It’s a beautiful sunny morning in Budapest as I write this.
Yet the faces of many Budapest voters are glum. Even my mother-in-law called me this morning to rant.
Yesterday marked the fourth consecutive election victory of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Orbán’s Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) party did far better than expected, garnering the majority of citizens’ votes and winning 135 out of 199 seats in Hungary’s parliament. This ensures Orbán’s stewardship over Hungary until at least 2026.
In declaring victory, Orbán said he had many opponents to overcome to win this election.
These opponents included his domestic political opposition, bureaucrats in Brussels, the international media, George Soros-funded nonprofits and even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The latter had called out Orbán last week for not condemning Russia.
Now, Hungary has achieved surprising celebrity status among conservatives in the U.S.
Last August, I wrote about how Fox News host Tucker Carlson visited Hungary. He even interviewed Orbán and lauded Hungary for its clean streets and family values.
In stark contrast, the mainstream media has condemned Orbán and his purportedly corrupt, authoritarian and anti-democratic government.
A Brief History on Hungary
I happen to know a bit about Hungary. My first language was Hungarian. I lived in Budapest as a child and later worked there as a lawyer and a banker.
Hungary is a small country of just under 10 million people. And they pride themselves on their uniqueness.
Italian physicist Enrico Fermi once joked that aliens were already among us, “but they call themselves Hungarians.”
Elite Hungarian high schools crank out math geniuses like American high schools produce football stars.
Every year, I interview Hungarian high schoolers applying to Stanford who have mastered calculus by age 12.
No wonder these kids gain admission to Cambridge at a higher rate than any other country in the world.
It’s important to note that Hungarians spent much of their history living under foreign domination… the Turks for about 500 years, followed by the Austrians and briefly the Germans.
More recently, Hungary kicked out the Soviets in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The hero of this last peaceful revolution was a fiery young student leader, Viktor Orbán.
And Hungary has become the enfant terrible of the European Union (EU) under his leadership.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary
As prime minister for the past 12 years, Orbán established Hungary as a fiery and independent member of the EU.
He built a wall to keep African migrants from entering Hungary – a move that earned the praise and endorsement of former President Donald Trump. (Tucker Carlson visited the wall on his trip.)
Domestically, Orbán consolidated his power over Hungary by gaining control of the judiciary, educational and cultural institutions – as well as the media.
More recently, Hungary was the only country in the EU that refused to condemn Russia immediately after the invasion of Ukraine. Nor has Hungary been particularly welcoming to Ukrainian refugees crossing into the nation. But then again, Hungary depends more on Russian gas than any other EU country.
What irks the Western media is the enduring popularity of the EU’s only – if democratically elected – political strongman.
The Western media portrayed yesterday’s election as a watershed referendum on Western-style liberal democracy.
But much to their chagrin, voters handed opposition parties a stomping loss. Outside of cosmopolitan Budapest, Hungarian voters’ verdict was clear as day.
The majority of Hungarians support Orbán’s “Hungary first” policy.
Mind the Business That Pays You
What you read in the indignant op-eds of the Western press is a caricature of what goes on in Hungary.
The reality is far more complicated.
Yes, Hungary is corrupt. But name a country in Central or Eastern Europe that isn’t. Bulgaria and Romania – also members of the EU – are far worse.
Had Orbán been voted out of office yesterday, the corruption would have continued merely under another guise.
To think that an election of an opposing party would have transformed Hungary into a Western-style democracy overnight is naïve.
It’s the same naïveté that convinced neoconservatives that Iraqis would welcome American troops into their country after their liberation from Saddam Hussein…
It’s the naïveté that convinced the “Washington consensus” that China would morph into a liberal democracy once it was welcomed into the World Trade Organization in 2001…
And it’s the naïveté that led to the belief that Libya would be better off after Hillary Clinton took out its dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Western experts – on both sides of the political spectrum – have gotten the world wrong so often that they have lost all credibility.
Consider this alternative.
What if the Western media focused on its own problems instead of perpetuating high-minded criticisms of other countries?
It pains me as an American to say this, but…
If a Hungarian visits San Francisco with its thousands of homeless drug addicts on the streets and the air filled with the stench of urine… or dares to venture into Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles… or spends time dodging bullets on Chicago’s South Side…
He’s not going to say, “I want more of that.”
Budapest may be scruffy. But there are far fewer homeless drug addicts on the streets. There are no shootings on the wrong side of town.
On the one hand, Hungarians are different. Like Orbán, many are hard-headed, opinionated and independent-minded.
On the other hand, to suggest that the next Hitler is coming out of Budapest is absurd.
Hungary is a small country. Its politics and economy should matter little to Americans.
And that’s okay.
Smart Hungarians, like Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), or Thomas Peterffy, founder of Interactive Brokers (Nasdaq: IBKR), will end up in the U.S. anyway.
Now, I’m not a fan of Orbán for reasons too complicated to elucidate here.
But here’s a word of advice to all those U.S. commentators wasting virtual ink condemning Orbán and rural Hungarian voters for their boorish unsophistication in reelecting “Europe’s only dictator.”
Clean up your own house before you lecture the rest of the world on how to clean up theirs.
Save your own country before trying to save someone else’s.
Love him or hate him, but that’s what Orbán is doing for his country.
And you should be working hard to do the same for yours.
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