What the American Right Can Learn from Orbán’s Big Win

Viktor Orbán has crushed the Left, again. 

The Hungarian leader won his fourth consecutive term in office on Sunday, defying pollsters who had predicted a competitive race and delivering a crushing blow to the “united” Hungarian opposition, a dog’s breakfast coalition of six parties ranging from the Greens to a former far-right party with neo-Nazi associations, which he defeated by a 53-35 percent margin. In total, right-wing parties captured approximately 60 percent of the vote compared to about 36 percent for left-wing parties. 

For some Americans it may seem strange that so many on the American Right are paying attention to the political developments in a country less than a quarter the size of my home state of Montana and with a population of just 10 million. This confusion, however, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategic importance of Hungary to the post-liberal Right, an importance to which I can personally testify, having recently concluded a five-week research trip to Hungary in the run-up to the election. 

During my time as a visiting fellow at the Danube Institute, a Hungarian think tank, I had the opportunity to interact with a number of Hungarian political leaders including the prime minister, and to discover what is certainly the world’s most important and most controversial experiment in Christian Democracy.

Simply put, Orbán offers the most prominent example in the world of a conservative politician who has unapologetically and effectively used the state for right-wing ends, something that the American Right has been almost wholly ineffective at accomplishing, and is often unsure it even wants to try. 

While much of the GOP establishment (and establishment think tanks) talk airily of our high principles, the Left has run roughshod over us, subjecting traditionalist Americans to indignities that could never even have been imagined by our forefathers. If we are being brutally honest, we could not have imagined these indignities ourselves just 10 or 20 years ago.

As a result of his success, the Left and our left-wing media brands Orbán a “strongman” a “dictator” and an “authoritarian,” though Hungary regularly conducts free elections and Orbán is subject to scathing criticisms in many press outlets freely available in Hungary. The lists of the so-called abuses by Orbán from the Left are amusing because, for the most part, they amount to left-wing frustrations with being unable to achieve the things they have carried out so effectively elsewhere. 

Yes, public universities in Hungary have turned to the right ideologically, helped by substantial funding from the Hungarian state. Of course, these Hungarian universities are nowhere near as uniformly right-wing as American universities are uniformly left-wing. Ditto with public media—uniformly left-wing here and now heavily right-wing in Hungary. Aggressive state sponsorship of the arts, with an emphasis on traditional forms and works has restored ideological balance even in that realm, while leading to an artistic renaissance—much to the fury of the uniformly left-wing international arts establishment. 

Yet while Hungary celebrates its traditional high and folk cultures, one can easily find plenty of dissident artistic voices and left-wing performances in Hungary. (During my time there I saw an avant-garde play in the Hungarian National Theater that was as shocking as anything you would have seen in a New York black box theater.)

Essentially, what Orbán has accomplished is a restoration of balance to Hungarian cultural and intellectual institutions. For a Left that is used to unchallenged domination of those commanding heights, any competition or balance feels like disinheritance.

Even more infuriating for the Left, all of their carefully rehearsed excuses for their defeat—legal (and not particularly effective) gerrymandering, discarded ballots, a biased media environment—were swept aside by the size of the Fidesz mandate. Indeed, the party even expanded on the two-thirds parliamentary majority it achieved in the 2018 elections. The rout was so substantial that opposition leader Péter Márki-Zay lost by a double-digit percentage among his own constituency. 

Demographer Lyman Stone, no fan of Orbán, observed in the wake of the election that “the more liberal countries of the west [that] just cannot fathom that Orbán might win because Fidesz enacts policies Hungarians like is something to behold.” 

Beyond the general significance of his victory, there were several notable aspects of Orbán’s win from which the American Right could learn. 

First it was very broad-based—in great contrast with today’s GOP, which can rarely play effectively in urban and more affluent areas. Orbán lost the capital city of Budapest to the opposition by just 47 to 41.5 percent. While on a relative basis, urban areas are certainly the stronghold of the Left, even here Orbán and Fidesz had a major presence. Outside of the capital, the opposition took just two of 90 electoral constituencies, both with less than 50 percent, while Fidesz secured absolute majorities of votes (often overwhelmingly) in almost every other seat.

Second, Orbán ran and won on an explicitly realist foreign policy that refuses to fall prey to the Ukraine mania that has afflicted so many other right-wing politicians in the West. Despite the fact that Hungary has welcomed 140,000 Ukrainian refugees, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had explicitly attacked Orbán for failing to go all-in with the most aggressive sanctions and military assistance to the Ukrainians. Orbán, in contrast, has counseled what he calls “strategic patience,” and accused his opposition of attempting to foment war with reckless rhetoric. Hungary has a long history with Russia, most notoriously a 1956 invasion by the Soviets that crushed democratizing forces. Orbán seems to have won heavily on the Ukraine issue, with voters appreciating his singular focus on Hungarian interests over and above the airy and simplified pieties of many U.S. and Western European leaders.

Third, Orbán represents a victory for the real Right over the pseudo-Right—the latter being the form of the Right most often sold to American voters. It is indicative of how much Orbán has shaped Hungary’s broader political debate that the candidate chosen by the opposition was an “independent” mayor of a provincial Hungarian city, a self-described Christian conservative father of seven who describes himself as a frustrated former Fidesz voter. Yet voters rejected him decisively, ultimately seeing him as a puppet of the Hungarian socialists (many former Communists) and international forces, including the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Fourth, Orbán unashamedly focused on delivering for his voters, overwhelmingly Hungary’s middle-class families and small-town denizens. Hungary’s pro-family policy is almost certainly the most aggressive of any advanced economy in at least a half-century, providing continuous benefits for Hungarian families far beyond those even contemplated in the United States. Family has been at the center of Orbán’s public policy efforts—not just talking a big game about social conservatism, but actually delivering it. 

Further, a proposed child protection law appeared on the ballot at the same time as the parliamentary election, helping to drive more conservative voters to the polls. This proposed law, which has played out almost identically to Florida’s Parental Rights Education Bill in the United States, caused a firestorm of criticism and threats from Brussels—showing that the right to promote sodomy and transgenderism is more important to many European leaders than the Democratic rights of Hungarian voters to protect their children from adult-oriented content.

As a friend (one of America’s most noted conservative intellectuals) wrote to me in the wake of Orbán’s win,  “They [the global Left] are apparently terrified that if just one dissenter is allowed to stand, their whole edifice . . . will come tumbling down.” 

In sum, Orbán won overwhelmingly with a campaign and record that was conservative, nationalist, anti-immigration, pro-traditional family, and firmly against military intervention in Ukraine. There is a lesson there for the GOP, should they be inclined to learn it. 

In his victory speech, Orbán thanked domestic and international allies with a seeming awareness that the significance of his victory goes far beyond Hungary. “It’s not just our victory,” Orbán said, adding that “Christian democracy is not the past, it’s the future.”

In addition to taking a shot at Zelenskyy, who had foolishly insulted Orbán, mistaking the chatter of the New York Times newsroom for the voice of Hungarian voters, Orbán singled out the domestic and international Left, including the left-wing media, and Brussels bureaucrats, currently punishing Hungary for it’s recalcitrance. 

None of this, of course, is meant to gloss over real problems with Fidesz or in Hungary, ranging from persistent petty corruption to occasionally ineffective and scattershot policymaking. But overall, as I wrote before the election, Fidesz’s and Orban’s weaknesses are relatively mundane in comparison with their strengths, which are truly unusual and extraordinary. And it is for these strengths, not the occasional petty weakness, that they are hated by the international Left. 

In a celebratory post-election tweet, Balázs Orbán (no relation), the prime minister’s extremely sharp and thoughtful chief political strategist, tweeted out exuberantly: “God above us all, Hungary before all else!”

Substitute “USA” for “Hungary” and you have a powerful vision to animate the American Right in the future.

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About Jeremy Carl

Jeremy Carl is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. He served as deputy assistant secretary of the interior under President Trump and lives with his family in Montana. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeremycarl4.

Photo: Janos Kummer/Getty Images