John Merrick pulls at the frayed edges of Hungarian soft power.
At the start of last year I began to notice an odd addition to the shelves of my local newsagent. In among the glossy lifestyle mags was a heavyweight new periodical. Its design was nothing out of the ordinary; it looked, if anything, like any other bougie upstart lit mag of the kind that perennially appear, with its classical serif typeface and pseudo-profound abstract image set against a clean white background. It was its name, though, that made it stand out from the newsstand shelves: here was the Hungarian Conservative.
Once you spot one, you can’t help but see the others. In every rail terminus and airport bookstore up and down the land, in each of our nation’s corner shops and off licences, new right-wing mags are popping up with startling frequency: the Hungarian Conservative, the European Conservative, and recently, the New Conservative. All are glossies dedicated to spreading a classical conception of the right, based on strong borders, nuclear families and a celebration of our Judeo-Christian heritage against the marauding hordes from across the Mediterranean. Although, the question hanging over each title, coming – as they do – in a period of declining print circulations and a much-noted lack of intellectual dynamism on the right, is just how are these magazines getting such good circulation? Or, to put it simply, who the hell is paying for all of this?
Poring over the pages, the magazine’s mission reveals itself. You can find, for instance, an exposé on the ‘Transgender Craze’, an essay on the woke war on Christmas and several laments for the declining birth rates of white Europeans, all set among plentiful talk of a new ‘cultural Cold War’ that is plunging the West into crisis. So far, so culture warsy – nothing new under the sun.
Curious, however, is its mix of contributors. While the Hungarian Conservative’s debut edition contained mostly Central European writers – all splashing out screeds on the usual centre-right fare of freedom, family and tradition, much of which was written in a somewhat jumbled Hunglish – the magazine’s second volume sees those Visegradic populists joined by a smattering of big name Anglophones.
The most notable contributor thus far has been the American polemicist, and Eastern Orthodox convert, Rod Dreher. Dreher, a darling of the US right and senior editor at the American Conservative, stood out in the second issue with an essay entitled ‘Mickey Mouse: Social Justice Warrior’. Within, he asks why so many American institutions, from Disney to the CIA, have wrapped themselves in the rainbow flag of cultural liberalism in recent years – or as Dreher poses it, why ‘bizarre programmes like Disney’s race radicalism, and gender ideology indoctrination, are now becoming standard in corporate America and in educational institutions.’ An interesting enough starting point, admittedly, although Dreher interrogates it artlessly through the standard conservative songbook: shrill comparisons with the late USSR; obvious references to Hannah Arendt and the threat of totalitarianism; and alarmist warnings about the impending breakdown of Western civilisation.
None of this is new for Dreher, whose love affair with Hungary and its authoritarian-populist leader Viktor Orbán is exceedingly well-documented. Dreher’s affections reached new heights in the wake of a four-month junket he embarked on in 2020, paid for by the Danube Institute, an enigmatic think tank run by a former Thatcher speechwriter, John O’Sullivan.
In their mission statement, the Institute declares its aim to foster ‘the transmission of ideas and people within the countries of Central Europe and between Central Europe, other parts of Europe, and the English-speaking world.’ What this actually entails is hosting a tawdry selection of right-wing shock jocks and provocateurs at its regular salons. Recent speakers and fellows to the Institute have included Frank Furedi, éminence grise of British libertarianism; far-right firebrand Éric Zemmour (currently running for President of France); failed London Mayoral candidate, singer-songwriter and ex-husband of Billie Piper, Laurence Fox; vituperative neocon Douglas Murray, who appears so often in the Institute’s videos he should really have his own channel; and a host of other minor conservative celebrities and YouTubers. The Institute made a splash in British papers in early 2020 when the government’s ‘social justice adviser’ Tim Montgomerie called for post-Brexit Britain to form a new ‘special relationship’ with Orbán’s Hungary – a statement so toxic that even Boris Johnson distanced himself from it.
Much of the Danube Institute’s money arrives courtesy of the Batthyány Lajos Foundation, a somewhat clandestine organisation which also ‘sponsors’ the Hungarian Conservative and conveniently owns its publisher, BL Nonprofit Kft. While there’s precious little to glean from the Batthyány Foundation’s primitive website, they make no secret of where their cash comes from: 3.5 billion forints (about £9 million) from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office, Hungary’s de facto propaganda ministry, in 2019 alone.
Orbán has never hidden his desire to promote a culture beyond Hungary’s borders, so these plays at international soft power come as scant surprise. The Hungarian PM has long portrayed the country as the last redoubt of ‘Christian democracy’ in Europe, frequently invoking the global menace of George Soros and his shadowy cabal of liberal ideologues to justify further encroachments on civil liberties. While the Danube Institute offers plenty of denials that it is in any way a propaganda machine, its publishing output – consisting almost entirely of puff pieces for the regime and its pet projects – says otherwise.
This global kulturkampf isn’t all apocalyptic sabre-rattling – there’s time for tea and coffee at its Roger Scruton-themed café, set near the elegant banks of the Danube. There, you can take a seat surrounded by the late, great conservative philosopher’s book collection (generously donated by his widow) and enjoy a reasonably priced flat white or chai latte with your copy of the Salisbury Review. Or, if you’re feeling peckish, you can tuck into one of their famous ‘Scruton bowls’: a mouthwatering menagerie of olives, feta-stuffed peppers, artisanal ham, sausages and a cheese selection, all rounded off with a hearty chunk of sourdough. If all that isn’t enough, there’s a regular series of events where you can enjoy discussions on Kazakh politics and the value of art. For a change of pace, you can instead opt to kick back with a chilled Hungarian white and listen to Scruton’s personal record collection. Should you be looking to thank the backers of this charming little spot, direct your praise towards the Batthyány Lajos Foundation, who stumped up £1.5 million for the venture.
The Foundation isn’t merely content with wading into politically-inflected hospitality; it also stretches its largesse to many other equally quixotic enterprises. In 2019, it fronted the cash for a short history of Hungary, to be written by the conservative historian Norman Stone – Orbán’s teacher at Oxford in the late 1980s (where he studied thanks to a grant from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation). It also has links with the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, a private finishing school for young conservatives, set on a leafy hilltop above Budapest, which, as the New York Times reported last year, has received more than £1.3 billion in government money and assets.
If this seems to amount to a shadowy, unimpeachable network of dark money and cultural soft power, then do not fear too keenly – that description may oversell its impact. Orbán’s popularity is teetering and and at the time of printing he will face off against a candidate who has the support of all major opposition parties: from the centre-left Socialist Party to the former far-rightists of Jobbik. It may take more than a Scruton bowl or two to save him.
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