Published May 15, 2023
American conservatives hungry for victory are increasingly looking overseas for a political figure around which they can model their political movement. Many are gravitating toward one man in particular: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
This is as wrongheaded as it is alarming. Orban not only has a concerning authoritarian tilt, but his brand of nationalism simply will not translate well to American voters.
Conservatives’ dalliance with Orban has only grown in recent years. Earlier this month, the Conservative Political Action Conference held a conference in Hungary’s capital of Budapest that featured a keynote address from the prime minister. This was the second year that such an event was held in the country. Orban also appeared at a CPAC event in Texas last August and earned regular praise from former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson.
Part of Orban’s appeal to many conservatives is the disdain that so many global elites have for him. He attracted this reputation largely because of his years-long opposition to mass immigration, even when it comes to refugees, and his slow erosion of an independent mass media. He also has a history of using government funds to support his cronies and push his political objectives. American conservatives have no interest in emulating these troublesome activities, but embracing a man who flaunts democratic norms only hurts the conservative movement — especially in light of Democratic efforts to paint Republicans as antidemocratic following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Many conservatives like Orban because he keeps winning elections on a frankly nationalist and traditionalist platform. They like his resistance to European Union requests that Hungary accept large numbers of refugees from Muslim countries. They adore his positive endorsement of Christianity and support his use of subsidies and tax breaks to encourage childbearing. Many even like his suspicion of Western support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.
In other words, Orban’s agenda sounds a lot like a Hungarian version of Donald Trump’s “America First” platform — except the Hungarian version has proved more politically successful. But this overlooks the massive differences between Hungary and the United States.
First, Hungarian nationalism is ethnic, not ideological. Hungarians are a distinct, non-Slavic people surrounded by Slavic nations. Hungarians who live outside Hungary’s borders in places such as Romania and Slovakia invariably form ethnic-based political parties to support their community. When Orban talks about Hungarian nationalism, he’s talking about backing the interests of a discrete ethnic group, not “all people who live in Hungary.”
Hungary is also uniquely resistant to immigration. Even today, about 20 years after the country joined the European Union, 98 percent of all Hungarians have at least some Hungarian blood, according to the country’s 2016 census. Unlike the United States, few Hungarian voters are immigrants or come from immigrant parents. Orban’s resistance to refugees and pronatalist policies should be seen for what they are: efforts to keep his country an overwhelmingly ethnically Hungarian nation. That will not build the broad coalition that conservatives need.
Hungary is also significantly more rural than the United States. Only 39 of Hungary’s 106 parliamentary districts lie within a city of 100,000 people or more or contain its suburbs; the opposition won 19 of them and broke fewer than 40 percent in 10 others. By contrast, nearly 70 percent of America’s population lies within metropolitan statistical areas with at least 1 million people. Millions more live in smaller metro areas that are anything but rural.
These factors mean that Hungary’s political demography more closely resembles states such as Kentucky or Tennessee, which are dominated by rural, White populations. Indeed, Trump carried more than 60 percent of both states in 2020, just as Orban’s Fidesz party and a nationalist party to his right, Our Homeland, received 60 percent of the vote in 2022’s election. But conservatives in America need to look beyond deep-red electorates to win nationally.
American Orbanism would almost certainly fall flat in the United States. The United States is perhaps the world’s most successful multiethnic nation, and American conservatism must embrace that. Instead of ethno-nationalism, the focus should be on opposing de facto open borders. Likewise, Orban’s natalism will not resonate in a country where women are already well-integrated into the workforce and increasingly earning more college degrees than men. Instead of promoting childbearing, conservatives should focus on promoting families.
America’s huge standing in the world also precludes Orban’s neo-isolationist foreign policy. Hungary spends less of its gross domestic product on national defense than even Germany, which conservatives often deride for its anemic military. Orban can afford to pander to Russian President Vladimir Putin, secure in the knowledge that NATO and the United States will protect Hungary’s sovereignty. But the United States cannot take such a blinkered view.
Most American conservatives insist that the United States is the best country in the world, so it’s strange to see so many long for the politics of another nation. Conservatives will regain the confidence of voters only when they can confidently reinterpret America’s own national ideals into a coherent, attractive platform.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Thomas W. Smith distinguished scholar in residence at Arizona State University for the winter/spring 2023 semester
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.