Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

How Rod Dreher Caused an International Scandal in Eastern Europe

Blogging and backtracking.
February 2, 2023
How Rod Dreher Caused an International Scandal in Eastern Europe
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week, Rod Dreher, the American author now living in Hungary, caused a diplomatic scandal that has gone largely unnoticed in his home country.

Dreher’s stay in Hungary is apparently financed, at least in part, by the Hungarian taxpayers. Last year, he was a visiting professor at Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), an institution engaged in training future government cadres that operates from public funds provided by the government of Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian edition of Dreher’s most recent book, Live Not by Lies, was published by the MCC Press. And this year, Dreher is a visiting research fellow at the Danube Institute, a conservative think tank founded by the Hungarian government.

These days Dreher has been attracting attention as something of an apologist for Prime Minister Orbán, who, Dreher claimed in a tweet last Thursday, has made Hungary “more free than many western liberal democracies that have surrendered to the dictatorship of woke.”

But later that same day, something else Dreher wrote caused a whole lot of trouble for his hosts in Hungary.

Last Thursday evening, Orbán invited the friendly foreign press to his office on the Castle Hill, perched high above the Hungarian capital. In keeping with what has become the accustomed practice in the Orbán era, the prime minister chose to share his ruminations about the current state of the world exclusively with reporters who would never dare to criticize him, but only nod with enthusiastic agreement instead. (This happy group included, in addition to Dreher, Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, Roland Tichy, Boris Kálnoky, Ralf Schuler, Javier Villamor, and Jorge González-Gallarza Hdez.)

Dreher returned home to his apartment Thursday night and wrote down what he heard, publishing it in his American Conservative blog. Since Rod Dreher grew up in the United States, he didn’t know that in an autocratic country like Orbán’s Hungary, friendly agents in the media (I’m intentionally eschewing the word “journalist”) are not allowed to write down and publish exactly what they heard if it goes against the interests of their politicians/employers. (Such a blunder could never happen in a Hungarian paper controlled directly by Orbán. Even if a Hungarian equivalent to Dreher wrote an article that would be damaging for the Orbán government, editors working for the party-state would never let it see the light of day.)

Dreher quoted Orbán’s words: “We are in a war with Russia. That’s the reality. . . . Every day we are moving further in.”

Someone asked the prime minister if he wanted Hungary to stay in the EU. “Definitely not!” he said, adding that Hungary has no choice, because 85 percent of its exports are within the EU.

With respect to Ukraine, Dreher quoted Orbán as saying that “It’s Afghanistan now,” “the land of nobody”:

To be clear, Viktor Orban doesn’t want the West to be in a war with Russia. But he says that far too many Westerners are deluding themselves about what’s really happening—and what could happen. . . .

Orban said that the West needs to understand that Putin cannot afford to lose, and will not lose, because he’s up for re-election next year, and he cannot run as the president who lost a war. What’s more, he said, Russia cannot allow NATO to establish a presence in Ukraine. The time has long passed when Russia might have been able to conquer Ukraine, or install a friendly regime. Had Russia won a quick victory, that might have been possible, but it’s hopeless now. Therefore, said Orban, Russia’s goal is to make Ukraine an ungovernable wreck, so the West cannot claim it as a prize. At this, they have already succeeded.

Yet Dreher quickly accommodated to the requirements the Orbán regime when, the day after his article appeared, the Hungarian and Ukraine news media started quoting from it. The Hungarian public was especially shocked by Orbán’s statements concerning the EU and the implication that Huxit—Hungary quitting the union—might be on the horizon. For the Ukrainians, currently under siege by the Russian army, Orbán’s sympathy for Putin rather than camaraderie and solidarity with Ukraine were considered the most appalling.

So Rod, employing a solution not uncommon in autocratic countries, rewrote the article to change its meaning. The original headline: “Viktor Orban: ‘We Are In A War With Russia’” was changed to “Viktor Orban: West Is ‘In A War With Russia,’” and Orbán’s lines about wanting to take Hungary out of the EU were replaced by the exact opposite, in Dreher’s words:

Orban said that it is painful for him personally to have Hungary in the EU, subject to its bullying, but there is no question that Hungary will remain in the EU, because its economic prosperity depends on it. Still, it is tough to take being pushed around from the EU leadership. Orban’s point is that as difficult as it is personally to have to deal with the EU bureaucracy, it has to be done, because it is in Hungary’s national interest.

(Thanks to the Internet Archive for preserving the post in its earlier form.)

Then, after changing the blog post, Dreher and the Hungarian government started brandishing the new version about, shamelessly claiming that “the Left media in Hungary distort what the PM actually said.” Because, of course, the “Left media in Hungary” is also following and quoting Dreher. (By the way, “Left media” as Orbán uses that term, refers to what remains of the independent media in Hungary. Dreher has learned this usage quite quickly.) Dreher appended a note saying that he “clarified the headline and a quote.”

On Monday, the story took another turn when Dreher confirmed to an independent Hungarian paper that Orbán had indeed made the remarks about Huxit, but that he had made them only in jest. “He was clearly joking when he said that he would definitely not stay in the European Union,” Dreher said in a written statement to the newspaper. Of course, if the comment was a joke, one wonders why Dreher did not say so in his original blog post. In the statement to the newspaper and in an update added to the post, Dreher says Orbán smiled as he spoke about Hungary quitting the EU.

Meanwhile, to his blog post’s discussion of Ukraine, Dreher added the claim that Orbán “is pushing for peace, and has been from the beginning, saying nobody wins from this war,” as well as this passage: “The West might think it’s not in war with Russia, but by sending more and more weapons, and getting closer to actual troop intervention, Western leaders are playing an extremely dangerous game with themselves, with Russia, and with Western publics.”

Dreher left unchanged Orbán’s disparaging remarks about Ukraine, a country that is putting up a valiant fight against the Russian aggression—and, as could be expected, this caused a diplomatic row. (The fact that Orbán did in fact utter the disparaging remarks about Ukraine reported by Dreher is corroborated by another report by an attendee at the meeting, published in German.)

The spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Oleg Nikolenko, announced that Hungary’s ambassador to Ukraine, István Íjgyártó, had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry. The reason, according to the Ukrainian spokesperson, was to register a complaint with respect to “the unacceptable statements by the Hungarian Prime Minister regarding Ukraine.” Such statements, Nikolenko said, “are completely unacceptable. Budapest is continuing a deliberate course aimed at destroying Hungarian-Ukrainian relations”—adding that the Ukrainian government reserves the right to take further measures. The story was picked up by Al Jazeera and Reuters.

After relocating to Hungary only a short while ago, Rod Dreher is already acquiring the methods of his idol, Viktor Orbán, and managed to cause a diplomatic scandal between Hungary and one of its neighbors. Just imagine what he’ll get up to after he’s been around even longer.

Balázs Gulyás

Balázs Gulyás is a Hungarian writer covering domestic politics, press freedom, and church issues.