Nationalists Turn Their Lonely Eyes to Hungary

It’s not just a dumb and bad model for the United States. It's an impossible one.

Dear Reader (including the flight attendant who was too good to be real),

Around this time last year, there was a big argument among a very small group of people about whether the whole Republican Party should be “burned down.” You can guess why some took the GOP Delenda Est point of view, so I won’t dwell on it. My view at the time was that, as a practical matter, it was a pretty silly debate. If you can’t actually do something, spending a lot of time fighting over whether it should be done is kind of pointless. I mean, the Fair Jessica and I often have fun arguing about how we would spend our lottery winnings, but until I finally pick the right numbers—and I will, oh yes, I will—there’s no reason to get too worked up about it. 

I bring this up only because I get the same feeling about the Hungary fetish on the right. Viktor Orbán stanning has been a thing on the right for a while. I’d say anti-anti-Orbánism has been around even longer. But this week things got turned up a notch because of Tucker Carlson’s visit. David writes very persuasively about all of that here.

But, as with the burn-it-all-down stuff last year, I find myself agreeing with David on the substance while thinking the best argument against adopting the Hungarian model is practical: It won’t work. Indeed, it can’t work. So pretending that Hungary illuminates the path forward is just a huge waste of everyone’s time. A relatively poor, ethnically homogeneous (98 percent of Hungarian citizens are ethnically Hungarian), landlocked country, about the size of Michigan with the population of Oregon, with less than a robust democratic tradition, isn’t just a bad (and dumb) model for the United States. It’s an impossible model for the United States.

Oh sure, it’s possible that this or that policy might be borrowed from Hungary—or Sweden, or anywhere else—but that’s a much more modest claim. And even then, most of the Hungarian policies people celebrate would be very difficult to transfer to the U.S. As David notes, it’s fine to talk about Hungary’s tough stance on immigration, but “it worked in Hungary” is kind of a childish argument to make about a country almost nobody wants to immigrate to (including the people claiming it’s so awesome). Moreover, who needs to look to Hungary to make an argument for restricting immigration? That’s a point of view with a very long tradition of existence in the United States, on the right and the left.

Either you find those arguments persuasive or you don’t. No one’s mind is going to be changed if they hear, “Look at Hungary!” The people who already agree might find comfort in Hungary’s example, but the people who disagree will, justifiably, say “Who gives a rat’s ass?”

Indeed, as a political matter, if you actually want to persuade people that restricting immigration is a good idea, I’d argue that saying your point of view is inspired by Viktor Orbán is a really bad idea. Think of it this way: I think there’s a perfectly legitimate argument, at least in principle, for banning or sharply curtailing free and easy access to internet porn. That sort of argument has a deep tradition in America, again on both left and right. But if you were going to try to mount a serious campaign to censor internet porn, you wouldn’t frame your argument by saying, “Look at what they’re doing in Saudi Arabia!” I’m all for making the trains run on time, but I don’t think invoking Mussolini as part of my rationale is a wise rhetorical move.

So, as a matter of practical politics, I think this is really an absurd waste of time. And as a matter of intellectual or cultural politics, I think it’s ill-advised. Flirting with a personality cult surrounding a corrupt, demagogic foreign leader who—justifiably or not—has earned a reputation as a wannabe despot is a great way to limit the appeal of your arguments and invite skepticism about your larger motives. Please note the lawyerly precision of the previous statement. I’m not saying that everyone celebrating the Hungarian model is a would-be authoritarian or nativist. I’m saying that getting overly enthusiastic about Orbánism is needlessly lending ammo to those who would make that charge.

But what I will say is that I find all of this stuff to be a depressing sign of conservative rot. For my entire adult life, conservatives have heaped scorn—and rightly so—on progressives who looked to Europe for inspiration on how to transform America. “Europe banned guns!” progressives would exclaim. “So what? We’re not Europe,” conservatives would answer. You can substitute the progressive pleading about how “Europe has socialized medicine!”  or “Europe has a massive welfare state!” etc., and the argument stays the same. Sometimes it wasn’t Europe, but Scandinavia or Germany. Or, before that, Italy and the Soviet Union. Heck, in the 1980s, liberal technocrats cast their Atari Democrat gaze on Japan. In the 1990s, the Thomas Friedman crowd smushed their collective noses against the candy store window of China, and longingly cried, “I want a piece of that!” But the argument was always the same.

Lincoln Steffens famously visited the Soviet Union and, upon his return, declared “I’ve been to the future—and it works!” (The prior year he visited Fascist Italy and came back with a similar report.) Before that, America’s progressive intellectuals were obsessed with Bismarck’s Prussia. A young Woodrow Wilson wrote that Bismarck’s “top-down” socialism was an “admirable system … the most studied and most nearly perfected” in the world. Various New Deal intellectuals were smitten with the “experimental” methods of the Soviet Union and Fascist Italy. Rexford Tugwell, an influential member of FDR’s Brain Trust, said of Italian fascism, “It’s the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen. It makes me envious.” Tugwell visited Italy in 1934 and found the fascist project familiar. “I find Italy doing many of the things which seem to me necessary. … Mussolini certainly has the same people opposed to him as FDR has. But he has the press controlled so that they cannot scream lies at him daily.”

On a visit to the Soviet Union, W.E.B. DuBois was awed by what he saw. “I am writing this in Russia,” he wrote in The Crisis. “I am sitting in Revolution Square. … I stand in astonishment and wonder at the revelation of Russia that has come to me. I may be partially deceived and half-informed. But if what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears in Russia is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.”

George Soule, editor of The New Republic, said that with the New Deal, “We are trying out the economics of Fascism without having suffered all its social or political ravages.” As the dean of FDR historians, William Leuchtenberg, put it, the New Deal was understood as part of the “Europeanization of America.”

Now, we should not ascribe to all of these people the sins and crimes of fascists and Bolsheviks. They saw what they wanted to see, and they wanted to see it in America. Underlying this vast intellectual and political project was a desire to use various foreign models as a cudgel against the American constitutional and political system. It was more about power than policy. They saw intellectual-activists riding in the saddle of the state and they wanted some of that action for themselves. As the progressive economist Stuart Chase, who arguably coined the term “a New Deal,” remarked: “Why should the Russians have all the fun remaking the world?”

That’s mostly how I see all of this Hungary hullabaloo, and it’s no more persuasive to me because it comes from the right. But it is more dismaying to me to see the right being seduced by this stuff. I no more want to live in an America crammed into a Sweden-shaped hole by Bernie Sanders types than I want to live in an America shoved into a Hungary-shaped one. But I’m more dismayed by this crap on the right precisely because it concedes a crucial argument to the left. Shopping abroad for a duty-free model that lends credibility to social planners who wish to impose their will here at home is becoming a bipartisan affair.

Conservatism past and present.

I really can’t emphasize enough how much opposition to this sort of thing was definitional to conservatism. The Cold War honed and concentrated the arguments, but “We’re special! We’re different!” was at the heart of both the internationalist and isolationist strands of conservatism for more than a century. It’s also part of American character generally.

This conviction was the very heart of the American exceptionalism debates a decade ago (and a century ago, and two centuries ago). Obama wanted to “Europeanize” America’s political system, some of us argued, we conservatives said, “Hell no.” Conservatives wanted to conserve what made America unique. In this excellent essay by my former colleagues Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, they write:

What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.

I still believe that (and so do Rich and Ramesh, I’m sure). Even if the reality of Hungary is exactly what its right-wing fans claim (I am far from persuaded), I still don’t give a rat’s ass. Again, because it doesn’t really matter as a practical matter.

The conservative compromise.

Indeed, the Founders understood that whatever the benefits of small, homogenous nation-states might be, they weren’t transferable to vast, ultimately continental nation-states, never mind ones committed to individual liberty and republican principles. Heck, even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, arguably the lead author of the idea of modern nationalism, thought that the political order and discipline (some would argue totalitarianism) implicit in his social contract couldn’t work in a polity much larger than his beloved Geneva—which had a population of roughly 25,000 people when he wrote The Social Contract.

But you know what the Founders did believe? That you could have more tight-knit, tradition-bound communities on the local level. They wouldn’t have cottoned to Rousseau’s General Will garbage, but on the spectrum from Amish country to the People’s Republic of Takoma Park, their attitude was pretty much “knock yourself out.”

And that’s what drives me crazy about the loose coalition of nationalist, post-liberal, “common good” eggheads and activists. They’d rather put all of their energies into pipe dream nonsense about seizing the national government, in some cases through democratic efforts, in some cases through Caesarism, and in some cases through a convoluted political version of the underpants gnome profit plan.

And some folks think that if they can’t win the argument the only option left is to start thinking about secession (or civil war) or what Rudy Giuliani called “trial by combat.”

Here’s a crazy idea: Why not start building a Little Hungary in Cleveland or Rhode Island? Sure, there will be political challenges and constitutional hurdles. But surely they are more manageable than trying to do the same thing to the whole country all at once? (Especially when most of the country isn’t interested in living in accordance with your boutique definition of the “common good.”) Maybe you can come up with some internal shining city on a hill that others will want to emulate. Start small, build on success, and do something real that will actually result in actual humans voluntarily living in actual communities that conform to your values. Heck, one of Hungary’s most passionate popularizers even wrote a book arguing for exactly that. But rather than build a virtuous Christian community on American soil, my friend Rod Dreher is hanging out in Central Europe.

There are all sorts of objections to this idea. Again, it would be hard. But one of the objections is that under this approach you’ll still have lots of Americans living the wrong way, believing the wrong things, and saying the wrong stuff. To which the only reasonable response is, “Yup. Suck it up.”

But that answer bothers a lot of the new nationalists precisely because, psychologically, so much of this stuff is the modern version of H.L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy—for the wrong reasons. It’s more fun to fantasize about owning the libs and bending them to your cultural priorities than to do anything tangible that would actually build the kind of meaningful communities you—plausibly—argue humans need.

Canine update: Pippa’s been in a great mood of late, perhaps because we got a fresh shipment of tennis ball goodness. She also got to go swimming today (we try to limit it to just Fridays and weekends to cut down on baths. This time of summer the local water gets awfully stinky and brackish). Zoë is in fine spirits as well, though she did throw some serious stink eye at me for stopping for gas before the morning adventure. There’s not too much more to report. We’re around for one more week and then the humans go cross country to drop the kid at school. Alas, the beasts can’t come with us, but the dogs will be staying with their aunt Kirsten so we’ll get plenty of proof-of-life pics. Gracie will be staying at Chez Goldberg, but we have a great cat and house sitter coming back who really doesn’t mind being her handmaiden. 

ICYMI

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