On Thursday, a week and half ago, an exchange I bore witness to between one conservative leader and the son of another one evinced a roadmap for the Right’s future—the only roadmap that will save our movement from worldwide extinction.
In town for a conference, a group of us foreign journalists made our way to a cabinet-like room in Budapest’s Carmelite Monastery with a garden balcony overlooking the Danube. The occasion was a two-hour discussion with the man who has called the Monastery home the past twelve years: Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán. Among the meeting’s attendees was Yair Netanyahu, the son of Orbán’s Israeli counterpart and an influential scholar in his own right, with an entire squad of his bodyguards left waiting outside. “How is your father doing?” asked Orbán as he glimpsed the young Netanyahu at one end of the table. “Not too shabby,” replied Yair, “although lately the left has been up in arms against his new government.” No stranger to domestic opposition himself, Orbán sensed he could relate to the predicament of his good friend (their synchronous premierships the backstory to their friendship, Hungary has lately become Israel’s main EU ally, regularly vetoing Israel-bashing resolutions at the EU Council). He commiserated: “Yes, I saw the aerial photos of Tel Aviv”, cuing the latest round of anti-government protests across Israel.
There came Yair’s reply: “You know who called those protests, right?” The whole room erupted in laughter at the rhetorical question. It is doubtless noteworthy that all those present—hailing variously from Poland, Spain, France, Germany, and everything in between—unfailingly realized whom Yair’s innuendo was aimed at. That everyone—columnists and reporters from the globe’s four corners—grasped who was the enemy Yair referred to is indeed revelatory of the incipient struggle between patriots and globalists taking shape worldwide. But my takeaway from the exchange transcends George Soros. It’s a lesson about how to deal with the left’s enmity, regardless of whom happens to be backing it. If Hungary and Israel’s leaders have one thing in common—something other conservatives should emulate if they wish to match Orbán and Netanyahu’s longevity in power—it’s the carefree fatality with which they view even the vilest among their rivals, not least the Hungarian-born philanthropist funding their respective oppositions. Shoulder-shrugging conservatism is about resigning oneself to their annoying existence whilst not letting them alter the path taken in the slightest.
It didn’t use to be that way. Having quickly evolved from youth dissident in the waning days of communism to PM of a free Hungary in the span of a decade, Orbán often reminisces with journalists about his youthful naivete during that first term in power (1998-2002). Among the pieties and dogmas he was expected to embrace as a head of government rising in communism’s wake, there was an intrinsic aversion to wielding state power in pursuit of a vision—any substantive vision—of the common good. “We were in government,” he is often quoted saying about Fidesz’s first parliamentary majority in that brief period, “but not in power.” This light-touch approach to governance included a careful approach to nurturing the West’s expectations, ever mindful to remain in the transatlantic establishment’s good graces (whilst a leading figure of Fidesz in the party’s early years, Orbán even spent a stint at Oxford University on a scholarship funded by… Soros himself). That all changed in 2010, when a wiser Orbán was re-elected on the heels of his socialist rivals’ economic mismanagement.
Orbán had matured in opposition by then, his past shyness with power eroded by eight years of powerlessness. His top priority became cleaning up his predecessors’ mess: that year’s campaign blasted a one-word slogan: “Enough!” Yet beneath it lurked a longer-term strategy, one he confided at a similar meeting last summer. In the Roman empire’s wake, a set of Uralic tribes had settled the plains irrigated by the Danube and flanked by the Carpathians that had formed the province of Panonia, soon adopting Christianity and gravitating in the West’s orbit. From then on, a manifestly Western lifestyle had struck root and flourished in what is today Hungary, one that Orbán is willing to risk isolation to see perpetuated into the future. That lifestyle places family, God and nation at society’s core, building links with other peoples whilst being subservient to none—no matter the opposition’s portrayal. Whilst other Western leaders have sought to best manage a degree of coexistence with large Muslim immigration they deem unavoidable, at the Thursday meeting Orbán declared the lifestyle’s survival his overriding priority: “We are avoiding such coexistence.”
Orbán is aware there’s no guarantee that this vision will not raise opponents, even fierce ones. Yet ultimately, he trusts that its results in the form of broad-based prosperity and socio-cultural security will sway the average voter, opening the way for Fidesz to become a “forcefield,” as he famously put it in a 2009 speech. This bet has come to a head in the three elections he has won since 2010, but never more poignantly than in the last one, in 2022. Everything seemed to suggest that Orbán’s run at power would screech to a halt that year. The entire anti-Orbán opposition—from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party to the old-school socialists, the liberals, and everything in between—had coalesced behind Péter Márki-Zay, backed up in not-so-subtle ways by the Biden administration—evidence surfaced later that €4.5 million was channeled to his campaign—and the EU, which was moving to pare back Hungary’s share of the COVID recovery fund on dubious rule-of-law grounds. When asked at the Thursday meeting whether he wanted Hungary to remain in the EU, Orbán quipped: “No, but I have to!”
Orbán went on to win in a landslide. Yet despite his two-thirds parliamentary majority, the jury is still out as to whether his vision can keep bearing fruit in the longer-term. At a closed-door press event before the elections, Orbán confided that he wasn’t concerned about 2022 but about 2026. Though he is rumored to be grooming several would-be successors—from Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó to Justice Minister Judit Varga—it is unclear whether Orbánism can survive Orbán. Since winning that last election, the government’s main reputational quandary has shifted from the judiciary and the protection of minors from LGBT content to the war in Ukraine, which Orbán is campaigning to stop at all costs through a negotiated ceasefire, earning him the opposition’s pro-Putin “stooge” label. At the meeting on Thursday, Orbán scolded the West for wanting to turn Ukraine into an “Afghanistan-like no-man’s-land” helmed by an anti-Russia puppet government. When his comment leaked, Zelensky expelled Hungary’s ambassador in Kiev—but Orbán didn’t walk back his comment.
There are parallels between Orbán’s statecraft and Israel’s trajectory under Yair’s father, and it is no coincidence that the two are among the West’s longest-serving leaders. In a memoir published shortly before returning to politics as head of Israel’s most right-wing government ever, Bibi (thus nicknamed by friends and foes alike) traces his enduring mission through 30 years of public service back to his days as a diplomatic lowling. At the Israeli embassy in Washington, he pursued what Theodore Herzl called hasbara, the battle for gentile public opinion. Since then, Bibi has kept nurturing an attentive regard for what the non-Jewish world thinks of Israel, often defending it against accusations of cruelty against Palestinians. This doesn’t include, however, the opinion of those who peddle and believe anti-Zionist slanders, who are met with nothing but Bibi’s disdain. Amidst accusations that he turned to theocratic zealots to patch up his current coalition, Bibi is ploughing ahead with a proposed reform that would limit the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court athwart a global campaign that depicts it as an attack on the rule-of-law.
Not unlike Orbán, Bibi happened upon his guiding ‘vision’ whilst in opposition, sometime around 2002. Israel, he recounts in his memoir, would first have to shoot up economically through the free-market reforms he had previously implemented as finance minister and the adoption of militarily-spawned high-tech. That growth would then fund Israel’s military muscle, which along with a rugged diplomatic assertiveness, would progressively lure Arab countries, thus circumventing the rejectionist Palestinians. Much like Orbán’s 2010 pivot, this vision is plainly at odds with what the wider world (including the Israeli left) expects of the Jewish people’s leader, opening him up to relentless flak from Washington and Tel Aviv. Whereas the Oslo accords enthusiasts would like him to freeze settlements, hand all the territories conquered in 1967 to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and convert the Jewish state of Israel into a non-Jewish, binational state, Bibi insists instead on Israel’s Jewishness, demanding that the PA cooperate in rooting out violence and come around to recognizing the state’s right to exist.
Look, there’s no way to foretell whether the steely, scorn-proof determination displayed by two leaders faced with vastly different challenges will suffice to keep Israel and Hungary on the conservative side of tomorrow’s big debates—whatever those may be—let alone swing new countries across the line. There’s strong reason to believe that something very close to it is partly to thank for recent victories in Sweden and Italy, where even The Economist has recently taken to praising Prime Minister Meloni, through no attempt of her own to win the magazine’s endorsement. More importantly, there’s little doubt that without a steely resolve to see their agendas through despite the endless stream of censure, there will be no conservatives in leadership positions a generation hence. When faced with either a conservative who bows down under pressure or a progressive who is sincere about his aims from the get-go, it is hard to see what makes the former option attractive. Conservatives should learn to take the flak in stride, like Soros’ countless millions—with a jolly face and a shrug of the shoulders.