The ways of the European Parliament in Strasbourg are inscrutable to the American visitor. Political parties bearing maddeningly similar names—the Sweden Social Democrats and the Sweden Democrats; the German Social Democrats, the German Free Democrats, and the German Christian Democrats—form coalitions whose names elude all meaning. The design of the immense campus, a cylindrical tower abutted by an ellipse, is meant to represent the transition of Western civilization from centralized power to democracy. An exhibition of photographs in the pillared courtyard reveals the body’s aspirations to be the arbiter of international statecraft: the parliament’s former president Nicole Fontaine poses with Yasser Arafat, the Dalai Lama, and the leader of a delegation of female Afghan refugees. Yet it is rare to hear Europeans express any measure of reverence toward the body; its name is evoked more often in the matters of regulating light bulbs and Roquefort cheese.
Then Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, comes to town. Since 2011, Orbán has regularly travelled to Strasbourg to receive a kind of public stoning. The latest such session took place in mid-September, when the parliament convened to vote on enacting Article 7 proceedings, which can strip a country of its voting rights. Orbán’s government was accused of routinely violating European regulations on the rule of law. Before the vote, Judith Sargentini, a member of the European Parliament for the Dutch GreenLeft party, had prepared a report detailing the erosion of democratic norms in Hungary: constitutional amendments were passed after little consultation with groups outside the government; the court system had been reorganized and its oversight body placed under the control of the Hungarian parliament; the European anti-fraud office had found “possible fraud and corruption” in public-investment projects; and the European Commission had repeatedly sued Hungary for its treatment of migrants. Observers fear that Fidesz, the Hungarian political party that Orbán has led since 1993, has become the state.
I sat in the gallery, where I could hear only murmurs as Orbán arrived, strolling into the chamber late, after Sargentini had begun presenting her report. At fifty-five, Orbán has acquired a heft that he carries with the relative ease of a retired athlete. His hair is gray but clipped boyishly short. Spotting Orbán, Sargentini seemed distinctly irritated and said, “I think I should stop now and start again.” There was a round of applause in the hall.
Orbán took a seat in the second row, and for the next two and a half hours members of parliament alternately castigated or defended him. When Nigel Farage, one of the United Kingdom’s most bellicose nationalists and an M.E.P. for South East England, stood and declared that the proceedings were a show trial, Orbán allowed himself a smile. “Come and join the Brexit club, you’ll love it!” Farage shouted across the chamber.
For the past seven years, Orbán has used a maneuver that he has called the “dance of the peacock.” His government would insert measures into new laws precisely for the purpose of removing them. “He’ll generally put in one outrageous thing and one super-outrageous thing,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a legal scholar at Princeton who studies Hungary, told me. “But the super-outrageous thing isn’t really necessary—it’s designed to be jettisoned.” When the European Parliament or the European Commission has challenged Orbán’s government on the antidemocratic measures, he has made a few symbolic gestures of conciliation, “as if,” he has said, “we would like to make friends with them.”
Now Orbán ended the dance. Speaking to the chamber, he declared Sargentini’s report an insult to his country. “Hungary’s decisions are made by voters at parliamentary elections, and you state nothing less than that Hungary is not reliable enough to decide what is in its interests,” he said. “Let’s be straightforward with each other: Hungary is going to be condemned because the Hungarian people have decided that this country is not going to be a country of migrants.”
Until 2015, Hungary received around three thousand asylum requests per year. That year, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, travelled from Turkey through Bulgaria to Serbia and Croatia, where they attempted to cross the Hungarian border into the E.U. Many wanted to reach Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel, declaring, “We can do this,” was welcoming a million refugees. Hungary, a smaller and poorer state than Germany, was ill equipped to deal with the chaotic crowds in the border area headed toward trains and buses that would take them onward.
In January, 2015, Orbán went to Paris to attend a vigil for the victims of the attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in which two French brothers of Algerian parentage killed twelve people. When he returned home, he launched a P.R. campaign. Posters throughout Hungary read, “If you come to Hungary, you must respect Hungarian culture!” All the posters were in Hungarian. That summer, Orbán’s government began to construct a fence along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia, essentially halting immigration to the country. Der Spiegel declared him “the political victor” of the immigration crisis, and, since then, each new terrorist attack at a Christmas market in Berlin or Strasbourg seems to bolster his standing.
Fidesz and other right-wing parties in the E.U. contend that unelected bureaucrats are making consequential decisions—regulating markets, inflicting rules on technology and economic development, setting quotas of refugee resettlements—without the participation of European citizens; increasingly, voters agree. This resentment is at the core of the Brexit movement in the U.K. and lies behind the growing strength of xenophobic parties in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Central Europe. Steve Bannon, who has been serving as an informal adviser to various nationalist parties, told me, “The fight right now in the E.U. is between those who look at the nation-state as something to be overcome and the others, who look at the nation-state as something to be nurtured.”
The E.U. has been unable to deal with the big issues it faces: despite years of trying to develop a more practical and equitable refugee policy, it hasn’t come up with an effective means of assisting the countries where most migrants arrive. It has also been unable to deal with the small issues—in a recent attempt to mollify the roughly eighty per cent of Europeans who dislike daylight-saving time, the E.U. Commission proposed that each country choose its own time zone, a move that would seriously disrupt the single market.
Orbán thrives on conflict, and those around him say that, having consolidated power in Hungary, he is now a bit bored. “He thinks he could have been much more powerful if he were from a bigger country,” András Pethő, a senior editor at the independent Hungarian news outlet Direkt36, told me. “He likes maneuvering among the big powers.”
Orbán sees himself as the continent’s ideological counterweight to Merkel, but for the past eighteen years Fidesz and Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, have been united in the parliament’s center-right European People’s Party. The E.P.P. has used Fidesz to achieve legitimacy with increasingly anti-establishment voters in Germany; Fidesz has used the E.P.P. to achieve mainstream credibility. Now Orbán is ready for more. He “wants to be important, to change Europe and to change the world,” István Hegedűs, the chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, told me. “He hopes to be one of the new leaders in Europe, savior of the European Union, and to be appreciated as such.”
The day after Orbán’s appearance in Strasbourg, the European Parliament voted in favor of triggering Article 7. “European institutions have tried to address specific breaches of E.U. law for a long time,” Márta Pardavi, a co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights N.G.O., told me. Now, she said, “it’s about core European values.” In November, inspectors from the United Nations travelled to Hungary to insure that the country’s immigration centers accorded with international standards. The Hungarian government refused to let them in.
In May, Europe will elect a new parliament. Merkel has stepped down as the leader of her party, and a shakeup is expected—an enlargement of the nationalist bloc, or a realignment of centrists behind Emmanuel Macron, the President of France. Either way, Orbán expects to increase his power. Bannon told me that he didn’t anticipate any more Brexits. “I haven’t heard one of the people we’re dealing with ever say that they want to leave the E.U.,” he said. Europeans want a different E.U. Bannon has been visiting Budapest and plans to work with Orbán, whom he has called “Trump before Trump.” The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who has proposed that all applications for asylum in Europe be processed offshore, and that Germany, Austria, and Italy form an “axis of the willing” to enforce the process, has cultivated a close relationship with Orbán. Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister, talks about immigration in terms of “mass cleaning, street by street,” but he lacks depth; for European far-right movements, Orbán is the inspiration.
Not long ago, I visited a soccer stadium twenty-five miles west of Budapest, in the small town of Felcsút. The stadium has a gracefully curved slate roof and seats thirty-four hundred, double the local population. It is home to the soccer club Puskás Akadémia. There are no restaurants or hotels nearby, but on game days the parking lot is filled with the cars of Hungarian oligarchs, who come to socialize while Viktor Orbán intently watches the game, often standing alone. The stadium, which opened in 2014, was built on the location of a soccer field where he once played center forward; twenty yards away is a tidy white house with a peaked wooden roof and a small rose garden, where Orbán lived between the ages of ten and fifteen.
A footpath leads up a small hill to a narrow-gauge railway, built with two million euros from the E.U. A vintage three-car train with a wood-burning stove and a poppy-colored engine runs several times a day between Felcsút and the neighboring village of Alcsútdoboz. When I rode it, on a sunny afternoon in early October, there were two other people on board. A twenty-five-minute ride delivered us to Alcsútdoboz, not far from a private compound owned by a real-estate-development company belonging to Orbán’s father, where Orbán is said to make business deals.
Orbán spent his early childhood in Alcsútdoboz. His father, a mechanical engineer, became a member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party when Orbán was three; his mother taught students with special needs. The family was very poor, and even after moving to Felcsút, in the early nineteen-seventies, they didn’t have running water. Orbán has said that he first used an indoor bathroom when he was fifteen. He was an exceptional student, and when he was accepted to a prestigious high school in Székesfehérvár, Hungary’s medieval capital, the family moved there. He was, in his own words, “badly misbehaved”—cheeky and violent, both to his teachers and to his father.
After high school and a year in the Army, Orbán attended Bibó István College, a school in Budapest that opened in 1983. Hungary had fallen into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence following the Second World War. In 1956, a nationwide uprising was crushed by the Soviet Army, and Moscow installed János Kádár as the leader of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. Kádár, after presiding over a period of retaliatory terror, established a kind of bargain: as long as politics was left to the Party, people would not have to adhere to strict Communist orthodoxy. There were even some private properties and businesses. This model was known as Goulash Communism.
Under Kádár, Bibó was a place where dissenting ideas were somewhat protected. One source of its freedom was the support of an unlikely figure: George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier, who, in 1984, set up a foundation to promote democratic activity in Hungary. Soros had made a fortune at his hedge fund, Quantum, by predicting systemic instabilities, and he thought that Hungary’s regime was near collapse. As Soros told The New Yorker in 1995, the ideas of what he called the “open society” were meant to counter both Communist dictatorship and the nationalism that he feared would reappear after Communism fell.
Soros visited Bibó in 1985. Gábor Fodor, Orbán’s roommate at Bibó, recalled that Soros said, “This is what I want to support. They have the best upcoming young generation. They are very clever, they are full of energy, they want change.” Fodor, Orbán, and some of their friends founded the Alliance of Young Democrats, or Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége, the reformist youth organization that became Fidesz. (The name evokes the Latin “fides,” or “fidelity.”) Within four weeks, the group had a thousand members. Soros’s organization sent them a Xerox machine, which they used to print a journal, Századvég.
On June 16, 1989, two weeks after Poland held its first free elections since before the Second World War, a quarter of a million Hungarians gathered in Heroes’ Square, in Budapest, to observe a ceremony for the martyrs of 1956. The event was solemn until Orbán, then an unshaven twenty-six-year-old, heralded the withdrawal of Soviet troops and spoke of Hungarians’ desire to put an end to “the dictatorship of a single party.” The Chicago Tribune reported, “The crowd broke into cheers and began flashing victory signs.” That October, the Hungarian parliament passed legislation that allowed for the first multiparty elections.
Orbán had begun working at the Central European Research Group, which was funded by the Soros Foundation, in 1988. He soon received a fellowship from the organization to study at Oxford but ended up staying only three months, returning to Hungary to run in the elections. Fidesz, presenting itself as a liberal and libertarian party of youthful dissidents—members had to be younger than thirty-five—and advocating for foreign investment and privatization, won twenty-two seats in the parliament. Orbán became an M.P.
Fodor, a handsome, cosmopolitan personality, was the most popular figure in Fidesz, but, after a dispute over whether the Party should ally with other liberal groups, he broke away, taking several hundred members with him and leaving Orbán as the head of the Party. In the next elections, in 1994, Fidesz lost two seats, becoming the smallest party in the parliament.
The loss led Orbán to reflect on the infrastructure of power. He confided to an adviser that he felt “naked” without a communications network—the newspapers and radio stations needed for the creation of an effective political apparatus. The other missing element, he said, was a close relationship with business interests. A politician, Orbán insisted, should have eight to ten “big capitalists” who were clearly “our people.” He spent the mid-nineties forming a right-wing coalition, and then destroying his intra-coalition rivals. Fidesz won a parliamentary majority in 1998, and Orbán, at thirty-five, became Prime Minister. He put allies in charge of state media and doled out lucrative contracts to companies headed by family members and friends—a pattern familiar throughout the post-Communist world.
Observers disagree about whether Orbán’s shift to the right was purely strategic. “He planned for years how to get where he is,” Scheppele, the Princeton legal scholar, told me. She believes that if the left had been weaker in the nineties, Orbán would have moved in that direction. In 1995, Scheppele accompanied Orbán on a visit to an ethnic-Hungarian enclave in Ukraine, to observe as he tested out a new nationalist message. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Scheppele said. “Orbán’s mind is like a tractor beam that can melt even the strongest resistance.” She continued, “He feels any constraint, no matter how small, as if he is in a prison, and he is always trying to bust out.”
“There is no conflict in his head,” Hegedűs, another early member of Fidesz, told me. “You can’t separate the ideological and political agenda from the pragmatic agenda. In his mind, it’s one and the same.” Fodor said that Orbán never felt accepted in liberal intellectual circles in Budapest. “Somebody from the Socialist Party would say, ‘Oh, you are young boys, you have to learn a lot, please follow us,’ ” Fodor told me. “I laughed at this. I said they’re not serious people. But Orbán was hurt.”
The Socialists took power in 2002, forming a coalition of left-of-center parties. But the coalition presided over eight years of economic disaster, inflating the public sector and the country’s debt. Hungary suffered badly in the 2008 financial crisis. The country was on the verge of default until the International Monetary Fund, demanding stringent austerity measures, provided a bailout package. In 2009, seventy-two per cent of Hungarians said that they had been better off under Communism.
In 2010, Orbán led Fidesz back into power. In the next few years, Orbán passed several thousand pages of laws. He levied taxes on foreign companies and ended Hungary’s hybrid public-private pension system, nationalizing some twelve billion dollars in assets. He cut the number of M.P.s nearly in half, a move supported by most Hungarians—and then he kept going. After a series of constitutional-court decisions struck down Fidesz’s new laws, a constitutional amendment overturned the court’s decisions. In 2011, when Orbán introduced an entirely new constitution, it passed in nine days. By 2015, eleven of the fifteen judges on the constitutional court had been confirmed, without debate, by a Fidesz-controlled parliament.
“They do everything by law—there will never be an illegal action,” Scheppele told me. “Any one law didn’t look that bad, but if you stack them together it creates this web. That’s why the E.U. is unable to cope. They look at one thing at a time, but Orbán is a systemic thinker.” Orbán created a counterterrorism force, which initially had apparent constitutional constraints on its surveillance powers. Subsequently, in several paragraphs inserted into a law on reservoirs and waterworks, he invalidated the restraints.
Scheppele has shown how Fidesz gerrymandered districts and introduced election laws that distorted proportional representation. In 2014, the Party received fewer votes than it had in 2002 and 2006, when it lost elections, but it ended up with a supermajority in parliament. Scheppele used the term “constitutional coup” to describe Orbán’s regime. “It’s absolutely ingenious,” she said.
Orbán also began the process of what members of Fidesz often refer to as “the establishment of a group of domestic entrepreneurs.” With the help of one of his closest high-school friends, Lajos Simicska, who placed loyalists in administration positions responsible for public contracts and the distribution of E.U. funds, Orbán built up a circle of wealthy allies who control banks, state companies, foundations, public-works contracts, and the media. In one scandal, György Matolcsy, the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank, who served as the minister of national economy between 2010 and 2013, used public money to establish a number of foundations intended, he said, to “strengthen various parts of higher education.” Matolcsy, it was later revealed through lawsuits initiated by an opposition member of parliament, not only controlled the foundations but stored more than two hundred million dollars of their money in a small bank run by his cousin; when the bank began to struggle, Matolcsy offered it a loan from the National Bank at a below-market interest rate. The cousin’s bank later helped Matolcsy’s son buy a furniture factory. The foundations controlled by Matolcsy bought property and hotels in Budapest, and supported journalists and media outlets loyal to the government. Matolcsy also gave the government low-interest loans, and Orbán said that “heaven and earth should collide” before Matolcsy should resign. Around ninety per cent of Hungarian media is now owned or controlled by people with personal connections to Orbán or his party, and eighty per cent of Hungarians who listen to the radio or watch television hear only news that comes from the government. When investigative journalists in Hungary unearthed the Matolcsy scandal, most Hungarians never heard anything about it.
Opposition politicians and investigative journalists maintain that Orbán has become fantastically rich through companies that are registered in the names of family members. His extended family has shown a special affection for buying the old villas of the Jewish bourgeoisie. A stone quarry near Felcsút has earned Orbán’s father millions of euros; his son-in-law receives E.U. money in the form of contracts for installing street lights and making tourism-related renovations. Lőrinc Mészáros, a former pipe fitter from Felcsút who connected with Orbán on the soccer field, in 1999, won a slew of state construction contracts. (He helped build the town’s stadium.) In 2010, when Orbán returned to power, Mészáros owned one company; now he owns two hundred and three, and is, by most accounts, one of the richest men in Hungary. His gated estate spreads into the hills at the edge of Felcsút, where he served as mayor from 2010 to 2018, joining the eighty-five per cent of mayoralties and local councils controlled by Fidesz. The Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has written, “Certainly, elections will continue to be held in Hungary, Orbán’s opponents will be allowed to demonstrate in Budapest, critical voices will find a niche somewhere in the media. Power really changing hands, however, is increasingly unlikely.”
In December, after Fidesz passed a law that would nearly double the limit on overtime hours for workers, without requiring that they be paid right away, ten thousand Hungarians gathered night after night, in freezing weather, in front of the parliament building. A group of opposition politicians vowed “to make 2019 a year of resistance.” When four of them tried to occupy the state television headquarters, they were forcibly removed. One had to be hospitalized.
On a Thursday morning in late August, it was quiet in the office of the Open Society Foundations, on a narrow street in Budapest, not far from the Danube. Last April, O.S.F. decided to move the office, a regional hub for its grant-making activities for the past twenty years, to Berlin. There used to be a hundred and seventy employees in Budapest; now only a few remained, to shut things down. “You cannot understand the situation here if you don’t know what’s happening at the political level, which is that everything is framed by migration,” Peter Nizak, the foundation’s director of Hungarian programs, told me.
After 1989, Soros’s foundation directed money toward social modernization in Hungary, funding, among other things, a hospice program, a school-breakfast program, and a book-restoration plan at the National Széchényi Library. In 1996, Soros created the Romaversitas Foundation, to provide educational assistance and mentoring to Hungary’s severely marginalized Roma population. The following year, the foundation launched a program to archive Carpathian Basin folk-music recordings. Nizak said there were years when the financing that the Soros Foundation provided to Hungarian newspapers was equal to that provided by the state.
Soros first attracted the attention of the right in the U.S. after speaking out against the Iraq War and donating money to defeat George W. Bush in 2004. He became a favorite target of Fox News, where, in 2007, Bill O’Reilly described him as “an extremist who wants open borders, a one-world foreign policy, legalized drugs, euthanasia, and on and on.” Conspiracy theorists portrayed him as a Jewish foreigner whose questionable ethics had enabled him to make a fortune that he was now using to promote liberal practices across the globe. According to Soros, the vilification intensified in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, when he warned that Russian nationalism posed an existential threat to the E.U. In response, Russia expelled the O.S.F.; shortly thereafter, its accounts were hacked by a Russian cyber-espionage group thought to be connected to the G.R.U., Russia’s military-intelligence agency. Bots posted O.S.F. e-mails on social media, revealing, for example, the foundation’s donation to an Irish N.G.O. ahead of a referendum on liberalizing Ireland’s abortion laws, providing fodder for critics who claimed that the foundation was trying to influence elections in foreign countries.
Soros has become synonymous in Hungary with the perceived threat of migration. In the fall of 2015, a Sky News reporter in Greece published a report about what he called a “unique travel guide” that he’d found among abandoned life jackets and rubber dinghies washed up on the beaches of Lesbos. The booklet, which was in Arabic, contained phone numbers for the Red Cross and the U.N. Refugee Agency. Soon an anonymous YouTube video appeared that recast the Sky News clip with a voice-over claiming, falsely, that the aid organization distributing the booklet was funded by Soros. Magyar Idők, a popular newspaper connected to Fidesz’s think tank, ran a piece with the headline “george soros is luring people with the wealth of the white world.” O.S.F. released a statement saying that everything about the story was false, but, since then, Fidesz politicians have commented daily on Soros’s nefarious intentions.
In 2017, the government conducted a survey asking for Hungarian voters’ opinions on Soros, noting, “The goal of the Soros plan is to diminish the importance of the language and culture of European countries in order to make the integration of illegal immigrants happen sooner.” Billboards paid for by Fidesz showed a Photoshopped image of a grinning Soros, his arms around the shoulders of opposition politicians, who clutched garden shears and peered expectantly through a hole they’d cut in the border fence.
In a speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, in which Hungary rose up against the Austrian Empire, Orbán said, “We do not need to fight the anemic little opposition parties but an international network which is organized into an empire.” This empire, he said, included “a chain of N.G.O.s financed by an international speculator, summed up by and embodied in the name George Soros. ”
Members of Fidesz categorically deny that their campaign against Soros is anti-Semitic. But, Orbán said, “we must fight against an opponent who is different from us. Their faces are not visible, but are hidden from view. They do not fight directly, but by stealth. They are not honorable, but unprincipled. They are not national, but international. They do not believe in work, but speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”
Nizak told me that, one day, he was watching TV with his son, who is six, when an anti-Soros campaign ad appeared. “I told him, ‘Do you know I work for George Soros?’ And he said, ‘No! ’ ”
Less than ten per cent of O.S.F.’s funds go to organizations providing aid to migrants and refugees. I asked Nizak how many refugees had been granted protection in Hungary. “It’s interesting you ask me that question,” he said. “We are not a migration-support organization, which means that I’m not an expert.” He smiled and apologized for the joke. “Actually, we don’t regard migration as a positive or a negative, but just that it’s happening, so you have to do something.”
Some members of Fidesz argue that Soros is a left-wing version of the Koch brothers, funding organizations that conform with his political vision. Soros has spent far more money, worldwide, than the Kochs have in the U.S. “He enters into the realm of political debate, O.K., he’s welcome. But then he will meet with political responses,” Balázs Hidvéghi, the communications director for Fidesz, told me. “If you step into a boxing ring, then you shouldn’t be surprised if you get a punch.”
Part of the government’s campaign against Soros has encompassed Central European University, which he founded, in 1991, as a Western-style academic institution geared toward assisting the region’s transition to democracy. Once Soros became a target, the government changed the licensing laws for foreign universities, and claimed that the school had to be reaccredited. C.E.U. attempted to adjust, but, despite efforts by the American Ambassador to negotiate a resolution, and bipartisan pressure from the U.S. Congress, the university recently declared that it would be forced to move much of its operations to Vienna in January, though the Budapest campus will remain open. “In Hungary, the law is a tool of power,” Michael Ignatieff, the university’s rector, said in an announcement. He told me, “It looks like a law, sounds like a law, walks and talks like a law, but it’s just a piece of arbitrary discretion.”
“With all due respect, most of these N.G.O.s are basically following a political idea,” Zoltán Kovács, Orbán’s spokesman, told me. “The problem is that these N.G.O.s have never been elected. Altogether, they represent a couple of hundred people, without a democratic mandate.”
In recent months, the Hungarian parliament has passed a series of measures targeting migration, including the “Stop Soros” bill, which makes it a criminal offense to provide assistance to many people applying for asylum or residency permits. Another measure taxes organizations that participate in any kind of “propaganda” to “promote” migration. “If I would summarize briefly, the changes mean that any kind of migration-related work is illegal,” Nizak told me.
One morning, I took a train south across the flat countryside to Szeged, a university town of cheerful Habsburg architecture. Following the Treaty of Trianon, which, after the First World War, divided up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Szeged found itself at the intersection of Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. Now the town center is about twenty minutes from the thirteen-foot-tall electric razor-wire fence that runs along the Hungarian border with Serbia. The fence, which is monitored by drones and by soldiers, is equipped with heat sensors and loudspeakers that issue grave warnings in English, Arabic, and Farsi that attempting to cross the border is a crime.
Tímea Kovács, a criminal-defense lawyer in Szeged, picked me up at the town’s train station and drove us to a shabby-chic Austro-Hungarian café. Kovács has dyed-blond hair, and she wore gray flannel sneakers and a delicately patterned gray wool shawl. About ten years ago, she began working with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee on asylum cases. “It was mostly a technical issue” then, Márta Pardavi, of the Helsinki Committee, had told me—of interest only to human-rights lawyers. In 2015, Kovács and her colleagues went to the train station in Szeged every day to greet the arriving migrants. “It was a very chaotic situation,” Kovács said. “We saw that the police and the border guards were not able to manage it.” After constructing a temporary fence, the government decided that, even if migrants came from countries at war, arriving via Serbia disqualified them from receiving asylum, since they were coming from a “safe third country.”
In the previous two months, none of Kovács’s clients had been granted asylum. According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, about thirty-four hundred people in the past year were allowed to apply for asylum, of whom a hundred and six were granted refugee status. An additional eleven hundred and ten were granted lesser protection. Even for a country of only ten million inhabitants, these numbers are negligible.
Lívia Járóka, a Fidesz M.E.P. who is half Roma, is often held up by the Party as evidence that it is engaged in the protection of minorities. When I asked Járóka about Hungary’s policy on refugees, she told me that Hungary didn’t want to end up with ghettoized banlieues, like France. Rather than bring in thousands of refugees, Hungary was focussed on integrating its existing population. Járóka, who has a doctorate in anthropology, suggested that I go see these efforts for myself, at the government refugee center in Debrecen. In fact, the center was closed in 2015.
Asylum cases are now processed inside two “transit zones” that the Hungarian government has established along the border. Authorities allow only twenty people per month into each zone. Those who enter the transit zones have typically already been waiting in Serbia for a year and a half in ad-hoc camps. “Waiting for nothing, actually,” Kovács said. “Because, once they enter, what can they hope for?” Kovács isn’t allowed into the transit zones; she meets her clients in converted shipping containers nearby. Most of her cases are rejected. Applicants can appeal, but they are required to write the appeal themselves, in Hungarian, within three days. Then they are required to leave Hungarian territory.
In 2014, Zana Hanafi, a sixteen-year-old Kurd, was a freshman in high school when ISIS arrived in Kobanî, her home town, in northern Syria. She and her family fled to Turkey. The Hanafis heard that the Turkish government was throwing Kurds into prison, so they paid smugglers to take them to Norway. On the way, they crossed into Hungary, where the police arrested them and transferred them to a camp. In these types of centers, detainees are not allowed to leave unless they agree to return to Serbia. There were police everywhere.
The Hanafis were not permitted to speak with a lawyer. Instead, an Iranian translator who spoke a little Kurdish was provided for them. The family was eventually granted temporary permission to stay in Hungary, but camp officials told them that they needed to pay twenty-five hundred euros per person in order to leave the camp. The Hanafis had run out of money, so they were transferred to another camp, where they had to negotiate to receive beds that weren’t stained with urine. After ten days, they were told that the camp was closing. “We asked where to go to,” Zana told me. “They said, ‘We don’t know, but you have to leave.’ ”
In Budapest, an N.G.O. helped the family to pay for a temporary apartment. Zana began learning Hungarian, and she worked with refugee children to help them adjust to their new environment; she also worked as a chef’s assistant at a Lebanese restaurant. Her younger siblings started school, where they were expected to learn in Hungarian. When they couldn’t answer questions or do the homework, the teachers became angry. During the 2014 election campaign, Zana said, her sister came home crying: the school had hung up a large poster with the slogan “No refugees.”
“They are pushing children to believe that refugees are bad, refugees are dangerous, not to like people from other places,” Zana told me. “At first, I was pushing to stay in Hungary. I tried to understand why it was like this, but I couldn’t.”
I spoke with Zana over Skype. She was in Brussels, in a library, between French and Dutch classes she is taking so that she can finish high school. She wore an oversized sweatshirt that fell over one shoulder, her hair twisted into a knot on top of her head. After her brother was beaten up by two men in Hungary, the family saved enough money to fly to Belgium, where they stayed in a refugee camp for several months. But the government was trying to provide them with what they needed—classes, library cards, and, eventually, housing.
The Belgian government had arranged for Zana to see a psychologist once a week. “I am mostly afraid of a knock on the door at night that means we will be deported to Hungary,” she said. “I already got past a lot of things. But I can’t throw this one out of my heart.”
Every summer, Orbán gives a speech in Transylvania, in the hills of Băile Tuşnad, which is home to an enclave of ethnic Hungarians who were stranded in Romania after the Treaty of Trianon. Orbán uses the occasion as a kind of state-of-the-union address. In 2014, he argued that, after the “great Western financial collapse” of 2008, the world had awoken to a new reality, as dramatic as that of 1945 or 1990, except that this time no one realized it. Orbán offered a critique of Western liberalism: he believed that the idea that one could do whatever one wanted as long as it didn’t infringe on the freedoms of others had resulted not in justice but in the strong dominating the weak. “The Hungarian nation is not simply a group of individuals but a community that must be organized,” he said. “And so, in this sense, the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”
Four years later, Orbán had refined his idea. “There is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy,” he said at this summer’s gathering. “And we must show that the liberal élite can be replaced with a Christian-democratic élite.” Orbán offered some clarification. “Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture,” he said. “Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration.”
Referring to the upcoming European elections, he said, “The opportunity is here. Next May, we can wave goodbye not only to liberal democracy and the liberal undemocratic system that has been built on its foundations but also to the entire élite of ’68.”
For far-right, and even mainstream-right, movements across Europe, Orbán’s speeches have amounted to something of a manifesto. L’Incorrect, a French magazine founded by a group of young intellectuals associated with Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s popular niece, devoted its recent issue to “the Sun Rising in the East,” and included a lengthy investigation of Orbán’s Hungary, lauding him for “reinventing Christian democracy.” Members of that circle have been travelling to Budapest to learn from Fidesz. An acquaintance of mine, who is a former parliamentary aide for the National Front, told me that Orbán’s ideas promised to bring meaning back into public policy—“a touch of the eternal in the everyday,” he said.
In September, 2017, a few months after his election, President Macron gave a speech at the Sorbonne in which he accused nationalist parties across Europe of “lying to the people,” and laid out steps for what he called “European sovereignty,” in which governments would create new agencies and venues for coöperation. For nationalists, the speech was a declaration of war. “He laid out a very succinct vision,” Steve Bannon told me. “And that’s what they want to stop,” he added, referring to Orbán and other leaders. “They believe that their countries will be looked at as administrative units. They don’t want to be South Carolina and North Carolina. They want to be Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Austria.” In mid-November, the “Yellow Vest” movement, a quasi-insurrectional, politically heterogeneous mobilization of French citizens demanding living wages, better state services, and a more socially and symbolically just taxation system, erupted in France, threatening to seriously curtail Macron’s plans. “Macron is a perfect example that the momentum is on the side of the populists,” Bannon said. “And the bureaucrats in Brussels, instead of trying to be open and accommodating, have really thrown down the hammer,” he added. “So it’s going to have to be won at the ballot box.”
In his 2014 speech, Orbán ended on a note at once humble and hubristic. “What I must tell you with regard to the future is a phrase that may seem like too little, coming from someone in such a high position,” he said. “It is that the essence of the future is that anything can happen. And it is difficult to define ‘anything.’ ”
This article appears in the print edition of the January 14, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Illiberal State.” in The New Yorker.