BUDAPEST, Hungary — When President Biden greets scores of nations at his virtual “Summit for Democracy” this coming week, one member of the Western alliance won’t be there.
Hungary, on the Eastern edge of the European Union, was not invited.
Washington and EU leaders in Brussels have repeatedly accused the country’s ultranationalist government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, of undermining democracy. Biden once name-checked Hungary when referring to the “thugs of the world.”
But Laszlo Magas, a retired professor who helped bring an end to communism in Hungary, chalks up his country’s political isolation to one thing: Western liberal bias.
“Hungary is not the West’s colony,” says Magas, an Orban supporter who echoes many of the prime minister’s views. “The whole world is being misled about us. The mainstream media is full of fake news about us. The liberals want you to think Hungary doesn’t know what democracy is because we don’t share their beliefs.”
Europe, he says, is ideologically divided between the conservative East and the more liberal West, something like red-and-blue America.
“And the border is the [former] Iron Curtain,” Magas says. “We in the East are the ones protecting traditional European values, Christian values, while the West has gone crazy.”
Many in Eastern Europe have concluded that Western liberalism is not a good fit
Orban and his Fidesz party have become the flag-bearers of this mindset during their decade in power. The Hungarian government has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over migration, multiculturalism, press freedom and, most recently, LGBTQ rights.
Their target in this culture war has been liberal democracy, which Orban has tried to equate with leftist and “unpatriotic” beliefs. Orban is instead promoting “illiberal democracy”, a term coined by journalist Fareed Zakaria to describe countries where elected leaders undermine checks on power.
Orban first used the term in a 2014 speech promoting governance in the national interest, citing China, Russia and Turkey as examples. Four years later, after his party won in a landslide election, he declared that “we have replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy” that supports tradition and security.
“He’s trying to position himself to play the role that [Cuban leader] Fidel Castro played for the left in the 1970s,” says political scientist Ivan Krastev, who with Stephen Holmes co-wrote The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy, an examination of Eastern Europe’s disillusionment with liberal democracy.
“The leftists fell in love with Castro for standing up for things they believed in, for being a revolutionary. Orban and Hungary are playing the same role now, but for conservatives,” Krastev says.
Hungary has become a magnet for European far-right nationalists and American conservatives. Fox News host Tucker Carlson took his show to Hungary for a week this August, treating Orban to a glowing interview.
Former Vice President Mike Pence followed in September, where he said he hoped the US would overturn abortion rights. Pence also praised the Hungarian government’s promotion of “traditional family values” at the Budapest Demographics Summit, an annual paean to increasing population through more childbirth instead of immigration.