When in the Spring of 2017 Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, made it illegal for the Central European University to offer U.S.-accredited degrees at its Budapest campus, everyone there knew that this was more than an attack on George Soros, the Hungarian American businessman and philanthropist who’d founded the CEU. I was then the university’s president and rector, posts I held from 2016 to 2021, so I witnessed the more than 50,000 citizens of Budapest who marched past our windows one Sunday a few weeks later in defense of our academic freedom. Chanting “Szabad orszag, szabad egyetem” (“Free country, free university”), they knew that their freedom was at stake too. Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán had neutered the country’s supreme court, rewritten Hungary’s constitution, radically curtailed the free press, and stigmatized foreign donations to its civil-society organizations. The chanting crowds knew that the attack on the university was another step in the consolidation of single-party authoritarian rule.
Orbán’s campaign against universities didn’t end with the CEU. First, he decapitated Hungary’s preeminent scientific institution, the Academy of Science, stripping it of its independent research institutes. Then he forced the privatization of a large part of Hungary’s own university system, packing its governing boards with party loyalists and pouring resources into the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, a new elite institution with the explicit task of providing a traditional and patriotic education for the Hungarian elite of tomorrow.
A larger project of geostrategic realignment was at work here. Having thrown out a U.S.-accredited institution, Orbán tried to replace it by offering a campus site on the Danube to Fudan University, a Shanghai-based institution that has recently acknowledged in its statutes the leading role of the Chinese Communist Party. He also took steps to distance himself further from NATO and the European Union.
As a young prodemocracy activist in 1989, Orbán was among the first to call for the repatriation of Soviet troops from Hungary. Three decades later, he has been an outlier among the leaders of NATO and EU member countries for his pro-Russian stance. Slow to condemn President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Orbán has urged Ukrainians to seek a peace deal and barred arms shipments across the Hungarian border that would aid the Ukrainian war effort.
Instead of balking at Orbán’s courtship of autocrats or his eviction of a higher-education institution with U.S. accreditation, the Trump administration and its ambassador in Budapest offered only token resistance to the attack on the CEU, seemingly on the principle that any enemy of Soros had to be a friend of theirs. Since 2019, foreign conservatives have been flocking to Budapest to sit at the feet of the Hungarian master. Some of them, such as Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, just seem naive. Ostensibly seeking closer international ties between parties of the right, they seem to want to believe that, like them, he is a constitutional conservative—when he is, in fact, the authoritarian boss of a one-party state.
Others know exactly who he is, and that’s what attracts them: his despotic machismo. The list of American supplicants to the Orbán court includes political figures such as Mike Pence and Tucker Carlson, and right-wing intellectuals such as Rod Dreher, Christopher Rufo, and Patrick Deneen. The U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference has held one of its meetings in Budapest, and Orbán was invited to be a keynote speaker at the group’s conference in Dallas last year. [Continue reading…]