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The Viktor Orban Effect: Why U.S. Conservatives Love Hungary

The Catholic Church in Poland is a more widely popular and legitimate institution, because of the role it played in resisting communism. In Krakow this winter, I met the philosopher Ryszard Legutko, a former anti-communist dissident who became increasingly disenchanted with liberal democracy in the 1990s, in a way that was illuminating for skeptics of liberalism. His 2016 book, “The Demon in Democracy,” has become a canonical text for postliberal conservatives. Legutko, 71, has argued that democrats can behave much like communists. While allowing that liberal democracy is superior to communism, he nonetheless maintains that certain characteristics of communist ideology — the belief that it will eventually prevail worldwide, that it is the apotheosis of human nature, that it represents the culmination of history — are true of liberal democracy as well. Both, he says, are totalizing ideologies: There is nothing “natural” about individual rights, “no such thing as a rights-bearing individual,” Legutko told me.

Legutko is a member of the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland and was elected to the European Parliament, where he sits on the Committee on Culture and Education. On the wall of the salon in his pied-à-terre hung a painting of Polish cavalry bloodily beating back the Red Army in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War. Through the window, the colors of the Polish landscape were so subdued that the city looked like a sepia-tone photograph. “A couple of decades ago there was a theory that the age of ideology is over, that in a liberal democracy we just solve problems, nobody is interested in big ideas,” Legutko told me. “They couldn’t be more wrong than that. We are prisoners of certain intellectual patterns.”

What Marxists and liberals had in common, he continued, was “this notion of history’s progress, you cannot go back, you made the omelet, so the eggs are no longer there.” After the end of communism in 1989, the Polish economy was quickly liberalized through privatizations and foreign investment, and a push for Poland to join the E.U. brought social reforms. “They were telling us, ‘OK, the old regime is gone, and now we are living in freedom,’” Legutko said. “Now that you live in freedom, you have to do this, you have to do that. Come on. If it’s freedom, we have to do it? We don’t have to do it.” According to Legutko, liberal democracy would not tolerate the family, the church and other nonliberal institutions that Poland was trying to preserve.

In referring to America’s cultural battles, Legutko says that the efforts to change traditional understandings of gender lead to “social engineering.” I pointed out that arguments over nomenclature are a matter of fighting against derogatory speech and the derogatory treatment it engenders. “But you can insult Catholics in Poland and the judge will say, Well, that’s individual opinion, or artistic performance,” he said. It wasn’t about hate per se, he argued, but about power. “You say something about gay activists, and immediately you’re punished, because that is hate speech.” The control of language, Legutko insisted, was another similarity between liberal democracy and Communism. “The language is being dictated to you by the powers that be, and if you do not conform, you’re being punished.” Legutko’s party has been trying to pass a law that would fine tech companies for regulating any speech that isn’t strictly illegal (even as the party has exerted control over how Polish involvement in the Holocaust may be described), a measure in which American conservatives have taken great interest.

“My friends from the United States, they see here a country in which conservatives are not cornered,” Legutko said. “We won the elections, we have the institutions, and that’s why we are considered by this liberal machine illegitimate.” The problem for the modern mind, he went on, was that there were no alternatives. “So, if we manage to make Poland the country where there is an alternative, that would be something,” Legutko said. “We are almost an extinct species. The world would be lost without us.”

Over the summer, the United States got a taste of what the implementation of such ideas might look like on this side of the Atlantic. The introduction of bills in state legislatures to control or ban the teaching in public schools of what conservatives describe as Critical Race Theory was arguably the first attempt by postliberals to use the power of the state in cultural regulation. Christopher Rufo, a main activist behind the effort (his ideas were disseminated on Tucker Carlson’s show), told The New Yorker that the goal of his movement was to “create rival power centers” within state agencies. In a debate with the conservative writer and lawyer David French, Rufo impugned the “strain of naïve libertarianism that says any meddling with the state is accepting a statist ideology, and therefore we should unilaterally relinquish any authority or any guidance or any shaping of state institutions.”

In electoral politics, the postliberal influence finds expression in J.D. Vance, the author of the best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” who is in a distant second place, though gaining ground, in the Ohio primary for the Republican nomination to the Senate. Vance is a good friend of Dreher’s, and is enthusiastically backed by Tucker Carlson, who called Vance one of the very rare figures “running for office because they really believe something,” a comment that appears to ignore the wholesale reversal in Vance’s politics, from a formerly mild-mannered anti-Trump moderate, to a hard-swinging cultural warrior who blows past the boundaries he once embraced. Vance also converted to Catholicism, in 2019 — Dreher attended his reception into the church — because, he has said, he came to discover that “Catholicism was true.” Vance peppers his speech with terms from the right’s postliberal lexicon. On Carlson’s show, he argued that conservatives should “seize the assets of the Ford Foundation” and redistribute them to people whose lives had been destroyed by the “radical open-borders agenda, ” a very Orban-like, if not very American-sounding, proposal.

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