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Lashing Out, Rod Dreher (Again) Reveals His Ignorance of Hungary

A Louisiana blogger in Viktor Orbán’s court.
February 16, 2023
Lashing Out, Rod Dreher (Again) Reveals His Ignorance of Hungary
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks on as he addresses an annual press conference in Budapest on December 21, 2022, prior to the government's last meeting of the year 2022. (Photo by Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP) (Photo by ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)

“Report the news, don’t become the news” may be a sound principle of journalistic practice, but as Rod Dreher has discovered, it’s not an easy principle to adhere to in Hungary, especially for a journalist who embarrasses Viktor Orbán. Not that Dreher would ever do such a thing—at least not on purpose. He admires Orbán; his esteem for the man is apparently so great that he decided to move to Hungary to work at a think tank financed by Orbán’s government.

In his capacities as an Orbán supporter and widely read blogger, Budapest’s new resident was extended the honor of a private audience with the prime minister, alongside fourteen other prominent illiberal and postliberal writers and journalists, in a refurbished monastery next to the palace where Hungary’s Habsburg king occasionally spent the night in the great days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. For two full hours, the man Dreher has called “one of the most extraordinary world leaders of our time” discoursed deeply on Hungary and the war in Ukraine.

Later that evening, Dreher composed a tribute to Orbán’s political brilliance on his blog for the American Conservative, blithely unaware that the very things he most admired in Orbán’s remarks might cause uproar and scandal elsewhere in Europe.

The tragicomic tale of Dreher’s Hungarian mishaps—how the content of his blog post angered the Ukrainians so much they summoned the Hungarian ambassador in Kyiv, how his report of Orbán’s words about EU membership generated a furor in Budapest, how his hapless attempt to extricate himself from the mess only made things worse—was reported earlier this month in The Bulwark by a Hungarian journalist, Balázs Gulyás. Dreher responded to the Bulwark article with another blog post, this time accusing the “Bulwarkistas” of distorting Orbán’s words and being generally unfair. Dreher admitted the preceding week had been unpleasant, but believes he’s drawn the appropriate lesson: “These people are jackals, the opposition press.”

Alas, Dreher, who touts himself as “one of the few American pundits who has actually spent significant time in Hungary,” has never been a very good student of the country. His recent imbroglio in Budapest has nothing to do with The Bulwark and everything to do with the risks involved in moving to an allegedly Christian conservative paradise one really knows very little about. Dreher, who has been explaining Hungarian affairs to American readers for several years, suddenly found that he himself was a public figure in Hungary, and in over his head.

Let’s set aside the problems Dreher caused with Ukraine and limit ourselves to the havoc he wreaked in Hungary. After all, he claims a measure of expertise on that subject. Yet if he knew Hungary well, he would have known how to avoid the blunders that caused him so much misery.

To begin, Dreher is apparently unaware that pundits and politicians close to Viktor Orbán have been suggesting with increasing frequency that Hungary should leave the EU. Two summers ago, Tamás Fricz, a publicist close to Fidesz, Orbán’s party, published an editorial making the case for “Huxit” in Magyar Nemzet, a paper widely viewed as a government mouthpiece. László Kövér, president of the Hungarian Parliament and a leading figure in Fidesz, has said he would likely not vote for EU membership if given the choice today. Zsolt Bayer, a founding member of Fidesz, has also called for Hungary to leave the EU. The political opposition has become concerned that Orbán might use his parliamentary supermajority to take Hungary out of the EU without consulting voters. That’s why the leader of Jobbik, one of Hungary’s opposition parties, has called for a referendum on EU membership: Because membership remains popular among voters, he thinks requiring a referendum would keep Orbán from pulling Hungary out.

In the original version of his blog post, Dreher reported that Orbán was asked whether he wanted Hungary to remain in the EU. According to Dreher, Orbán replied, “Definitely not!” but added he has no choice because most of Hungary’s exports are within the EU. These words make clear that Orbán sees the value of EU membership exclusively in economic terms.

Orbán has been working for years on a policy of “Eastern Opening” that seeks to expand Hungary’s economic relationship with countries like China and Russia while diminishing its dependence on Western Europe. Moreover, Orbán is locked in a conflict with the EU over its rule of law mechanism. As a consequence, the EU is withholding billions of euros in subsidies from Hungary. Should the EU stick to its hard line, or stiffen more, the economic arguments in favor of Hungary’s EU membership will correspondingly weaken.

Orbán has a history of making careless remarks, and any reporter who knew his beat would have immediately grasped the explosive nature of what Orbán had said. But on this occasion, Orbán was speaking to a small group of admiring publicists who should have known better than to make his words public—except that Rod Dreher, whose reference points are all American, was tone deaf to the way Orbán’s comments would sound in Europe, and published them on his blog.

It is perhaps worth noting here one passage in Dreher’s post that may at first seem minor but is in fact deeply revealing. Describing the evening bull session with the prime minister, Dreher writes:

Orban was so candid that I asked an aide several times if this was really on the record. Only two or three times did he go off the record, and those were only to offer brief judgments on certain public figures.

By his own admission, Dreher did something that any self-respecting journalist from any mainstream American outlet would be loath to do: He gave his subject (via his subject’s aide) repeated opportunities to take newsworthy remarks off the record. This throwaway line in Dreher’s post reveals a great deal about how he sees himself vis-à-vis Orbán: not as an independent-minded writer who brings a critical eye to his subject, but as something more like an admiring stenographer.

Dreher may call Hungary’s opposition press “jackals”—but he looks rather like a sweet lapdog himself.

After the story broke, one might have imagined public scrutiny would turn to Orbán, whose views, after all, were captured in a direct quote. But this is Hungary, and the focus quickly turned to the reporter who, at least according to the government, had gotten things wrong.

Boris Kálnoky, a former journalist who also attended the evening meeting with Orbán, appeared to question the accuracy of Dreher’s reporting on Twitter. Later, Kálnoky filed a story with the controversial Swiss paper Weltwoche in which he explicitly denied that Orbán had said he didn’t want Hungary to be part of the EU. Then in an interview with Klubrádió, Kálnoky politely threw Dreher under the bus. Dreher “writes very passionately. One might even say he writes fast. His articles are published very quickly,” Kálnoky said. “Everyone’s recollection is different,” he added, and his recollection of the meeting differed from Dreher’s.

Several others at the gathering—Gladden Pappin, Albino-Mario Fantini, Ralf Schuler, Roland Tichy—subsequently published their own accounts of what transpired. But not one addressed the Dreher controversy explicitly. They neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of Dreher’s report.

Left to fend for himself, Dreher did the only thing a blogger indirectly employed by the Hungarian government could do: He walked back the most controversial parts of his article by rewriting them. That doesn’t mean he changed his story, Dreher insists. His revisions followed the “standard American journalistic practice of clarifying one’s meaning when it could have been misinterpreted.” Whether the revisions were minor or substantial is a matter of interpretation. For its part, Prime Minister Orbán’s office considers the revisions substantial. Asked in a press conference about the accuracy of Dreher’s report, Orbán’s representative replied, “the reporter who wrote that admitted he made a mistake and that no such thing was said.”

Given how bad this all looks, one can understand that Dreher might feel a need to defend his journalistic integrity. Less understandable, however, is the manner in which Dreher has chosen to do so. After claiming he was treated unfairly by “jackals,” Dreher turned around and slandered another journalist. Not Boris Kálnoky, who all but called Dreher a sloppy reporter on Klubrádió. Not the other individuals who attended the meeting, even though any one of them might have deflected heat away from Dreher by confirming his account of events. No, Dreher went after the independent Hungarian journalist Balázs Gulyás who authored the critical piece in The Bulwark.

Responding to the article, Dreher insinuates that Gulyás is an antisemitic right-wing extremist. His “evidence” is that Gulyás used to appear on a video podcast with four other guests, one of whom was often Sándor Pörzse. Pörzse was editor-in-chief of a right-wing magazine called Barikád, which was loosely affiliated with Jobbik. Although people who rely on the American media “probably think Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are the ‘far right,’” Dreher tells us that’s a mistake. Fidesz is actually “center right. Jobbik is far right. Really far right.” Balázs Gulyás was never affiliated with Barikád or Jobbik, but, Dreher says, the fact that he appeared on a podcast with someone who was makes Gulyás suspect.

Litigating this crude ad hominem is impossible for American readers, a fact in which Dreher can take refuge. Still, one can point out key features of the Pörzse / Barikád story that Dreher omits, which, had they been disclosed, would have frustrated his attempt to smear Gulyás as a right-winger. What Dreher doesn’t tell his readers is that both Pörzse and Barikád have connections with Fidesz.

Dreher is correct that Sándor Pörzse has a right-wing history, but Pörzse got his start with Fidesz, not in Jobbik. He became popular hosting a talk show on Echo TV, a media outlet owned by a Fidesz oligarch. Pörzse was also closely involved in the creation of HírTV, founded by Fidesz oligarchs and by people linked to Fidesz from its inception. Thus, while Pörzse does have Jobbik connections, this merely illustrates the truth of what critics have always said: The boundaries between Jobbik and Fidesz are porous.

Dreher is also correct to label Barikád right-wing. In his blog post attacking Gulyás, Dreher included a photo of an antisemitic cover from the magazine. However, he apparently did not check the masthead for that issue. Had he done so, he might have noticed that one of Barikád’s “permanent contributors” at that time was a man named Mihály Takaró. Takaró is widely considered an antisemite. That hasn’t stopped him from working in the Orbán government, where he was made responsible for redesigning the curriculum in literature for Hungarian schools.

If Dreher is prepared to label Gulyás right-wing for appearing on a podcast alongside the former editor of Barikád, why won’t he call Viktor Orbán right-wing for putting a former Barikád author in charge of shaping the hearts and minds of Hungarian school children?

Perhaps the key to unlocking this mystery has something to do with Roland Tichy, to whose writeup of the Orbán evening Dreher appeals in his reply to The Bulwark. Roland Tichy is a German publicist who previously aligned himself with Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s far-right party. In 2020, Tichy was forced to resign his position in a prominent foundation after his magazine crassly attacked a female member of the Social Democratic Party (saying that the only reason a woman like her would belong to a “party of old men” was because it was good for her “G-spot”). A court issued an injunction against Tichy, prohibiting him from publishing any further attacks on the politician.

So, again: Dreher objects to Gulyás participating in a podcast with Pörsze, but Dreher himself invokes the authority of a columnist affiliated with AfD who also has a record of harassing women.

And what of Dreher’s claim that Fidesz is a center-right party? One of its founding members, Zsolt Bayer, has an impressive racist resume. He once referred to Jews as “human excrement.” He’s called Roma “animals” and used the n-word for black people. Yet Bayer has never been disciplined by his party. To the contrary, in 2016 Orbán awarded Bayer one of Hungary’s highest state honors, the “Knight’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit,” for his work as a publicist. This was so outrageously scandalous that 80 previous recipients of the Knight’s Cross returned their awards in protest.

Surely the fact that Orbán tolerates a raving bigot within his own party and awards him state honors suggests he approves of Bayer’s views, or is at least comfortable with them. But again, according to Dreher, Fidesz is center right.

This past summer Orbán delivered a speech in which he denounced “race-mixing” and invoked replacement theory. Dreher jumped to Orbán’s defense, explaining to English speakers the correct way to understand the Hungarian word faj—despite the fact that he doesn’t know Hungarian. One thing Dreher does know, however, is that anyone who considers Orbán a right-wing extremist is a woke liberal.

You may by now have noticed something ironic: Dreher rails against “soft totalitarianism” and claims that the left attempts to silence those with whom it disagrees by labeling them far right, but when he’s criticized by a Hungarian who actually knows about the country Dreher is visiting, Dreher goes “woke” himself and smears his critic with the far right label.

Yet this is the same Rod Dreher who thinks Orbán’s talk of “race-mixing” is no more far right than Orbán’s patronage of Zsolt Bayer, which is no more far right than Orbán appointing an antisemitic columnist to design Hungary’s school curriculum, which is no more far right than invoking the authority of a German sympathizer with Alternativ für Deutschland to rebut The Bulwark. Sort of makes one wonder: Does Rod Dreher think anyone is far right other than Balázs Gulyás?

If only Dreher knew Hungarian, he might have encountered this Hungarian folk proverb: “A pocket knife is a good thing to have even in church.” That’s especially sage advice for anyone planning to relocate to a Christian conservative Disneyland. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, you must always be on guard and can never trust your friends. As a journalist, you must practice self-censorship and shouldn’t take your patrons for granted.

Welcome to Budapest, Mr. Dreher. Or as they say in Hungarian, “God has brought you here” (Isten hozott). You’re no longer a guest.

H. David Baer

H. David Baer is the Pastor Gerhard A. and Marion Poehlmann Professor in Theology at Texas Lutheran University. Twitter: @h_david_baer.