The Viktor Orban Effect: Why U.S. Conservatives Love Hungary – The New York Times

Some U.S. conservatives are taking a cue from Prime Minister Viktor Orban — how to use the power of the state to win the culture wars.
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For one week this summer, Fox News beamed the face of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary into the homes of Tucker Carlson’s 3.2 million viewers. In a two-tiered library adorned with dark wood and the Hungarian flag, Carlson sat across from the prime minister in Budapest with an expression of intense concentration, though he evinced little familiarity with the internal affairs of Hungary. The trip was hastily arranged after Orban agreed to the interview: Carlson dined at the prime minister’s office the evening before the broadcast, and earlier in the week, he was taken in a military helicopter to a tightly controlled area along the country’s southern border, generally off limits to journalists, in the presence of a Hungarian minister. There, Hungary became the idealized backdrop for Carlson’s habitual preoccupations: Thanks to a barbed-wire fence, Hungary’s border area was “perfectly clean and orderly,” free of the “trash” and “chaos” that mark other borders of the world. Consequently, “There weren’t scenes of human suffering.” He did not bring up the fact that civic groups have repeatedly taken the Hungarian government to court for denying food to families held in immigration detention centers.
Carlson’s trip to Hungary was prompted, in part, by a text message from Rod Dreher, a conservative writer. Dreher, who spent the spring and summer there on a fellowship and helped Carlson secure the interview with Orban, understands, as the activist Christopher F. Rufo recently observed, that Carlson doesn’t report the news for American conservatives; he creates it. Bringing Carlson to Budapest was meant to persuade Americans to pay attention to Orban’s Hungary. The effort appeared to be successful: The following week, several Republican senators told Insider, an online news publication, that Carlson’s broadcasts from Budapest had given them a favorable opinion of Orban. In September, Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. attorney general, went to Budapest for a panel discussion on immigration, and Mike Pence traveled there to address a meeting on family and demographic decline, with Orban in the audience. Next year, the Conservative Political Action Conference, an influential annual gathering of conservatives in America, will be held in Budapest.
Dreher doesn’t speak in Carlson’s terms, and has sought to distance himself from Carlson’s vigorous endorsement of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which holds that Democrats are replacing white Americans with nonwhite immigrants in order to increase their vote tallies. But Dreher believes, as do many in his circle of right-wing intellectuals, that high levels of immigration threaten the “stability and cultural continuity of the nation.” He frequently points to the French, to the anger and isolation in their immigrant-populated banlieues, and argues that immigrants have a responsibility to adopt their new country’s culture and often decline to do so. He has even suggested that Orban’s restrictions on immigration have kept the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Hungary to a minimum. (While the number of reported incidents is indeed low, Dreher’s analysis belies Orban’s tendency to play to both sides; he has forged a close relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu while demonizing the Jewish liberal benefactor George Soros with anti-Semitic dog whistles at home.) Dreher believes Orban was right to refuse to take in Syrian refugees in 2015. “If you could wind back the clock 50 years, and show the French, the Belgian and the German people what mass immigration from the Muslim world would do to their countries by 2021, they never, ever would have accepted it,” Dreher wrote in his influential blog for The American Conservative. “The Hungarians are learning from their example.”
Dreher’s motivations nonetheless differ somewhat from Carlson’s. In his daily blog posts, Dreher writes mainly against what he refers to as “wokeness” — ideas about racial justice and gender identity that he believes lead Americans to hate America and children to reject their parents. After Carlson’s visit, Dreher wrote that he admires Orban because he “is willing to take the hard stances necessary to keep his country from losing its collective mind under assault by woke loonies.” When I asked him what he was hoping to learn during his sabbatical in Budapest, Dreher told me that he wanted to observe “to what extent politics can be a bulwark against cultural disintegration.” Having seen how ineffectual the Republican Party has been, he told me, “I’m wondering, Can it be done somewhere else, and what is the cost, and is the cost worth it?” He didn’t want to force his view on others, he said. But such passivity, he felt, was becoming self-defeating. The turn toward illiberal democracy — a state that rejects pluralism in favor of a narrow set of values — seemed imminent to him. “I realize that we’re at a point now where we have such cultural disintegration in the U.S. that the choice might actually be between an illiberal democracy of the left or an illiberal democracy of the right,” Dreher told me. “And if that’s true, then I want to understand as fully as I possibly can what the implications are.”
Dreher arrived in Budapest this spring as the city was emerging from a harrowing stretch of the pandemic. I found him across from the splendidly columned National Museum in a coffee shop where he had quickly become a regular, which offered, in addition to espresso, a bike-repair service and a carefully curated selection of Hungarian wines, the bottles affixed playfully to the walls.
Dreher, 54, is gregarious and personable, traits that he has translated into his posts, in which he intersperses commentary with long quotations from whatever he’s reading at the moment. In a white-tipped beard, thick owlish glasses and a light blue flannel button-down over a black T-shirt imprinted with the Medal of Saint Benedict, he looked like an aging hipster. He addressed the barista in a booming Louisiana drawl. As foreigners, we didn’t have documentation to sit inside; the Hungarian government responded to a steep rise in the Covid death toll the previous month with an aggressive vaccination campaign and vaccination registry that provided citizens with an immunity card granting permission to dine indoors. So we took our coffees to the garden apartment across the street that had been provided to Dreher. It had elegantly arched ceilings and white slipcovered chairs. Several Christian icons leaned against the fireplace mantle, and on a drying rack in one corner white dress shirts alternated with floral printed button-downs.
Dreher’s host for four months was the Danube Institute, a think tank run by John O’Sullivan, a genteel British Thatcherite in his 70s who developed a fondness for Budapest during a long career as a journalist. The institute is financed, indirectly, by the Hungarian government. Nonetheless, Dreher told me that he was entirely free to do as he pleased. “I don’t think Viktor Orban is any kind of saint,” he told me. He did, at times, write critically of Orban’s government. In July, press accounts revealed that the Hungarian government had infected the mobile phones of investigative journalists and political opponents with spyware to track their communications. Dreher condemned the behavior, writing that it “confirmed the worst authoritarian stereotypes” about Hungary. He also criticized Orban’s announcement that he would welcome the construction of a giant Chinese-funded university in Budapest, worrying that it would be an inroad for spies.
Still, the institute is meant to serve as a conduit between Central Europe and the English-speaking world, and the visitors’ program is part of a broader effort by Orban to capitalize on the outsize interest that his Hungarian-style “illiberal democracy” has prompted. He is inviting, at an increasing pace, important conservative thinkers and politicians to Budapest and encouraging them to learn about Hungary, while profiting from the attention that they bring with them. Budapest is to be the “intellectual home,” as he put it, of 21st-century conservatism. Dreher accepted partly on the basis of his most recent book, “Live Not by Lies,” which was based on conversations with Eastern and Central Europeans who’d lived under communism. In it, Dreher argues that leftist identity politics in America is bringing about a cultural revolution, in which the punishments for transgressors echo those of Soviet totalitarianism.
The problem of how to stem this perceived cultural revolution has been roiling the Republican Party. At a conference outside Washington in July titled “The Future of the American Political Economy,” attended by dozens of young conservatives, a panel devoted to the ideal role of the state devolved into an uproarious brawl. A few party members argued, as they have for decades, that all government is bad. In response, Julius Krein, the 35-year-old editor of the heterodox right-wing magazine American Affairs, countered with some rough statistics: Conservatives compose a minimal percentage of Silicon Valley; their influence is declining in the corporate world; and they are all but absent from mainstream media, academia and Hollywood. But with nearly half of Congress and possibly more government control in the future, conservative cultural power would come from the state.
On the question of whether politics can serve as a “bulwark” against cultural “disintegration,” Orban had given Dreher much to think about. Orban is the politician he wishes Trump could have been: In 2018, just after re-election, Orban’s government defunded gender-studies programs at universities (then offered by only two colleges in Hungary). “A few years ago, I would have said, No, the government cannot get involved in the freedom of universities,”’ Dreher said. But now, “having seen how incredibly destructive these sorts of programs have been to American society,” he went on, “and how extremely intolerant people who support them are when they’re in power, I’m much more sympathetic.” As Dreher saw it, studying gender theory, which holds that gender is a social construction, led not to the consideration of ideas, but to enforced dogmas that had taken over one institution after another. This year, the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican had flown, for the first time, a rainbow flag during pride month; recently, some Jesuits had come down in favor of referring to God as “they.” Dreher cited a story he’d just read about a university chaplain in Britain who told students it was OK to question new L.G.B.T.Q. policies at the school; the college reported him to the country’s antiterrorism unit for radicalization. In his blog, Dreher often cites examples of what he considers an egregious practice, like in Oregon, where 15-year-olds can be treated with puberty-suppressing drugs or cross-sex hormones without parental permission (the age of medical consent in Oregon is 15), and then extrapolates to half the country: “This is where the Left wants to take all of us,” Dreher wrote in his blog this summer. “Don’t believe them when they say otherwise.” As an Orthodox Christian, he believes that this “gender ideology” denies “Christian anthropology” and “shatters the authority” of the Bible.
What’s more, he maintains, in America those who raise objections to such measures are vulnerable to persecution. “If you resist, you get targeted by a multibillion-dollar industrial complex that has the full support of the U.S. government, high and low culture, the legal establishment, the courts, etc.,” he continued. The Republican Party “seems to exist mainly to ratify whatever the Democrats were advocating about five years ago.” The handful of recent court decisions that favor conservatives have offered little comfort amid a profound societal transformation. In this light, Orban’s latest legal move — restricting the exposure of children under 18 to books or other materials that “promote” homosexuality or transgenderism — was nothing short of heroic, even if the European Union declared it would sue Hungary for violating anti-discrimination statutes. As Dreher wrote: “This is what an actual pro-family, socially conservative government acts like.”
Dreher didn’t seem to be concerned about the violent potential of stigmatization. I told Dreher about Hungarian friends of mine who were helping immigrants and had been subject to lurid harassment by right-wing groups as “traitors” to the nation. In some instances, red stickers were plastered onto buildings by the youth wing of Orban’s party, labeling them as an “organization helping migrants.” One such house had been marked with a yellow star in 1944. “I find that appalling,” Dreher said. “But it’s hard for the American left to see how similar things are happening in America, not from the state, but from activists and institutions.” We were in the airy sitting room of the Danube Institute apartment, and Dreher took off his glasses, leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. This was why he had clung to classical liberalism, he said; he didn’t even believe in it as a philosophy, and yet here he was depending on it. “It’s an ironic and maybe even tragic position to be in,” he said. “If not for the First Amendment, then it’s all about power. And all the power in America now is against people like me.”
For American conservatives, the appeal of Orban lies not so much in the details of his laws or policies as in his tactics and his advocacy, at least publicly, for Christianity. He invokes regularly, if vaguely, the “Christian values” of Europe. Hungary is predominantly Catholic, though Orban himself is not, and it isn’t incidental that many of the American conservatives most interested in Orban’s government are themselves part of an increasingly muscular Catholic wing of postliberal conservatives.
Dreher, who converted to Catholicism at 26 but left after the church’s sex abuse scandals and became Eastern Orthodox, derives much of his following from his 2017 book, “The Benedict Option,” in which he argued that religious conservatives today should take inspiration from the monastic practices that preserved Christian communities through centuries of persecution and conquest. Dreher’s work influenced, among many others, the Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen. In his book “Why Liberalism Failed,” Deneen also argued that the antidote to the disenchantments of modern liberal society was to be found in the closeness and custom of local communities. Surprisingly explosive for a book of political theory, “Why Liberalism Failed” spawned enough reviews to form a subgenre of its own. It was described as an “electrifying book of cultural criticism ” in The Week, and Deneen was called a “Jeremiah” in The Times. Dreher declared it “the most important political book of the year,” and it has been central in the creation of a postliberal politics. Though published in 2018, it was largely written before Trump’s election, an event that seemed to suggest new possibilities: Rather than retreat from society, it might be possible to actually reshape it, with the help of Catholic thought.
I first met Deneen in South Bend, Ind., last winter, where he lives close to the seminary-like Notre Dame campus in a neighborhood of exemplary Midwestern demureness. Amy Coney Barrett lived nearby until recently, as did Pete Buttigieg. Each left for Washington, where, before coming to South Bend, Deneen held a tenured position at Georgetown. “I left D.C. to get out of the political universe of America,” he said. “And here I am.”
At a time when many, left and right, are pointing to the failures of liberalism and neoliberalism, Deneen suggested to me that Catholicism was becoming the religion of the intelligentsia. The president, the speaker of the House and six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic (a seventh was raised Catholic), along with a number of prominent writers, many of them converts. “It’s a tradition that gives you the resources,” Deneen said, “for how to think outside of liberal categories.”
In “Why Liberalism Failed,” Deneen argues that liberalism, understood as the continuous expansion of individual rights, is not, as its champions insist, humankind’s natural destiny but rather an ideology of its own. In its quest to liberate the individual, it has turned the things that traditionally constitute the self — family, community, religion — into arbitrary impositions from which we seek to be freed. People, especially Americans, pick up and move, leave their families and neglect to form new ones, eroding the local networks and customs that regulate economic relationships. A new aristocracy, whose members believe they’ve earned everything they have and therefore feel no obligation to anyone else, has created a society that claims to be all about freedom but in which most people feel little control over their lives. Liberalism, Deneen insists, will bring about its own undoing.
“The book was written out of a sense of why I’m politically homeless,” Deneen told me. “Sort of ‘a pox on both your houses.’” Catholics, he said, are often left-wing on economic issues and right-wing on social issues. “And you tell me: Which party now represents that position?” He went on: “But that’s really where the debate within conservatism is right now. What do we make of the way that market capitalism arguably undermines those things that we otherwise say that we value: family, and stability, and generational continuity, and memory?” Some of the most important economic thinkers on the right today say that liberalism’s knee-jerk reliance on the supposed wisdom of markets has caused conservatives to betray their moral principles. Karl Marx is name-dropped frequently. “Marx was brilliant in the passages where he talks about capitalism being a solvent that erases everything,” Deneen said. “For a conservative, that ought to be concerning.”
Deneen’s book “has definitely garnered a lot of interest among younger conservatives,” says Oren Cass, the founder and executive director of American Compass, a think tank devoted to reforming market economics on the right. Free markets might have been good policy in the 1950s and ’60s, when they were functioning well for Americans, he went on, but now they had been gamed by giant corporations and the ultrarich. Cass served as domestic policy director to Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. He came away with the sense that markets on their own were inadequate to solving the problems plaguing communities that had been hollowed out by the offshoring of jobs and the opioid crisis that followed.
The birthrate in the United States had plummeted since 2008; millennials said they wanted to have children but couldn’t afford it. The solution in many European countries — direct payments to mothers with children, no matter their income — seemed anathema in conservative America. After Trump’s election blew open the G.O.P., a few unorthodox policies were put forward by Republican senators with populist aspirations, but they weren’t taken seriously. Then, amid the crisis of the pandemic, Romney introduced a kind of community-building plan: a child benefit that would go not just to the needy but to everyone. “This really caught fire, in ways that I didn’t fully expect,” Chris Barkley, Romney’s deputy chief of staff for policy, told me. “Here’s an opportunity to say, We’re going to put our money where our mouth is and not only talk in terms of tax relief or some of these more antigovernment terms. We’re going to talk about the positive cultural values that we hold, and we believe are good.”
For Deneen, Catholicism is useful in this regard because it holds that “politics is the space where the common good is secured,” he said. Though Catholics represent a minority in the Republican Party — around 25 percent — their distinct philosophical traditions make them a potent force. Catholicism’s insistence, as developed in the work of Thomas Aquinas and his modern adherents, on the social nature of human existence has always been at odds with Protestant ideas about individual autonomy. But this, in part, was why the popularity of Catholic social teaching has historically waxed during periods when the white working classes, largely Catholic, were struggling economically.
The foundational document of Catholic social tradition, the 1891 encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, argued that individual freedom did little to help workers secure a living wage, and valorized workers’ associations, urging government to intervene to balance the economy. Four decades later, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical of 1931 was cited by Franklin Roosevelt on the campaign trail as “one of the greatest documents of modern times.” Joe Biden, himself a Catholic, has also cited Catholic social thought as a major influence. “I think you do see now this rise of both a conservative and a left Catholicism,” Deneen said, “that’s taking at least part of what had been the WASP public philosophy and occupying that space.”
The postliberal right is still a loose constellation of conservatives with a variety of unorthodox ideas, but among them are those who believe that a more radical reading of the Constitution is necessary to promote a moral society. Many social conservatives see themselves as having failed to win key national legal battles on issues like abortion, gay rights and religious liberty. As Adrian Vermeule, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard, wrote in 2018 in American Affairs, the very logic of liberalism turned it into an “imperialist progressive” force — an ever-expanding demand for individual rights that upended social custom. The scale of defeat became clear in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry, seeming to prove that conservative principles could be overturned on a moment’s notice. Then came the Bostock decision, in 2020. Neil Gorsuch, a Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice and heir to Antonin Scalia, wrote the majority opinion, expanding the definition of sex-based discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Josh Hawley, the freshman senator from Missouri, gave a withering speech in response: “If textualism and originalism give you this decision,” Hawley said from the chamber floor, then “all of those phrases don’t mean much at all.” He ended by declaring that this was the end of “the conservative legal project as we know it.”
New approaches were needed. And Vermeule, a recent convert to Catholicism who is considered one of the most limber legal scholars of his generation, was in a position to provide them. Recently, in a spate of articles published in national magazines and small conservative quarterlies, Vermeule has laid out a methodology for halting what he regards as the relentless advance of the liberal “creed.” In place of originalism — a theory espoused by conservative judges which holds that the meaning of the constitution is fixed — Vermeule proposed “common-good constitutionalism”: reading “into the majestic generalities and ambiguities” of the Constitution to create an “illiberal legalism” founded on “substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good.” Vermeule also offered a complementary theory of the administrative state, a topic on which he has written a number of books, that could be used to promote those moral principles. Those occupying positions of power in government administration could have a “great deal of discretion” in steering the ship of bureaucracy. It was a matter of finding a “strategic position” from which to “sear the liberal faith with hot irons.”
Even many of those interested in Vermeule’s ideas consider him extreme; some suspect him of wanting to impose a Catholic monarchy on America. (Vermeule declined to comment for this article.) But scholarship based on Vermeule’s ideas is starting to trickle out, some of it reshaping his concept as “common-good originalism.” Josh Hammer, the opinion editor of Newsweek, has argued that the emphasis on “general welfare” in the preamble to the Constitution, a synonym for the Greco-Roman concept of the “common good,” is a part of America’s heritage that is overshadowed by our focus on individual liberties. Originalism, with its insistence on “one true meaning,” has turned out to be “morally denuded,” Hammer told me. “Is that the end unto itself, or is it something a little greater?” he said. “It’s a viable political concept to care about national cohesion.”
Samuel Goldman, a conservative political theorist who directs the politics and values program at George Washington University, concedes that the historical record supports the view that “many, though not all, of the American founders really did imagine the U.S. as a sort of Christian nation state, in which public institutions would play a significant role in promoting virtue and be committed to specific religious doctrines. It didn’t work out that way, because even at the time, the population was too diverse, the institutions were too precariously balanced to permit it.” He went on to say that what the postliberals are doing seems strange because “it’s a trip back into an intellectual world that no longer exists.”
For Vermuele, promoting “substantive moral principles” might allow the state to intervene in areas like health care, guns and the environment, where “human flourishing” would take priority over trying to divine the 18th-century meanings of terms like “commerce” and “bearing arms.” Abortion would be illegal. But the outcomes of such policies would not always be the expected conservative ones. Vermeule recently argued in favor of a Covid-19 vaccine mandate, on the grounds that the health and safety of the community was necessary for the common good.
Governing for the common good would be the “final rejection” of the neoliberal dogma that “if you leave individuals to seek their own ends, you’ll necessarily build a good society,” Sohrab Ahmari, the former opinion editor of The New York Post, who says he is launching a new media company, told me. Ahmari, a recent convert to Catholicism, is one of Vermeule’s most visible allies and has become practically synonymous with a self-consciously pugilistic right. He urged conservatives in a 2019 essay to approach the culture war “with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” a phrase that has enjoyed a long half-life. “I don’t want to turn this into a Catholic country,” Ahmari told me when I met him earlier this year. But he counts himself among those who believe conservatism has failed because it insists that the only kind of tyranny “comes from the public square and therefore what you should do is check government power.”
This is where it has proved helpful to have models abroad. “There’s a tendency that’s almost universal to want somewhere in the world that you can point to and say, It’s really happening,” Goldman said. And now here was this other, European tradition of Catholic conservatism, that was afraid neither of a strong state, nor of using it to promote a conservative vision of life. Hungary and Poland offered an “example of something that looks different,” Goldman went on. “And that’s thrilling to people who are trying to break out of the strictures of liberalism and have been told, in some cases for their entire lives, You can’t do that, there’s nothing else.” Damon Linker, a columnist at The Week and a friend of Dreher’s (Linker also left the Catholic church over the abuse scandals) no longer considers himself a member of the right but noted that these conservatives see Hungary and think: “Actually, we like that Orban makes it so that you can be against him, the state won’t throw you in jail. But just as a conservative in our country has a hard time getting a job at a university, now, in our world, liberals are going to have a hard time getting a job.”
In Hungary, Dreher and others claim, there is true freedom; no online vigilante mob is waiting to deprive people of their livelihood for uttering a wrong word. (This freedom does not extend to the journalists who’ve had their phones surveilled by the Hungarian government or been taken in for questioning by the Hungarian police.) It comes from a reversal of the cultural and institutional tilt: Orban pushed out the Soros-backed Central European University and used hostile takeovers to transform the media, outlet by outlet, into a conservative (and government-friendly) landscape. American conservatives might not use the same methods, but they would have “no compunctions about using state power,” Linker said, “to impose a different set of moral views than the default ones that we’ve lived with for 50 years.”
Dreher seemed to confirm this. “If the right should somehow gain that kind of power, I don’t trust us with it,” Dreher told me. He seemed uncomfortable with the way this sounded like a threat, even as he articulated it. “I don’t trust us to be judicious and fair to the others in victory,” he went on. “The left is not being that way to us. And we’re not going to be that way to them.”
Orban was elected in 2010 with the help of a political machine that remains beholden to him. For most of the last decade, his party, Fidesz, has held a supermajority in the Hungarian Parliament, thanks to the way he has intertwined politics and business and the changes the party made to election laws, which bolstered its representation. Along with what has been described as perfect party discipline — no one breaks rank — this has enabled Orban to govern with great efficiency. He has put in place numerous policies to counter a low birthrate and encourage Hungarian, not immigrant, babies: There are subsidies for family cars; women who have four or more children will never pay income tax again; and some older citizens who leave their jobs to take care of grandchildren are compensated by the government.
Along with Orban’s rhetorical homages to “Christian civilization,”’ these family programs have given American conservatives reason to feel they have much to learn: Ahmari and Deneen have also visited Budapest recently. Apart from the stubborn question of whether Orban’s rhetoric isn’t just a front for a kleptocracy — he has shuffled millions in E.U. subsidy money into contracts with family members and close friends — his penchant for positioning himself as the sine qua non of the global culture wars suggests the true objective may simply be power.
Nearby Poland has also made an illiberal turn, though with less showmanship than in Hungary, from whose playbook it nonetheless borrows. Poland, too, has placed family policy at the center of its programs, with generous monthly allowances and some success in increasing the birthrate. Earlier this year, it pushed through a law that eliminated one of the few exceptions under which an abortion is permitted. The Polish government also recently engaged in an Orban-like legal battle for greater control of media outlets. And, like Hungary, Poland has placed its own laws and Constitution above the E.U.’s, in part in reaction to L.G.B.T.Q. protections, even as this stance threatens its standing in the body.
The Catholic Church in Poland is a more widely popular and legitimate institution, because of the role it played in resisting communism. In Krakow this winter, I met the philosopher Ryszard Legutko, a former anti-communist dissident who became increasingly disenchanted with liberal democracy in the 1990s, in a way that was illuminating for skeptics of liberalism. His 2016 book, “The Demon in Democracy,” has become a canonical text for postliberal conservatives. Legutko, 71, has argued that democrats can behave much like communists. While allowing that liberal democracy is superior to communism, he nonetheless maintains that certain characteristics of communist ideology — the belief that it will eventually prevail worldwide, that it is the apotheosis of human nature, that it represents the culmination of history — are true of liberal democracy as well. Both, he says, are totalizing ideologies: There is nothing “natural” about individual rights, “no such thing as a rights-bearing individual,” Legutko told me.
Legutko is a member of the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland and was elected to the European Parliament, where he sits on the Committee on Culture and Education. On the wall of the salon in his pied-à-terre hung a painting of Polish cavalry bloodily beating back the Red Army in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War. Through the window, the colors of the Polish landscape were so subdued that the city looked like a sepia-tone photograph. “A couple of decades ago there was a theory that the age of ideology is over, that in a liberal democracy we just solve problems, nobody is interested in big ideas,” Legutko told me. “They couldn’t be more wrong than that. We are prisoners of certain intellectual patterns.”
What Marxists and liberals had in common, he continued, was “this notion of history’s progress, you cannot go back, you made the omelet, so the eggs are no longer there.” After the end of communism in 1989, the Polish economy was quickly liberalized through privatizations and foreign investment, and a push for Poland to join the E.U. brought social reforms. “They were telling us, ‘OK, the old regime is gone, and now we are living in freedom,’” Legutko said. “Now that you live in freedom, you have to do this, you have to do that. Come on. If it’s freedom, we have to do it? We don’t have to do it.” According to Legutko, liberal democracy would not tolerate the family, the church and other nonliberal institutions that Poland was trying to preserve.
In referring to America’s cultural battles, Legutko says that the efforts to change traditional understandings of gender lead to “social engineering.” I pointed out that arguments over nomenclature are a matter of fighting against derogatory speech and the derogatory treatment it engenders. “But you can insult Catholics in Poland and the judge will say, Well, that’s individual opinion, or artistic performance,” he said. It wasn’t about hate per se, he argued, but about power. “You say something about gay activists, and immediately you’re punished, because that is hate speech.” The control of language, Legutko insisted, was another similarity between liberal democracy and Communism. “The language is being dictated to you by the powers that be, and if you do not conform, you’re being punished.” Legutko’s party has been trying to pass a law that would fine tech companies for regulating any speech that isn’t strictly illegal (even as the party has exerted control over how Polish involvement in the Holocaust may be described), a measure in which American conservatives have taken great interest.
“My friends from the United States, they see here a country in which conservatives are not cornered,” Legutko said. “We won the elections, we have the institutions, and that’s why we are considered by this liberal machine illegitimate.” The problem for the modern mind, he went on, was that there were no alternatives. “So, if we manage to make Poland the country where there is an alternative, that would be something,” Legutko said. “We are almost an extinct species. The world would be lost without us.”
Over the summer, the United States got a taste of what the implementation of such ideas might look like on this side of the Atlantic. The introduction of bills in state legislatures to control or ban the teaching in public schools of what conservatives describe as Critical Race Theory was arguably the first attempt by postliberals to use the power of the state in cultural regulation. Christopher Rufo, a main activist behind the effort (his ideas were disseminated on Tucker Carlson’s show), told The New Yorker that the goal of his movement was to “create rival power centers” within state agencies. In a debate with the conservative writer and lawyer David French, Rufo impugned the “strain of naïve libertarianism that says any meddling with the state is accepting a statist ideology, and therefore we should unilaterally relinquish any authority or any guidance or any shaping of state institutions.”
In electoral politics, the postliberal influence finds expression in J.D. Vance, the author of the best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” who is in a distant second place, though gaining ground, in the Ohio primary for the Republican nomination to the Senate. Vance is a good friend of Dreher’s, and is enthusiastically backed by Tucker Carlson, who called Vance one of the very rare figures “running for office because they really believe something,” a comment that appears to ignore the wholesale reversal in Vance’s politics, from a formerly mild-mannered anti-Trump moderate, to a hard-swinging cultural warrior who blows past the boundaries he once embraced. Vance also converted to Catholicism, in 2019 — Dreher attended his reception into the church — because, he has said, he came to discover that “Catholicism was true.” Vance peppers his speech with terms from the right’s postliberal lexicon. On Carlson’s show, he argued that conservatives should “seize the assets of the Ford Foundation” and redistribute them to people whose lives had been destroyed by the “radical open-borders agenda, ” a very Orban-like, if not very American-sounding, proposal.
But these ideas remain an awkward fit with many American traditions. Even some of the Hungarians I met seemed skeptical about how such ideas might play out in America. On a rainy afternoon in Budapest, I visited the Scruton Café, the city’s unofficial conservative gathering place, which sits a few blocks from the Parliament and is named for the conservative English writer Roger Scruton. Over fruit and cheese, I sat with Boris Kalnoky, a former journalist who is involved in Orban’s international outreach at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, an educational foundation that trains the conservative elite. Even as he explained Orbanism to me, he observed that it wasn’t a powerful state that had made America, in many respects, “the greatest country in the world.” It grew to dominate “because it was the land of the free, and unlimited possibilities,” Kalnoky said. Europe had never had that. “And we will never have it, I dare say,” he said. “But the States may want to hold onto it as much as possible.”
Source photo for illustration: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto, via Getty Images.
Elisabeth Zerofsky is a contributing writer for the magazine. She was a finalist for the 2017 Livingston Award in international journalism and has reported from across Europe for the last five years, writing about the politics in the banlieues in France and the rise of the far right. Javier Jaén is an illustrator and designer based in Barcelona, Spain, known for his translation of complex ideas into simple images, often with a playful tone.
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