Viktor Orbán, Rod Dreher, and Me
Why is my old friend defending the indefensible?
You may have heard that Hungarian President Viktor Orbán—who is scheduled to address the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) next week in Dallas alongside former President Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and other prominent Republicans—delivered a controversial speech in Romania a week ago. The remarks have provoked global condemnation and prompted at least one member of Orbán’s inner circle, Zsuzsa Hegedüs, to resign. In her resignation letter, Hegedüs, who is Jewish and a child of Holocaust survivors, described the speech as “a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels.”
Exaggeration? Not by much.
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When I set out to look for a translation of Orbán’s speech, Google at first sent me, not to the official transcript, but to a long blog post by my old friend Rod Dreher, which includes numerous quotations from the speech, along with lots of praise and a defense of its contents against critics. The laudatory title of the post is “The Vision of Viktor Orbán.”
It makes sense that Google’s algorithmically personalized search function would send me to Rod’s blog first. In addition to his close association with Orbán in the media, I’ve been reading, and Googling, Rod for a very long time. We met two decades ago, way back in 2002, when Rod was working at National Review, and I was an editor at First Things. Both of us were demoralized that our respective employers were responding with what we considered to be insufficient seriousness to the emerging multi-decade-long Catholic sex-abuse scandal involving priests and its cover-up by bishops.
Rod and I were both Catholic converts then, neither of us are Catholics now, and those events played a significant role in our future spiritual trajectories. (Rod became an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and I eventually lapsed all the way back to the secular Judaism in which I was raised.)
Those aren’t the only changes we’ve each undergone.
I (somewhat) famously quit First Things in early 2005 and wrote a critical intellectual history of the magazine and its circle of writers. With that act, I also broke from the conservative movement and began formulating the skeptical liberalism I’ve worked to defend in my writing ever since.
In some respects, Rod hasn’t shifted as much as I have. He was a religiously inflected social conservative in 2002, and he still is today. But his response to the world around him has definitely undergone some significant changes over the years. Before I get to Rod’s reaction to Orbán’s speech, I think it might be helpful to work through how I’ve understood those changes, observing them largely through the lens of his public writing.
The Rise and Fall of “The Benedict Option”
The biggest change, it seems to me, has taken place since 2016. That’s true of a lot of social conservatives, of course, but Rod’s story is distinctive, as one would expect from a man who is fiercely intelligent, passionate about moral truth, and does an enormous amount of deep thinking in public.
I greatly admired the stance Rod staked out through the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency. Without wavering one bit in his moral and theological convictions, Rod responded to the religious right’s political defeats since the end of the Bush administration by treating them as a sign that conservative Christians needed to turn inward, undertake a strategic withdrawal from the political fray, and begin preparing for a new anti-religious Dark Age by cultivating serious piety within concrete communities of the faithful.
The idea was to follow the example of St. Benedict, whose religious order did so much to preserve and pass down the spiritual and humanistic achievements of earlier ages through the darkest moments of the Middle Ages. Rod’s advocacy of this monastic vision made a lot of people angry on the religious right, and he sometimes responded with greater defensiveness than I think he should have. In my view, his position was a reasonable and humane one that was broadly congruent with the social conservative emphasis during Obama’s second term on strengthening protections for religious freedom rather than pushing to remake the country. Especially after the Obergefell decision came down in June 2015, this seemed like the best possible way forward for the routed religious right.
But Rod’s timing ended up being slightly off. Though he had been making versions of this argument on his blog for years, the book-length statement of his position—The Benedict Option—was published in March 2017, two months into the Trump administration, at a moment when the religious right was in no mood at all to entertain stepping back from the political fray. Demoralized just a few years earlier, its hopes had been raised by the new president’s promise, despite his lack of personal piety or virtue, to fight ruthlessly for social conservatives and to push back just as ruthlessly against the left.
While consistently withholding support from Trump himself, Rod spent the next few years adjusting his political stance to a new political reality. Instead of practicing what he preached and turning inward, he focused more resolutely than ever on outrages committed by the left. Rod became convinced, not only that the Social Justice Warriors were wrong, as I often thought they were as well, but that they were hell bent on building a comprehensive political-legal-cultural-technological system in which they would actively persecute Christians and anyone else who resisted The Official Woke Teaching on Gender and Sexuality.
By the time he published his next book, Live Not by Lies (2020), Rod was describing this left-wing agenda as “soft totalitarianism” and likening the situation of Christians living in the liberal democracies of the West to dissidents struggling to keep their faith alive under the repression of Soviet Communism. (This line of argument tracks closely with the writings of the Polish anti-liberal Ryszard Legutko.)
Thanks to promotional help from Tucker Carlson and others on the right, the book became a bestseller and also led to an invitation for Rod to spend extended time in Budapest, where Viktor Orbán was enacting an austere and intellectually rigorous style of right-wing populism—one that Rod found far more appealing than the trashy, downmarket version Trump was haplessly pursuing at home.
Whereas the return of political hope led most members of the American religious right to express gushing approval of Trump, Rod rose in regular defense of Orbán instead, explaining to a long list of American journalists how unfairly American journalists were treating the Hungarian president. Rod also played a key role in arranging Carlson’s visit to Hungary during the summer of 2021, which led to a week of fawning coverage on Fox News in prime time. CPAC coming to Budapest in May 2022 and Orbán flying to Dallas next week for another appearance at the conference are just the latest testaments to the convergence between the Republican Party and Orbán’s Fidesz Party, which Rod has been helping to foster.
Making Sense of Orbán’s Anti-Liberalism
My own position on Orbán is somewhat different than the standard liberal-progressive line, which portrays him as having directly targeted and largely succeeded in destroying Hungarian democracy. I’m more inclined to see him as what he claims to be: a scourge of liberalism in the name of majoritarian democracy.
Yes, he’s been pretty heavy-handed with the media, giving his party somewhat of an edge in elections. But his constitutional adjustments and other reforms haven’t imposed electoral changes out of line with other democracies, and his party today wins roughly the same portion of the vote and from the same largely rural constituency as it did when it first gained power in 2010. In the country’s most recent election, this past April, election monitors didn’t take note of any systematic fraud. Hungarians are simply voting in favor of making Hungary an illiberal democracy.
Even there, I think Orbán’s actions are a mixed bag. If Hungary’s ruling party wants to address the country’s very serious problem of declining population by pursuing an aggressive natalist policy instead of by encouraging immigration, that’s their right, though it isn’t something I would vote for. More troubling has been Orbán’s ongoing demonization of the Hungarian-Jewish philanthropist George Soros, whom Orbán blames for every example of social liberalism that crops up in Hungary or Europe. Orbán also played a leading role in kicking the Central European University out of the country, banning the teaching of gender studies in Hungarian universities, and restricting LGBT content in schools. (These last two initiatives may have inspired Gov. Ron DeSantis’ similar moves in Florida).
Orbán’s Next Step—and Rod’s Response
But Orbán’s recent speech shifts things even further in an anti-liberal direction. I urge you to read it for yourself. There’s nothing complex about it. It is admirably blunt—so much so that I can summarize its contents quite easily in a single paragraph:
Europe is spiritually and demographically dying. Some of its countries, encouraged by Soros’ money, are seeking to address this issue by inviting in hordes of Muslims, which is creating a problem of “population replacement or inundation.” Following Jean Raspail’s notoriously racist and xenophobic 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, which he calls (without so much as a touch of ambivalence) an “outstanding” book, Orbán laments that many Europeans are failing to defend themselves against these invaders from an alien race whose presence in Europe will only hasten its demise. Europeans can happily mix with each other, but Europe must avoid becoming “mixed race” in the sense of allowing itself to blend with outsiders from the Islamic world. Resisting this fate is the only way for Europe to save itself.
To my mind, it can be acceptable (if morally unsavory) for a politician to oppose immigration for all kinds of reasons, even cultural considerations. But to invoke race as the primary criterion of exclusion is different. Rod knows this, which is why he tries to deny, in bold type, that this is what Orbán really means:
He is using the term "race" as a symbol of religion and culture (and I wish he would not have done that, because it makes it hard to explain what he means).
Of course Orbán could have invoked culture if this is what he wanted to talk about, but he didn’t. I think that’s because he didn’t mean culture. He meant race. How do I know? Because he invoked and praised one of the most grotesquely racist and xenophobic novels in recent European history to help illustrate his point!
As he often does, Rod has updated his post several times in response to critics, and as he’s done so, his position has wavered. (Rod has also written a pair of follow-up posts that don’t do anything to change my judgment of his stance on the speech.) In his second update, Rod worries that Orbán’s invocation of “race” is like his ill-advised use of the term “illiberal democracy” in a high-profile speech from 2014 to describe his political goal. But as I indicated above, I think that term perfectly describes Orbán’s aims and (supposed) accomplishments. I also have no idea why Rod would reject that descriptor when his closest ideological compatriots in recent years (including Patrick Deneen, who has also spent considerable time in Hungary) are explicit anti-liberals.
Then there’s The Camp of the Saints, to which Rod also circles back in his second update, quoting from one of his own posts, written in 2015, about the novel, which he called back then “a bad book” but an “important” one. I agree with that assessment of the novel, which describes an armada of a million dark-skinned, filthy, sexually profligate Muslims invading and easily bringing weak-willed, self-loathing Europe to its knees. If you want to understand the contemporary right’s great, primal fear of outsiders in general and Muslims in particular, there may be no better source to study. Doing so can help prepare a more cogent response. (It was in this spirit that I advocated empathetic imagination about the right in my inaugural post.)
But that’s not how Orbán invokes the book. He calls it “outstanding” and recommends it “to anyone who wants to understand the spiritual developments underlying the West’s inability to defend itself.”
Rod’s response is … more conflicted. He says he wishes Orbán hadn’t cited the book, but other than the resulting PR problem, it’s unclear exactly why, because much of Rod’s defense of Orbán’s speech, including new material added in Update 2, tries to bolster the worldview out of which Raspail’s novel was written. Among other things, Rod shares a chart that paleoconservative writer and VDARE columnist Steve Sailer calls “the most important graph in the world.” As Rod points out, the chart shows that Europe’s population is stagnant but Africa’s is surging, “and those Africans are not going to stay in Africa.” That is a dire threat, Rod thinks, and could lead to a shooting war against the invaders.
So which is it? Is Camp of the Saints a good, even prophetic, book? Or a bad book? Does it accurately expose and diagnose Europe’s spiritual condition and its oblivious vulnerability to external invaders of other races? Or is it a paranoid, racist, xenophobic screed that no responsible public figure should describe as “outstanding” and urge people to read and take seriously, let alone use as an inspiration for formulating public policy?
In all honestly, I think Rod’s current position is that Raspail’s novel, like Orbán’s Raspail-inspired speech, gets things mostly right. Rod just wishes everyone concerned would use the word “culture” instead of “race” to describe the West’s existential battle against the alien invaders.
A Plea to an Old Friend
I know there is no chance that Rod will make such a dramatic move in response to a single Substack post from an old friend, but I’m going to make a public plea nonetheless:
I’m a big advocate of admitting mistakes. I’ve made many over the years, and I don’t think there’s anything shameful in making a public break from past positions when it becomes clear the earlier position is untenable. It’s how we learn, making our way through, and trying to make sense of, a confusing world in real time.
Our own moment is unusually bewildering, with intense polarization, dramatically shifting ideological lines, and blurred partisan distinctions. Your own constant engagement with critics on your blog, Rod, shows your good-faith struggle to find your way through the intellectual and moral thickets. That’s one reason I’ve admired your writing for so long, despite the fact that we often find ourselves on opposite sides of political fault lines.
But even in a time of shifting and blurred lines, we need to hold fast to some fixed standards. If a politician delivers a speech in which he combines talk of European collapse with ominous references to the dangers of mixing races and the existential threat posed by Muslim immigration, and then also plugs a book that warns about precisely the same thing in racist terms, he has delivered a flagrantly racist speech.
This isn’t complicated. It’s as clear as day, right there on the surface, and it’s bad.
But it’s also bad that, as you note near the top of your original post on the speech, Orbán is likely to say similar things in his remarks at CPAC less than a week from now, on a stage he will be sharing with Donald Trump, just months before he announces another run for the presidency. You have done a lot to bring American conservatives into alignment with Orbán. He could well say things in Dallas that further embolden racist and xenophobic factions of the American right, bringing their toxic ideas even further into the mainstream.
Is this really what it now means for you to engage in politics as a Christian and a defender of moral truth? I certainly hope not. And if it isn’t, I hope you will soon come to see that you have a unique responsibility to speak out against this darkness—to use your voice to explain why your allies on the right must repudiate the racist and xenophobic anti-liberalism for which Viktor Orbán has now unambiguously made himself a leading spokesman.
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