Josh Hammer: The View From Budapest

I’m writing from Budapest, the beautiful, Danube-bestriding Hungarian capital. Hungary, though a faraway land and modest in both size and population, has played an outsize role in the American conservative conscience for the past half-decade or so. After just a few days, it is not difficult to understand why. Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party, is a real-life experiment in government under a framework of “national conservatism.” Lessons for American conservatives are clear and legion.

Western media typically covers Orban in hysterical fashion, accusing him of autocracy, crypto-fascism or outright thuggery. It is difficult to believe that any of these left-wing keyboard warriors have ever met Orban, much less spent any time with him. I spent a couple hours standing directly next to him earlier this week, when he met with a small group of visiting media, think-tankers and other public figure types. That meeting was illuminating.

From firsthand experience, I can attest that the prime minister is nothing like the caricature the media portrays him as. He is personally quite funny, gregarious and engaging, and he handled even critical questions with aplomb. Perhaps most surprising for blue-checked Twitterati types who view him as a power-hungry, barbaric European dictator, he is also a genuine conservative intellectual. Orban spent time at Oxford, and he dedicates one day every week to reading up and immersing himself in substantive political reading material. To borrow a popular online phrase, he has “done the reading.”

At our meeting, Balazs Orban (no relation), the prime minister’s political director, expressly referred to the Hungarian government’s philosophical lodestar as national conservatism, even name-checking one of national conservatism’s chief intellectual architects, Yoram Hazony (full disclosure: my Edmund Burke Foundation colleague). In the past, Prime Minister Orban has also embraced the mantle of “illiberal democracy.” That may sound rhetorically jarring to overly sensitized Western ears, but it amounts to the same criticism of the liberal order as that which is aired by American national conservatives and “postliberals.”

Hungary under Orban rejects the illusion of liberal neutrality, recognizing, as this column has previously phrased it, “that values-neutral liberal order amounts to a one-way cultural ratchet” toward leftism and progressivism. As euroskeptical Hungary and other like-minded Central and Eastern European nations, such as Poland, have learned all too well, it is impotent to defensively plead “live and let live”-style tolerance from imperious liberal European Union overlords in Berlin and Brussels. Rather, the only way for traditionalist nations like Hungary and Poland to push back against the EU’s progressive, globalist vision of the good, the true and the beautiful is by offering an affirmative counter in the form of its own conservative, nationalist vision of the good, the true and the beautiful.

Hungary’s border control is famously strict, as Fox News host Tucker Carlson himself witnessed in a much-hyped helicopter ride with Orban when he was here last year. Hungary, which, like Poland and other nations in this part of Europe, has been overrun in the past by various totalitarian empires, now prioritizes strict cultural assimilation and national preservation at the expense of neoliberal absolutism and George Soros-style open-border delusions. The Hungarian government under Fidesz is not “neutral,” furthermore, on basic questions of sexual morality and the Judeo-Christian tradition: Gender ideology is kept out of schools, marriage is vigorously defended as the exclusive union of one man and one woman and Christianity is woven into the very fabric of society and polity alike.

Fidesz has no appetite for policing bedrooms — and Budapest has its annual “Pride” parade — but the state decisively puts its thumb on the scale in favor of traditional Christian ethics. There are no “drag queen story hours” scandalizing innocent children here. On the contrary, the government’s public defense of European Christendom and the “illiberal” nature in which its policies prefer traditional religious ethics over alternative lifestyles represents a sort of “ecumenical integralism” — encapsulated by the fact Orban himself is Calvinist, while his wife is Catholic. Hungary’s popular, elaborate and much-discussed family policy measures have also been successful in boosting the national birthrate.

The combination here of nationalism, public Christianity and Soros-bashing leads many in the Western press to decry Orban and Fidesz as antisemitic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving leader in the Jewish state’s history, considered Orban his greatest European ally. Hungary routinely supports Israel at the United Nations and in its invariable border conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah. Moreover, Jewish life itself in Budapest is thriving (at least based on the bleak post-World War II baseline for European Jewry). I spent half a day touring numerous gorgeous synagogues, walking through the historic Jewish ghetto and dining at a very fine kosher meat restaurant. (The goulash was delicious.) And unlike in Western and Northern European countries, which have taken a diametrically opposite stance on the issue of Islamic migration, Jews in Hungary are safe and secure.

Armed guards outside synagogues are far from ubiquitous here — unlike, say, in Paris or Brussels.

The view from Budapest, then, is a good one. That’s not to say everything here is perfect; like much of the rest of post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe, corruption remains a real problem. But American statesman and legislators can still find much to admire and possibly emulate here, at least at the level of principle; the thorny policy details, especially in the context of America’s constitutional structure, will be fleshed out not in the realm of principle but of prudence. But Hungary under Fidesz, to use another phrase popular among the online Right, “knows what time it is.”

The time is one of a declining neutral liberal order, and of a greater imperative to wield state power to promote good and quash evil.

April’s elections here will reveal whether the Hungarian electorate agrees.

PHOTO: Parliament Building, Budapest. Photo by Neil. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Josh Hammer is opinion editor of Newsweek, a research fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation, counsel and policy advisor for the Internet Accountability Project, a syndicated columnist through Creators and a contributing editor for Anchoring Truths. A frequent pundit and essayist on political, legal and cultural issues, Josh is a constitutional attorney by training and the co-host of two podcasts: Newsweek's "The Debate" and the Edmund Burke Foundation's "NatCon Squad."

An outspoken conservative, Josh opines on conservative intellectual trends, contemporary domestic and foreign policy debates, constitutional and legal issues, and the intersection of law, politics and culture. He has been published by many leading outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, Newsweek, National Affairs, American Affairs, The National Interest, National Review, City Journal, First Things, Public Discourse, Law & Liberty, Tablet Magazine, Deseret Magazine, The Spectator, The American Conservative, The American Mind, American Greatness, American Compass, Anchoring Truths, Townhall, The Epoch Times, The Daily Wire, Fortune, Fox Business, Pairagraph, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the Jewish Journal. He has had formal legal scholarship published by the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy and the University of St. Thomas Law Journal.

Josh is a college campus speaker through Intercollegiate Studies Institute and Young America's Foundation, as well as a law school campus speaker through the Federalist Society. Prior to Newsweek and the Daily Wire, where he was an editor, Josh worked at a large law firm and clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Josh has also served as a John Marshall Fellow with the Claremont Institute.

Josh graduated from Duke University, where he majored in economics, and from the University of Chicago Law School. He lives in Miami, but remains an active member of the State Bar of Texas.