What American Media Gets Wrong About the Hungarian Right

AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

When Tucker Carlson visited Hungary last week, the American left went into a conniption that lasted well into the weekend. There was much gnashing of teeth, in particular, about Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán, fascism, and the American conservative movement’s apparent flirtations with the presumed far-right of the small Central European country. The apparent rage was sprinkled with high-witted criticisms of Hungarian life, such as paprika, the apparent widespread use of clotheslines instead of tumble-dryers, and houses having fewer rooms on average than in the US.

Policy criticisms came in the form of vague generalities to outright untruths, opinions gathered more through a game of journalistic “Telephone” than actual reporting or reading of the Hungarian laws. For Hungarians, none of this is new (though the clothesline criticism was particularly odd this time), since very little English-language reporting on the country is ever accurate. One thing the US media, against all odds, managed to get right was that there is indeed a far-right political movement in Hungary – but it is not Fidesz, and Orbán is not its leader.

Much of the outrage certainly seems to have been caused by some visceral spite for Tucker Carlson, as Hungarian-centric moments such as Carlson’s interview with Orbán got very little criticism on their content.

The interview with Orbán lasts about 20 minutes and is relatively mundane, with topics spanning the migration crisis in 2015, American presumptions, Biden’s comments. It culminated with Carlson asking Orbán if he thought the US would interfere in the upcoming Hungarian national elections. Orbán replied that he expected it – and was prepared for it. This was sparsely picked up by US media, characterizing it as a preview of what Orbán will say if and when he loses the 2022 elections, or as evidence for his authoritarianism. What they leave out is why he expects this interference, as well as the important reference to the new Oppositional collaboration – that is, between the Hungarian left (DK, MSZP-Dialogue, and Momentum) and Jobbik, the Hungarian far-right.

For those not in the know: Jobbik was formed in 2003 after Fidesz lost the national election. Their main complaint was that Fidesz was not radical enough, a claim they reinforced when Fidesz lost again in 2006. In 2007, Jobbik added its own paramilitary wing – Magyar Gárda – which was outright banned for terrorizing citizens by 2009. Jobbik’s platform came out strong as a nationalist, authoritarian, and isolationist – branding itself as an alternative to Fidesz’s more moderate, “weaker” policies. For the first decade after its founding, many of its members have professed their anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, and homophobic rhetoric loudly and proudly – building enough support in the country to become the second-largest political party after Fidesz and essentially ousting any designs the liberal party had on a majority. Yet, between 2015-2018, political support for the party began to decline – although not enough to nudge it from second place, it became quite clear to Jobbik that the momentum was lost and there was no more room to grow.

This is when Jobbik and three liberal parties (MSZP-Dialogue, Momentum, and DK), the Hungarian far-right and the Hungarian left, entered into an uneasy alliance all for the sake of taking down the primary political force. Reasoning that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” both sides have temporarily put aside their grievances about the other until they have unseated Fidesz. Jobbik had the numbers that the left needed but lacked a solid funding infrastructure – something DK was all too happy to contribute. The only problem now is how to promote this coalition abroad.

The current leader of Jobbik, Péter Jakab, picks up the mantle from the short-termer Tamás Sneider. Sneider, a former far-right militant, was embroiled in a number of scandals, such as beating up a Romani man in his youth, stating he would “protect Hungary from the gypsies” in a leaked recording, and his wife making a Nazi salute “as a joke” at the couple’s wedding. Péter Jakab tries to sell the impression that Jobbik is now a reformed, center-right party, softening its rhetoric. He emphasizes the need to learn from the mistakes of its youth – of which there is an abundance. To name a few:

  • A Jobbik politician spitting into the “Shoes on the Danube Bank” Holocaust Memorial, referring to the Holocaust Memorial Day as being for the “alleged victims of the Hoax-caust” and sending a letter to other Jobbik peers covered in swastikas for New Year’s Eve.
  • Another Jobbik MP stating his wish to list all MPs of Jewish descent out of “concern for national security”
  • Numerous rallies and protests in heavily Roma and Jewish populated areas, with the intent to instill fear
  • Previous Jobbik leader Gábor Vona saying he would “never be Israel’s dog,” and, in a dog-whistle at Jewish investors, proclaiming that “Hungary was not for sale.”

Péter Jakab, himself discovering he had Jewish ancestry, has previously stated in 2014:

“We hear nothing in the media about how Jewish clergy want to cash in on the Holocaust. Let’s face it, they have a huge responsibility in the fact that today, a significant part of Hungarian society feels that we don’t need to remember the Holocaust. (…) It is these Jewish leaders who generate the prejudices that they can use to collect millions for more programs fighting antisemitism.”

And:

“[Israel] violates Hungarian interests.”

And also:

“It is finally time for Hungarian Jewry, and especially its leading class, to be absorbed” into Hungarian society.”

While Jobbik has embarked full-steam on to what is called its “cuteness campaign” in Hungary, softening perceptions and attempting to project a more moderate image, it has lost the support of some of its most radical members. These members have broken off to form a new nationalist-radical party, the Our Homeland Movement (MHM). Just like Jobbik, MHM carries its own paramilitary arm, the National Legion. These groups rapidly picked up on-the-ground terrorizing of Jewish and Roma communities of the early Jobbik years.

And those years are not so easily forgotten, or forgiven, by the Hungarian people.

János Farkas, an ethnic Roma official in the Hungarian town of Gyöngyöspata, does not think Jobbik and its members have changed their minds on anything, and are driven by opportunism. In 2011, groups linked to Jobbik came into predominantly Roma populated areas of his town.

“Thousands of them stood over there, some swirling whips over their heads, we were terrorized,”

Leaders of the Jewish community also doubt the sincerity of Jobbik’s “rebranding.” Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress says,

“Unfortunately, [Jobbik’s avowed change of heart] is not sincere, for even though some Jobbik politicians have publicly apologized for their statement, the party cannot deny its past and reform itself. In fact, many of the members of Jobbik who have made anti-Semitic statements in the past still belong to the party… Even if Jobbik allied itself with left-wing parties, one of their joint candidates at the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county midterms referred to Budapest as “Judapest” and expressed concern about the large number of Jewish “foreigners” visiting Hungary.”

Many observers note that Jobbik realized it had exhausted its potential by 2014 and has since then been on the decline. The party had to change its image or face a continued downward trend in support. Jakab, and many Jobbik politicians, like to say that they are not so much moving towards the center, but rather that Fidesz has become more far-right – and much of Western media has picked up on this line. Yet this is not the truth but a desperately needed survival mechanism, both for Jobbik and the Hungarian liberal parties. Both have looked at the writing on the wall and realized that the only way forward is to make the “enemy of my enemy” a temporary friend. The socialist MSZP-Dialogue, as well as the more Euro-liberal parties Momentum and DK, know their only chance at a successful opposition to Fidesz is through an alliance with Jobbik – one that, incidentally, benefits Jobbik by keeping it alive a little while longer. For both sides in this unholy alliance, temporary suppression of their loudly proclaimed beliefs is the only solution for survival.

Other Hungarian liberals, as well as the social-green party of LMP, do not feel the reward of potentially, and even then perhaps only temporarily, ousting Orbán from power to be worth the enormous moral cost. Nor do they believe in Jobbik’s PR campaign to soften its image, directed at the West rather than its own constituents. Writes Gáspár Miklós Tamás, an orthodox Marxist (and certainly no fan of Orbán):

“Every element of the protests of the Roma (and, more recently: Jewish) organizations have been proven true. Jobbik — with the support of several other opposition parties — is putting forward neo-Nazi candidates (who occasionally say ‘pardon!’) in several districts.”

The US press simply ignores this reality. European press outlets, meanwhile, either accept this sham, if only for the sake of removing the thorn of Orbán from the EU’s side, or know no better – and with no regard to the consequences for Hungary. Hungarians though, do not have such short memories or the time for games.

This is in stark contrast to the realities on the ground, of course. While Jobbik was inciting hatred against Roma, Fidesz sent the first Roma woman to the European Parliament in 2004 – the formidable Lívia Járóka, who was later elected to the Vice-Presidency of the European Parliament. Between 2002 and 2014, the deputy whip of Fidesz was the Roma political elder Flórián Farkas, who founded Lungo Drom, one of the first Roma NGOs in Hungary after the collapse of Communism. In contrast to the wildly anti-Semitic outbursts of Jobbik’s members and leaders, Fidesz has been endorsed by the Hungarian affiliate of the Chabad movement and has kept up a generally positive relationship with Mazsihisz, the Union of Hungarian Jewish Congregations. In 2018, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Orbán not only as a true friend of Israel, but also lauded his efforts to stem anti-Semitism in Hungary.

Orbán and Fidesz are far from perfect, and there’s certainly plenty to criticize. But the labels of far-right, authoritarian, and fascist, applied with reckless abandon by the American media of the left – and, disappointingly, some of the right – are at best intentionally ignorant, at worst deceptive. The American concept of liberal vs. conservative politics cannot be copy-pasted onto a Central European country. Not only are the political labels different, with quite different meanings, but the history and culture of these countries – especially in living memory – is considerably different than that of America. In American terms, Jobbik comes closest to what we in the US would consider “far-right.” Its early communications, especially between 2009 and 2012, mirrored those of the US alt-right considerably. While Jobbik is trying desperately to do damage control and seek allies in its grab for power, its radical splinter faction MHM focuses all the action Jobbik’s leaders still think but can no longer say out loud.

Western media purports to be liberal, and with that should come the concepts of cultural sensitivity, historical context, and some curiosity or at least deference to the complexity of issues in any country. Not all reporting needs to be a term paper, but it also shouldn’t be shots of sugar with brightly colored labels of “good” and “bad” without any context, or respect for a situation within a country.

Hungarians do not expect outside media to make good on these claims. Non-Hungarians getting contemporary Hungary and its politics wrong is simply an expected reality and one that Hungarians have had plenty of time to get used to. But would it not be wonderful if the media were, for once, to show some respect for both its readers and the ideology it claims to profess, and demonstrate that respect by researching and understanding what they are reporting on? A liberal coalition with a far-right group, an alliance struck for no reason other than to displace a right-centrist party, would be big news anywhere else. Yet, for now, the best these outlets do is a poor performance of platitudes about a country they do not understand, laws they cannot read, and a constitution they do not even bother to translate.

At least we can rely on American journalists’ incisive takes on the size of Hungarian versus American homes or Hungarians’ inferiority for line-drying their clothes.