Viktor Orbán is Europe’s oldest elected leader. Thanks to his victory in the parliamentary elections in April, the Hungarian Prime Minister will soon surpass Angela Merkel’s record as the European leader in power for the longest time in the 21st century. Doing this on a nationalist platform explicitly opposed to international liberal values made him a hero of the global nativist right: Nigel Farage once called him “the future of Europe”; Donald Trump twice supported his last election campaign; and last month CPAC, a US-based political conference at the heart of the Trump movement, hosted a European version of their event in Budapest with the former president appearing via video link.
Hungary is often presented as a warning to liberals elsewhere of the dangers posed by a right-wing populist leader in power: this is where the “war on revival” will lead; this is how the state and the media will be gradually reconfigured to confuse democracy. It’s true that Orbánism offers a pretty stark worst-case scenario, though the Republican Party — and conservatives — don’t need much guidance to foment culture wars or undemocratic engineering. Less attention is paid to how Orbán and his Fidesz party came to power and held power in the first place.
Orbán’s success since 2010 is closely tied to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. As Adam Tooze documented in Crushed, Eastern European states suffered downward shocks to GDP nearly twice the magnitude of the recession in the United States. In Hungary, the crisis was aggravated by the liberalization policies pursued by the ruling MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) over the previous decade, which, among other things, had allowed extensive foreign control of the financial system, leading to mortgages and other loans denominated in foreign currencies. . All of the 130% increase in household debt between 2003 and 2008 was made up of foreign currency loans. A Hungarian worker is said to have seen his debts suddenly multiply in the chasm between the collapsing forint and soaring yen because the loan on his Dacia Sandero – for reasons he would find it hard to explain – was held up by a bank in Japan.
Fidesz won in 2010 by promising to fix it all. In power, they clearly blamed foreign financial companies and the central bank, attacking the former with exceptional penalties, taxes and sanctions, and cutting the salaries of the bosses of the latter. Fidesz MP László Kövér called it “a crude political power play between the government and the international banking world“. Orbán managed to reduce the debt by seizing private pensions, opening church assets to taxation, and cutting funding to universities. International manufacturers have been wooed with low corporate taxes and ever-shrinking labor protections, which have kept unemployment low and wages relatively high. Benefits were reduced, but rural job creation programs and commodity price controls were used judiciously.
The whole project is a balancing act, taking with one hand and giving with the other, broadly and quickly, using the toolkits of left, right and center to reward certain sectors and citizens and punishing others in a whirlwind of interventions. Sociologist Dorit Geva has called this approach ornationalism: under previous regimes – you might say neoliberal – citizens have seen deregulation and disruption; with an ordonationalist, they see a powerful government bringing a semblance of order and predictability – for the “right” people. Even though the terms and conditions remain the same, with the workforce still shrinking and the state still eventually shrinking, there is the feeling of a firm hand on the tiller.
It proved incredibly popular. Orbán won a two-thirds majority in 2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022. The coalition that keeps him in power is remarkably similar to the Trump or Tory base: middle-class Christian conservatives and enough working-class voters to maintain a majority. For the former, the state has rewarded small businesses and local plutocrats at the expense of international finance; for the latter, there are many jobs and basic necessities are cheap; both groups seem to profit from the persecution of fellow Roma, Jews, LGBTQ+ and homeless people, as well as the spectacle of anti-migrant violence and the absurdly militarized southern border.
The main attraction of the Orbánism is the cultural and material offer together; that, along with a healthy dose of anti-democratic tinkering, cemented its success. (A recent analysis of the Slovenian SDS party’s failures on a platform that might be called purely cultural orbánism makes this clear.) The conditions that make this combination so attractive are not unique to Hungary. In America and elsewhere, the effects of the financial crisis and the longer flight from deindustrialization are still widely felt. American politicians are unlikely to go to war with big finance, but so-called “national conservatives” – such as Tucker Carlson, Oren Cass or Marco Rubio – are now talking about state power, outsourcing and even unions with considerable ease. It is not surprising that they admire Orbán and invite Fidesz personalities for concerts.
The more traditional center and center-left politicians who oppose it often seem oblivious to this strategy. The six-party alliance that opposed Orbán in 2022 has focused on his erosion of democratic standards and abhorrent beliefs, at times accusing him of not being a “true” conservative Christian and calling for a new “era of honesty”. There have been some rumors of new labor protections, but little material program for voters. When they lost – badly – their candidate for prime minister, Péter Márki-Zay, claimed that even Jesus would have been defeated by Orbán’s propaganda machine. But Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple and was generous with the loaves and the fishes. Orbán’s adversaries have done little to distinguish themselves as anything other than a return to “normality”, a normality that Orbán’s program had already soundly defeated and replaced. It’s surprisingly easy to see the mistake repeated elsewhere.