies the answer. Vichy conservatives are well aware that their status is the contingent product of a Faustian compromise. As long as they concede unquestioned social, cultural, and ideological hegemony to the progressive Left, their jobs, careers, board memberships, expense accounts, and blue state social lives are safe. Like Vichy accommodationists, they even enjoy some space to dissent on policy issues that matter to them provided they accept the dominant party’s leading role in the prevailing new order and lose graciously on demand. Unlike conservatives who resist, they will never be harassed at home or in public, doxxed on social media, targeted by hit pieces in mainstream publications, or place their livelihoods at risk—all without ever having to list their pronouns in their Twitter profiles or submit to any of the other litmus-test indignities that leftist intellectuals must suffer to climb the ladder.
In a paradox that not all Vichycons may grasp, they also closely resemble the thin sliver of non-communist intelligentsia types who survived in Cold War Central Europe, able to practice their professions amid a nominally hostile larger group provided they mouth the right shibboleths in favor of “social progress” or “world peace” or whatever other mantra necessary to qualify as “one of the good ones.”
Perhaps worst of all for the Vichy conservatives, they must reconcile themselves to the reality that populist nationalism—centered on the patriotism, pro-growth economic policies, traditional social and cultural values, and national pride—was not merely a fluke of American politics in 2016, but a broader international trend that they could neither foresee nor successfully combat.
With a reinforced pro-Trump Republican sweep looming in the 2022 midterms, the near-total elimination of anti-Trump Republicans from national politics (likely in the coming months), and a real contest for the presidency in 2024 on the horizon, the idea that they might be as wrong about America as they have been about Hungary can only terrify them. They face the prospect of being even less relevant to the Right and more vulnerable to the Left than they already are. And with Orbán’s muscular example flourishing on the Blue Danube, they are clearly aware that “it can happen here.”