What Rod Dreher Sees in Viktor Orbán

The political opportunism in this relationship, between the Hungarians and the American conservatives, runs both ways. Dreher and Carlson were also using Orbán, or a certain image of him, to make a point about the United States. Dreher told me, “Viktor Orbán is not Francisco Franco, nor is the Euro-positive Hungarian Left like the Spanish Communists. But the dynamic is quite similar. And it’s true in America as well. We all seem to be barreling towards a future that is not liberal and democratic but is going to be either left illiberalism, or right illiberalism. If that’s true, then I know which side I’m on: the side that isn’t going to persecute me and my people. In Rome recently, I met a Syrian Catholic who fled to Europe to escape persecution back home. ‘Do you think we love Assad?’ he said, speaking of Christians like him. ‘No. We support him because he is the only thing standing between us and the radical Muslims who want to kill us.’”

Dreher makes for a very worldly religious retreatist—his round, bearded face and vertical shock of hair are set off by thick round glasses that make him look a bit like an impresario. I met him in Baton Rouge this August (as I.C.U.s in Louisiana were beginning to overfill with COVID cases, and just before Hurricane Ida arrived), and in the first few minutes of our conversation he brought up a New Yorker story of Truman Capote’s from the nineteen-fifties, the sixth part of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and the novels of Stefan Zweig, to which he’d been alerted by Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel.” There is a basic disjunction in Dreher’s person, is that he reads everything, stays in touch with intellectuals of all kinds from all places, and is in even mundane ways alert to changes in the modern world—when a recommendation for an especially great ice machine went viral, Dreher tweeted that he’d bought and loved it—and yet insists that the whole thing is going over a cliff. Again and again, he insists that liberal journalistic, academic, even corporate institutions are so intolerant that they would never employ someone like him. He tends to have a particular effect on liberal intellectuals, whom he charms and spooks at once.

Since Dreher’s return from Hungary, he told me, he had been thinking about Orbán in terms of Huey P. Long, the famed Depression-era governor of Louisiana who denounced the oil companies, fired hundreds of bureaucrats, and replaced them with patronage appointments—another corrupt populist. Having met in downtown Baton Rouge, and spent a little while talking while looking out at the unvegetated Mississippi River, we eventually drove a few minutes to Long’s monumental tombstone, on the grounds of the Louisiana statehouse, which was built by Long himself. The statehouse is the tallest building in Baton Rouge surrounded by twenty-seven acres of well-tended but mostly empty gardens, it’s still probably the most interesting-looking structure in the city. We were looking at a monument to a pre-liberal politics while considering a post-liberal future.

Dreher recalled the memories that his late father, raised poor in Depression-era Louisiana, had of Long. “He said, ‘When I was a kid, the only reason we had schoolbooks, new schoolbooks, was because of Huey Long. And so what if Long skimmed a lot off the top? I didn’t care because Long was someone who tamed the oil companies, and broke the oligarchy’s hold on Louisiana’s politics.’ ” There was, Dreher admitted, a “downside” to Long’s governance, in the institutional corruption he bequeathed the state. “But you can’t understand why Huey Long got into power until you understand why people voted for him. Same thing with Orbán.”

It was ninety-five degrees out, shirt-drenching weather, and we didn’t linger by Long’s tombstone. Soon enough we settled into an outdoor table at a sports bar called the Chimes, near L.S.U.’s campus. Dreher’s son Matt, who was about to begin his junior year, texted that he’d seen us walking across the road into the Chimes, and would be joining us soon. The Little League World Series was on the television, but the conversation turned to Dreher’s latest book, “Live Not by Lies.” In general, Dreher’s subjects shared his view that whatever institutional power conservatives could muster was helpless against the soft totalitarianism of progressive media. “Look, in my home town, St. Francisville, a friend of mine is sending me pictures of same-sex couples going to middle-school dances,” he said. “A Westerner who teaches in a Polish high school, he told me there is no institution in this country—not the state, not the church, not the family—that has more influence over children than social media. For better or worse.”

American conservatives, Dreher went on, were just beginning to intuit how deep this soft totalitarianism ran. “You might not be that political, you might not even be that religious, but you know that your kids, in order to gain access to élite circles in business or anywhere else, are going to have to disavow the things you taught them,” he said. “That’s where you see the parallel between that and what the Romanians are thinking—that your way of life, your traditions, your religion, it’s all unworthy.” Dreher said that he was struck by “how much more clear-eyed the European Christians are about what we’re facing than the American Christians. American Christians are so lost in past glory, and the idea that we’re only one election away from winning America back for Christ. But just not aware of how shallow and fragile the faith is here. Over there they have lived through generations of de-Christianization.” He talked it through for a little while longer. “America is about ten years away from being where they are, I think.”

The longer we talked about Hungary, the more Dreher returned to the analogy with America, as if by describing Orbán’s struggle in terms of the culture war he might encourage American conservatives to see themselves as more existentially threatened. “I don’t believe anybody is coming to kill us social and religious conservatives,” Dreher said. “But it is beyond clear to me now that the woke left, which controls all the major institutions of American life, will use the power it has to push people like me to the margins, and congratulate itself for its righteousness in doing so.” When I asked why he’d reached out to Carlson, he said, “I’ll tell you exactly what it was. I wanted to move the Overton window.” Dreher said that he believed Orbánism couldn’t work in the United States—we were simply too multicultural a society to rally around an explicit cultural nationalism—but he thought there were elements that American conservatives ought to learn from. (Carlson, in his broadcast, had emphasized the same point.) “Trump fights like a drunk falling off a barstool,” Dreher said. “Orbán fights like people say Trump fights.”

We were sitting, at that moment, less than three hours from the border of Texas, whose legislature had just effectively banned abortion, a measure that would soon be upheld by the United States Supreme Court—it certainly didn’t seem to me that social conservatism was in its death throes, or that it needed an Orbán to defend it. The evidence was that it had plenty of effective attorneys. To Dreher, the more salient issue wasn’t abortion, on which his side was winning, but gay and transgender identity. “I don’t know a single conservative who wants to push gay people back in the closet,” Dreher said, but he believed that there had never been an “honest conversation about the irreconciliability of gay rights with religious liberty” for traditional believers of all faiths. I asked Dreher to explain why trans rights had become such a flashpoint for social conservatives, and he responded in part by saying that my own young daughter might someday lose out on an athletic scholarship to a “pseudo-woman”—a trans woman who had won entry into high-school athletic competitions. I said, “I mean, so what?” Dreher seemed unsure that he’d heard me correctly. “What do you mean, so what?” he repeated. “It’s unfair.”

Just when it seemed we might have reached a basic impasse, the tension was eased by the arrival of Matt Dreher—taller than his father, with the same observant manner and the same shock of hair, though redder. His father had introduced him, affectionately, as “a Bernie bro”; Matt turned out to be a pro-urbanist liberal who was thinking about a career in museums. We talked a bit about Hungary and then I asked Matt whether his experience of L.S.U. was that it was drenched in woke discourse. “No,” Matt said slowly. “And this is why I think it’s really useful to live one’s life in the real world—offline.” Dreher, who was listening intently, objected: L.S.U., a state school deep in the South, wasn’t the worst of it; imagine the situation at Brown University, he said. He and Matt were affectionately interested in each other’s observations, and as they talked about their experiences in Hungary, and I wondered if Dreher had invited his son to provide me with a prelapsarian counterpoint to most contemporary political discourse—defined, in his view, by the fact that Americansno longer treat one another like family. Matt Dreher said that when he watched Tucker Carlson’s special he was “begging, begging!” for Carlson to bring up Orbán’s vaccine-passport policy, which is strict and might have challenged the anti-vax Fox News party line, but the host never did. His father, who is also pro-vaccination, laughed. Matt Dreher later told me that his and his father’s politics were separated mostly by a matter of orientation: both believed that Christianity was disappearing as a key element of Western culture, and as a result the secularizing West was changing rapidly. The difference was that the father saw these changes as horrifying, while the son saw some possibilities among them, too.


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