The contemporary populist right excels at victimhood. Here in Britain, the Conservative Party has been in power for nearly 12 years. Yet much of the rhetoric emanating from the government’s supporters emphasises the power of “elites” and an “out of touch” establishment.
This can be confusing. If you aren’t part of the establishment after a decade in power, then who is? However, things make more sense when one recognises just how central a sense of victimhood is to contemporary conservative populism.
The exemplar here is Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán and his right-wing populist party, Fidesz, have just won a fourth term in power. Yet listening to him speak, you would hardly know it. Upon securing his latest election victory, Orbán described it as “the most uneven fight ever”. This made sense considering his government controls more than 90 per cent of the country’s media outlets. However, this wasn’t what Orbán was referring to. Instead, he was trying to characterise himself as a little David facing down an almighty Goliath. This Goliath included “the leftists at home, the international leftists, the Brussels bureaucrats, the Soros organisations, the international media and ultimately even the Ukrainian president”.
Orbán’s successful weaponisation of conservative victimhood has won him plaudits from right-wingers around the world. Popular conservative commentators such as Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray have made pilgrimages to Budapest to meet him. “We hope you will think of Budapest as your intellectual home,” Orbán told a group of visiting American conservatives last year. The conservative intellectual Roger Scruton accepted an award from Viktor Orbán in 2019.
Last summer the Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson broadcast a private audience with Orbán to his 3.2 million American viewers. Having been given the customary tour of things the Hungarian government wanted him to see, Carlson praised the country’s border as “perfectly clean and orderly”. Inadvertently channelling the Irish literary critic George Bernard Shaw, who described the Soviet Union under Stalin as a “land of hope”, Carlson triumphantly declared that “there weren’t scenes of human suffering” at Hungary’s border — overlooking numerous reports documenting the brutal and inhumane conditions that prevail inside the country’s migrant detention centres.
Hungary, in other words, is the political right’s Venezuela. When the left-wing populist president Hugo Chávez ruled Venezuela in the 2000s and early 2010s, revolutionary tourists flocked to the country. Reports of human rights abuses by Venezuelan security forces were brushed over by idealistic sightseers who had discovered that “another world is possible”.
Orbán has more powerful friends too, of course. One of them is Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator whose soldiers are raping and murdering their way through Ukraine. Like Orbán’s Hungary, Putin’s regime has long had intellectual pretensions, even if many of Putin’s former Western apologists today wrap themselves in the Ukrainian flag to save what remains of their reputations.
Conservative scribblers in the West have tried to give the Orbán regime a similar patina of intellectual credence. Thus Orbán’s rule — sustained by shutting down debate and systematically dismantling Hungary’s democracy — is described portentously in the pages of right-leaning publications as “Gramscian conservatism”. According to the American Conservative writer Rod Dreher, Orbán’s Hungary is “what an actual pro-family, socially conservative government acts like”.
Whether they come from the left or the right, those whom Lenin purportedly called “useful idiots” have one thing in common: they do not let inconvenient facts get in the way of their idealism. In Orbán’s Hungary, inconvenient facts are abundant, but only if one is willing to look. In its annual report for 2020, the American watchdog organisation Freedom House described Hungary as a “hybrid regime” and referred to its “precipitous democratic decline”. The report was published on the back of a Covid-19 emergency law that allowed the government to rule by decree indefinitely (a law that, weirdly enough, elicited few objections from right-wing populists in the West who had hitherto been characterising domestic mask mandates as totalitarianism).
Whereas traditional dictatorships revel in displays of brute force, today’s autocrats are more sophisticated. This can make it harder for outsiders to understand what’s really going on, and easier for overseas admirers to evoke plausible deniability. As Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology at Princeton University and an expert on Hungarian politics, puts it: “Twentieth-century dictatorships were about ideology and repression: physical repression with this detestable ideology. Twenty-first century authoritarianism works through economic means rather than physical means.”
Thus, in Hungary, private companies that employ individuals with the “wrong” political views are frequently blacklisted from state contracts, leaving many people without work — around a million Hungarians are believed to have emigrated since Orbán became prime minister in 2010. Cronyism abounds. Lucrative state contracts are handed out to his political allies.
Right-leaning commentators in the West often claim they are protecting free speech from overly sensitive “snowflakes” who want to restrict it. In Hungary the snowflakes occupy power. Tweet critically about the government and you risk arrest. In 2020 a 64-year-old man in the town of Szerencs was arrested after posting online that Orbán was a “cruel tyrant”. Whereas the right in Britain rails — sometimes with good reason, sometimes not so much — against “cancel culture”, the Hungarian government appears to have been caught using spyware to hack the phones of critical journalists.
Everything, including the abolition of independent checks on state power, is justified by Orbán and Fidesz on a defensive basis. Such measure are necessary, they argue, to protect “Christian Europe” from George Soros and his “mafia-like networks” (the Hungarian government has frequently used such anti-Semitic stereotypes in its ongoing campaign against the Jewish philanthropist).
Contemporary conservatism’s obsession with victimhood can at times resemble an outgrowth of the politics of victimhood that prevails in certain sections of the left. Yet while victimhood may be the preferred style of the new right, it is a deep-rooted paranoia that sustains it. Paranoia about immigration from the Middle East. Paranoia about gays and evolving gender norms. Paranoia about “cultural Marxism” and “globalists” who believe in the inevitability of an interconnected world (who doesn’t at this point?). Paranoia about “cultural disintegration”. And, of course, paranoia about Jews.
To be a conservative today is, in some quarters, to be assailed on all sides by the forces of liberalism and degeneracy. Yet the problem with a politics as paranoid as this is that it can be — and has historically been — used to effectively say that anything goes. Inflate the power of your enemy out of all proportion and snuffing out democratic opposition becomes a defensive manoeuvre, ballot-stuffing becomes a patriotic act and persecuting rivals is necessary to defend “civilisation”.
In “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, in 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote the following: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
Mainstream Western conservatives would do well not to indulge the paranoid fantasies of the thuggish Viktor Orbán. They should also refamiliarise themselves with one of the twentieth century’s most profound lessons: monsters exist not only to their left, but to their right as well.