FOR FOUR years Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been dispatching lobbyists and high-level envoys to Brussels and Washington to argue that his policies are misunderstood. Critics who claimed that he aimed to dismantle institutions such as free media and independent courts, limit freedom of religion and make his right-wing party invulnerable to electoral defeat were badly mistaken, Mr. Orban’s defenders claimed; all he was really doing was sweeping away the last vestiges of Hungary’s former communist regime.
Now Mr. Orban has pulled the rug out from under his own propagandists. In an extraordinary speech delivered July 26 before an ethnic Hungarian audience in neighboring Romania, Mr. Orban proclaimed his intention to turn Hungary, a member of both NATO and the European Union, into a state that “will undertake the odium of expressing that in character it is not of liberal nature.” Citing as models Singapore, China, India, Turkey and Russia, Mr. Orban added: “We have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world.”
The Hungarian leader traced his extraordinary conclusion to the global financial crisis, which he said had exposed the weakness of Western societies and mandated “a race to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful.” He was particularly scathing about the United States, claiming that “the strength of American soft power is deteriorating, because liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.”
What constitutes Mr. Orban’s new, illiberal model? The prime minister was vague, though he went out of his way to denounce private banks and nongovernmental organizations, and to praise “the English prime minister” for supposedly saying that “despite multiculturalism, Great Britain is a Christian country in heart.” In fact, after four years of Mr. Orban’s government, Hungarians know all too well what he has in mind: strict curbs on free expression, discriminatory laws aimed at non-Christians and the Roma minority and a state-directed economic populism that regards private or foreign capital with suspicion.
In reality, what Mr. Orban portrays as a new, post-crisis political model is little more than the same authoritarian nationalism practiced by thugs and charlatans throughout the 20th century — including Hungary’s pro-Nazi World War II regime. If there was an original idea in the July 26 speech, it was that Hungary could embrace “illiberalism” while remaining a member in good standing of the European Union.
E.U. leaders should move quickly to disabuse Mr. Orban of that conceit. The union, which has promised Hungary $20 billion in aid over the next seven years, must make clear that member nations cannot reap the benefits of membership while violating their treaty commitments to freedom of expression and the rule of law. The United States, too, should downgrade relations with Mr. Orban’s government. Mr. Orban has excluded himself from the democratic West; he and his government should be treated accordingly.