Using the pretext of protecting the public space from panic-mongers, the majority in the Hungarian Parliament voted to grant PM Viktor Orban unlimited powers for an indefinite period of time. March 30, 2020 will remain as a very sad day in the history of liberty. The signals did not cease to arrive. The man who, in June 1989, at Imre Nagy’s reburial ceremony, gave a speech that would endure forever in the history of Eastern Europe, who founded the anti-totalitarian youth party Fidesz, whose intellectual mentor was the well-known dissident and former critical Marxist György Bence—this man, Victor Orban, has shifted toward a collectivist authoritarianism with xenophobic inflections.
Many things in politics are born out of resentment. Orban is unmistakably a man of noted intellectual prowess, yet those he perceived as some sort of urban aristocracy—the Hungarian Democratic Opposition leaders, including, first and foremost, János Kis, Gábor Demszky, and Miklós Haraszti—always gave him a strange inferiority complex. He regarded the Alliance of Free Democrats as an exclusive liberal club that he felt he was left out of. Other members of the Fidesz leadership shared the same neurotic feelings. In addition, Orban was attracted to classical liberalism and was distrustful of any form of internationalism, even a liberal or neoconservative one.
Endemic corruption associated with a socialist government radicalized Viktor Orban’s phobias and apprehensions. He started to entertain more intensely the idea of populist conservatism—which in Hungary is difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate from anti-Semitism. The media close to Fidesz (which in the meantime had become an ever more traditional and traditionalist party) excelled in insinuations against those who supposedly did not pass the test of pure Hungarianness. When Jobbik—a downright fascist party—was born, all it had to do was intensify as forcefully as possible topics which were already implicit in Orban’s rhetoric, including the idea that the radical left was somehow genetically constituted.
The Orban team began to insist on a majoritarianism increasingly intolerant of the opposition. The unassailable victories obtained in the elections made Orban less and less willing to acknowledge his own fallibility. Hungary has become gradually more provincial—ethnocracy has begun to stifle democracy. What a quarter of a century ago was the superb promise to reinvent politics through a revival of civic liberalism now seems destined to turn into a neo-authoritarian nightmare. Viktor Orban announces that liberal democracy is on the skids. He has taken it upon himself to become the champion of an authoritarianism which glamorizes the Putin-inspired police model and the Chinese “market Leninism.” Those interwar tenets endorsed by the prophets of fascism are being revived. A consistent and “ethnically” healthy body politic is being exalted. Liberalism is seen as rotten, corrupt, and decadent. This is the hour of the “magic savior,” akin to the demagogues described by Erich Fromm in his classic book on the escape from freedom.
What Orban seems to ignore is that NATO and the EU are not only political, military, and economic institutions. They define, as Václav Havel put it, civilizational options. The battle between the open society and its enemies continues. Yet another mask has fallen, which, after all, is far from a tragedy. It is rather a repugnant farce.
We might imagine that liberal democracy is built on a deeply rooted historical and intellectual foundation, but such a belief could not be further from the truth. Before 1945, the very idea of “liberal democracy” was very much anathematized. In times of crisis (both moral and economic), democracy is attacked from the left and right alike. Be it Vladimir Lenin, Georges Sorel, or Robert Michels, the critiques all stem, to a certain extent, from the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and draw on the self-proclaimed image of the “genuine democrat”.
For Orban, liberal democracy—with all its intermediary institutions, intermediate bodies, and parliamentary games—makes a terrible mess of the final and irretrievable fusion between, as Carl Schmitt explained in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, “the identities of the governed and the governing.” At the core of this “redemptive” political view stands none other than the mythological idea of unity (in this case, one based on ethnicity). In a populist translation of Orban’s political message, the masses are looking for identification. The coronavirus crisis had deepened this existential anguish. His promise, which also sounds like a prophecy, comes to provide precisely this redemptive identification.
What the Hungarian Prime Minister is essentially saying is that liberal democracies are reversible. That the counterpart of democratization is what we may call de-democratization This, obviously, is not a complete novelty. What is actually new has to do with the metamorphosis of a politician who reached the pinnacle of power as a partisan of liberal values and who morphed into an advocate for the opposite values. Exceptional laws for exceptional times. This was the entry into lawlessness in 1933 in Germany. Coronavirus serves the strongman in Budapest as the Reichstag fire re-enacted.