What Happens When an Autocrat’s Conservative Enablers Finally Turn on Him?

Right-wing European politicians rebuked Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. But that could radicalize him even more.

Viktor Orbán stands at a podium while addressing the European Parliament on September 11.
Viktor Orbán addresses the European Parliament on September 11. (Vincent Kessler / Reuters)

Yesterday, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to approve a report detailing the threats to democracy and the rule of law in Hungary, triggering a process that could result in the suspension of Budapest’s voting rights in the European Union. This is a serious setback for Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary and the pioneer of authoritarian populism in Europe—not least because many mainstream conservatives who had shielded him for many years from criticism finally abandoned him. Viviane Reding, a former European Union commissioner from Luxembourg and nominally an ally, charged his party with nothing less than “destroying our values.”

But what happens when conservative enablers of far-right populists in government withdraw their support? Will the populists moderate? Or will they become more radical? In the case of Orbán, once celebrated by Steve Bannon as the “Trump before Trump,” we should probably expect even more belligerence toward the EU—a stance that, in the short run at least, might appear perfectly rational from the prime minister’s point of view.

Since 2010, Orbán and his Fidesz party have systematically created what the Hungarian leader himself has called an “illiberal democracy.” In practice, this has meant restricting media pluralism, packing and defanging courts, and intimidating civil society. This turn to authoritarianism did not go unnoticed. But Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), the 42-year old pan-European alliance of moderate conservatives and Christian Democrats. The latter have been the founding fathers of European integration: Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl were Christian Democrats; even today, the heads of all major European institutions hail from the EPP.

For years, Orbán convinced the EPP that he was the victim of the European left, which supposedly resented his conservative policy choices: His government objected to same-sex marriage and was proudly nationalist. In 2015, it built a fence at the border with Serbia, a measure accompanied by a number of countrywide campaigns against Brussels and the hedge-fund manager cum philanthropist George Soros, who allegedly wanted to force the Magyars to become a country for immigrants.

This strategy worked—for a while. Conservatives who felt that Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the EPP, had become far too liberal bought the image of Orbán as the stalwart defender of what he himself began labeling a distinctly Christian-nationalist vision. What they did not see, or did not want to see, was the difference between illiberal policies, such as a ban on same-sex marriage —which can exist in a functioning democracy—and Orbán’s systematic undermining of the foundations of a liberal-democratic polity, as when Fidesz effectively ended the independence of the judiciary. They also did not see, or did not want to see, that Orbán’s theatrical performance of a pan-European Kulturkampf—the lone politician loyal to traditional values battling against what Orbán called the “liberal nihilists” running Brussels—was meant to distract from the increasing corruption of the Fidesz government and its cronies.

Starting in 2015, Orbán started to challenge Merkel directly for the leadership of European Christian democracy. This past summer, he explained that “illiberal democracy” was actually nothing more threatening than a proper understanding of Christian democracy, which, in his view, could never be liberal in any sense. To be Christian meant to oppose migration, multiculturalism, and marriages between members of the same sex. Here, Christianity only served as an identity (mainly in opposition to Islam); it was purely about belonging, not about belief, let alone any concrete ethical conduct—a militant Christendom instead of a merciful Christianity.

However, it was less this blatant instrumentalization of religion that convinced a sufficient number of conservatives to change their mind about the enfant terrible in Budapest. It was Orbán’s full-frontal attack on the EU, epitomized in a campaign to “stop Brussels” in 2017; his ostentatious fraternization this summer with Matteo Salvini, the far-right Italian interior minister (who is not a member of the EPP); and, not least, his unconditional support for the governing Law and Justice party in Warsaw, which has copied Orbán’s assault on democracy (but which does not enjoy the protective benefits of EPP membership). They had been loyal to him; it seemed he was less and less loyal to them.

Up until this week, Orbán might still have turned things around. After all, whenever the EPP leadership drew “red lines” in the past, he offered some small concessions and gestured at continuing “constructive dialogue”—the sort of talk on which the EU, that great machine of consensus, or at least compromise, de facto runs. In an unguarded moment, Orbán explained to a domestic audience that he always had to do a “peacock dance” for international critics. But when he appeared in the European Parliament yesterday to defend his government, the deputies witnessed a belligerent populist. To be sure, he tried the Kulturkampf line again, saying that Europe, while officially committed to diversity, could actually not contend with a small, plucky country devoted to traditional family values (never mind that the EU has no authority to regulate marriage or, for that matter, impose immigration policies). But, more importantly, he charged his fellow politicians with wanting to take “revenge” on Hungary; like all populists, he equated criticism of his government with an attack on “the people.” He also announced that he would fight for his vision of an authentic Christian democracy (never mind that, traditionally, Christian Democrats were precisely opposed to the narrow nationalism now advocated by Orbán).

Does this mean that far-right populists will always radicalize when their conservative enablers finally say “Enough is enough”? Not necessarily. Orbán’s situation might be special. He knows full well that an actual suspension of his government’s rights in the EU remains highly unlikely. After the parliament vote, the European Council, which brings together the leaders of the EU, would have to agree—and a number of governments have already made it clear that they will not support actual sanctions. The ultimate decision to deny Budapest voting rights would have to be unanimous—and the Hungarian and Polish populist governments have assured each other that they will veto any such measure should things get really serious for one of them.

Orbán seems confident enough that the EPP will also not actually exclude Fidesz, though some leading Christian Democrats have advocated kicking him out. The meeting with Salvini underscored an implicit threat he made earlier this summer: He might leave the EPP voluntarily and unite Europe’s xenophobes and anti-EU forces, a suggestion that was eagerly encouraged by Bannon and other enemies of European integration.

Yet this also remains a remote scenario: Orbán knows that such a united far right will not be as powerful as the EPP. (And the leaders of the latter might in turn calculate that they now got the best of both worlds: They put on a show to prove their credentials as defenders of democracy, but Fidesz will stay within the fold and gain many seats for them in the elections to the European Parliament in May of next year.) Like all populists, Orbán thrives on conflict and hopes to rally citizens at home against foes threatening the homeland from the outside. In this sense, radicalization is a rational strategy—especially if he can maintain the lie that the EU wants to force every member state to have “open borders,” thereby keeping the focus on refugees and migration instead of on authoritarianism and corruption. There are already plenty of conservatives who voted against Fidesz yesterday—including Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz—but who are actually happy to borrow from Orbán’s rhetoric. Historians might one day judge that the Hungarian leader changed the EPP more than it changed him.

Contrary to what is often said, Brussels finally taking decisive action to defend its basic principles will not necessarily create a major nationalist backlash: The EU remains immensely popular in both Hungary and Poland; unlike in Britain, people have not been taught for decades by a right-wing press that Brussels is a bureaucratic monster bent on depriving free-born Europeans of their basic rights. But, clearly, Orbán is trying to make the Magyars a nation of Euroskeptics—and it’s getting easier in a country where 90 percent of the local press is now owned by oligarchs close to the government.

For the moment, Europe has at last done the right thing—shown that one cannot create an autocracy inside the EU without having to pay a price sooner or later. Its defenders should realize that the fight is far from won, though. And conservatives in particular also have to be reminded that a one-off principled decision is not enough.