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Backsliding in Budapest

How Hungary explains Europe’s retreat from democracy

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Last July, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addressed members of the Hungarian right at their annual summer festival in Transylvania. Europe, he said, was being “de-Christianized” by elites who wanted a “new, mixed, Islamized” continent. “The main question over the next few decades is this: Will Europe remain the continent of the Europeans?” Orbán meant white, Christian Europeans who reject the European Union’s liberal, “globalist” values on everything from gay rights to multiculturalism.

Such rhetoric has made Orbán both a leader and a role model for a new generation of aggressively anti-migrant populists on the rise in Europe. Analysts have tended to account for their successes in one of two ways: Many point to the economic woes of communities whose jobs and livelihoods are being damaged by a globalized economic system; others prefer to depict them simply as bigots and xenophobes. Really understanding the phenomenon, however, means not only recognizing the tremendous importance of national and cultural identity in Europe but also reckoning with the political stakes involved when any community believes its way of life is under threat from people with different backgrounds or religious beliefs.

Orbán’s turn to nativism, in many ways, originated in political expedience. In 2014, Fidesz—the party he had helped found in 1988—was in deep political trouble. There were corruption charges leveled against its leaders, who’d developed a taste for luxurious gated residences, designer brands, and expensive restaurants, and polls indicated a sharp decline in the party’s support. Then came the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2015, Hungary received the largest number of asylum applications in the EU, relative to its population. When EU ministers passed a mandatory migrant relocation plan, assigning refugee quotas to each member country, Orbán’s government challenged the measure in court, continued construction on a 325-mile border fence to stem the flow of migrants, recruited some 3,000 “border hunters” to police the frontier, and held a referendum on whether Hungary should comply with the quota system. In the spring of 2017, his government even began shuffling asylum-seekers through barbed-wire transit zones and sheltering refugees in shipping containers while they awaited approval for entry. Orbán bragged that his approach to managing the refugee crisis was more responsible than the one adopted by other European leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has admitted more than one million asylum-seekers to her country. Hungary, Orbán argued, was “organizing border protection at a time when other places in Europe were celebrating chaos and a breakdown of law and order.”

Throughout his reelection campaign, Orbán hewed strictly to this theme. He offered no major new economic plans or social policies, instead campaigning relentlessly against immigration, which he opposed on racial as well as cultural grounds. “We do not want to be a multicolored country,” he said in a February speech, insisting that Hungarians should not interact with immigrants: “We do not want our own color, traditions, and national culture to be mixed with those of others.” Hungary’s opposition parties, he added in a speech a month later, wanted to “hand our country over to others.”

Orbán directed particular venom toward George Soros, the Jewish, Hungarian-born financier. Soros’s “empire,” he said, was readying to strike “a final blow to Christian culture” by sponsoring a plan to bring millions of Muslim refugees into Europe. “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” Orbán said in March, “not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” The Washington Post described Orbán’s rhetoric as repeating “word for word, the anti-Jewish cliches that were once a mainstay of European political life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Support for Fidesz

In May 2015, before the refugee crisis: 38 percent

In December 2015, after the crisis peaked: 49 percent

EU citizens who say immigration is one of their two most important issues

One in five

Sources: Bloomberg; Eurobarometer

Orbán’s anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant speeches are rooted in the same impulse: to define “real” people against outsiders, a hallmark, as Princeton’s Jan-Werner Müller has written, of populism. Reducing Orbánism to mere prejudice, however, would be a mistake. Decades of life under communism left their mark on Eastern Europe, Hungary included. Susceptibility to conspiracy theories, a legacy of Soviet repression, is still visible in Hungary. So, too, is antipathy to ideologies imposed from the outside, logical in a former satellite state. That fear of outsiders is often directed against immigrants, but it’s also aimed at the economic and social structures of Western liberalism: “We see western liberals as the new Marxists,” a Fidesz official told The Financial Times in April. “They are convinced of their historical rightness, sure that history is moving in their direction and that their values will eventually triumph. We don’t agree.”

History has no “side,” no “end,” and no immanent tendency to move in a particular direction. In that, the Fidesz official was right. The global democratic tide, which began in 1974 with the end of Portugal’s authoritarian regime, crested in 2006, making way for anti-democratic populists. Many Western leaders have yet to come to terms with this new reality, hoping that anti-immigrant sentiment is just a passing phenomenon. (How often did Americans hear Barack Obama say that positions and forces he opposed were “on the wrong side of history”?)

Throughout Europe, immigration is at the core of the populist critique of the liberal democratic order. Orbán, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and many others have all highlighted the EU’s stance on immigration, raising important questions about economic globalization, political transnationalism, and cultural liberalism. Dismissing their concerns as retrograde is counterproductive. Countering them means taking seriously the questions they bring up, while offering better answers than unscrupulous demagogues like Orbán can muster.