The rise of illiberalism and nationalism in Hungary is often attributed to Viktor Orbán’s leadership and rhetoric over the past decade. His ideas and words have also reverberated around the globe and served as models for conservative leaders. This article offers a rhetorical analysis with a focus on the role of the intertwining narratives of national ascent and a nation in peril as containers for the ideology of illiberalism. Taking a narrative perspective, it examines the way in which Orbán appeals to Hungarians to embrace nationalist, isolationist, and illiberal approaches to democratic governance. It concludes with a discussion of the implications of the rhetoric of illiberalism and the implications for future research into the rhetorics of the newest wave of conservatism spreading throughout the world.
During the past decade, the world has witnessed a proliferation of nationalist rhetorics seeking to reestablish old borders or create new ones. From Donald Trump’s agenda to construct a wall tracing the entire US-Mexican border, to the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, to Jair Bolsonaro withdrawing Brazil from the UN compact on migration, bordering efforts have taken on physical, political, and social dimensions. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is an illustrative example of such bordering efforts and, arguably, one of the earliest models to inform and inspire the political careers of Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, and others.
Orbán’s political trajectory and embrace of nationalism can be traced all the way back to 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Szilágyi and Bozóki 2015). Building a career around his political appeal as a revolutionary and a patriot, Orbán has taken a hard right turn in the past decade as he has moved to separate Hungary from the European Union. Discursive continuity has, as Anna Szilágyi and András Bozóki (2015) have argued, helped cement his political stranglehold and popularity over the past thirty years. But this discursive continuity extended only to the communication tools he used—re-creating the speech situation, the speech event, and the speech act—which have served different and opposing political goals in his career. Szilágyi and Bozóki clarify: “[W]hile in 1989 these contributed to the successful promotion of liberal democratic ideals, after the transition the same rhetorical tools became, instead, powerful spreaders of a populist and nationalist political ideology” (2015, S155). A critical question, then, concerns the rhetorical features of Orbán’s populist and nationalist political ideology, which has not only captured the attention of Hungarians but also been embraced as a model of leadership by conservatives throughout the world and in the United States in particular.1
This article examines Orbán’s evocative idea of an “illiberal democracy.” I consider the ways in which illiberal, nationalist, and authoritarian ideas may operate rhetorically with domestic and international audiences by analyzing Orbán’s 2019 State of the Nation address. This address was presented live to a Hungarian audience on February 10, 2019, and translated into English for publication and broadcast a day later on the official website of the prime minister (Orbán 2019), the Hungarian government website (“Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ‘State of the Nation’ Address” 2019a), and numerous YouTube channels (e.g., “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ‘State of the Nation’ Address” 2019b). It represents Orbán’s political ideology during a period of his political dominance. Notwithstanding the political machinations that ensured this dominance, the majority of Hungarians have consistently viewed Orbán favorably (Medve 2022). The address occurred nearly a decade into his governance and five years after he had articulated his vision of an illiberal democracy as the future of Hungary (Orbán 2014). Thus, it was an opportunity for him both to celebrate the political victory of his ideology and to chastise his political opponents at home and abroad, all in front of a domestic audience largely approving of his leadership.
To be sure, during his decade of political leadership, opposition to Orbán had increased both in strength and in numbers (Coakley 2021), in spite of his efforts to silence it. Nonetheless, he and his party claimed a landslide victory in the 2022 Hungarian parliamentary elections, he himself winning a fourth term in office (Bíró-Nagy 2022). The leader of the opposition “charged that the win by Orbán’s Fidesz party was due to its dominance of the country’s media space and its manipulation of state resources” (“Opposition Concedes” 2022). Charges like this bring up important questions about the reliability of polling data about Orbán’s approval rating and perhaps even about the reliability of the English translations of his speeches, including the one that is the focus of analysis in this article. Nevertheless, Orbán functions as an international leader of the Right, and an analysis of his speech in English translation offers important insights into the rhetorical functions of his politics and his vision of an illiberal democracy as they reverberate throughout the world and are emulated by other far-right leaders and political parties in other nations.
Narratives of National Ascent and Peril
Much, of course, has already been written about the rising tides of populism and right-wing politics, about illiberal democracy, and about Orbán’s politics (Csigó and Merkovity 2016; Krekó, Hunyadi, and Szicherle 2019; Palonen 2009; Tóth, Kékesdi-Boldog, Bokor, and Veczán 2019). A significant body of scholarly work focusing on the rhetoric of Orbán and other Central and Eastern European right-wing populist leaders understands it as constitutive, reshaping national communities and their place in the global geopolitical order (Ádám 2019; Bozóki 2011; Marin 2007; Palonen 2018; Szilágyi and Bozóki 2015). Focusing on Orbán’s populism, Timmer, Sery, Connable, and Billinson (2018) argue that his rhetoric exhibits the paranoid style (Hofstadter 1964/1996), ushering in fear and distrust among the Hungarian public. More broadly, Boromisza-Habashi and Pál (2016) have examined the shared characteristics of posttotalitarian political discourse in Central and Eastern Europe. My analysis responds to and extends these two studies specifically by illustrating how the binary of narratives, rooted in something like the paranoid style and conforming to the characteristics and tropes of posttotalitarian political discourse, has allowed Orbán to have some success convincing the Hungarian people to embrace the politics of illiberalism.
I posit that the rhetorical significance of the 2019 State of the Nation address as an appeal to illiberal democracy lies in the way Orbán intertwines narratives of national ascent and a nation in peril. My analysis reveals how these intertwining narratives function as key rhetorical appeals to audiences—both Hungary’s people and far-right and conservative-minded audiences around the world—urging them to embrace antiliberal policies and authoritarian leadership, effectively putting democracy and liberalism in Europe at a crossroads.
Here, rhetoric is not merely a tool leaders use to persuade their listeners; it also encompasses their ability to invite audiences to participate themselves in the act of persuasion, to see themselves and their leaders as like-minded, and to convince them to embrace a particular worldview through processes of identification. As Kenneth Burke wrote: “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (Burke 1969, 55). Walter Fisher added to this notion, arguing that people usually form opinions and make decisions, not on the basis of formal reasoning, but on the basis of compelling stories and narratives that appeal to, coincide with, or challenge their worldview. He argues: “[T]he narrative impulse is part of our very being because we acquire narrative in the natural process of socialization” (Fisher 1987, 65). The Hungarian people, like any other people, have socialized as a nation through historic narratives and the passing of stories. By deploying narratives of national ascent and a nation in peril, Orbán has had the opportunity to influence and reshape Hungarians’ worldviews because, as Sonja Foss explains, “a credible narrative performs an action of some kind”: “[I]t produces outcomes and consequences, or it does a certain kind of rhetorical work” (Foss 2009, 310). Even when Orbán alleges to present objective facts and historical overviews, his narratives involve “characters, actions, and settings” that serve as arguments for perceiving the world in a particular way (Heath 2004, 171; see also Rowland 2009). Therefore, my approach to the 2019 State of the Nation address links a concern with narrative to considerations of ideology and power dynamics. A perspective stressing narrative and ideology entails the recognition that human reasoning is pluralistic, based on multiple viewpoints that represent and structure reality, even if in distorted or malign ways (Fisher 1987; Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969).
As Kevin McClure argues, “reconceptualizing Burke’s concept of identification in the narrative paradigm by expanding identification’s critical range” allows critics “to more directly and completely account for the inventional possibilities of new narratives, the rhetorical revision of old narratives, and the appeal and acceptance of improbable narrative accounts” (McClure 2009, 191). As such, this reconfiguration of the narrative method of criticism allows them to attend to “the full range of the symbolic ‘rationalities’” rather than adhere to the more formulaic and conservative definition of reason that Fisher originally intended when discussing the concepts of narrative fidelity and narrative coherence (McClure 2009, 191). Specifically, this allows me to illustrate the ways in which Orbán uses narratives of ascent and peril that depend on the concept of identification to compel audiences to accept their fidelity and coherence with a worldview cocreated by audience and rhetor. This cocreated worldview is not unique to Orbán and his rhetorical style but instead a hallmark of posttotalitarian political discourse in Central and Eastern Europe.
Indeed, it is important to recognize that far-right groups and political parties in Central Europe have engaged in narratives that reject the nostalgic appeal of the Soviet regime and socialism while also rejecting the progressive appeal for participation in EU politics and initiatives (see Boromisza-Habashi and Pál 2016). Orbán exemplifies this illiberal appeal and indeed, as a political leader who emerged in the age of posttotalitarian and post-Soviet Central Europe and now represents one of the European Union’s most formidable critics, embodies it.
This is in part a legacy of authoritarianism. Scholars of Central and Eastern European political discourse have observed the lasting impacts of authoritarianism in post-Soviet and posttotalitarian states. Boromisza-Habashi and Pál (2016, 288–89) summarize the four defining characteristics of such discourse as (1) the transformation of language in public life through the forceful fixing of newly created meanings, the proliferation of neologisms, and convoluted linguistic style; (2) the imposition of uniformity and a monologic character of language use, preventing dialogue, debate, and criticism on topics of public affairs; (3) the instrumental use of public communication to influence and prompt particular types of responses and stifle nuanced discussions of complex issues, instead molding a homogeneous and unified citizenry; and (4) the attribution of sacred, magical qualities to political language use to shape reality to politicians’ wishes. The analysis presented in this article draws on this framework to reveal the ways in which Orbán taps into existing Hungarian viewpoints and familiar tropes to weave two narratives of ascent and peril and, ultimately, invites Hungarians to embrace illiberal democracy as a political philosophy and as a way in which to perceive the world around them.
Before proceeding further with my analysis, I offer a brief overview of Orbán’s political career, focusing specifically on his actions and policies as prime minister, and of the concept of illiberal democracy, situating it in its historical context and in relation to its counterpart, liberal democracy.
Hungarian Democracy at the Crossroads of Liberalism and Illiberalism
Viktor Orbán’s political trajectory has been highly unusual. In his youth, Orbán studied law in Budapest, writing his master’s thesis on the Polish Solidarity movement (Kenney 2002). In the late 1980s, he was a founding member of today’s Fidesz political party, whose original name was an acronym for “Alliance of Young Democrats” (Lendvai 2017). His early democratic activism was characterized by demands for Soviet troop withdrawal and free elections (Martens 2009). He received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to pursue (ultimately unsuccessfully) a degree in political science at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1992, he was elected vice chairman of Liberal International, an international federation for liberal political parties (Lendvai 2017, 26). Altogether, his early political life mirrored the path of other Central and Eastern European political revolutionaries who rallied against the bygone politics of communism and embraced more democratic, Eurocentric, and liberal perspectives.
But it was not his embrace of liberalism that made Orbán a popular leader in Hungary. As Junes (2019) notes: “[I]n the post-communist era it was the persistence of a ‘performative’ anti-communism and not liberal credentials that served to legitimize many politicians and political parties.” In the late 1990s, Orbán led a successful political campaign, becoming at age thirty-five Hungary’s youngest prime minister. His four years as prime minister were defined by efforts to centralize political power, reduce national debt, and, most notably, pass the “status law,” which granted rights to an education, health benefits, and employment to nearly three million ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring Central European countries. The passage of the status law signaled a celebration of Hungarian heritage, a denunciation of the 1920 Trianon Treaty (in which Europe’s Allied Powers redrew Hungary’s borders, thus displacing millions of Hungarians now living in territories allocated to neighboring countries), and a new direction, toward Hungarian nationalism.
Losing the 2002 parliamentary election to the Hungarian Socialist Party, Orbán returned to power again in 2010, this time ensuring his political stay with swift changes to the Hungarian political system, creating what he called a “central political forcefield” (Lendvai 2017). The election granted the Orbán-led Fidesz party a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament, which gave him the authority to change the country’s constitution (Kunzru 2013). The resulting reform added an article decreasing the number of seats in parliament, thus making the Fidesz stronghold virtually impermeable. The new constitution also initiated a gerrymandered redrawing of parliamentary districts to reduce the political representation of largely populated liberal bastions like Budapest and Szeged and to increase it in the Fidesz-supporting rural areas of Hungary. Orbán reformed the country’s constitutional court, forcing judges over the age of sixty-two to retire, increasing the number of judgeships, and filling the new seats with Fidesz loyalists (Beauchamp 2018). He also fired a large number of civil servants, installed Fidesz loyalists in election supervision positions, and implemented new rules for media outlets, forcing many either to close or to sell their companies to the state. The final straw came in early 2020 when, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Hungarian parliament voted to grant Orbán the power to rule by decree, to suspend parliament, and to cancel elections indefinitely (Applebaum 2020). The cycle was complete. Authorized by democratic elections, Orbán had chipped away at liberal values and policies, a process that culminated in a truly authoritarian rule with virtually no checks and balances on his power.
Altogether, Orbán’s changes to Hungary’s political system demonstrate his determination to marginalize and eliminate political opposition by eroding liberal principles and the freedom of media outlets. It is, however, worth noting that Orbán insists that the illiberal democratic state that he is constructing does “not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom”: “[B]ut it does not make this ideology the central element of state organization, but instead includes a different, special, national approach” (Orbán 2014). In the years since this statement was issued, his rhetoric of illiberal democracy has served as a performative cover for an increasingly authoritarian system of governance (Palonen 2009).
Tracing the genealogy of the concept of illiberal democracy often points to Fareed Zakaria, who observed the increasing tendency of democratically elected regimes routinely to ignore constitutional limits on their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights and freedoms (Zakaria 1997, 22). Democracy is often understood as the rule of the people, and Alexis de Tocqueville examined the tensions between democracy and liberalism, arguing that, if unchecked, a majority could become a tyrannical force because “a majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority” (de Tocqueville 1835/1863, 330). Thus, the concept of constitutional liberalism refers to the goals of government to ensure and “protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society” (Zakaria 1997, 26). Constitutional liberalism has been at the center of government principles in Western Europe and the United States. However, prior to the twentieth century, liberal autocracy was a popular form of governance under which few (if any) people were able to vote but the autocrat government leaders tended to accord their citizens a “widening sphere of economic, civil, religious, and limited political rights” (Zakaria 1997, 27). Indeed, many Central European countries once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which exemplified the liberal autocratic form of governance. The wars of the twentieth century, the breakup of the empire with the 1920 Trianon Treaty, and the prolonged Communist rule from 1945 on moved these countries, including Hungary, away from the principles of constitutional liberalism.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, a majority of Central and Eastern European countries successfully transitioned from illiberal and autocratic Communist governance to seemingly liberal democratic forms of governance. But, as Junes notes: “The demise of communism had a palpable nationalist dimension, restoring sovereignty for the countries under Soviet domination.” In actuality, nationalism preceded the fall of the Soviet regime as radical and oppositional youth movements in Central and Eastern Europe had relied on “patriotic rhetoric and the abundant use of national flags” to voice their anti-Soviet stance. Most importantly, a major “fallacy of the conventional narrative of 1989 is the apparent equation of anti-communism with liberalism.” Anti-Communist rhetoric of the early 1990s was a defining characteristic of Central and Eastern European countries, which began their slow but steady path toward joining the European Union. The requirements of EU accession made “liberal democracy effectively the ‘only game in town’” (Junes 2019). During this transitional period, these countries began to experience a tension between the principles of constitutional liberalism and those of democratic governance. Whereas liberalism stresses the limitation of power, democracy seeks to accumulate and use power (Zakaria 1997, 30). Seizing on anti-Communist sentiment, the new democratically elected governments across Central and Eastern Europe “fed a populist disposition and opened the door to the far right” (Junes 2019). With the authority of democracy and the voice of the people, the new regimes began to flirt with extraconstitutional means to fulfill the nationalist desires of the people.
Hungary is a particular example in which nationalist-fueled democracy has clashed with the principles of constitutional liberalism. In 2014, on being reelected prime minister, Orbán had proclaimed: “[T]he new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” He went on to outline the failures of the liberal Hungarian state, stressing: “The Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed.” In his vision, the Hungarian nation and its needs become the focus of governance, and individual liberties and freedoms become secondary (but not completely abolished). As he noted: “The defining aspect of today’s world can be articulated as a race to figure out a way of organizing communities, a state that is most capable of making a nation competitive.” As a further repudiation of “Western European dogmas,” he provocatively suggested looking toward systems that are “not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, and yet making nations successful,” such as “Singapore, China, India, Turkey, Russia” (Orbán 2014).
Not incidentally, a major issue at the center of Orbán’s political discourse over the past decade has been migration. Specifically, Orbán has spoken repeatedly about the dangers of “economic migrants” to caution about the potential harm they could cause to the Hungarian nation and the Hungarian identity and has gone so far as to decry the loss of European identity, arguing provocatively that “the masses arriving from other civilizations endanger our way of life, our culture, our customs, and our Christian traditions” (Orbán 2016). Responding to the arrival of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and northern Africa in 2015, he launched a nationwide billboard campaign against migration and approved the construction of a fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia. During all that, he strategically used anti-immigration rhetoric to conceal his agenda of criticizing the European Union and bolstering nationalistic sentiments among Hungarians.
Orbán’s embrace of illiberalism and realignment away from Western Europe and toward nations with more illiberal political regimes is an example of what Reijer Hendrikse has identified as the construction of “rhetorical sanctuaries to hide the material failures of neoliberal globalization” (Hendrikse 2018, 170). Indeed, his embrace of a “national approach” signaled a rejection of global neoliberal economic and political forces, blaming them as he did for the economic turmoil of previous years. But, as Manuel Aalbers argues, even though the world financial crisis of 2008–9 may have been an indictment of neoliberal ideology, the aftermath revealed that neoliberal practices remained dominant, even if they sometimes took on different forms (Aalbers 2013; see also Peck and Tickell 2002). Wielded by politicians like Orbán, rhetorics of illiberalism appear to attack the globalist market-driven political order—in other words, neoliberalism—but, in reality, they may function to reaffirm that order and continue to be grounded in the logics of liberalism. Thus, what has sometimes been dubbed neo-illiberalism is a realignment of established neoliberal regimes to include populist and democratic appeals to nationalism and a seeming reversal of globalization trends.
But the rhetoric of illiberalism should not be dismissed as just another flavor of neoliberalism. As Hungary has witnessed (as, indeed, has the world), the rhetoric of illiberalism has had reverberating impacts on political societies across the globe and reshaped the very fabric of democracy. The Hungarian journalist Edit Inotai (2019) notes that Orbán’s 2014 speech, in which he laid out his vision of an illiberal state, made big waves internationally, becoming “a template for nationalist-populists everywhere.” In recent years, elections in Poland, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic “have exposed the risk of nationalist illiberalism within the European Union” and have presented an “existential question about the European Union’s authority and ability to maintain liberal democracy within its borders” (Tiller 2018, 79). Five years after Orbán popularized the term illiberal democracy, “echoes of that speech still haunt him as he struggles to reconcile the philosophical monster he created with the fragmented politics of today’s European Union” (Inotai 2019).
To be sure, some argue that Orbán has been making efforts to “backtrack” and has attempted to “reframe and detoxify the word ‘illiberalism’—to resell it as a system compatible with European values” (Inotai 2019). His 2019 State of the Nation address, in which he rarely mentions the phrase illiberal democracy, is a prime example. However, as I argue in this article, that address is not so much an effort to move away from the term illiberal as an illustration of its embrace by and assimilation into mainstream political discourse in Hungary. This is illustrated in the address as Orbán crafts two narratives, one of national ascent and the other of a nation in peril, both of which are grounded in the same rhetorical tropes used to justify his 2014 vision of an illiberal state.
In the following two sections, I discuss how Orbán’s narratives of national ascent and a nation in peril reinforced his democratically supported yet illiberal political stronghold. In the first section, I examine the role of economic success in Orbán’s narrative of national ascent as a justification for rejecting his political opponents and embracing economic nationalism. In the second, I discuss his attacks on migrants and the European Union as prominent rhetorical tropes in his narrative of a nation in peril.
Hungary’s National Ascent
The first half of Orbán’s 2019 State of the Nation address celebrates his administration’s accomplishments over the prior decade. Orbán lauds the economic success of Hungary under his government, describing how a “descent into the valley became an ascent of the mountain.” He contrasts his successes with the “nightmare that was the Left’s eight years in government”—stretching from 2002 to 2010. He depicts the opposition party as an inept “assemblage of pro-immigration politicians which George Soros and the European bureaucrats are keeping on life support” who “had dissipated our collective wealth and reserves and had crushed our future prospects under mountains of debt.” He mocks them, describing them as “more like comedians than political leaders,” “charging into closed doors, throwing themselves face down on the floor with arms behind their heads.” The mockery presents the Hungarian Left as incapable of leading the country.
But Orbán does not stop there. Indeed, he further vilifies his political opponents as not only incapable of helping but also unwilling to help the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians living in poverty, as not treating them “like human beings,” explaining that “during their twelve years in office they only provided hand-outs, held them back with benefits, and accepted ‘subsistence-level criminality’ as a way of life.”2 Boasting about increases in the minimum wage, the employment rate, and the number of marriages, he celebrates the newfound “confidence, strength, willpower” of Hungarians who are “working hard, planning, setting their houses in order, building homes, sending their children to school and encouraging them to study, and working to ensure that they will have something to pass on to their children and grandchildren.” His narrative celebrates the hard work of the Hungarian people and the role of his government in creating the conditions for economic success, noting, for example, that “we were persistent and consistent,” that “we have given everyone the chance to lead an honest and law-abiding life,” and that “we have achieved: 800,000 new jobs, a doubling of the minimum wage, tax allowances for families with children, free school meals and textbooks, the extra childcare fee scheme, reduced public utility charges, and a stable pension” (Orbán 2019). The pronoun we applies strictly to Orbán’s government, completely dismissing the significant financial assistance (€20 billion) that Hungary received from the European Union in 2008 and the funding it continues to receive from the European Union for infrastructure, research, and new employment initiatives (“Hungary: Overview” n.d.). Instead, he presents a misleading, if compelling, tale of self-sufficiency, hard work, and persistence in the face of dangerous opposition and unfavorable odds.
Building from his narrative of national ascent, Orbán then deliberates on the principles and policies Hungary must adopt as it faces a challenging future: “Are the Hungarian people, the Hungarian state, the Hungarian nation, capable of survival and endurance, capable of emerging victorious from these tests of strength? This question is a serious one—indeed a deeply serious one—and it therefore demands an honest answer.” Posing such questions right after his narrative of national ascent works to remind his listeners that Hungary’s ascent is still fragile and under threat. Subtly positioning himself as the person who enabled the Hungarian nation to rise from the “valley” of economic despair, he establishes credibility and authority to answer these questions “honestly” with the confident proclamation: “The Hungarian nation: it stands ready to fight the battles awaiting it and has the chance to win. In short, my reply is this: we shall win; we shall win again and again!” (Orbán 2019). Orbán uses the language of battles, strength, survival, and victory to offer a heuristic for seeing a world of nations in competition with each other, one where one either wins or loses, reminiscent of Hofstadter’s (1964/1996) description of the paranoid style (see also Timmer, Sery, Connable, and Billinson 2018). Such language also presupposes the existence of a common enemy (Hofstadter 1964/1996, 31–32) that the Hungarian nation must defeat if it is to survive and emerge victorious. Paired with his story of national ascent, the strategy further isolates Hungary from other European nations and from the European Union specifically as the sole agent of its economic success.
Accepting these premises presents a dilemma for the Hungarian people. On a national level, survival and victory depend on making the right choice between the party that enabled Hungary to emerge from the valley and the enemy party, which had already failed Hungary several times. On a global level, the premises urge Hungarians to see their nation as competing with other nations for survival in the world’s political and economic arenas. This makes participation in international collaborative structures of government like the European Union incongruous with a worldview premised on self-interest and seeing others as competition at best and enemies at worst. Orbán relies on the strategy of stifling nuanced discussions of complex issues, instead offering an oversimplified but enticing worldview dependent on a homogeneous and unified citizenry that accepts and adheres to the reality shaped by the politician’s wishes (Boromisza-Habashi and Pál 2016, 288–89). As such, his narrative of national ascent compels his listeners to see him and Fidesz as saviors of Hungary’s economy and to embrace nationalist ideas, placing economic prosperity at the center of his and, indeed, Hungary’s agenda. With economic prosperity as the focal point, he thus prepares his listeners to see any threat to that agenda as a threat to the Hungarian nation, priming them to turn away from liberal principles of governance as long as economic prosperity is achieved.
A Nation under Attack by the European Left
The second prominent narrative in Orbán’s 2019 State of the Nation address is that of a nation under attack by his own political opponents and by foreign powers, both seeking to destroy Hungarian culture and the Hungarian state. Over the past decade, Orbán has pioneered a discourse of nationalism disparaging multiculturalism and political liberalism in the form of EU “interference” in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations (Coman and Leconte 2019). This narrative taps into a patriotic impulse common among Hungarians as well as populations in neighboring countries. With a common history of Nazi occupation and subsequent Soviet rule, Central and Eastern European countries developed strong impulses to preserve and protect their national identities as they struggled for political and economic independence. Specifically, Junes (2019) observed that nationalistic impulses thrived during the last days of communism in Hungary and continued to manifest during the transitional period that followed. Hungarian identity and patriotism were a heuristic that made and continues to make narratives of threat intelligible and evocative.
Orbán’s narrative of a nation under attack taps into this historical context when he describes his political opponents, Hungary’s Left, as a “betrothal between the communist tradition and the Nazi tradition: one which caused suffering for hundreds of thousands of Hungarian families; and the other which liquidated hundreds of thousands of our Jewish compatriots” (Orbán 2019). Throughout the address, he never explains the details of this unlikely “betrothal.” Instead, he relies on historical context to serve as a heuristic with which his listeners can connect the two different evils in Hungary’s past. With references to Nazism and communism, his rhetoric offers an example of Boromisza-Habashi and Pál’s first characteristic of posttotalitarian discourse: the transformation of language in public life through the reinterpretation of key terms and concepts. In this case, Orbán transforms history itself, merging the evils of Nazi occupation with the liquidation of Jewish people in Hungary and the Communist political regime of the latter half of the twentieth century with the concomitant economic suffering into a single story—a story of foreign powers seeking to destroy Hungary. Casting his contemporary political opponents as reincarnated Nazis and Communists, and implicating the entire European Union in the process, he invites his listeners to perceive his political opponents and the European Union in a way that, as has already been noted, “stifles nuanced discussions of complex issues, instead molding homogeneous and unified citizenry.” He thereby reinforces a worldview of a Hungary under attack by foreign powers, specifically the European Left as the unlikely and inexplicable “betrothal” of Nazism and communism.
In the absence of an actual military operation against Hungary by the European Left, Orbán defines the attack as a political agenda of the European Union to force Hungary to accept migrants and refugees. In his view, migration is the tool of war against the Hungarian nation. During his address, he declares alarmingly: “Drawers in Brussels are full of plans, and if they are given a chance they will deploy them. A seven-point action plan with which they seek to transform the whole of Europe into an immigrant continent has already been completed in Brussels, and is ready to be deployed.” Presenting the attack as an “action plan” and an “agenda,” he argues that “they” seek to “transform the whole of Europe into an immigrant continent” under the cover of a “smoke screen” that only Hungary has been able to pierce. Depicting a battle, Orbán gloats that “only the People of Hungary have been able to state their views on migration so far,” presenting Hungarians as the “resistance” facing “blackmail” and fines imposed by the European Union on “those which [sic] refuse to obey . . . orders” (Orbán 2019).
Historically, under communism Hungary and, indeed, the entirety of Central and Eastern Europe had very limited experience with immigration, which only intensified nationalistic impulses and perceptions of foreigners as perpetual outsiders and, in some cases, enemies of the nation-state. It is, however, paradoxical that, as Timothy Snyder observed, there is an inverse correlation between the number of migrants and the resonance of the narratives of threat, with countries and regions with the lowest number of (im)migrants showing the greatest concern and the tightest embrace of illiberal anti-immigrant rhetorics and policies (Council on Foreign Relations 2018). Adding irony and, perhaps, hypocrisy to the paradox is the fact that during the 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, large numbers of Central and Eastern Europeans fled to Western Europe and the United States as political and economic migrants, the very same practice that their countrymen who remained behind now deplore (Alperin and Batalova 2018; “Migration Data in Europe” 2012). In his attitude toward immigration, Orbán demonstrates the hypocrisy quite clearly. On the one hand, he has consistently celebrated the Hungarian diaspora, consisting of millions of ethnic Hungarians living in Western Europe and the United States, often calling for those migrants to embrace their roots and identity and assist the Hungarian nation both economically and politically (Orbán 2014, 2019). On the other hand, he has been a vocal opponent of immigration to Hungary, pushing the tautological idea that Hungary is for Hungarians.
Further adding to the hypocrisy is Orbán’s attack on the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The Hungarian-born Soros and his family lived through the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944–45, concealing their Jewish background with false identity papers. Soros is known for his support of liberal policies and his human rights advocacy. According to Orbán: “Soros has openly announced that his goal is to protect migrants, and national borders are an obstacle to this plan.” In Orbán’s rhetoric of the past decade, Soros is consistently and prominently featured as the archenemy of the Hungarian people. If he is a man with agency, so are the Hungarian people, at least as they have been symbolically constructed by Orbán. The latter are called on to resist and reject the EU migration policies represented by Soros. Migration is depicted as a tool of war, deployed by Soros and EU politicians to destroy the Hungarian nation and its Christian traditions. The attack on Soros, combined with the emphasis on Hungary’s Christian culture and traditions (“our Christian culture,” “the Christian way of life,” “our Christian identity”), creates a paradox when held up against Orbán’s earlier concern with the murder of “hundreds of thousands of our Jewish compatriots” by the Nazis. Even though the critique of Soros’s politics itself may not be anti-Semitic per se, the repeated emphasis on the Christian character of the Hungarian nation positions Jewish people at the margins of the demos, implicitly excluding them from the Hungarian public, and directly contradicting Orbán’s claim that “we can argue all day about the possible kinds of democracy—liberal, illiberal or Christian—but one thing is certain: what cannot be left out of the equation of democracy is the demos, the people” (Orbán 2019). By the end of the 2019 State of the Nation address, it becomes clear that, for Orbán, Hungary’s demos is indeed Christian and increasingly illiberal.
Orbán’s vision of an illiberal democracy for Hungary becomes obvious in his attacks on minorities and migrants. Orbán uses a simple slippery-slope scare tactic to argue that allowing Muslim migrants in Christian nations will start a process of displacement: “An ethnic group of 10 per cent will first increase to between 15 and 20 per cent. Then everything will speed up, and the rest requires no imagination, just simple mathematics.” In this formulation, migrants are depicted not as human beings with precarious lives before them but as a social statistic to be feared, driving other dark social statistics: “Migration boosts crime—in particular, crimes against women—and spreads the disease of terrorism among us.” This story conveniently ignores international refugee and asylum laws and instead, using battle-ready language, depicts a political and religious standoff between an independent and Christian Hungary and an internationalist European Union: “The stronghold of the new internationalism is in Brussels, and its means is immigration” (Orbán 2019).
Orbán depicts the European Union as a product of the European Left, “the advocate of speculators, world citizenship, world government and, most recently, of global migration, taking on the role of the gravedigger of nations, the family and the Christian way of life.” The frequent allusions to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union function as an invitation to see the European Union as their modern equivalent. Orbán attacks a vaguely defined they as those “who wiped away our traditions, and would flood our countries with an alien culture,” charging: “They are advocating a world without nations again, they want open societies, and they are fabricating a supranational world government.” Dramatizing the attack, he calls for a united stand against the European Union: “[W]e must stand up again for our Hungarian identity, for our Christian identity, protect our families and communities, and also protect our freedom.” He cautions his listeners: “Those of my age will live to see the rapid transformation of what were once great Christian countries. It makes our hearts ache, but we can do little to help.” He further argues that those who “dismiss the issue” of migration are on a dangerous path: “Once on the express train they will reach the final destination. And there is no return ticket” (Orbán 2019). Sounding the alarm about the attacks on traditional values, the nuclear family, and the (alleged) Christian identity of the Hungarian nation, Orbán invites his listeners to embrace the politics of illiberal democracy, charging them to defend their nation against the forces that seek to destroy it.
This has become a recurrent theme for Orbán as he continues in his speeches to construct for himself the “character of a leader who attempts to protect the Christian culture of the nation, and from a broader perspective, the whole continent by supporting the resistance of immigration” (Tóth 2020, 380). Orbán himself argues in his 2019 State of the Nation address that “the whole of Europe” can follow the model created by the Hungarians to resist the migration policies of the European Union and the threats against the Christian traditions of European countries. Ultimately, he presents a narrative of a nation—and, indeed, an axial religion—under existential threat and engaged in a battle against internationalist forces who use migration as a means to destroy Hungary and its people and Christianity generally. The motives of the enemy are never explained. Migrants themselves do not have a face. They function rhetorically as statistics and as stereotypes of crime and terrorism. The greater enemy, however, is the powerful European Left.
Orbán uses the narrative of threat as an opportunity to present an alternative future grounded in the return and embrace of nationalism: “We have our own future which is the continuation of the lives of our parents and grandparents, the preservation of the traditions of a thousand years, the protection of our economy, our families and our Christian culture.” He concludes his 2019 State of the Nation address with a resounding pronouncement about future “victories,” a divine mandate as the “blessing of Providence,” and a nationalist embrace of “Hungary before everything” (Orbán 2019). His prominent use of the pronoun we invites the Hungarian people to unify around his message, reject his political opponents, and resist the common enemy, the European Left.3 Over the years, this pronoun choice has become a common tactic of Orbán’s to reinforce an impression of national unity, relying on explicit populism (Lamour and Varga 2017; Szilágyi and Bozóki 2015; Tóth 2020). In this particular narrative, the pronoun we leaves no room for nuance or complexity. Instead, the Hungarian identity is unequivocally (but still tautologically) defined as Hungarian, Christian, and anti-Communist.
Orbán is, thus, successful in repurposing patriotic and nationalist tropes used to resist the Soviet Union prior to 1989 in order to resist now what he claims are the similarly dangerous and powerful international forces embodied in the European Union. Hungarian identity and the Hungarian nation are rhetorical strongholds in his resistance to efforts to dilute them through foreign migration. But, ultimately, the narrative is self-serving, with Orbán emerging as the leader with a clear vision, successful economic policies, and a patriotic desire to enable Hungary to “win again and again!”
Viktor Orbán intricately combines narratives of national ascent and a nation in peril to repackage his vision of an illiberal democracy. My analysis has extended Timmer, Sery, Connable, and Billinson’s (2018) argument about his use of the paranoid style, discussing how it allows him to repackage illiberal democracy through narratives that resonate with and appeal to a Hungarian public already conditioned to the political discourse of posttotalitarian leaders. Using historical allusions to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, he portrays an image of a common enemy of the Hungarian nation in the face of a broadly and vaguely defined European Left. His rhetoric relies in part on his credibility as a former dissident under Soviet rule and as a prime minister who oversaw the economic upturn of the past decade. Emerging as a national leader, he adopts a prophetic tone and a paranoid style to turn Hungarians against his domestic political opponents and the EU leadership, both of whom, working together, seek to destroy Hungary’s culture and tradition, especially by means of migration. He proclaims that a national unity rooted in traditional Christian and family values forms the best defense against those who seek to establish a world without borders, and thus without nations, and thus—in a certain respect—without collective meaning. Through these narratives and the use of us-versus-them distinctions, he purports to speak for the Hungarian people, calling on them to see themselves as members of his resistance against the destruction of their nation.
In many ways, Orbán’s rhetorical strategy mirrors tropes used by Hitler in Mein Kampf (1925). As Burke observed, characteristic of Hitler’s rhetoric are the tropes of a common enemy, a unifying voice, the existence of a scapegoat, inborn dignity, and symbolic rebirth (Burke 1941). In the 2019 State of the Nation address, we see the European Left emerge as the common enemy of the Hungarian nation. Furthermore, Orbán uses his electoral victory as justification and mandate to speak as the nation’s voice, dismissing the opposition as incompetent, and using it as a scapegoat for Hungary’s past economic problems. In other words, he “performed” the true nation (Palonen 2018, 212). The scapegoating strategy is further strengthened by personalizing the threats posed by the European Left in the person of George Soros. Finally, his narrative of national ascent revolves around the idea of the mythic greatness of the Hungarian Empire and Hungary’s traditions. It culminates in the promise of a symbolic rebirth through “winning” and a return to national greatness.
Such rhetorical framing also conforms to established characteristics of posttotalitarian Central and Eastern European political discourse (Boromisza-Habashi and Pál 2016). Orbán’s rhetoric and his political success demonstrate the evocative nature of such discourse (characterized here by the narratives of national ascent and a nation in peril), which appeals not only to Central and Eastern European audiences but also to audiences in presumed strongholds of liberalism. Indeed, as the tides of illiberalism and nationalism are sweeping through France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States, an examination of Orbán’s rhetorical style as well as that of other far-right leaders demonstrates the lasting appeal of nationalism packaged in competing narratives of national ascent and a nation in peril. Politicians like Orbán, Le Pen, Salvini, Johnson, and Trump use powerful rhetorical tropes that tap into nationalist and illiberal impulses in their respective publics. They use events such as the economic collapse of 2008 and the Syrian migrant crisis of 2015 to indict liberalism and contest neoliberal economic regimes and governments.
Indeed, as my argument has shown, Orbán uses the economic collapse of 2008 to indict the European Union and the International Money Fund, promoting instead the hard work of his party and the people of Hungary in restoring the nation’s economy. In reality, Hungary’s economic recovery since 2009 is a direct result of economic assistance programs provided by the European Union. Orbán conveniently neglects to mention this. Similarly, he indicts the European Left for the immigration policies allowing Syrian refugees to settle in European countries, portraying it as a plan to destroy nation-states and Christian cultures when, in reality, Western Europe’s liberal immigration policies benefited hundreds of thousands of Hungarians before and after the fall of the Communist regime. Once again, he celebrates Hungarian immigrants in other countries, calling on them to embrace their Hungarian heritage and identity, while conveniently neglecting to mention that they are beneficiaries of the same immigration policies that he now chastises. Nevertheless, as recent elections in Hungary have shown, logical inconsistencies such as these do not deter audiences from embracing the politics of illiberal democracy.
In the end, Orbán’s rhetoric is an important reminder that humans are storytellers. Sometimes particular storytellers tap into powerful narratives that resonate with the public, and they use that as an opportunity for political advancement. Providing alternative readings of history, and conveniently ignoring facts, such political actors become powerful national figures, embraced by publics who are drawn to patriotic tales and dramatic stories of a nation fighting against a common enemy. In the hands of Orbán and a Hungarian public with a “cruel world” mentality—one in which you either win or lose—such tales lead to increasing enchantment with nationalism and illiberal democracy as efforts to reverse globalization trends, defend Christian traditions, and recapture long-lost national glory. As Junes (2019) poignantly observes, the challenge to liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is not new but a “recurrent challenge that has been brewing, surfacing, and re-surfacing since 1989,” and “the legacies of 1989, whether liberal or illiberal, democratic or authoritarian, will keep on reverberating.” Embracing authoritarian leaders who promise economic prosperity and national greatness is not an isolated incident restricted to Hungary and Orbán. It is instead a historic pattern in Central and Eastern Europe and one that has already started to reverberate across the world.
For questions and comments, contact Dr. Trifonov at Svilen.firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2022, the US-based Conservative Political Action Coalition scheduled a far-right conference in Hungary, featuring Orbán as the keynote speaker (Wallace-Wells 2021).
When Orbán says “twelve years,” he is referring to all the periods that the Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt) had been in power since 1989.
The first-person pronoun is an important tool of persuasion that often reflects the goals of the speaker (Brown and Gilman 1960).