Because Famous Liberal Women Are Special, You Peasants

Yet this is precisely the narrow nationalist trap into which Hungary has now fallen. Hungary’s belated reckoning with its Communist past—putting up museums, holding memorial services, naming perpetrators—did not, as I thought it would, help cement respect for the rule of law, for restraints on the state, for pluralism. On the contrary, 16 years after the Terror Háza’s opening, Hungary’s ruling party respects no restraints of any kind. It has gone much further than Law and Justice in politicizing the state media and destroying the private media, achieving the latter by issuing threats and blocking access to advertising. It has created a new business elite that is loyal to Orbán. One Hungarian businessman who preferred not to be named told me that soon after Orbán first took over the government, regime cronies demanded that the businessman sell them his company at a low price; when he refused, they arranged for “tax inspections” and other forms of harassment, as well as a campaign of intimidation that forced him to hire bodyguards. Eventually he sold his Hungarian property and left the country.

Like the Polish government, the Hungarian state promotes a Medium-Size Lie: It pumps out propaganda blaming Hungary’s problems on nonexistent Muslim migrants, the European Union, and, as noted, George Soros. Schmidt—a historian, scholar, and museum curator—is one of the primary authors of that lie. She periodically publishes long, angry blog posts fulminating against Soros; against Budapest’s Central European University, originally founded with his money; and against “left intellectuals,” by which she seems to mostly mean liberal democrats, from the center-left to the center-right.

Ironies and paradoxes in her life story are plentiful. Schmidt is a prime beneficiary of Hungary’s supposedly tainted transition; her late husband made a fortune in the post-Communist real-estate market, thanks to which she lives in a spectacular house in the Buda hills. Although she has led a publicity campaign designed to undermine Central European University, her son is a graduate. And although she knows very well what happened in her country in the 1940s, she followed, step by step, the Communist Party playbook when she took over Figyelő, a respected Hungarian magazine: She pushed out the independent reporters and replaced them with reliably progovernment writers.

Figyelő remains “private property.” But it’s not hard to see who supports the magazine. An issue that featured an attack on Hungarian NGOs—the cover visually equated them with the Islamic State—also included a dozen pages of government-paid advertisements, for the Hungarian National Bank, the treasury, the state anti-Soros campaign. This is a modern reinvention of the progovernment, one-party-state press, complete with the same sneering, cynical tone that the Communist publications once used.

Schmidt agreed to speak with me—after calling me “arrogant and ignorant”—only if I would listen to her objections to an article I’d just written for The Washington Post. With this invitation, I flew to Budapest. Unsurprisingly, what I’d hoped for—an interesting conversation—proved impossible. Schmidt speaks excellent English, but she told me that she wanted to use a translator. She produced a rather terrified young man who, judging by the transcripts, left out chunks of what she said. And though she has known me for nearly two decades, she plunked a tape recorder on the table, in what I took to be a sign of distrust.

She then proceeded to repeat the same arguments that had appeared in her blog posts. As her main bit of evidence that George Soros “owns” the Democratic Party in the United States, she cited an episode of >Saturday Night Live. As proof that the U.S. is “a hard-core ideologically based colonizing power,” she cited a speech Barack Obama gave in which he mentioned that a Hungarian foundation had proposed building a statue to honor Bálint Hóman, the man who wrote Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws in the ’30s and ’40s. She repeated her claim that immigration poses a dire threat to Hungary, and became annoyed when I asked, several times, where all the immigrants were. “They’re in Germany,” she finally snapped, asserting that the Germans will eventually force Hungary to take “these people back.”

Schmidt embodies what the Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev recently described as the desire of many eastern and central Europeans to “shake off the colonial dependency implicit in the very project of Westernization,” to rid themselves of the humiliation of having been imitators, followers of the West rather than founders. Schmidt told me that the Western media, presumably myself included, “talk down from above to those below like it used to be with colonies.” Western talk of Hungarian anti-Semitism, corruption, and authoritarianism is “colonialism.” Yet despite being dedicated to the uniqueness of Hungary and the promotion of “Hungarianness,” she has borrowed much of her ideology wholesale from Breitbart News, right down to the caricatured description of American universities and the sneering jokes about “transsexual bathrooms.” She has even invited Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to Budapest.

Polarization is normal. Skepticism about liberal democracy is normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.>

Listening to her, I became convinced that there was never a moment when Schmidt’s views “changed.” She never turned against liberal democracy, because she never believed in it, or at least she never thought it was all that important. For her, the antidote to Communism is not democracy but an anti-Dreyfusard vision of national sovereignty. And if national sovereignty takes the form of a state whose elite is defined not according to its talent but according to its “patriotism”—meaning, in practice, its willingness to toe Orbán’s line—then she’s fine with that.

Her cynicism is profound. Soros’s support for Syrian refugees cannot be philanthropy; it must come from a deep desire to destroy Hungary. Angela Merkel’s refugee policy could not derive from a desire to help people either. “I think it is just bullshit,” Schmidt said. “I would say she wanted to prove that Germans, this time, are the good people. And they can lecture everybody on humanism and morality. It doesn’t matter for the Germans what they can lecture the rest of the world on; they just have to lecture someone.”

It’s clear that the Medium-Size Lie is working for Orbán—just as it has for Donald Trump—if only because it focuses the world’s attention on his rhetoric rather than his actions. Schmidt and I spent most of our unpleasant two-hour conversation arguing about nonsensical questions: Does George Soros own the Democratic Party? Are nonexistent immigrants, who don’t want to live in Hungary anyway, a threat to the nation? We spent no time at all discussing Russia’s influence in Hungary, which is now very strong. We did not talk about corruption, or the myriad ways (documented by the Financial Times and others) that Orbán’s friends have benefited from European subsidies and legislative sleight of hand. (A ruling party that has politicized its courts and suppressed the media is a party that finds it much easier to steal.)

Nor, in the end, did I learn much about Schmidt herself. Others in Budapest believe she is motivated by her own drive for wealth and power. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a member of parliament who used to belong to Fidesz, Orbán’s party, but is now an independent, was one of several people who told me that “nobody can be rich in Hungary without having some relation to the prime minister.” Thanks to Orbán, Schmidt oversees the museum and a couple of historical institutes, giving her a unique ability to shape how Hungarians remember their history, which she relishes. Maybe she really believes that Hungary is facing a dire, existential threat in the form of George Soros and some invisible Syrians. Or maybe she’s just as cynical about her own side as she is about her opponents, and it’s all an elaborate game.

What happened after I interviewed her provides a clue: Without my permission, Schmidt published on her blog a heavily edited transcript, which was confusingly presented as her interview of me. The transcript also appeared on the Hungarian government’s official website, in English. (Try to imagine the White House publishing the transcript of a conversation between, say, the head of the Smithsonian Institution and a foreign critic of Trump and you’ll understand how strange this is.) But, of course, the interview was not conducted for my benefit. It was a performance, designed to prove to other Hungarians that Schmidt is loyal to the regime and willing to defend it. Which she is.

Not long ago, at a fish restaurant in an ugly square on a beautiful night in Athens, I described my 1999 New Year’s Eve party to a Greek political scientist. Quietly, he laughed at me. Or rather, he laughed with me; he didn’t mean to be rude. But this thing I was calling polarization was nothing new. “The post-1989 liberal moment—this was the exception,” Stathis Kalyvas told me. Polarization is normal. More to the point, I would add, skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.

Kalyvas is, among other things, the author of several well-known books about civil wars, including Greece’s civil war, in the 1940s, one of many moments in European history when radically divergent political groups took up arms and started to kill one another. But civil war and civil peace are relative terms in Greece at the best of times. We were speaking just as some Greek intellectuals were having a centrist moment. It was suddenly fashionable to be “liberal,” lots of people in Athens told me, by which they meant neither Communist nor authoritarian, neither far-left, like the Syriza ruling party, nor far-right, like its nationalist coalition partner, the Independent Greeks. Cutting-edge young people were calling themselves “neo-liberal,” adopting a term that had been anathema only a few years earlier.

But even the most optimistic centrists were not convinced that this change would last. “We survived the left-wing populists,” several people told me gloomily, “and now we are bracing for the right-wing populists.” A nasty argument had long been brewing about the name and status of Macedonia, the ex–Yugoslav republic neighboring Greece; soon after I left, the Greek government expelled some Russian diplomats for trying to foment anti-Macedonia hysteria in the northern part of the country. Whatever equilibrium your nation reaches, there is always someone, at home or abroad, who has reasons to upset it.

>from the atlantic archives

The Runaway Presidency

by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

November 1973

“A constitutional presidency, as the great Presidents have shown, can be a very strong presidency indeed. But what keeps a strong President constitutional, in addition to checks and balances incorporated within his own breast, is the vigilance of the people. The Constitution cannot hold the nation to ideals it is determined to betray. The re-invigoration of the written checks in the American Constitution depends on the re-invigoration of the unwritten checks in American society. The great institutions—Congress, the courts, the executive establishment, the press, the universities, public opinion—have to reclaim their own dignity and meet their own responsibilities.” Read more

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Matt Huynh

It’s a useful reminder. Americans, with our powerful founding story, our unusual reverence for our Constitution, our relative geographic isolation, and our two centuries of economic success, have long been convinced that liberal democracy, once achieved, cannot be altered. American history is told as a tale of progress, always forward and upward, with the Civil War as a kind of blip in the middle, an obstacle that was overcome. In Greece, history feels not linear but circular. There is liberal democracy and then there is oligarchy. Then there is liberal democracy again. Then there is foreign subversion, then there is an attempted Communist coup, then there is civil war, and then there is dictatorship. And so on, since the time of the Athenian republic.

History feels circular in other parts of Europe too. The divide that has shattered Poland is strikingly similar to the divide that split France in the wake of the Dreyfus affair. The language used by the European radical right—the demand for “revolution” against “elites,” the dreams of “cleansing” violence and an apocalyptic cultural clash—is eerily similar to the language once used by the European radical left. The presence of dissatisfied, discontented intellectuals—people who feel that the rules aren’t fair and that the wrong people have influence—isn’t even uniquely European. Moisés Naím, the Venezuelan writer, visited Warsaw a few months after the Law and Justice Party came to power. He asked me to describe the new Polish leaders: What were they like, as people? I gave him some adjectives—angry, vengeful, resentful. “They sound just like Chavistas,” he told me.

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Social Democrat Martin Schulz>

In truth, the argument about who gets to rule is never over, particularly in an era when people have rejected aristocracy, and no longer believe that leadership is inherited at birth or that the ruling class is endorsed by God. Some of us, in Europe and North America, have settled on the idea that various forms of democratic and economic competition are the fairest alternative to inherited or ordained power.

But we should not have been surprised—I should not have been surprised—when the principles of meritocracy and competition were challenged. Democracy and free markets can produce unsatisfying outcomes, after all, especially when badly regulated, or when nobody trusts the regulators, or when people are entering the contest from very different starting points. Sooner or later, the losers of the competition were always going to challenge the value of the competition itself.

More to the point, the principles of competition, even when they encourage talent and create upward mobility, don’t necessarily answer deeper questions about national identity, or satisfy the human desire to belong to a moral community. The authoritarian state, or even the semi-authoritarian state—the one-party state, the illiberal state—offers that promise: that the nation will be ruled by the best people, the deserving people, the members of the party, the believers in the Medium-Size Lie. It may be that democracy has to be bent or business corrupted or court systems wrecked in order to achieve that state. But if you believe that you are one of those deserving people, you will do it.


* This article originally stated that the Polish foreign service had already dropped its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages.

This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “A Warning From Europe.”

Source : https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/poland-polarization/568324/

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A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come