Archive for category: Hungary
Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) Feszt on August 7, 2021, in Esztergom, Hungary. The multiday political event was organized by MCC, a privately managed foundation that recently received more than $1.7 billion in government money and assets. The leader of its main board, Balazs Orban, who is also a state secretary in the prime minister’s office, said MCC’s priority is promoting “patriotism” among the next generation of Hungary’s leaders. | Janos Kummer/Getty Images
Fox Nation’s “Hungary vs. Soros” is an appalling example of the mainstream right’s embrace of views from the fringe.
The film opens with soaring music, footage of white children laughing and playing, beautiful vistas of classical European architecture. Fifteen seconds in, the music turns dark. We see images of dark-skinned youth, chaos, and blood. Then there’s a foreboding black-and-white shot of a man in profile, hunched at a desk, the curvature of his nose prominent in silhouette.
He’s the one responsible for all of this, the brown assault on white tranquility. Europe, we are told, is this predator’s “main hunting area.”
This is the beginning of Tucker Carlson’s new “documentary” for Fox Nation, the right-wing media giant’s streaming service. It is titled Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization, and it purports to tell the story of how a plucky little democracy in Central Europe has carved out a conservative model in the face of a relentless assault by the forces of global liberalism personified by George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier.
The story is a lie. Hungary is nominally a democracy but it has made a turn toward authoritarianism in the last decade; Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has painted Soros as a scapegoat whose allegedly nefarious influence justifies Orbán’s anti-democratic moves. The documentary amplifies this propaganda, treating the Jewish philanthropist as the spider at the center of a global web of conspiracy.
“It’s appalling to see Tucker Carlson & Fox invoke the kind of anti-Semitic tropes typically found in white supremacist media,” writes Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (an anti-hate group). “There’s no excuse for this kind of fearmongering, especially in light of intensifying anti-Semitism.”
Neither anti-immigrant demagoguery nor whitewashing Hungary’s descent into autocracy is new for Carlson. What’s striking about the report — part of a series dubbed “Tucker Carlson Originals” — is how it uses conspiratorial, bigoted ideas previously consigned to the far-right fringe to make the explicit case that the American government should emulate an authoritarian regime.
In recent years, anti-Semitism has become more visible on the right in both its mainstream and fringe incarnations. We saw the deadliest attack on Jews in American history in Pittsburgh; Charlottesville, Virginia, marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us”; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-GA) Jewish space lasers; and President Trump’s anti-Semitic comments of both the overt and coded varieties. Carlson’s attack on Soros is certainly not new but this latest iteration is notable all the same — yet another signpost on the American right’s path to mainstreaming what used to be unacceptably extreme.
The hateful heart of Hungary vs. Soros
Carlson’s short documentary is divided into two parts. The first half focuses on Hungary and the 2015 refugee crisis, arguing that Budapest alone has stood up against a Soros plot to open Europe’s borders to migrants. The second half focuses on the Orbán government’s family policies, arguing that its passage of tax incentives to encourage citizens to have more children have turned around the country’s declining birth rate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
A migrant family prepares to board a train leaving for the Austrian border at the Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 10, 2015. At the time, migrants who arrived in Budapest overnight would gather in large numbers in the morning at the railway station as they tried to be on the first trains leaving Budapest due to fears the borders would soon close.
The “fight for civilization” in the film’s title is thus positioned as a demographic one. Carlson argues that migration to Hungary is akin to an actual military invasion (which Hungary has experienced many times in its history). These migrants, enabled by Soros through his support of civil society groups who advocate for their rights, are effectively trying to colonize Hungary and replace its population with their babies, the documentary argues.
“Unlike the threats from the Soviets and the Ottoman Empire, the threat posed by George Soros and his nonprofit organizations is much more subtle and hard to detect,” Carlson says. The country’s government is fighting back against Soros and his hordes by closing the border and providing financial support to native-born (read: white) couples to have more babies.
This isn’t purely Carlson’s invention, but a product of what the Hungarian leadership told him. In the documentary, Orbán tells Carlson that “we would not like to leave this country to the migrants, we would like to leave it to our grandchildren.” Hungary Family Minister Katalin Novák is similarly blunt: “We don’t think we need to import children in order to overcome our demographic difficulties.”
In reality, Hungary has a very small foreign-born population. Even during the peak of the 2015 migration crisis, most sought to pass through to other European Union countries. And the data on the effects of Orbán’s natalist policy is mixed at best.
But it’s not the argument it makes about Orbán’s policy that defines the documentary. It’s how it makes that argument. A recurring visual motif is a contrast between chaotic, scary footage of non-white migrants and tranquil images of happy, white families.
At one point, Carlson follows Hungarian authorities as they apprehend two migrants attempting to cross the border. The two young men, self-described Syrians who appear to be in their late teens or early 20s, are put up against a metal fence and photographed, as if in a mugshot.
An unnamed migrant being processed by Hungarian border authorities shown on screen during Carlson’s documentary.
It’s a dehumanizing spectacle, the humiliation of two desperate people seeking a better life, but the viewer is supposed to cheer. Just a few minutes later, the film cuts to domestic scenes of white Hungarian families shopping for cars and playing ping-pong. That, the documentary suggests, is who the border officers were protecting.
How Carlson’s film mainstreams the anti-Semitic extreme
An obsession with demographics and children has been a hallmark of far-right rhetoric for decades. The “14 Words,” perhaps the most famous neo-Nazi slogan in America today, goes as such: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Swap in “Hungarian” for “white” and it’s virtually identical to Orbán’s and Carlson’s rhetoric in the film.
The Fox host has explicitly borrowed from the far right in this area in the past. He has repeatedly used the term “Great Replacement” on-air, a term associated with the anti-immigrant fringe, as part of an argument that Democrats are using immigration policy to conduct “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries,” as Carlson once put it.
Carlson has repeatedly dismissed allegations of racism and anti-Semitism from watchdog groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which has publicly called on Fox to fire him in response to his inflammatory remarks. The Hungary documentary represents yet another escalation in insidious rhetoric.
A Jewish financier and Holocaust survivor who funds progressive and pro-democracy causes around the world, Soros has long been the target of right-wing conspiracy theories. Carlson’s film taps into that narrative and amps it up. Early on, he accuses Soros of plots to ”oust democratically elected leaders” and “install ideologically aligned puppets” in their place. In Carlson’s telling, European leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron decided to admit refugees in 2015 because of Soros.
“In 2015, Soros got to play a role in transforming the continent of Europe,” Carlson intones. “Soros lobbied European leaders directly to get them to open their borders to impoverished people from around the world, and they did.” He points to “leaked documents” showing a $600,000 investment in pro-refugee public advocacy by an unspecified Soros-backed organization as evidence. (It is evidence — that Soros invests in pro-refugee public advocacy.)
It’s the imagery that gives away the game. Soros, shown repeatedly in stark black-and-white, is painted as that most hoary of villains — the Jewish financier pulling the strings attached to the world’s leaders.
Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images
People walk off a tram in Budapest, Hungary, next to a billboard with portraits of then-European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born financier George Soros on February 22, 2019. The billboard, which sports a slogan reading “You too have a right to know what Brussels is preparing,” was erected as part of an anti-immigration media campaign prior to the European parliamentary election.
“Obviously, Soros funds a lot of NGOs across the globe and in Hungary,” says Cas Mudde, an expert on European right-wing politics at the University of Georgia. “However, [Carlson’s] suggestion that he has ‘installed’ politicians who are ‘puppets’ is not just factually wrong but also is very much in line with classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
In particular, Mudde notes the connection to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous 20th-century Russian forgery that claims a Jewish conspiracy is manipulating Europe’s leaders. A more contemporary parallel is a set of comments made by the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who killed 11 people and cited the work of the Jewish refugee charity HIAS as his motivation for committing the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in American history.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the shooter wrote on the social media platform Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
Anti-Semitism and beyond
Carlson is fully aware that he’s playing with fire. Early in the documentary, he preempts the anti-Semitism charge and instructs his viewers to dismiss such accusations as a liberal media smear — suggesting that, because Soros has been critical of the Israeli government, he somehow cannot be the target of anti-Semitism. (A Fox spokesperson did not respond to my request for comment.)
“The media dutifully pushed George Soros’s agenda on immigration and culture, while at the same time defending him from all criticism,” he says. “They claim any attack on George Soros is anti-Semitic; Soros himself is an opponent of Israel.”
The move here is to use images and phrases that evoke racist and anti-Semitic ideas without explicitly blaming minorities or Jews. So long as you avoid explicitly bigoted statements, you can blame any criticism on the overly sensitive wokesters in the liberal media, a maneuver he performed in response to criticism of his documentary during his Thursday night show.
Carlson takes a similar tack when it comes to Hungary’s democratic decline. Forget the fact that Orbán and his Fidesz party have cultivated a corrupt, pliant class of political elites and seized control of 90 percent of the country’s media outlets — the documentary suggests that criticism of the Hungarian government is a function of the left’s jealousy.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the Budapest Demographic Summit IV in Budapest, Hungary, on September 23, 2021.
“The Western liberals cannot accept that, inside of Western civilization, there is a conservative national alternative which is more successful,” Orbán tells an approving Carlson. (Trump has fully embraced Orbán in his post-presidency, endorsing the prime minister in his 2022 reelection bid.)
Mudde terms the documentary “classic ‘national conservative’ propaganda,” referring to an intellectual movement that has sprung up since the Trump victory in 2016 to put ideological meat on Trumpism’s bones. These national conservatives generally take the view that Orbán’s mix of anti-immigrant hostility and pro-family policies are a model to be emulated in America. Like Carlson, they tend to dismiss and downplay the evidence of his authoritarianism.
And also like Carlson, they tend to get in trouble for flirtations with outright bigotry. At the 2019 National Conservatism Conference, University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Wax made headlines by claiming the United States should adopt an immigration policy shaped by an understanding that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” Yoram Hazony, the Israeli intellectual who convened the conference, defended Wax — writing that she merely “advocated an immigration policy that favors immigrants with cultural affinities to the U.S.” (This month, Wax started another firestorm by writing that “the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.”)
Carlson, of course, is far more influential than Wax. There is an argument that his obvious provocations should be ignored — that Carlson feeds on outrage from liberals and the mainstream media. There may be something to that, but it’s a sentiment that assumes that Carlson’s brand of far-right politics is not self-sustaining.
But one thing we keep learning and re-learning about America is that there is a real constituency for this sort of thing. And that is something worth worrying about.
Over the last decade, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party have transformed a democracy into something close to an autocracy. Shortly after his first reelection in 2014, Orbán gave a speech outlining his political project. Citing globalization’s economic and social failures, Orbán defended the course he had set by noting that those nations best prepared for the future were, “not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.” Drawing on that message, he defined a form of regime change. “The Hungarian,” he said, “is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”
Hungary had to be anchored in a sense of nationalism, Orbán believed, and that nationalism required an autocratic hand, and that hand belonged only to him and Fidesz. The identity of the Hungarian nation and Viktor Orbán’s politics would be one and the same.
Orbán had spent years softening up his nation for this turn. In his first term, he systematically worked to remold Hungary’s democratic institutions. Parliamentary districts were redrawn to benefit Fidesz. Ethnic Hungarians outside the country were given the right to vote. The courts were methodically packed with right-wing judges. Fidesz’s cronies were enriched and, in turn, members of the business elite funded Orbán’s politics. The government constructed a massive propaganda machine, as independent media was bullied and bought out and right-wing media was transformed into quasi state-media. Whereas Fidesz once had a foreign policy formed in opposition to Russian dominance, Orbán embraced Vladimir Putin and courted Russian investment and the corruption that went along with it.
In the United States, the Republican Party has plowed similar ground for a decade. The grievances of the 2008 financial crisis were marshalled into the Tea Party, a right-wing populist movement that offered a traditional form of belonging to largely white and Christian voters. Republican office-holders have weaponized redistricting to protect themselves. Half of American states have put in place restrictive voting laws over the last decade. In post-Citizens United America, Republican policies have enriched an elite donor class that has spent billions on right-wing politics. Fox News serves as the lynchpin of a sprawling right-wing propaganda machine, which includes television, radio, websites, and social–media platforms. The GOP has focused methodically on the courts—from obstructing Obama appointees, to accelerating a transformation of the judiciary under Trump. And like Fidesz, the Republican Party has shifted from a foreign policy rooted in opposition to Russia, to a cynical mix of courtship and denialism with respect to Russian interference in our democracy.
In Hungary, to justify his efforts, Orbán has skillfully and relentlessly deployed a right-wing populism focused on the failings of liberal democracy and the allure of an older national story: Christian identity, national sovereignty, distrust of international institutions, opposition to immigration, and contempt for politically correct liberal elites. Smash the status quo. Make the masses feel powerful by responding to their grievances. Sandor Lederer, a Hungarian anti-corruption activist who runs an NGO called K-Monitor, summed up this simple us-versus-them frame: “We’ve got to protect Hungarians against this dot or that dot, and you can fill out this project with new topics”—globalist multinational corporations, Muslims, migrants, European Union bureaucrats, the liberal media, and George Soros.
Similarly, in the United States, Donald Trump provided the illiberal, nationalist bow that tied his party’s efforts together and consolidated an authoritarian direction. Like Orbán, he melds grievances with a rotating cast of villains in a form of ethno-nationalist us-versus-them politics. But the occasionally buffoonish nature of these fights should not obscure what is happening behind the Twitter tirades. In line with Steve Bannon’s commitment after Trump took office, this administration has pursued the “deconstruction of the administrative state” coupled with a disregard for democratic norms, as loyalists are promoted, Trump allies are pardoned, domestic spending is redirected over congressional objection, foreign governments are pressured to investigate Trump’s political opponents, inspectors general are purged, ethics rules are flouted, and nearly any form of congressional oversight is resisted.
Most insidiously, under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Justice Department is being transformed into an extension of Trump’s political interests. This led to the spectacle of the Justice Department attempting to drop charges against former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, despite his pleading guilty to the crime of lying to the government, and the department going to extraordinary lengths to investigate its own clearly justified conduct in the Russia investigation. In the most ominous glimpse of where this can lead, Barr stood in Lafayette Park as peaceful protesters were dispersed by security forces for a photo opportunity, lending the imprimatur of the Justice Department to a violation of the most basic freedom in the Bill of Rights.
After his first reelection, Orbán’s focus on the persecution of his enemies intensified. Political opponents, civil society, and independent media have learned to live with various forms of harassment, from ceaseless disinformation to legal threats. Hungary completed a fence to keep migrants out. Conspiracy theories about Soros evolved into a campaign used to justify everything from onerous restrictions on civil society to sham investigations. Corruption mushroomed and became a backdrop of Hungary’s government spending. Hungary’s historical sins—including complicity in the Holocaust—were whitewashed, as everything from prominent statues to revised curricula rooted Hungary’s future in right-wing aspects of its past.
The structural changes to Hungary’s democracy enabled this: Orbán was elected to a third term in 2018 with less than half the popular vote, yet he presides over all of Hungary’s levers of power like a colossus. If Trump is reelected, he, too, is almost certain to receive less than half of the popular vote. But as Trump casts aside democratic norms and campaigns on conspiracy theories, it’s clear that a second Trump term will leave America’s political system and culture looking even more like Hungary’s.
In February, I travelled to Budapest. One of the interesting things about Hungary’s capital city is that in many ways, it feels like the center of any other Western democracy—until you realize how much the combination of Fidesz’s structural advantage and Orbán’s populism shapes public life. There is still independent journalism, but it’s ghettoized into online sites that largely reach a cosmopolitan elite. As Szablocs Panyi, an investigative journalist, told me, Orbán can count on his propaganda machine reaching most Hungarians while constantly disparaging independent journalists. “You know,” he says, describing the playbook of delegitimizing objective reality, “there’s no facts, it’s just opinion, everything is partisan.” He says it’s a “psy-op” intended, “to try to shift our focus from our work to what they are saying about us.”
Civil society is similarly besieged. Marta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights organization, described a constant barrage of government laws that it has challenged in court, and Fidesz-friendly media attacking its work. Right-wing journalists have camped outside the Committee’s office and routinely disparage its work. The effort is meant to demoralize people, dissuading them from engaging in public life. The message that Orbán wants to get across, she said, is that “politics is risky, it’s dirty, it’s corrupt, so I should not associate myself with it.” That apathy is meant to cripple opposition.
Sandor Lederer sees a common thread between Orbán and Trump. “You just simply create a bigger scandal,” he said, “or bigger story to prevent people from talking about the real issues in the country, so you have a completely irrelevant, fake debate, about symbolically important things, but never about a sense of how you run a country or how your country is currently working.” This, Pardavi laments, is the emptiness that characterizes Orbán’s politics as he has sought to hold power. Instead of offering solutions to problems, “he starts weaponizing hate.” And all of that hate serves no real purpose. “I think the saddest and most alarming part of this is that this political system is built up so that Orbán would stay in power and Fidesz would be well funded,” he said. For all the talk of nationalism, Orbán’s real purpose is the pursuit of power.
A similar politics of hate and power could easily take root in a second Trump term. As with Orbán, we can expect all-encompassing conspiracy theories like the amorphous “Obamagate” to offer pretexts to hound and prosecute Trump’s political opponents, while a compliant Justice Department offers virtual immunity for selective Trump associates to engage in corruption. With legislative oversight ignored and executive branch self-policing silenced, the basic functions of government will become indistinguishable from Trump’s short-term political interests. Assuming Trump maintains the fealty of a Republican majority in the Senate, the courts will be further transformed in Trump’s image, removing any other meaningful check on his actions. With no reelection to consider, Trump will be unbound from accountability, with the most powerful institution in the history of the world—the United States government—at his fingertips. Meanwhile, manufactured polarization will continue to allow him to sustain the support of his followers while trying to demoralize his opponents. In a country already wrestling with the deep and open wounds of racism, our national fabric will continue to tear at the seams.
Concerns about democracy itself do not often animate voters. Instead, issues that cut closer to home—the state of the economy, access to health care, or issues related to social identity—are more often the focus of political campaigns. There is, of course, mounting evidence that Trump’s hostility to the competent functioning of government and preoccupation with his own political fortunes have exacerbated a crisis that threatens every Americans’ health and economic security. But more fundamentally, Americans should consider what they are validating if—given the evidence of four years—they choose to continue down a course that is hostile to the democratic norms and constitutional checks and balances that have been a secular religion in America for nearly 250 years; a course that welcomes the continued weaponization of hatred from the Oval Office in ways that threaten the social cohesion that a diverse democracy depends upon.
Orbán and Trump are part of the ascendance of authoritarian nationalists around the world—from Brazil to Russia to Turkey to India to China to the Philippines. Their success rests on an argument that Orbán made out loud after he was reelected—that globalization and liberal democracy have failed, and that a more traditional form of nationalism is required to make their countries great again. And looking at the span of history, it is not hard to argue that authoritarian nationalism—rather than liberal democracy—is actually the norm, while liberal democracy stands out more as a post-war exception. The horrors of World War II awakened the public to the dangers of authoritarian nationalism, and to the damage that it could do both to individual countries and to the relations between them. But now, on the precipice of a defining election at home and rising great-power conflict abroad, that lesson seems forgotten.
Bannon once called Orbán, “Trump before Trump.” A few weeks into the pandemic, Orbán granted himself near dictatorial powers, and he has since detained citizens for crimes as trivial as criticizing the government on Facebook. The United States is not approaching that level of autocracy—yet. But our democracy’s insurance policy is supposed to be the resilience of our democratic institutions, and there is ample daily evidence that they are now being molded into something different before our eyes—transformed from obstacles that could contain Trump’s impulses, into vehicles to punish his opponents. Meanwhile, things that were once unimaginable in American politics—say, the president of the United States regularly demanding that his opponents be jailed—barely raise an eyebrow. And Trump himself has not been shy about expressing his regard for autocrats, including Orbán. Last year, he welcomed him to the Oval Office, praised him for doing “a tremendous job in so many different ways,” while noting that he was, “like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay.”
Americans are not conditioned to think that our political system might be transformed, and Trump’s own incompetence offers false reassurance that there are limits to what he can do. But Trump’s authoritarian impulses have fit into the Republican Party’s illiberal tendencies like a plug into a socket, powering an authoritarian movement.
A few weeks ago, I emailed Lederer to see how he was doing after Orbán’s power grab. He took it in stride. “To be frank,” he wrote, “I’m more worried for the U.S. than for Hungary at the moment, horrifying news keeps coming every day. Please do share if you have any optimistic scenario for America.”
Orbán has shown that after winning an election, a leader and his party can dismantle democracy while offering the public a constant cocktail of nationalism and hatred. That, I fear, is what a second Trump term will yield—unless voters reject him in November. The optimistic scenario—for America, as well as Hungary—is if that augurs a broader backlash against a dangerous brand of politics that has failed in the current crisis and offers only a darker future.
Radical right governments are exploiting COVID-19 as an excuse to expand their power. There are few worse culprits than Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.
Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán – February 16, 2020. (Elekes Andor/Creative Commons)
In his televised 9 April Easter message, the Catholic Church’s spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Bucharest, Father Francisc Dobos, said that the disciples of Jesus ‘feared the Jews, and here in the bracket we should read: feared the virus.’ It is hardly surprising that anti-Semites have revived one of their favorite, oldest tropes: the association of Jews with disease, both as carriers of disease, deliberate infectors of other groups and, in the most extreme versions, Jews as a disease. As I have noted previously, this language shifts from metaphor to reality all too easily.
It is true that movements such as PEGIDA in Germany have embarrassed themselves by their response to the COVID crisis; as Sabine Volk shows, they remain fixated on migrants rather than safeguarding the people they supposedly represent. The same is true of right-wing populists in power. Hans-Georg Betz powerfully argues that the response of populist leaders, especially Trump, Johnson and, most notably, Bolsonaro, exposes the vacuous nature of the populists’ worldview.
That is quite true: Trump and Bolsonaro blaming the Chinese, with Trump referring to fears about the virus as a ‘hoax’; Johnson’s program of ‘getting Brexit done’ now looking irrelevant when it is obvious that the world faces a challenge that does not respect national borders and which demands international cooperation and a reliance on much-derided experts. Yet, whatever idiocy the coronavirus crisis has exposed in the populists’ slogans of national independence, anti-immigration, and disregard for science, the scope for entrenched and institutionalized right-wing populist parties to exploit the crisis remains strong. It is not the radical right movements which do not hold power that we should fear; it is the ‘mainstream’ which does that presents the real threat today.
In the US, Trump has already hinted at delaying the election this autumn. This is a highly unlikely scenario but provides cover for seemingly less extreme measures to slip through. Trump’s declaration, for example, that the president rather than the state governors has “total authority” to decide when lockdown measures will be eased, could have proved highly contentious, possibly even leading to legal action. Even if he performed a remarkable volte-face just one day later, to many Americans his assertion will not have seemed unreasonable. His position, however, represents an arrogation of power to the office of president that oversteps constitutional norms. No wonder commentators have been led to remark that the US has a president, not a king.
The most glaring case of opportunist authoritarianism, however, is Hungary. It has long been obvious that Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ was driving Hungary down the road to what Orbán calls ‘illiberal democracy’, with measures to close the Central European University on the specious grounds that it was not accredited in Hungary, and gradually restricting press and judicial freedoms.
The COVID-19 crisis has come at a useful moment for Orbán, when his party has suffered its first serious defeats in ten major cities. The rushed introduction of the new law, ‘On Protecting against the Coronavirus’, has been called ‘a brazen attempt to establish an undisguised dictatorship’ by the Hungarian Spectrum. In that piece and in another by Vinicius Bivar in Fair Observer, the law, which grants Orbán the right to rule by decree, has been called an ‘enabling law’. This is a stark reference to Adolf Hitler’s so-called ‘Enabling Law’ – the Law to Remedy the State of Emergency of Volk and Reich of 24 March 1933 – which gave Hitler the power to rule by decree and thus brought about the end of parliamentary democracy in Germany.
The comparison is instructive, although it is not without dangers. On the one hand, making comparisons such as these makes it easy for the FIDESZ spokespersons to scoff at the absurdity of suggesting that Orbán’s government could have anything in common with one of the most reviled and criminal regimes in history. Yet, in March 1933, the Third Reich was not yet a warmongering, genocidal regime, other than in an incipient way (by which I mean that genocidal fantasies had always been present in Nazi thinking, even if there was no blueprint for war and genocide).
The comparison is meaningful insofar as we can see that the Orbán government is slowly chipping away at the norms of liberal democracy, attempting to quash opposition, and using this crisis in the way that the Nazis used the Reichstag fire, that is, to criminalise critics, or at least to attempt to do so. And whilst it might be harsh to compare the EU’s failure of nerve when faced with Hungary’s deviation from its rules to appeasement, in fact both rest(ed) on an inability to face up to the true nature of the regimes in question.
That is why the EU is being urged, for example by Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, ‘to wake up and take action if it wants to prevent the virus of authoritarianism from infecting other countries.’ Orbán is not Hitler, FIDESZ is not the NSDAP – that comparison is absurd. But if he has his way, Orbán will be sure to use the COVID-19 crisis as the harbinger of authoritarianism, dressed up as defending ‘the people’ but ushering in poverty for millions of Hungarians and more deeply-entrenched cronyism for the apparat.
The COVID-19 crisis, as with previous strains of coronavirus, has been brought about by human action. The desire to return to ‘normality’, which is a basic and hardly surprising response, is inadequate insofar as it was ‘normality’ which caused this virus to appear and to spread in the first place. One of the things that need to change is that the human race’s need to be fed has to be addressed in a more rational way, with the hugely unequal distribution of resources across the world being addressed as a matter of urgency.
What will also need to be addressed with no less urgency is the temptation for demagogues to respond by blaming certain groups for causing the virus, a stance which easily slips into rhetoric in which particular groups of people are themselves figured as a kind of virus. The emergence of fascism in the wake of World War I and the flu epidemic which followed it should be a warning. If the economic downturn which is likely to follow the lockdown is not to lead to a twenty-first-century form of fascism, then the voices of scientific experts need to be heeded and governments across the world need to work together to alleviate the hurt being inflicted on millions – possibly billions – of people who will be left unable to maintain a basic standard of living. Man cannot live by bread alone, said Brecht, especially when he has none.
Professor Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. See his profile here.
© Dan Stone. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
This article was originally published at CARR’s media partner, Rantt Media. See the original article here.
A couple of weeks ago, in full COVID crisis, I walked to the corner store to do some minor shopping. Some senior citizens, lined up according to the latest rules dictated by the pandemic, were standing in line a few feet apart from one another, waiting their turn to make their purchases at the cash register. As I took my place at the end of the line, which now protruded quite deep into the shop proper, an individual wearing a loose training suit brushed past the last few people at the back of the queue, and positioned himself just behind the person who was paying at that moment.
I gave a loud call and drew the attention of the individual to the fact that the line was actually back where I was standing. At that moment, the incensed shopper, a flash of anger in his eyes, darted in my direction: “Who do you think you are to tell me where I should stand?” he hollered, making a few eyes in the store turn in our direction. In vain did I try to make him see that the law, notwithstanding the rules of common sense, decreed that he take his place in line behind me, and a few feet apart from me, at that. The individual, ready to start a fight in defense of his God-given right to pay for his merchandise wherever and whenever he saw fit, wouldn’t relent, and continued arguing until, of his own accord, he decided to furiously leave the shop while uttering a vague threat in my direction.
I wouldn’t have shared this story if this or other similar transgressions didn’t describe the generalized response of the population to the rules taken by the Romanian government to stem the spread of the COVID virus. Moreover, I wouldn’t have used this event as an illustration, if the state of insubordination and affront on the rule of law depicted above, didn’t describe the general social atmosphere at the time of pandemic in Romania.
A lot of ink has been spilled recently decrying the fast rise of authoritarianism in the East. Journalists and representatives of grassroots organizations have rushed to flag up alarm signals in the press, warning the West that the situation in Eastern Europe and Russia, not to mention authoritarian China, was quickly getting out of control. They further caution that dictators from Orban to Putin and Xi Jing Pin, taking advantage of the COVID moment, are insidiously attempting to draw their countries back into the throes of totalitarianism. In this context, the Romanian government has equally been criticized for using the hefty fines issued on its citizens during the pandemic to enrich itself.
I am not defending the rights of the above-named rulers, or those of anyone in a position of authority – of eastern or western extract – to abuse the powers of the state. However, what needs to be specified in this case is that the otherwise well-intentioned journalists who launched these alarm signals, didn’t take into account the generalized corruption engendered by the rule of the rich that seems to characterize the countries they have decided to put into the limelight.
In Romania, for example, a peculiar understanding of democracy, filtered through the lens of private interest and fierce pursuit of economic profit, turned society into a hotbed of lawlessness, disrespect for fellow citizens, and disregard for the most basic of human values. Since the fall of communism in eastern Europe and Russia in the late eighties and early nineties, the wave of bourgeoisification, personal enrichment at the hand of the state, and the enthronement of private property as the most sacrosanct of all democratic values has led to the creation of a nouveau riche class. Replacing the generalized poverty that countries like Romania experienced as a result of insufficient economic development under state communism, this class, dictating the new living standards for a society and smitten with western opulence, bewitched by rags-to-riches success stories, made a joke of the foundational values of democracy, while crying foul at every attempt of the government to curb its unbridled power.
The opening anecdote serves little, in this context, when trying to describe the much more serious deviances that are usually ignored when decrying the loss of democracy in the East. We should include in this category the criminal cutting down of forests and disregard for environmental norms that describe the sorry state of eastern economies, particularly in lands still rich in natural resources, like that of Romania. It is blatant disregard for the law that should equally be blamed for the dramatic increase in road accidents caused by a complete lack of observance of speed regulations, which puts Romania at the top of European Union polls in terms of unsatisfactory road safety conditions.
For these reasons, the word “democracy” doesn’t have the same ring in western as in eastern Europe, and this is not only because of economic disparity. It is because the new ruling class picked and chose whichever “democratic” values it saw fit from the pile thrown at its feet in the early nineties, with devastating consequences for eastern societies. After a disastrous privatization process of state-owned industries, which enriched only a powerful few, democracies in eastern Europe developed following an economic and societal pattern more akin to tribalism than liberal values. This led not only to a concentration of power into the hands of oligarchs, as the Russian example also showed, but to an uber-liberal lifestyle dictated by the rich, which the large majority of the poorer middle class have desperately tried to emulate. As a result, this middle class, subjugated by delusions of grandeur, consider it natural to live and act in ways that mirror the increasingly totalitarian rule of the wealthy, while aspiring to take their place.
It is imperative therefore that we ask what kind of totalitarianism we are discussing in eastern societies. More to the point, what are the historical contexts that allegedly birthed this totalitarianism? And finally, shouldn’t we ponder whether or not it is the totalitarianism of the rich, rather than that of the state, that we should condemn?
Denunciations of totalitarianism in the East should be approached on a comparative basis. We should distinguish between Orban’s rightfully penalized measures of ruling by decree and less stringent regulations meant to curb the unruliness of a class which has placed itself above the law. The Romanian government has been criticized for hefty fines, and rightfully so, but what are weapons of a state if its citizens don’t take them seriously? A few weeks ago, for example, a Romanian woman fined by an officer for not having under her possession a statement of responsibility is reported to have declared that she didn’t care about breaking the law, as she “has enough money” to pay whatever fines she incurs. Such petty incidents show the individualism and private interest that has led to a sharp decline in moral responsibility. The defiance which some citizens showed for the law – both before and during the pandemic – clearly forced the state to up the rather mild fines it had issued during the first weeks of emergency. Weakened by thirty years of oligarchic rule, the authority with which the police have handled the crisis in Romania, and the hefty fines, while not being abusive, have guaranteed the safety of its citizens, even if it took strict regulation to implement this.
The Romans had a powerful expression for the current situation in Romania: Dura lex, sed lex. It is impossible to implement the rule of law when enforcement of strict regulations is immediately equated with totalitarian measures. The United States, Great Britain, and the cohort of western democracies which have set the standard for good governance in the world for the past few hundred years did not attain their ‘civilized’ status by going soft on crime ever since they rose to power on the world stage. Quite the contrary. Why do we cry foul when the East (and China’s case is even more representative here than that of eastern Europe) attempts to build democracy in ways that promote lawfulness and ensure good cohabitation in ways that do not always copy western standards? Should we tax eastern European governments for taking measures that seek to enforce the power of the state in a context in which the law of the jungle has replaced the rule of law? Why should we lend an ear to all these journalists denouncing state measures as attacks on human rights, and a return to totalitarian rule?
As long as eastern governments are not in cahoots with the oligarchic class, the measures taken by the state during the pandemic should not be seen as infringing on human rights, but as a way to battle lawlessness, including that of the continuously rising nouveau riche.
If the pandemic, as some have tried to show, helped reveal ways in which we are all the same, the measures to curb this lawlessness also revealed that petty corruption and disregard for the law are endemic in eastern societies. In this situation, the state is the only power that can curb that corruption, and attempt to preserve the social contract between classes. It is therefore imperative that states do not side with the rich in this conflict, but, while ensuring the return of the rule of law, demonstrate they still deserve the respect of all members of society.
During the pandemic, the Romanian government showed that it had the potential to regain some of the authority it so shamefully lost over three decades of postsocialist transition. The measures it takes from now on will indicate whether the state is indeed committed to offering safe living conditions and equal opportunities for all members of society. Whatever the case, the current situation has shown the nouveau riche that they are equally subjects of the law, and of a state that should drastically attempt to curb their power if that power is putting the others and the state itself in danger.
 A BBC article showing the faces of Orban, Putin, and Erdogan below the title Coronavirus: Is pandemic being used for power grab in Europe? is relevant in this regard: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52308002.
 Fox News, whether their reporting is assimiliable to good journalism practices or not, wrote that “Romania makes millions from handing out coronavirus fines” in an eponymously titled article: https://www.foxnews.com/world/romania-millions-coronavirus-fines
 Deutsche Welle reported that in 2017 Romania topped EU lists with 98 deaths per one million inhabitants: https://www.dw.com/en/romania-pushes-past-bulgaria-to-top-list-of-road-deaths-in-europe/a-43325623
 The Romanian state made it mandatory until May 15th for all citizens to carry a statement of responsibility meant to restrict unnecessary traffic during the height of the pandemic.
 During the first two weeks of state-decreed social distancing and restrictions on freedom of movement, which were ruled by military ordinance, the fines in Romania were much lower than between March 30th and May 15th, when the state of emergency legally ended.
 The law is strict, but it is the law.