One of my favorite spectacles is watching Orbán’s most naive believers realizing that the whole thing is not about principles. Conservatives who realize that Orbán doesn’t care for conservatism, business folks who realize that their business is only supported until it isn’t (and then bought in a hostile takeover), Christians who are shocked when Orbán’s media excommunicates the Pope. As Hungarians say: “What show have they been watching until now?”
In June 2010, right when Orbán came back to power a government decree (1140/2010. (VII. 2.) was issued. It was a loony manifesto that ranted about a new era for the country (pardon, the nation because it is also meantto apply to ethnic Hungarians living outside the country’s borders) in which the “System of National Cooperation” (NER, for short) will rule.
The dawn of the NER was ominous in itself for everyone who had the slightest clue about Orbán’s political ambitions and personal vendetta against the world that kept him in the dark pit of opposition for eight long years.
But for those who lived under a rock, there was another sign that something sick is happening: Orbán ordered his manifestos to be hung in every public building. Just like his new constitution that had to have a shrine in every public office, his loony manifesto had to be “voluntarily” displayed everywhere. Back in 2010.
That’s why I don’t understand what’s so shocking. It has been on display since the very beginning.
I had a talk with a friend around the time the loony manifestos went up. He was a card-carrying liberal, his mother was one of many public officials who were fired with a 98% tax on her severance payment to make room for Orbán’s loyalists, but he found a way to be optimistic about the system.
“See? It says System of National Cooperation. Not consensus, you don’t have to agree with everything – you just have to cooperate…”
How wrong was he.
For a start, the manifesto was calling for consensus in the title – even if Orbán’s system called itself “System of National Cooperation”. And it can be achieved in more than one ways. Suffice it to say that Orbán didn’t mean to compromise (or to stop stealing) in order to obtain the consents or agreement of anyone. Those who don’t fall in line beneath him are free to leave or starve. Or to change their minds. Like my friend, who was clearly just easing himself in as he just got a government job at the time. And hated to look anything less than a Man Of Integrity. Sometimes that is the strongest weapon against you.
Time had proved that everything really is what it looks like: autocracy. And it is becoming exactly what autocracies become when they don’t meet any hard resistance (your little outrage or international condemnation don’t count, and neither do endless street protests).
Hanging the manifesto was just a first test of submission. Local authorities everywhere were quick to display it – just as they had to display the shrine to Orbán’s new basic law. By 2018, it became full-blown opinion terror. After the elections local mayors were panicking on Facebook and elsewhere if their populations didn’t vote for Orbán hard enough. The majority did, that’s for granted. But only 60-70-80%? Others did 98%! How are they supposed to get any funds from the government after this? (And no, in a purposely centralized system they are not allowed to have any other source of income.)
Not only are you required to cooperate, you better don’t express disagreement of any kind. And not just express, you better not think it. Since politics has permeated every aspect of life, there is no school or nursery, no food or TV show that can’t be placed along tribal lines, your carefully hidden thoughts will surface. But they don’t need to. Suspicion of not being Orbánist suffices. Even if your accuser secretly hates Orbán – that’s all the more reason to point fingers at you, hunt you down, cut you out of some benefits, or show her superiors that she caught you.
People who are not actually Orbán fans but submitted anyway to avoid short-term disadvantages are your worst enemy. They can’t bear the existence of anyone who didn’t compromise and they have to prove even harder that they are loyalists.
That is the mood in this country right now.
It is not that Hungarians are a stupid or more submissive breed without backbone or anything. It is just that this country periodically rejects its best and brightest – and the freedom-minded – as shown by massive waves of emigration throughout history. Millions have left after WW1, after 1956, after 2011. – even though Hungarians are not very keen on moving just for moving’s sake or for a slightly better life. There is no such thing as an ethnic prevalence of authoritarian submission – but there is such a thing as a government that purposely eradicates the backbones in its people – by chasing them away, or dissolving them at home. It can happen to you. And when it does, it will be for all the noblest of reasons, with the most commendable excuses. Like you were just afraid for others… Or you just wanted to give… Whatever you buy into – they will sell it to you in exchange for your freedom. They will promise things to secure your complicity – and then don’t deliver because at that point they won’t have to anymore. You give up all your tools of resistance, you watch the disagreeing naysaysers being sunk one after the other, and then your king will live his best life while you’ll be wondering what hit you.
You will watch all your friends turn into submissives around you and will experience a very real fear of being left alone insisting that reality is real, that we have not always been at war with Oceania, and there used to be a time when we had rights, and that it was good.
As of Hungary today and the consensus vs cooperation dilemma, the debate has been settled: there is no room for disagreement – spoken or unspoken. When the head of Orbán’s massive media empire admitted in an interview that quality journalism is still on the other side, he was promptly fired. When a bunch of conservative scholars put together a book of advice to the king about how to do an even better conservative policy (i.e. stop stealing so much), they were genuinely surprised that they were not welcomed. When the government’s think tank dedicated an edition of their academic journal to corruption and made vague and scholarly hints to the effect that corruption might hinder economic growth (OMG, right?) they were genuinely surprised that the journal has been recalled, deleted from the internet and their funding discontinued. In 2018, for heaven’s sake, what show have they been watching until then?
When a mother-of-five thought she can express that something seems to be wrong when her employer (and her career) was smashed by the regime, she genuinely thought that she can speak up because had given the homeland what the homeland demanded of her. She felt secure in her age-old loyalty to Orbán. But she was wrong. Her interests, her loyalty, even her sacrifice to deliver many new taxpayer had counted for nothing. She was surprised at the backlash.
So the question is settled. You emigrate or you break in. If you think that your honest love for Orbán counts in your favor, think again. Your disloyalty may. Being accused with disloyalty definitely does. But loving Him is a one-sided thing, unrequited.
If you think that the unspoken, informal threat that you or someone in your family may lose their livelihood is not enough to silence people, look at the US public servants who didn’t have savings to cover a government shutdown. US employees, who are much better off to begin with. And who also still feel like they have rights. They still get outraged at silly things like discrimination or sexual harassment. They have so absorbed the idea that they have rights against the state that they don’t even realize how powerful that belief is – and how easily it can be played out of their hands. And even they have panicked when they missed a paycheck. A weekly paycheck, not a month’s wages. But they were still free to talk to the camera and express their disappointment. Even their shock, if they were believers that Trump is somehow representing their interest. Can you see the difference here?
A dictatorship can be built without bloodshed or a single gunshot these days, giving the perpetrators ample deniability until it’s too late to reverse the damage. And it all starts with believing that you can keep your opinion as long as you cooperate. And that it’s somehow fine.