Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes' The Light That Failed: A Reckoning is a good starting point for understanding the historical context of Orban's politics
Anyone observing the media campaign against Hungary and its government would imagine that it is motivated by a genuine concern to uphold the values of democracy. Anti-Hungarian crusaders continually go on about the importance of protecting the values of Europe. Recently, the former Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, tweeted that Hungary should be driven out of the European Union because it threatens this institution’s democratic values.
In every respect, Renzi personifies anti-Hungarian bigotry. It is worth recalling that, unlike Viktor Orbán, who became prime minister through running in a General Election, Renzi gained power through what could be called a coup d’état. Renzi would not know what democracy is if he bumped into it. He never ran in a national election nor had he been elected to either Italy’s lower or upper houses of parliament before he became PM. In 2014, he was simply named as Italy’s leader by the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, a former leading member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). In effect, Renzi replaced the previous prime minister, Enrico Letta, through the kind of intra-elite political manoeuvring that used to characterise the final years of the Weimar Republic.
In passing, it is also worth noting that Napolitano actively supported his party’s denunciation of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when the PCI’s newspaper referred to the revolutionaries as ‘thugs’ and ‘despicable agent provocateurs’. So being lectured on the need to be wary of dictatorship in democratic Hungary by the Renzi-Napolitano school of realpolitik is like hearing a serial killer praise the value of life.
I've seen a few smart people talking about this book recently. Why should I put down what I'm reading and read this?
The rise of authoritarian chauvinism and xenophobia in Central and Eastern Europe has its origins in political psychology not political theory. Where populism rules, it does not do so intellectually. Whatever popularity it has stems from a deep-seated disgust at a perceived post-1989 Imitation Imperative with all of its demeaning and humiliating implications. And it is fuelled by the rejection of the minorities-centred cultural transformation that followed the 1968 protest movements in the West. The origins of Central and Eastern European illiberalism are therefore emotional and pre-ideological, rooted in rebellion against the 'humiliation by a thousand cuts' that accompanied a decades-long project requiring acknowledgement that foreign cultures were vastly superior to one's own. Illiberalism in a philosophical sense is a cover-story meant to lend a patina of intellectual respectability to a widely shared visceral desire to shake off the 'colonial' dependency; an inferiority implicit in the very project of Westernization. When Kaczyński accuses 'liberalism' of being 'against the very notion of the nation' and Maria Schmidt says, 'We are Hungarians and we want to preserve our culture', their overheated nativism embodies a refusal to be judged by foreigners according to foreign standards. The same can be said of Viktor Orbán's expressions of anti-immigrant nostalgia: 'we do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed . . . We want to be how we became eleven hundred years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.' This is a good example of how populists select one of their country's many pasts and claim that it is the authentic past of the nation which must be rescued from contamination by Western modernity. And while he is informing Westerners that 'we' are not trying to copy 'you', and it therefore makes no sense for foreigners to consider Hungarians low-quality or half-baked copies of themselves, he is also pretending that imitation of one's remote ancestors, of whom few traces remain, requires no more effort than being oneself.
To sound like a broken record, I'm not sure it's so different in the UK - the narratives are a little different, but the psychology is broadly the same; a rejection of Europe and some other things, but no real sense that reclaiming Britishness requires any more effort than being oneself - which of course has taken in and will continue to take in a huge range of multicultural influences. Let's all go to Ikea!