For Dreher and other conservatives, Hungary has become a dark mirror for the American culture wars.
This past April, the conservative writer Rod Dreher, who normally lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, travelled to Budapest for a four-month fellowship at the Danube Institute, a right-of-center think tank with close ties to the government of Viktor Orbán. Dreher, accompanied for part of the time by his college-aged son, Matt, was given an apartment near the National Museum. Having spent many years working from home, he bought several new suits for the trip, but he found that the Danube Institute had a casual dress code and brought him such easy access to Orbán’s circle that, even on those occasions when he had interviews with ministers from Orbán’s government or dinners with Hungarian political and cultural figures, he could usually leave the suits at the apartment.
It was an interesting time to arrive in Hungary. Orbán and his Fidesz party have controlled the government since 2010 and made major changes to its structure. First, in 2012, came a new constitution, which increased the number of justices on the Constitutional Court from eleven to fifteen and introduced a new process for selecting them; by 2013, Orbán’s party had chosen nine of them. The new constitution also eliminated election runoffs, allowing Orbán’s party—the largest of a half-dozen in the country—to convert vote totals of forty-four per cent and forty-eight per cent in the past two parliamentary elections into legislative supermajorities. Second has been an extension of political power into cultural spheres, a shift marked first by the strident anti-migrant position Orbán took in 2015 and his statement the previous year that a democracy need not be liberal.
The landmark Central European University, founded in 1991 by George Soros, was effectively evicted from Hungary; theatre directors have been replaced by politically compliant figures; the largest newspaper in the country, Népszabadság, was shuttered, with journalists and opposition figures alleging that government pressure was responsible, and owners blaming declining sales. In its 2020 annual report, Freedom House concluded that these steady incursions against Hungarian freedoms meant that the country no longer met its definition of a democracy.
Next year, Orbán will stand for reëlection; Hungary’s other parties have formed an anti-Orbán coalition, making the vote especially high-stakes. Meanwhile, Orbán has begun taking stands against cultural progressivism—banning children’s media deemed to be L.G.B.T.-friendly, granting broad subsidies to the country’s churches, and refusing to let Muslim migrants settle in Hungary—that have made him the kind of figure whom American social conservatives could idolize, and drawn his politics nearer to their own.
Quite quickly, in the course of his dinners and meetings and observational trips on Budapest’s convenient public-transit system, Dreher began to form a dissenting opinion of the political situation in Hungary. “I was there about ten days before I realized that eighty, ninety per cent of the American narrative about the country just isn’t true,” he told me recently. He had heard Hungary described as an authoritarian state, but in Budapest he saw everyone seemed free to speak their mind. Dreher noted that he had appeared at a conference with an opponent of Orbán, who was critical of the Prime Minister. What’s more, Orbán, Dreher came to think, had a keener grasp of the “crisis—political, even civilizational” facing traditionalists than nearly any American conservative. Dreher liked how openly nationalist Orbán was, picking fights with his partners in the European Union when it grew too progressive, and how he had often set aside free-market principles in order to promote conservative social values—offering state subsidies to women to stay home and have more Hungarian children. “I think he believes—and, as a reader of Michel Houellebecq, I think he’s absolutely right—that there’s no way Europe is going to survive long term unless it rediscovers its religion,” Dreher said. I asked Dreher whether he believed America also faced a similar threat to its survival, and he said, “Yeah, I do.”
Dreher developed a very specific idea. He decided that the television host Tucker Carlson—“the most important conservative figure in America,” in Dreher’s estimation—should come to Budapest as soon as possible and see it for himself. He texted Carlson and told him so; Carlson wrote back and said that he’d been meaning to come over, but the effort had become tangled in Hungarian red tape. Dreher made a point of telling government ministers that it would be good for Hungary if this important American journalist could come. Eventually, in July, the red tape evaporated, and Carlson spent a week in Hungary, taping episodes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in which he visited and praised a chain-link fence across Hungary’s southern border and conducted an interview with Orbán himself. “If you live in the United States, it is bitter to see the contrast between, say, Budapest and New York City,” Carlson told his audience, from a set that looked out over a gorgeous expanse of Habsburg rooftops. In New York, he said, it was “common” to hire armed guards to protect you if you had conservative views, but in Hungary everyone was free to express themselves. In New York, a maelstrom ensued. From Budapest, Dreher tweeted a picture of a relaxed Carlson addressing a group of laughing Hungarian dignitaries on a pretty stone patio at a formal dinner, Rod Dreher himself among them.
If this encounter revealed something about Orbánism, it revealed some things about Dreher, too. Fifty-four years old, a career journalist and a midlife convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church, Dreher became known in the George W. Bush era for genial renderings of a fundamentally dour set of politics. Dreher saw a long cultural arc, in which Christianity, and the society it built, was being irretrievably lost in the stream of what, borrowing from a lineage of traditionalist thinkers, he called “liquid modernity.” In his 2006 book, “Crunchy Cons,” Dreher argued that corruptions of secular-capitalist life compelled believing Christians to turn to localism; in 2017, in “The Benedict Option,” he advised conservatives to seek meaning through retreat into like-minded communities rather than through politics. His writing, generally reflective and curious, is studded with hostility to contemporary liberal commitments: he has called transgender rights “psychotic” and argued that Muslim migration into Europe would “obliterate” local culture. There is something double-edged about his intent in these moments. They operate as sincere expressions of political commitments, and as provocations—they are invitations to liberal journalists, professors, and tweeters to prove that they are in fact as intolerant of conservative Christian views as Dreher believes them to be.
Dreher abhorred Donald Trump
for his corruption and moral debasement, but the former President’s rise and fall had the effect of elevating Dreher’s profile. If conservative politicians and intellectuals were experimenting with a more skeptical stance toward free markets, a more overt cultural nationalism, and a more profoundly antagonistic view of modern liberalism, then Dreher had theories to offer. He still lives in Baton Rouge, he still drives a Honda, and he still writes primarily for a niche publication, The American Conservative, but now he can get Tucker Carlson to Hungary and draw sympathetic attention for the episode from the conservative opinion writers at the Times. Dreher’s latest book, “Live Not by Lies,” sets his themes abroad: rooted in interviews with natives of Communist regimes, it compares thought policing in the contemporary United States to the experience of living behind the Iron Curtain. His time in Hungary was interrupted by book events across Europe. Last week, he tweeted that he had met Pope Francis
, briefly, in the Vatican. “I said, ‘Holy Father, I wrote “The Benedict Option.” ’ He took my name tag in his hand, looked at it, then gave me a blank expression. His team trashed the book when it came out in Italy in 2018. C’est la vie.” The depth and sincerity of Dreher’s retreatism has, paradoxically, brought him very close to real power.
Budapest has been the main stronghold of resistance to Orbán’s politics, and it seemed to Dreher that the city wore its progressivism like armor. A few days before he’d arrived, Dreher recounted, a district government in Budapest had erected a temporary installation by the artist Péter Szalay, a replica of the Statue of Liberty painted in the colors of the rainbow flag and taking a knee, while holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter.” The statue stood for just one day. “Football hooligans came in and tore it down, which was unfortunate,” Dreher said. But the district progressive leaders, he went on, “knew it was going to happen. This was just being provocative.” (Though of course Dreher, in travelling to Hungary, was being provocative, and knew what would happen, too.) Dreher said that he was struck by an exchange he had accessed through Google Translate, in which local journalists had asked the district’s mayor what significance a Black Lives Matter statue had in her city, which is home to very few people, and she had said, as he recalled it, “We must all be against racism.” To Dreher, this suggested some of the totalizing instincts of the contemporary left. “The Hungarians aren’t Dutch, and they aren’t Swedish,” Dreher said, referring to the latter nationalities’ views on diversity and L.G.B.T. visibility. “Well, one thing I admire about Orbán is, he said, ‘We’re not going to do that here.’ ”
When I asked Dreher how he would characterize Orbán, he said immediately, “Intense, and intellectually pugilistic.” He remembered two things in particular from their first meeting, at a religious-liberty conference in Budapest in 2019. The first was that Orbán had described how Hungarians, during the Soviet era, had been exposed to a programmatic left-wing effort to create Homo sovieticus, the new Soviet man, and so recognized woke progressive ideology as a totalitarian ideology itself. Dreher was also very taken with Orbán personally: “Really good English, discoursing in depth about political and cultural issues. Whatever you think about him, the idea that this guy is some sort of Magyar Trump, or even a Putin figure, it’s just wrong.” The second thing Orbán said that stuck with Dreher was an invitation. He told the group, “We hope you will think of Budapest as your intellectual home.”
To Hungarian and Western liberal observers of Orbán’s regime, Dreher, Carlson, and their ilk are, basically, suckers. “It’s a soft twenty-first-century dictatorship,” said András Bozóki, a sociologist who was Hungary’s Minister of Culture in a center-left government in the mid-two-thousands and is now a professor at Central European University, which was exiled from Hungary and is now based in Vienna. Orbán, he went on, was a changeling and a pragmatist. As a recent law-school graduate, he was a leader in the student protests of 1989; he then became a politician and, in the kind of fast time line that is easier in a country scarcely bigger than New York, became Prime Minister in a joint government in 1998, before reinventing himself first as a staunch conservative and then as a nationalist-populist. Anyone who saw Orbán as a paragon of social conservatism, Kim Scheppele, a professor of sociology at Princeton and a scholar of Hungary, told me, was mistaking opportunism for conviction. She pointed to several events in which Orbán wasn’t the social traditionalist he often played, including his expulsion of as many as three hundred churches from Hungary and a scandal in which his friend and close ally József Szájer left a gay orgy in Brussels when the police arrived to break it up, by sliding naked out a window. The ideology that had so attracted the American conservatives, she said, acted to “mask a really pernicious set of anti-democratic changes to judicial and legislative processes that have allowed him to entrench minority rule.” When I asked Dreher whether he was concerned by such complaints, he told me he was, but that “we expect too much of these post-Communist countries if we judge them by Western standards of clean government.”
In Hungary, Dreher largely moved through an élite and international milieu, close to the long-standing Prime Minister, which nevertheless thought of itself as representing a kind of folk reaction to international power. In the company of Orbán’s son, Gáspár, Dreher took in a concert staged by a Catholic conservative rock star and Orbán supporter named Akos. In conversations with senior members of Orbán’s political party, Fidesz, Dreher learned that they were genuinely fearful about the upcoming election, which gave Dreher a retort to Westerners who argued that Orbán’s Hungary was authoritarian: authoritarians don’t fear elections. Dreher visited a ministry office Orbán that had created, to protect persecuted Christians overseas, and was moved when he was taken to the spare chapel that had been set up in the ministry basement. On a visit to Bucharest, he caught glimpses of the deeper Europe, nearly lost to modernity (“more traditional, poorer”) that he believed Orbán was trying to protect. When I asked about Orbán’s campaigns against the Roma—his government refused to pay court-ordered compensation to Roma children who had been confined to segregated schools, and his political party blamed George Soros when pressed about it—Dreher, who does not speak Hungarian, told me he had heard that many Roma supported Orbán, but “I don’t know much, to be honest.”
Though Dreher often speaks of traditional cultures, it is Christian conservatism, in particular, that he is adamant about protecting. Early in June, Dreher met with Orbán’s Minister of Family Affairs, Katalin Novák, who told him that two days thence the government would move to ban L.G.B.T.Q. programming for children, and that she was expecting a big blowback. When the decision was announced, two days later, the blowback was fierce: the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, said that if the Hungarian government did not retract the measure it ought to be expelled from the European Union. In Dreher’s view, the speed and extremity of this reaction showed how ready Western liberals were to try to annihilate rather than engage with traditional culture. “No discussion of the pros and cons of why they might have done this, or why they’re wrong—it was just outrageous,” Dreher said. “Seeing how Hungary was treated over the L.G.B.T. media law—that pushed me more to the radical side.”
The political opportunism in this relationship, between the Hungarians and the American conservatives, runs both ways. Dreher and Carlson were also using Orbán, or a certain image of him, to make a point about the United States. Dreher told me, “Viktor Orbán is not Francisco Franco, nor is the Euro-positive Hungarian Left like the Spanish Communists. But the dynamic is quite similar. And it’s true in America as well. We all seem to be barreling towards a future that is not liberal and democratic but is going to be either left illiberalism, or right illiberalism. If that’s true, then I know which side I’m on: the side that isn’t going to persecute me and my people. In Rome recently, I met a Syrian Catholic who fled to Europe to escape persecution back home. ‘Do you think we love Assad?’ he said, speaking of Christians like him. ‘No. We support him because he is the only thing standing between us and the radical Muslims who want to kill us.’ ”
Dreher makes for a very worldly religious retreatist—his round, bearded face and vertical shock of hair are set off by thick round glasses that make him look a bit like an impresario. I met him in Baton Rouge this August (as I.C.U.s in Louisiana were beginning to overfill with COVID
cases, and just before Hurricane Ida arrived), and in the first few minutes of our conversation he brought up a New Yorker story of Truman Capote’s from the nineteen-fifties, the sixth part of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and the novels of Stefan Zweig, to which he’d been alerted by Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel.” There is a basic disjunction in Dreher’s person, in that he reads everything, stays in touch with intellectuals of all kinds from all places, and is in even mundane ways alert to changes in the modern world—when a recommendation for an especially great ice machine went viral, Dreher tweeted that he’d bought and loved it—and yet insists that the whole thing is going over a cliff. Again and again, he insists that liberal journalistic, academic, even corporate institutions are so intolerant that they would never employ someone like him. He tends to have a particular effect on liberal intellectuals, whom he charms and spooks at once.
Since Dreher’s return from Hungary, he told me, he had been thinking about Orbán in terms of Huey P. Long, the famed Depression-era governor of Louisiana who denounced the oil companies, fired hundreds of bureaucrats, and replaced them with patronage appointments—another corrupt populist. Having met in downtown Baton Rouge, and spent a little while talking while looking out at the unvegetated Mississippi River, we eventually drove a few minutes to Long’s monumental tombstone, on the grounds of the Louisiana statehouse, which was built by Long himself. The statehouse is the tallest building in Baton Rouge surrounded by twenty-seven acres of well-tended but mostly empty gardens; it’s still probably the most interesting-looking structure in the city. We were looking at a monument to a pre-liberal politics while considering a post-liberal future.
Dreher recalled the memories that his late father, raised poor in Depression-era Louisiana, had of Long. “He said, ‘When I was a kid, the only reason we had schoolbooks, new schoolbooks, was because of Huey Long. And so what if Long skimmed a lot off the top? I didn’t care because Long was someone who tamed the oil companies, and broke the oligarchy’s hold on Louisiana’s politics.’ ” There was, Dreher admitted, a “downside” to Long’s governance, in the institutional corruption that he bequeathed to the state. “But you can’t understand why Huey Long got into power until you understand why people voted for him. Same thing with Orbán.”
It was ninety-five degrees out, shirt-drenching weather, and we didn’t linger by Long’s tombstone. Soon enough, we settled into an outdoor table at a sports bar called the Chimes, near L.S.U.’s campus. Dreher’s son Matt, who was about to begin his junior year, texted that he’d seen us walking across the road into the Chimes, and would be joining us soon. The Little League World Series was on the television, but the conversation turned to Dreher’s latest book, “Live Not by Lies.” In general, Dreher’s subjects shared his view that whatever institutional power conservatives could muster was helpless against the soft totalitarianism of progressive media. “Look, in my home town, St. Francisville, a friend of mine is sending me pictures of same-sex couples going to middle-school dances,” he said. “A Westerner who teaches in a Polish high school, he told me there is no institution in this country—not the state, not the church, not the family—that has more influence over children than social media. For better or worse.”
American conservatives, Dreher went on, were just beginning to intuit how deep this soft totalitarianism ran. “You might not be that political, you might not even be that religious, but you know that your kids, in order to gain access to élite circles in business or anywhere else, are going to have to disavow the things you taught them,” he said. “That’s where you see the parallel between that and what the Romanians are thinking—that your way of life, your traditions, your religion, it’s all unworthy.” Dreher said that he was struck by “how much more clear-eyed the European Christians are about what we’re facing than the American Christians. American Christians are so lost in past glory, and the idea that we’re only one election away from winning America back for Christ, but just not aware of how shallow and fragile the faith is here. Over there, they have lived through generations of de-Christianization.” He talked it through for a little while longer. “America is about ten years away from being where they are, I think.”
The longer we talked about Hungary, the more Dreher returned to the analogy with America, as if by describing Orbán’s struggle in terms of the culture war he might encourage American conservatives to see themselves as more existentially threatened. “I don’t believe anybody is coming to kill us social and religious conservatives,” Dreher said. “But it is beyond clear to me now that the woke left, which controls all the major institutions of American life, will use the power it has to push people like me to the margins, and congratulate itself for its righteousness in doing so.” When I asked why he’d reached out to Carlson, he said, “I’ll tell you exactly what it was. I wanted to move the Overton window.” Dreher said that he believed Orbánism couldn’t work in the United States—we were simply too multicultural a society to rally around an explicit cultural nationalism—but he thought there were elements that American conservatives ought to learn from. (Carlson, in his broadcast, had emphasized the same point.) “Trump fights like a drunk falling off a barstool,” Dreher said. “Orbán fights like people say Trump fights.”
We were sitting, at that moment, less than three hours from the border of Texas, whose legislature had just effectively banned abortion, a measure that would soon be upheld by the United States Supreme Court—it certainly didn’t seem to me that social conservatism was in its death throes, or that it needed an Orbán to defend it. The evidence was that it had plenty of effective attorneys. To Dreher, the more salient issue wasn’t abortion, on which his side was winning, but gay and transgender identity. “I don’t know a single conservative who wants to push gay people back in the closet,” Dreher said, but he believed that there had never been an “honest conversation about the irreconciliability of gay rights with religious liberty” for traditional believers of all faiths. I asked Dreher to explain why trans rights had become such a flash point for social conservatives, and he responded in part by saying that my own young daughter might someday lose out on an athletic scholarship to a “pseudo-woman”—a trans woman who had won entry into high-school athletic competitions. I said, “I mean, so what?” Dreher seemed unsure that he’d heard me correctly. “What do you mean, so what?” he repeated. “It’s unfair.”
Just when it seemed that we might have reached a basic impasse, the tension was eased by the arrival of Matt Dreher—taller than his father, with the same observant manner and the same shock of hair, though redder. His father had introduced him, affectionately, as “a Bernie bro”; Matt turned out to be a pro-urbanist liberal who was thinking about a career in museums. We talked a bit about Hungary and then I asked Matt whether his experience of L.S.U. was that it was drenched in woke discourse. “No,” Matt said slowly. “And this is why I think it’s really useful to live one’s life in the real world—offline.” Dreher, who was listening intently, objected: L.S.U., a state school deep in the South, wasn’t the worst of it; imagine the situation at Brown University, he said. He and Matt were affectionately interested in each other’s observations, and, as they talked about their experiences in Hungary, I wondered whether Dreher had invited his son to provide me with a prelapsarian counterpoint to most contemporary political discourse—defined, in his view, by the fact that Americans no longer treat one another like family. Matt Dreher said that when he watched Tucker Carlson’s special he was “begging, begging!” for Carlson to bring up Orbán’s vaccine
-passport policy, which is strict and might have challenged the anti-vax Fox News party line, but the host never did. His father, who is also pro-vaccination, laughed. Matt Dreher later told me that his and his father’s politics were separated mostly by a matter of orientation: both believed that Christianity was disappearing as a key element of Western culture, and as a result the secularizing West was changing rapidly. The difference was that the father saw these changes as horrifying, while the son saw some possibilities among them, too.
Conservatism in 2021 has been a dark and fertile ecology, just beginning to bloom in the shadow of the Trump wars. Its central fights have been over critical race theory, and woke capitalism, and the school boards and public-health officials insisting on masking and pleading for vaccination; conservatives have often insisted that the progressive consensus amounts to a powerful and restrictive regime, one that forces dissenters to self-police or risk losing their livelihoods. If progressives fear that Trumpian populism might someday be powerful enough to drive those who disobey it from their jobs, the Times’ Ross Douthat argued recently, conservatives “fear that progressivism already exerts this power.” Dreher’s Hungary foray, and Carlson’s, served as an invitation for conservatives to take their own loose talk about soft totalitarianism and the oppressiveness of cancel culture literally and to consider post-liberal political models. Dreher said, “I’m supposed to be grieved over how Viktor Orbán is being mean to C.E.U.”—Central European University—“when, back in my own country, leftist professors and leftist administrators are making it all but impossible for any non-woke professor or student to thrive on campus or even to exist peaceably? Please.” Hungary supplied a darkening, by analogy. “Sides have to be taken,” he went on. “Orbán is no saint, but I know whose side I’m on.”
For Dreher, there is always a precipice. In Hungary, Dreher told me, he was continually astonished by reminders—historical, architectural—of how glorious the Habsburg civilization had been, immediately before the First World War. He said, “I can’t get enough of it. To see how a civilization at the pinnacle of its power—cultural and technological power—can implode and destroy itself. I think I’m haunted by that all the time.” He mentioned a scene that recurs often in his writing, of standing on the Brooklyn Bridge on the morning of September 11, 2001, and watching the World Trade Center’s south tower come down. Dreher said, “Everything can turn in just a few minutes. The whole world can change. And I probably am somewhat alarmist on this sort of thing. At the same time, I think I am more sensitive to it than other people.”