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10 August 2023

Inside Viktor Orbán’s ideas factory

What makes Hungary so appealling to the new, radical right?

By Zoe Strimpel

Some time in May, shortly after I had accepted an invitation to give a graduation speech and a lecture in June at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) in Cluj, Romania, another email arrived, asking if I’d like to appear on a panel about dating – the topic of my PhD and much previous writing – at the signature MCC festival in Esztergom, Hungary, in July. I would of course be flown in, accommodated, wined and dined.

This had been the arrangement in Cluj, a Habsburg-pretty city in Transylvania, where my speech and lecture, both on the theme of resisting political orthodoxies, were expertly blended with a week of sightseeing, goulash and a trip to King Charles’s rustic compound in the Zalán valley. I had been invited to Cluj after one of the MCC’s star lecturers, a leonine man whose charming dissimulations put me in mind of an MI6 operative, had seen me in action on a panel at the Battle of Ideas – Britain’s free-debate festival – last October.

The Mathias Corvinus Collegium, named after the King of Hungary and Croatia from 1458 to 1490, is a vast network of educational outreach and college-level curricula funded by the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s populist, anti-immigration Fidesz party – and its private interests – to the tune of a $1.7bn endowment. The MCC is bound up with Fidesz; it is seen both as a training ground for party elites and, with its stranglehold on funds and power, a key instrument for curtailing ideological diversity in Hungarian higher education.

Fidesz, which is lionised by Maga conservatives in the United States and populist right-wingers in Britain, is despised on Hungary’s left and in Brussels. It goes to lengths to insist it is not racist and, despite a conspiratorial obsession with George Soros, whom they see as consistently working against Hungary’s interests, not anti-Semitic. But Fidesz’s rhetoric has at times been hard to see as entirely benign, particularly since the migrant crisis of 2016. “We must state that we do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed,” said Orbán in 2018. “We do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others. We do not want this. We do not want that at all. We do not want to be a diverse country.” The reference to “colour” is hard to overlook, and laws have been changed so that it is illegal to “settle foreign populations in Hungary”.

[See also: Alexander Lukashenko: The broker of Belarus]

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The MCC’s affairs are conducted in the prettiest towns and finest restaurants in the Carpathian basin, from Cluj (“Kolozvar” in Hungarian, which is how Transylvanian Hungarians continue to refer to it despite “losing” it in 1918) to Satu Mare in Romania and Debrecen in Hungary – and even Berehove in Ukraine. Part Fidesz propaganda machine, part private university, its tokens of legitimacy come from a regular roster of speakers and guest fellows with prestigious CVs from abroad. The MCC specialises in bringing “cancelled” Anglo-American academics and journalists into its fold. It has hosted anti-woke luminaries including Nigel Biggar, author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning; Peter Boghossian, the former Portland State professor whose resignation went viral after he refused to bow to his campus’s speech rules; and the former Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson, a speaker at MCC Feszt in 2021. Several prominent British journalists, including Toby Young and Douglas Murray, have been guests of the MCC.

A free trip to a rural Hungarian jewel in summer, complete with schmoozing and tokaji, is a strong lure. And the international coordinators project an air of lightness about the whole thing. I was reassured by a contact who works for the MCC that my talk would be “just dating, nothing nefarious”.

“Please don’t touch this,” messaged Alexander Faludy, the grandson of Hungary’s most famous 20th century poet, György Faludy, when I mentioned the invitation. Faludy, a former priest in Newcastle who now lives in Budapest, became the youngest undergraduate at Cambridge since 1773 when he began his studies there, aged 15, in 1998. Since 2018 he has been tracking Fidesz’s machinations, particularly through the MCC.

“Paradoxically the problem with MCC is that it is not full of crackpots,” he wrote to me. “It, or rather the Anglophone side of it, is meant to look moderate and reasonable and thus attract people internationally who would not touch the Fidesz brand as such. The problem is not what is said at MCC events but the set-up and its implications viz corruption.” Faludy reminds me of the endowment from the Hungarian state, and the MCC’s total “exemption from public procurement transparency requirements”.

Still, I was curious about “what is said” in the trough from which so many of our prominent anti-woke pundit-academics now drink. So, having declined my invitation to the festival, I went independently, commuting between Budapest and Esztergom, since there were no rooms whatsoever to be had in the latter: the festival is popular with young people who come less for the panel discussions and more for the pop and folk music and activities like line dancing. For those who can’t afford rooms, there are camping grounds around the festival site.

[See also: The Islamist roots of French disorder]

The panels were a relatively small part of the offering, and were free to all – a bland discussion with Sebastian Kurtz, Austria’s youngest chancellor, was the only packed talk, and he seemed to have rock-star status, surrounded after his talk by queues of genuflecting young men. Otherwise, the youthful attendees were there for the music. I asked a few of them why they were here. They all said the music and “fun”, but when I asked, they said they thought Orbán was pretty good. “Except for economic matters, [where] he could be better,” said a 25-year-old law student called Tibor. As for the fun: “My first outing to the actual festival part tonight” texted a journalist friend the night I left. “Makes it all the more bizarre. S*** awful music combined with conservative moralism. The whole thing is completely nuts.” Sort of like the National Conservatism Conference with Morris dancing? I asked. “Absolutely right,” he said.

Line dancing aside, the political heart of the festival was to be found most explicitly in the panel discussions – on which the MCC had spent tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, flying people over from as far afield as Los Angeles, Mexico and Taiwan, and putting them up.

The themes speakers returned to again and again – at least in the events in English – were the concerns of the new, pan-Atlantic, radical right. Birth rates, borders and national identity were prominent. Hungary’s preference in dealing with its sinking birth rate is to shun immigration and focus on indigenous baby production by paying mothers to breed – a third child wins a married couple a payout of €30,000. Women who have four or more babies are exempt from income tax for life. The sanctity of the family, therefore, was the master theme, and speakers frequently praised Hungary’s pathbreaking family policies, in sharp opposition to the anti-family, hopelessly atomised woke West.

The panel I had been invited to participate in – “just about dating” – praised Orbán’s Hungary as the last outpost of family values. “Faith, family, country,” exclaimed Vincent Harinam, a Canadian data science researcher with a solid Nat Con Twitter following. “We’re here in Hungary, celebrating Hungary, and whatever it has to offer.” The panellists were all in agreement, and went on to denounce dating apps as an outcropping of a mentally ill society that had entirely lost the sense of duty and community. We in the West had dangerously departed from the ways of “nature”, turning us into miserable, selfish individuals instead of members of a community. Harinam diagnosed the “degradation of society” whereby “people prioritise careers” and warned of the “contractualisation” of relationships and of the rising crime that ensues from broken homes.

Many of the events were in Hungarian, and focused on themes of national pride, including Hungarian beer and bread baking, plus more serious offerings from the Young Conservatives, Boundlessly for Hungarian Youth, St Thomas Aquinas Ecumenical Public Academy and the National Heritage Institute. And the panels in English were not all straightforwardly political; 15 minutes into a panel on “the future of mobility”, I was so hot and bored I went to the lido accessible to all on the shaded pathway skirting the river and plunged in the pool.

As Faludy noted, guests were not just culture warriors. Some have written for the Atlantic (the defence analyst Benjamin Friedman) or the respectable German group Axel Springer (Boris Kálnoky, a Hungarian aristocrat with a measured style). Others were centrist think tankers and researchers there mainly, it appeared, out of open-minded curiosity about Hungary.

In general, however, Orbánite concerns, endorsed by the prime minister’s American, British and German friends, were briskly covered. In a panel about Budapest’s relationship to Brussels, Werner Josef Patzelt, head of research at MCC Brussels and formerly a professor of government at the Technical University of Dresden, said that since “Hungary dares to be a conservative country, promoting conservative values like families, children and so on”, it is blackmailed and bullied by the EU, which has time only for “member states”, not “nation states”. Miklós Szánthó, director of the amusingly named Centre for Fundamental Rights, which is dedicated to “preserving national identity, sovereignty and Judeo-Christian social traditions” argued that Hungary’s policies serve “true” EU interests: “Sovereignty, border protection, the family, demographics – Hungary’s policy serves European interests. Not the policy of letting millions of illegal migrants into the EU.”

The session on “geopolitics” offered an even-tempered consideration of outcomes of the Ukraine war, American tensions with China and the American election. But the panel was striking in three ways. First, all four of the speakers, and the chair, were men (though as the festival continued, it became obvious that, on political topics, this was the norm). Second, one of them was Gladden Pappin, the abortion-obsessed, ultra-Catholic Harvard graduate now residing in Budapest as the president of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs (his credentials for the role are mysterious). And the third striking point was the deep anti-Americanism, which took the form of just what the left tends to complain about: the hubristic imperialism and capitalistic greed of a country that starts “forever wars”. Cynicism about American involvement in the war in Ukraine was pervasive.

For Friedman, formerly of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, the war represented the “revitalisation of the greater American project” and was “creating extreme over confidence in our own abilities to shape global events”. Pappin noted that when it came to the supply of “material, intelligence, economic aid, the US outshines them all – all of this happened without any debate about the war”. He lamented that all the big “decisions are made in Washington – Nato expansion, energy policy of Europe”. And Dean Karalekas, a Canadian living in Taiwan with a research fellowship at the University of Central Lancashire, wondered if it was simply “good for the economy… because manufacturing keeps moving”. Ukraine, he said, “serves the purpose of being a forever war, without the visuals of body bags coming home”.

[See also: Putin’s secret navy]

Pappin is very concerned with ending abortion and promoting Christian family values, but in this panel, he and his colleagues channelled one of the more perplexing aspects of the right-wing grey area fostered by the MCC: its dovishness. If on one hand Orbán’s fan boys admire strong, bold and belligerent leaders – Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping – then they also seem to think war is never in Hungary’s interest, especially economically, and it is better to find a diplomatic solution to Putin’s Europe-threatening aggression, or to allow China to occupy its sphere as an “equal” to America, as Orbán put it the preceding week at another Fidesz-sponsored international retreat, called Tusványos, in the Transylvanian wilderness.

Put simply: these guys hate Nato. “Nato has created a situation where it was possible for Russia to invade,” said Mick Hume, of Spiked and, formerly, the Times. “Why does Nato even exist? Nato is a Cold War organisation, and after it won the Cold War, albeit by default, it’d done its job, and yet we had an expansion. This was foolish, reckless decision-making by policymakers in Brussels and Washington.”

This right-wing turn to dovishess is odd, given that throughout this century the temperament has been associated strongly with the left, who abhorred the war on terror, and were the ones keen on seeing the imprint of the American military industrial complex – and capitalistic greed – in all Western military engagement. It was the EU in-crowd – liberals in France and Germany – that despised American foreign policy. But if Ukraine has galvanised a new fighting liberalism, it has also spurred on the ascent of right-wing isolationism born, as with everything, out of a fear and loathing of woke contamination. The radical American right in particular sees this contamination, indeed takeover, in all American institutions, including the military, and assumes anything it gets involved in must be eroding their conservative way of life.

In Hungary, the mealy-mouthed stance on Russia’s invasion points to a different game, more sleight of hand: I heard repeatedly that it is a “ridiculous smear” of the woke and liberal media that Orbán supports Putin. And yet Fidesz has also made clear that it wants continued economic cooperation with Russia, and it has its own tensions with Ukraine, including alleged mistreatment of Hungarian minorities there. And the more the Eastern alliance hangs together, the bigger the headache for America – and anything that conveys hostility to the centre of neoliberalism, wokeness and military self-interest is good by Fidesz-run Hungary.

The Daily Wire‘s Michael Knowles, an arch-Catholic whose 2017 book Reasons to Vote for Democrats: A Comprehensive Guide contained only blank pages and a full bibliography, was the most crudely offensive speaker at MCC Feszt, and seemed to represent the outer limit of MCC discourse. Describing the appeal of Trump, he talked about how “the people invading our country are murderers. Some of them might be good people, but we’re going to keep them out. He used the n-word. We’re not allowed to use the n-word. ‘Nationalism’.” He praised historical eras in which America closed its borders – which included turning back boats of Jews trying to flee the Holocaust.

As with many speakers at MCC Feszt, the spectre of trans activism dominated Knowles’s thinking about political change. “When the leftists’ culture war gets to the point that they’re mutilating little children and convincing little boys that they’re little girls… you’re going to see the pendulum swing.” These fears were also apparent at a VIP audience with Balázs Orbán (no relation of Viktor), the chairman of the MCC and the prime minister’s political director.

In a two-hour speech full of anti-American rambling, Balázs Orbán dedicated large sections to the danger to children of LGBTQ ideology, saying that all books including such material should be protectively wrapped in plastic, though the number of these available in Hungary, especially since the MCC bought the country’s biggest publisher, is not likely to be large. As a Hungarian friend noted: “My kids wouldn’t even know transgender was a thing if it were not for the government propaganda against it.”

The final panel was about the fate of religion in a secular 21st century. Professor Chad Pecknold argued for a return to “Christian nationalism”, and maintained, when the LA-based rabbi and scholar David Wolpe queried the wonderfulness of Christian nationalism for Jews, that Jews had always fared better under Christian states. Wolpe, who marries gay couples in his congregation, was forced to push back again.

Afterwards, I spoke to Wolpe about his experience of that panel and of the MCC Feszt more widely. “I went into it fairly ignorant of what everything was about,” he told me from Budapest airport, where his flight back to LA via London had just been cancelled. “I really didn’t have much of a sense of what was happening or why I had been invited. I didn’t know what MCC was or what it represented.” Wolpe asked his handler why he was there. “She said: ‘I told them you were a Conservative rabbi.’ ” In the US, of course, Conservative Judaism doesn’t mean conservative in the Hungarian sense; it’s quite a liberal denomination, though Wolpe defines himself politically as a centrist, and said he was “in sympathy with some of their goals”.

Wolpe noted that it was “both praiseworthy and symbolically significant” to have a Jew on the religion panel, “in Hungary, which is a country where I still know people who survived the war – but their families were wiped out. [But] to me the term Christian nationalism brings up associations that are pretty devastating for the history of the people.”

The idea that the MCC Feszt is another festival of ideas is mistaken. There were the overt servants of Orbán – Gladden Pappin, Balázs Orbán and fan girls and boys like Vincent Harinam and Chad Pecknold – but everyone there was, as Faludy warned me, serving Viktor Orbán’s ends, either by explicit promotion of the more extreme implications of Fidesz rhetoric, or by washing them to give them the appearance of legitimacy, of being the subject of genuine debate.

There were left-wing opposition panellists in two of the Hungarian-language debates. But as far as the English events went – and English is where the jewels are set off to glitter – this was an environment in which even a panel on “the future of dating” entailed harangues against the sexual revolution and the pill, and Fidesz-praising peons to the importance of family. The MCC Feszt represents a vast network of transatlantic soft power and propagandistic shrewdness. People love a free trip to Hungary: the romance of the mysterious former power is strong.

On the Friday night a Telegraph colleague who was on a panel about journalism snuck me into the VIP reception at the Grand Hotel. There was fizzy Hungarian wine and a buffet bursting with pork and goulash. But not far in, everyone went respectfully quiet to listen to a droning speech from Balázs Orbán. I found him hard to listen to.

Behind the unified front about family values and the evils of woke, the EU and America, the MCC Feszt illuminated the contradictions, and the dark heart, of the new radical conservatism. The anti-woke position started out as a valiant and important fight for free speech in the face of a left-wing social justice culture brazenly policing speech, thought and institutional life. But the free speech bit seems to have been forgotten, replaced by a transatlantic gang baying monolithically for the rights of right-wingers and preaching the glories of conservative values – always in a hyperbolic mode of crude mockery, hostility and excessive vilification of the “libtards”.

For those conservatives who, in the Thatcherite mould, believe in free markets and economic dynamism, interventionist Hungary offers murky rewards. It spends 5.5 per cent of its GDP on “family support” (the same as Israel spends on its military). This is a huge amount of taxpayer money going into shoring up the government’s conservative values, not the entrepreneurialism, deregulation and ideological and cultural freedom required for growth.

Or at least, the kind of growth envisioned by a previous generation of right-wingers and neocons. The eclipse of those people by this lot marks a decline in freedom, and a narrowing of horizons – not the glorious renaissance the MCC gang assure themselves in under way.

[See also: In defence of “what if?”]

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