David Szalay’s latest novel is Turbulence.
For the past few years, I have found myself in the position of having to apologize for the place where I live. Hungary does not have a great reputation these days. Repeated landslide victories for Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government have invited the outside world to view the country as, in Hillary Clinton’s memorable words about Donald Trump supporters, little more than “a basket of deplorables.” Stories that reinforce this image of Hungary and its people are the ones that tend to make it into the international media, and when I travel outside the country people ask me, wide-eyed, "what it’s like” to live there as if I had decided to take up residence in Pyongyang.
Budapest does not feel like the capital of a dictatorship. That this point needs making at all is a reflection of the unhappy state of affairs in which Hungary finds itself, but nevertheless the point needs to be made. Flat white- and pale ale-drinking hipsters with neatly trimmed beards and full-sleeve tattoos sell vinyls in front of fashionably dilapidated drinking places. Cyclists with big square Wolt and NetPincer backpacks – the home-grown equivalents of Uber Eats and Foodora – weave through the traffic. New shopping malls go up, full of German, British and French chain stores. Asian noodle bars and vegan restaurants proliferate. Posters on the Metro advertise Jewish cultural festivals, visiting orchestras, the latest American superhero films. Hybrid cars are plugged into the charging points popping up all over the city. The place does not feel out of the European mainstream. Its grand crumbling buildings, neglected for much of the 20th century, are being renovated in significant numbers – there seems to be a construction crane on every street these days. And almost as common is to find sidewalks closed to accommodate the shooting of a film: Hungary has quietly assembled the second largest film industry in the EU, and Budapest has acquired in Europe a similar role to the one Toronto once held in North America – as a film set, it stands in for any city on the continent. The country is undergoing an economic boom. Wages are rising by double-digit percentages every year. Wizzair, the Budapest-based budget airline – now the third largest in Europe – sees its traffic increase by even heftier annual amounts. It takes young Hungarians to new lives in other parts of the European Union – something their parents and grandparents could only dream about – and brings in stag and hen parties from those places, often already drunk before they even get off the plane. The airport is being enlarged to accommodate a rapidly growing volume of long-haul traffic. The unemployment rate is at a record low.
It is hardly surprising that, in such circumstances, an incumbent government gets re-elected with a thumping majority, as Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party was last year. In my opinion, the strong economy was the most important single factor in that result. But there’s more to it than that, of course. For months before the election, the country was carpet-bombed by anti-immigration propaganda via TV and radio stations controlled by the government or by pliant cronies of the Prime Minister. In a place with virtually no immigrants, immigration was often cited by people as their main concern. (Ironically enough, when the greatest challenge currently facing the country is actually emigration and demographic decline.) So that undoubtedly played a part in Fidesz’s victory, too – the decisive part, if you read the international news media.
More fundamentally, though, and especially outside the capital, Hungary remains a socially conservative place, and the governing party is very much in tune with that. It’s easy to forget that half a century of diverging social history, from the end of the Second World War to 1990, left the societies on either side of the old Iron Curtain in very different places. Crucially, what we now think of as liberalism in the “West” was created during those very decades – a transformation of social attitudes that did not happen in the former Communist states. The experience of decolonization, immigration and multiculturalism that characterized and deeply affected most Western European states during that period would be one example of this process, and was entirely absent in the east. Another example would be what we might loosely call the “Sixties,” and profound changes in attitudes to sex, sexuality and gender, identity and individualism – again, the former Communist countries simply didn’t have that experience in anything like the same way. Instead, they had the imposition of Soviet Communism.
When that ended, in 1989, the future trajectory of those societies seemed to be toward the West, not only politically and economically but also socially and culturally. It is Mr. Orban’s political project to change that trajectory, specifically in those latter two areas. He is quite open about this. He clearly and openly says that he does not want Hungary to “go down that road.” So it would be a mistake to think that Mr. Orban is only interested in power for its own sake, that his creeping authoritarianism doesn’t have a specific ideological agenda. Instead of looking to where the West is now as a destination, he looks to where his own country was before Communism was imposed on it. Christianity is key here. Put simply, it comes down to a struggle between what we might call – and what Mr. Orban does call – liberal values and Christian values. It’s hard, of course, to define precisely what these are, but it’s easy to see that Mr. Orban wants Hungary to reject the former and embrace the latter.
EBBOL NEM KERUNK – “we don’t want any of that” – was a slogan on Fidesz flyers during this year’s European Parliament elections. Whatever the specific issues addressed by any individual flyer, the thing being rejected in every case was the liberal values supposedly embodied by “Brussels.” By the same token, the demonization of George Soros isn’t just because Mr. Orban needs an enemy, it isn’t simply opportunistic, let alone straightforwardly anti-Semitic – it’s because Mr. Soros is in fact an ideological opponent, a man whose own project of the past 30 years has been to make Eastern Europe more like Western Europe. To foster that process was the role he envisaged for the Central European University when he founded it in 1991 – which is precisely why Mr. Orban’s government was so determined to force it out of the country. The anti-Soros campaign, unpleasant and puerile as it is, thus reflects an actual conflict about the fundamental values of a society, a conflict in which the momentum would currently appear to be on Mr. Orban’s side: As he himself has pointed out, rather than Hungary becoming more like Western Europe, Western Europe these days seems to be becoming more like Hungary. (And not only Western Europe: Steve Bannon has described Mr. Orban as “Trump before Trump.”) In any case, both sides in this battle of values increasingly regard it as a conflict that’s too important to lose – and therein lies a genuine threat to democracy.
Nevertheless, it’s premature, in my opinion, to describe Mr. Orban as an autocrat. He knows as well as anyone that the day public opinion turns against him, he’s finished. That’s why Fidesz is run, exhaustingly, in permanent campaign mode. Like all successful political parties, it’s a complex coalition of interests created by particular historical circumstances – it is supported by pious old ladies still incensed by the militant atheism of the Communists, by BMW-driving businessmen happy with the economic stability and low corporate taxes of the Fidesz era, by young families who have benefited from subsidized mortgages, by much of the Roma community who have seen government largesse and who are on the whole socially conservative, and by many of the low-paid citizens who have seen the minimum wage nearly double over the past nine years. Like all successful political parties, Fidesz has a deep understanding of its electoral base and what they will and won’t swallow. And like all successful political parties, it is monstrously cynical and ruthless in its public messaging. It’s an ugly beast, and there’s currently no other political force in Hungary capable of challenging it. But one day, there will be.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.