There are two thought experiments for predicting the future in an environment that is chronically short of public information – such as an autocracy. One is a what-if scenario, asking yourself what would be obvious with hindsight if a certain event happened. The other one is looking at the things the autocrat worries about.
One of Orbán’s fears is apparently showing any sign of weakness, ageing or mental fatigue. It might not be obvious for us – he is only in his fifties, after all – but if he is wary, that is something to take note of. After all, he knows himself and his position better than we do.
Another fear of Orbán is talking to the independent media. The real press. Outlets that are not controlled by him. He had stopped debating his opponents more than a decade ago. Party because he doesn’t regard them as legitimate. Anyone who opposes his rule is the enemy of the nation, his party is the nation, so it follows. Also, he would never deign to share his limelight with the chanceless, fragmented opposition politicians – thereby building them up.
That makes all sense – even if it is thoroughly hegemonic and despotic to dismiss competitors as enemies and vermin. But maybe there is more to his retreat from uncontrolled publicity than simple calculation.
Because he didn’t just retreat from debating but also stopped giving interviews. Yes, he rants every other week in his radio sermon, but he does that to a microphone stand of a reporter who just reads pre-written questions. He also shares his precious thoughts on his annual state of the nation speech – but also to controlled and checked audiences. He doesn’t even speak publicly at national holidays, where he used to incite and dire up his followers before. After the October defeat he held his traditional 1956 memorial speech in a smallish, half-empty auditorium – rather than to unchecked crowds on the steps of the National Museum as usual.
Last year, due to almost a decade spent staying away from actual media, he had magnanimously established something his office insists on calling his “annual international press conference”. Don’t even ask why it should be annual. The real question is whether it is a suitable form of public check. But it is not. Given the sheer number of outlets present, a foreign journalist can barely go deeper than the most cliched, beside-the-point questions. Like whether he would resign just because he lost an election. LOL.
As of the local media, many independent outlets don’t even get an invitation, and those who do don’t get the time to ask questions. Three hours sounds like an awful lot of time, but not if it’s the only three hours you get in a decade and most of it is taken up by inane, entry-level questions by Anglo-Saxon journalists and lengthy answers by Orbán – strictly controlled by his henchmen who are ready to take a media bullet for him in a tight situation.
Orbán calls the critical media as being misunderstood and being treated with hostility – but the fact is, he is more than capable of burning himself in an interview – as he can’t seem to be be able to control what he says. Those who still have the dubious privilege of meeting him in person (probably only fellow politicians abroad as Orbán can’t remote control them like he does at home) could only tell how much he had deteriorated since his peak. He used to be charming even when he lied in people’s faces – but unlimited power does a mean trick to people: they forget how to talk to their equals and lose patience with having to do politics, having to negotiate, having to talk from a position of weakness.
A glimpse of what Orbán might know about his deterioration (that we don’t) as a persuader may come from the few instances when he left his bubble and talked to foreigners.
Look at the interview Orbán gave to otherwise friendly journalists of the German Die Welt. He did the interview with the actual purpose of getting out of trouble with the EPP – and yet he managed to call EPP members who vote against him “useful idiots”. More details here.
He gave this interview to whitewash his name and cajole EPP into submission. And this is what happened. You can’t say it was the journalists who dug too deep. These were just normal questions merely stating the obvious, what had happened in Hungary, and letting Orbán to react to them. And Orbán wasn’t even prepared to react to them without irritation and without anti-Semitic rants that are known to be toxic in Europe.
It appeared as normal to him.
Or let’s take a look at what he did in another interview that he called for himself, the interview he gave to French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in May last year, two months after his last attempt at appearing civilized that turned into a PR tragedy.
This piece also starts with the tedious cliche of “I’ve know Orbán from 30 years ago, this and this happened 30 years ago”, which appears to be the obligatory first half of every single article written about him abroad.* But then it becomes hilarious.
Orbán forgets about himself and is freely ranting about his football mania and doesn’t even realize that it may backfire with this reporter. (He used to know these things and 30-years-ago Orbán would charm a philosopher with references to Spinoza – not a football rant.) But no, Orbán cannot contain himself the way he used to. I think the disaster and absurdity culminates it this disturbing mental image:
“There is something you have to know about Erdoğan. He’s a big soccer fan, like me. And soccer fans share a trait. They have a muscle here, in the lower back …”
He leans out of his chair a little, as if to show me his lower back.
“And that’s what Erdoğan and I did the first time we met. We touched each other’s lower back—and recognized a fellow fan.”
It is all the more surprising if you allow yourself to take in the full truth – that this interview was requested by Orbán, to clean up his image after the previous interview he gave to restore his image in EPP – but achieved the opposite – and BHL just obliged.
We could do worse than paying attention to Orbán’s media aversion. There is something buried in here if this is what comes to the surface even when he plans for it.
* There is not much depth you can add about current affairs when you waste the limited attention span your readers have a third world despot on events 30 years ago. Indeed, that is all what everyone know about Orbán, his 30-year-ago self, and I blame it on the foreign media. You can’t still begin every single article with the far past because no one bothers to read any further.