No Self-Respecting American Should Aspire to Hungarian-Style Nationalism
Though much of the great August 2021 debate over the aspirational role Viktor Orbán’s Hungary plays in America’s still-fermenting National Conservative movement has amounted to a willful misconflation of politics with policy, it’s still worth lingering for a moment on Tucker Carlson’s fondness for Magyar architecture.
“Here’s what I like about the landscape of Hungary, a few Soviet remnants notwithstanding,” the top-rated cable news anchor said in a speech Saturday. “It’s pretty. It is pretty, the buildings are pretty, the architecture uplifts. So this is another third rail in American politics: You’re not allowed to note that our buildings are grotesque and dehumanizing. Why are they bad? Because they are ugly, and ugly dehumanizes us…’dehumanizing’ is the act of convincing people that they don’t matter, that they’re less significant in the larger whole.”
Well, about that. Budapest—and the nearby upstream cliffside town of Esztergom, where the Fox News host was delivering his remarks—are indeed lovely to look at, if you don’t mind the shabby bits lurking just off-camera in the postcard shots, and otherwise avoid venturing out to the concrete panel housing units that scar all formerly communist metropolises.
But what pleases the foreign eye in the Hungarian capital is often a Potemkin grandeur, the projection of insecure nationalism, the architectural equivalent of fin de siècle bling, dating from that all-too-brief half-century (1867–1914) when Hungary was not just a small-population serial loser of wars, but rather the dual (if junior) monarch of imperial Austria’s last Habsburg stand. For a brief window, Budapest got to dress up as Vienna, and boy did it ever.
The city’s most celebrated piece of architecture, the Parliament Building (completed in 1904), with its neo-Gothic bones rattling over the Danube, never fails to awe from land or river. Yet inside the structure it’s hard to suppress a giggle, once you see the spatial ludicrousness of devoting the world’s third-largest legislative building to the unicameral parliament of the planet’s 94th largest country. It’s like designing the Sistine Chapel to host Wednesday night bingo.
Around the corner is another spectacular colossus I spent too much time in during the mid-1990s, reporting on what would eventually be an ominously illiberal post-communist media law. In that space during the first decade of the 20th century (exact dates vary) opened the Budapest Stock Exchange, then “the largest building of its kind in Europe,” and “of a scale far beyond Hungary’s requirements.” The bourse was liquidated by the state at the bloody end of World War II, and then in 1957, mere months after the Soviet Union put down the October 1956 uprising within Molotov-throwing distance of the palace’s magnificent arched entrance, this temple of capitalism was transformed into the imposing headquarters of…communist state television.
It is indeed a gorgeous building, especially now that the audiovisual apparatchiks have decamped. But television journalists from the Land of the Free might pause a breath before whistling too sweetly at nationalist Gargantua that started out as monuments to free enterprise only to be conscripted by the state for purposes of blasting out government propaganda.
The thick roots of 21st century Hungarian nationalism are no mere tangential offshoots from the allure of Orbánism; they anchor the whole enterprise. Though you will usually hear Orbán’s GOP fan club enumerate exactly three of the prime minister’s tangible accomplishments—he pays Hungarians to reproduce, he limits immigration, he tells Western elites to get bent—the hiding-in-plain-sight attraction to the Fidesz leader is about politics far more than policy. And those politics spring directly from a paranoid sense of historical grievance no self-respecting American should want to experience, let alone emulate.
“Viktor Orbán is winning his culture war,” declared the Hungarian’s leading American herald, Rod Dreher, in The Spectator last week. “Orbán’s Hungary…is an unapologetic beacon of National Conservatism….Hungarians would like to stay Hungarian, without the blights of mass immigration and Heather Has Two Mommies textbooks in kindergarten,” enthused ex-National Review columnist John Derbyshire at the “race realist” site VDARE, in a piece Dreher enthusiastically retweeted and then later recanted, maintaining he had no idea that a site named after the first English child born in America may have some off-putting hangups.
“Western elites are terrified that their smear campaign against Hungary will unravel,” added a palpably thrilled Frank Furedi at Spiked: “The globalist media have succeeded in establishing a cordon sanitaire around Hungary.”
The media have indeed supplied enough hyperbolic fuel to keep a battalion of conservative anti-anti-Orbánists well-fed, grossly mislabeling him a “fascist,” “far-right autocrat,” and even “the ultimate twenty-first century dictator.” (Xi Jinping would like a chat.) The pattern is eye-glazingly familiar by now in the age of Donald Trump: Politician does or says something provocative (Orbán delights in assuring western nationalists that “liberal democracy” is “over“); an appalled political class overreacts, the anti-anti brigades man their battle stations, and around we go, dumbly, until t
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