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Do American ‘National Conservatives’ Condone Orbán’s White Nationalism?

The Hungarian prime minister’s unqualified praise for a racist screed and criticisms of “race-mixing” amount to a mask-off moment.
July 28, 2022
Do American ‘National Conservatives’ Condone Orbán’s White Nationalism?
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s career as a champion of “illiberal democracy” and a poster boy for “national conservatism” took a startling turn last Saturday when his speech at a summer event in Romania veered into explicit “Great Replacement” rhetoric, complete with a denunciation of the “mixed-race world” of liberal Western countries. The controversy escalated on Tuesday when sociologist Zsuzsa Hegedüs, a longtime Orbán adviser and ally, submitted a scathing resignation letter that slammed her now-former boss for delivering an “openly racist speech” and “a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels.” (After the letter was leaked to the press, Orbán issued a petulant statement professing shock that Hegedüs could suspect him of racism.) The speech was also denounced by the International Auschwitz Committee; by Hungary’s chief rabbi, Robert Frolich; and by Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu, who called it “unacceptable.”

Orbán’s fans on the American right, meanwhile, remain unperturbed. He is still scheduled to give a keynote speech next week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, sharing the spotlight with Donald Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. (In May, Orbán spoke at CPAC when it came to Hungary.) And writer Rod Dreher—who has previously hailed Orbán as a leader fighting not just “a political battle, but a civilizational one” for the future of the West—wrote a post for his blog at the American Conservative praising “the vision of Viktor Orbán” and asserting that the accusation of racism is based on a misrepresentation of what Orbán really meant when he said that Hungarians do not want to be “a mixed-race society.”

In context, Dreher insists, Orbán isn’t talking about race-mixing at all but “using the term ‘race’ as a symbol of religion and culture”—in other words, as a euphemism for “Muslims,” which is apparently not bigoted at all. (Yes, you can discuss problems of acculturation and integration in immigrant communities, particularly following large influxes of migrants from war-torn countries, without promoting hate. No, talking about “Islamic invasion” or “Islamic occupation” as Dreher does—using more belligerent language than Orbán himself did in his speech—is not the way to go about it.)

In fact, even if “he’s only talking about Muslims” were a viable excuse for the prime minister’s words, it would be patently inaccurate in this case. While Orbán did mention “Islamic civilization’s . . . incursion,” he explicitly defined the “post-Western” part of Europe as “a world where European and non-European peoples live together” (emphasis mine), which he believes amounts to loss of nationhood. And while he predicted that Hungary would eventually have to take Christian refugees from those de-Westernized and deracinated Western countries, there is no indication that he would be willing to extend such a welcome to Christian refugees from the Middle East or Africa. Finally, Twitter users with knowledge of Hungarian language and culture have pointed out that the word for “race” used by Orbán has a long history of being used with a strong antisemitic connotation—something that was clearly not lost on Hegedüs, who is Jewish and a child of Holocaust survivors.

Ironically, in the course of his Orbán-apologist contortionism, Dreher drew attention to a passage from the prime minister’s speech that other media coverage has missed: the fulsome praise for The Camp of the Saints, the 1973 anti-immigrant bible by French author, reactionary Catholic, and monarchist Jean Raspail (who died two years ago at the age of 94). It is, Orbán gushed, “outstanding . . . I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the spiritual developments underlying the West’s inability to defend itself.”

Raspail’s novel—the full text of which can be easily found online—is highly popular with the American and European far right. Erstwhile Trump adviser Steve Bannon is a fan. So is Steve King, the former congressman from Iowa who managed to become a pariah even in the Trumpified Republican party by wondering aloud why such terms as “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” should be considered offensive. So is Stephen Miller, the immigration policy chief in the Trump White House.

Dreher doesn’t exactly love The Camp of the Saints. He read it back in 2015 in response to refugee crisis in Europe, and reported that it is “a bad book, both aesthetically and morally,” but nonetheless one with “something valuable to say to us”—namely, that “the sentimental liberal humanitarianism” of the West’s elites and their longing for “redemption for the West’s sins” will bring about the death of Western civilization by stripping it of the will to defend itself against the invading hordes from the Third World. (A similar take on Raspail’s novel—yes, it’s “deeply unpleasant,” and it’s easy to see why it was almost universally dismissed as a “racist tract,” but it’s also uncannily “prophetic”—can be found in Douglas Murray’s 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe.)

In 2022, Dreher is reiterating the same theme: Yes, The Camp of the Saints is a bad and racist book—but it’s sort of got a point. “I wish Viktor Orbán hadn’t cited The Camp of the Saints either,” he sighs, “but the brute facts on the ground would like a word with our morality.” Those “brute facts” include projected high population growth in Africa and high crime and unemployment in many immigrant communities in the West, which apparently somehow justify an apocalyptic racist screed. And believe me, “racist,” in this case, is an understatement.

The premise of The Camp of the Saints is that, after Belgium agrees to take in some starving children from India but reverses its policy once the immigrant population starts to spike, the Belgian consulate in Calcutta is overrun by desperate mobs that then board a flotilla of ships and sail to Europe to demand asylum. The Europeans wring their hands, faced with a terrible dilemma: To admit the armada is to be flooded with refugees, but to turn it away is to betray humane Western values. In short order, Europe surrenders and is overrun by Indian refugees followed by other Third-World migrants, and white Europeans are reduced to pathetic subjection.

Throughout the book, the migrants are presented as a repulsive, seething mass of dark bodies; the only identifiable person among them, a leader of sorts, is a man known as “the turd eater,” a black giant with his gruesomely deformed son perched atop his shoulders as a “hideous totem.” (His first act on landing in France is to strangle, because he “couldn’t stand [his] looks,” a progressive journalist who has excitedly dashed to meet the newly arrived flotilla.) Predictably, Raspail’s racist horror show often takes the form of grotesque porn. The Indian refugees aboard the ships spend most of their voyage in indiscriminate pansexual orgies—“a mass of hands and mouths, of phalluses and rumps”—in which even young children are fair game. Algerians offended by perceived discrimination against Arab migrants in France respond by seizing a hundred young French female schoolteachers, who are dragged to a hospital and “spread on the stirrups to be plumbed and explored by a squad of medical student commandos, whipped up to a frenzy.” And then there’s this passage on the fate of a fashionably pro-migrant glamor girl, Lydie, which deserves to be quoted in full:

She died in Nice, in a whorehouse for Hindus, disgusted with everything in general and herself in particular. At the time, each refugee quarter had its stock of white women, all free for the taking. And perfectly legal. (One of the new regime’s first laws, in fact. In order to “demythify” the white woman, as they put it.) By Easter Monday Lydie had been raped . . . and proceeded, not unwillingly, in those first chaotic days, to tag after a troop of energetic Hindus, who had taken her over in a kind of joint ownership, since she was very pretty, and her skin was very white. Later, when things (and people) began to settle, they had clamped her away in a studio of sorts, in Nice, with a number of other girls similarly treated. A guard fed them and opened the door to all comers. The enterprise was even given a name: the “White Female Practice and Experimentation Center.”

Of course,  The Camp of the Saints is not just about the “clash of civilizations” but, quite explicitly, about racial warfare: white people versus everybody else. (The fall of the white world, swarmed by black, brown and yellow throngs, includes the Soviet Union’s surrender to China.) Race-mixing, or “universal mongrelization,” is treated with disgust; racism is openly extolled. The reason the Europeans capitulate to the invaders, Raspail makes clear, is not just liberal humanitarianism but the loss of “pride in their color,” the rejection of white supremacy. “That scorn of a people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest—none of that had ever filled these youngsters’ addled brains, or at least so little that the monstrous cancer implanted in the Western conscience had quashed it in no time at all,” one of Raspail’s heroes, a French literature professor, muses as he watches soldiers run from the beach where the refugees have landed.

This is the text that some Western conservative intellectuals want us to see as nasty but uncannily prophetic. Let’s be clear: Whatever problems Europe may have with the integration of migrants—and the “facts” on this issue are often difficult to disentangle from far-right agitprop, disinformation and sensationalism—none of them either resembles or redeems this obscene fantasy. In Raspail’s dystopia, England is brought to its knees when the Queen is forced to marry her younger son to a Pakistani woman. In the real-life England of 2022, the Queen’s younger grandson is married of his own free will to a woman of mixed race, and the top contenders for Conservative party leadership and the prime ministership include Rishi Sunak, the son of Punjabi Hindu immigrants.

Given the expressions of complicated feelings by some of the book’s sympathetic American readers, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Orbán glowingly endorses The Camp of the Saints without any kind of “yes, it’s awful and racist, but…” disclaimer. Considered together with his comments about “race-mixing,” his unqualified praise for Raspail’s book looks very much like a mask-off moment.

The enthusiasm for Orbán among American “national conservatives” like Dreher was creepy enough before the speech in Romania; Orbán’s quasi-authoritarian drift, his demonization of dissenters and aliens, and his fondness for Vladimir Putin are all long-established aspects of his politics and persona. But now the Hungarian prime minister is rather brazenly flirting with white nationalism—something that the NatCons have strenuously disavowed. If they still want to embrace Orbán and his “vision,” will they have any credibility left when claiming that they stand for a civic nationalist creed and consider racial ethnonationalism abhorrent?

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.