Demonstrators face police as they protest an amendment of the higher education law. (Zoltan Balogh/European Pressphoto Agency)

Imagine that a foreign leader, in a country allied to the United States, runs an extraordinary press campaign against a university founded by an American philanthropist. He falsely accuses the university of “fraud”; one of his ministers cites phony “national security considerations” that require its closure; his supporters in the media launch an open attack on the philanthropist. He passes a law that is disguised as a general measure but is in practice aimed at that university alone. But he isn’t worried about American objections, because he is counting on support from American politicians.

Sound shocking? It has already happened. This week, Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, pushed a law through the Hungarian parliament which could remove the independence of and even shut down the Central European University, a graduate college founded more than a quarter-century ago by a group of anti-communist intellectuals. Originally funded by Hungarian American philanthropist George Soros, the CEU stands out in the region both for its unusually multinational student body — particularly its students from the former Soviet bloc — and the high quality of its faculty. Its mission is to promote “the values of open society and self-reflective critical thinking”; Nobel Prize laureates and distinguished academics are sending letters and petitions in its support from all around the world.

But in Orban’s nationalist and increasingly illiberal Hungary, “open society” is an insult, “critical thinking” is a suspicious activity, and support from Nobel laureates will be cited as unacceptable foreign interference. Indeed, to anyone who follows Orban, the tactics he has employed against the university are familiar: whip up anger and hatred over an issue, exaggerate its danger and significance — and then announce a dramatic “solution,” thus pleasing his political base. This was how Orban dealt with the arrival of Syrian refugees in his country, few of whom even wanted to remain there. His government’s crusade against critical Hungarian academics, all falsely accused of embezzlement, followed a similar pattern. The philosopher Agnes Heller, one of the targets of that hate campaign, described the tactic in 2013: “They make these kinds of accusations, spread them all over their loyal media outlets and thus blacken the names of their opponents.”

To students of history, this is all eerily familiar: These are exactly the kinds of campaigns that the Hungarian communist party once ran against its ideological enemies (Heller, ironically, among them) and that autocratic states such as Russia and Iran run against their ideological enemies, or perceived enemies, even today. Indeed, Soros himself is a favorite target of those regimes, both of whom use him — a Jewish financier — as a convenient scapegoat.

But there are some new elements to this old story. In the past, an assault on a U.S.-backed academic institution, one set up to promote American democratic values and free speech, would have been universally opposed in the United States itself. After all, the CEU’s board members include George Pataki, the former Republican governor of New York, as well as the president of Bard College and the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. But because Soros also gives money to the Democratic Party and affiliated causes, a part of the Republican Party has bought into the Russian-Iranian-Hungarian-nationalist paranoia about him, too. Some in Congress and the populist media seem convinced that all of the causes he champions in Europe, which include support for independent institutions, academia and media in autocratic countries — one of which provided an academic scholarship to a much younger Viktor Orban — are also “left-wing.” The New York Post has even reported, with suspicion, his foundation’s support for young Iranian democrats.

This change in tone may well have inspired Orban, one of the few European leaders to openly embrace President Trump, to launch his crusade against the CEU. In Budapest, some think that this whole exercise is a Hungarian test of the new administration: Orban wants to see if he can get away with it.

So far, the State Department spokesman has expressed “concern” about the new law and admiration for the CEU’s “academic excellence and many contributions to independent, critical thinking.” But this story has just begun. Orban has friends in this White House — Breitbart is one of his champions — and there are a lot of members of Congress who see the world through glasses heavily tinted by American political partisanship. Does the United States still support the ideal of academic freedom around the world, or does the election of Trump mean we’ve given up on all that? We’re about to find out.

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