Visitors to Budapest may have read somewhere that Hungary has the first autocratic regime in the European Union. The capital on the Danube does not feel like that: the atmosphere is relaxed, not repressive; no paramilitaries are marching; if anything, one might come across a small demonstration against the government, politely escorted by police. The ruling “ism” would appear to be not authoritarianism but hedonism: from the beautifully restored thermal baths to the beer gardens in the old Jewish quarter, affluent natives and an ever-growing number of tourists just seem to be enjoying themselves.
There is no personality cult around Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán, who has been prime minister since 2010. Orbán has understood that authoritarian populism must never evoke images familiar from twentieth-century dictatorships: no violence in the streets, no knocks on doors by the secret police late at night, no forcing citizens to profess political loyalty in public. Instead, power is secured through wide-ranging control of the judiciary and the media; behind much talk of protecting hard-pressed families from multinational corporations, there is crony capitalism, in which one has to be on the right side politically to get ahead economically.
Like all populists, Orbán has no difficulty in presenting himself as an underdog fighting “the elites”—preferably “shadowy” ones that threaten the nation with their “globalist” networks. This past fall, the government waged a vicious campaign against the Hungarian-American hedge fund manager and philanthropist George Soros, alleging that his “empire” is bent on striking a “final blow to Christian culture.” It is worth remembering that Orbán was the first major European politician to endorse Trump (whose victory he celebrated as a “return to reality” in the face of political correctness and liberal hypocrisies). Hungary is of course not the US, but the country shows clearly how populists with enough power operate when in government.
Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-Austrian journalist who spent several decades reporting on Central Europe for the Financial Times, has written a highly illuminating biography of Orbán, whom he calls “the ablest and most controversial politician in modern Hungarian history.” Orbán: Hungary’s Strongman also serves as a useful overview of Hungarian history since the fall of communism—after all, Orbán has been central to the country’s development since at least the late-1990s, when he was first elected prime minister. Lendvai portrays him as ruthless, absolutely relentless in the pursuit of power, and, on many occasions, outright vengeful.
Orbán has long cultivated the image of a man born to fight: his passions are for soccer and spaghetti Westerns. The avenger played by Charles Bronson in Once Upon a Time in the West is a particular favorite; he claims to have seen the movie at least fifteen times. He likes to brandish his “plebeian” origins and values: his family lived without running water; the children had to labor in the fields during school holidays. This picture leaves out the fact that Orbán’s father…
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