Campaigning with his own opinion is deadly for a populist. It is the equivalent of an actor who suddenly stops playing his part and demands to be loved for himself. But with a lot more power.
For more than a decade, Orbán has been keen to communicate whatever the plebs needed to hear to keep him in power. Hatemongering is the only arrow in his quiver. Talking about what appears to be his personal opinion is a sign of either complacency or losing his edge.
We have been bombarded with deafening hate campaigns ever since he came back in power in 2010, only the targets change. We started with the national debt (circa 2010) but that was quickly forgotten – not least because Orbán increased it to new historic highs. The came utility bills (only to see them soar) and Brussels as an enemy. We have endured shrill, nationwide all-out advertising campaigns against George Soros, civil society and immigration – on our own taxpayer money – including Orbán’s massive media juggernaut that doesn’t employ a single journalist, only typists and talking heads who literally just relay the message written for them in the party HQ.
In 2015, the anti-migration campaign proved to be an unexpectedly massive hit for Orbán. But the anti-migrant scaremongering became a bit tired by 2019 (indeed it lost Fidesz the municipal elections) so Orbán wanted to launch a new hate campaign in 2020, pivoting for new enemies. He was gearing up to incite against inmates, gypsies and judges – he called it the “prison business“ – in a nationwide campaign in March 2020. But then the pandemic hit and he had to mothball the idea.
Orbán needed an enemy for the 2022 elections. The campaign is in full swing unofficially – meaning that only Orbán is allowed. (Every opposition party would be fined out of their minds for campaigning just now, but Orbán is not campaigning, he is conducting “government information” campaigns, you see?) He also started to give massive handouts, bankrupting the budget with one time payouts and much-advertised tax cuts, not to mention the uncounted billions now poured into his asset management vehicles that have been taken out of the reach of any future government, squirrelling away as much public money as possible before 2022. But no enemy.
During the pandemic there has been much saber rattling and hostile legislation against non-heterosexuals and astronomic sums have been spent on “family protecting” political Christianism – a theme that allows Christianist fundamentalist governments to attack a whole range of citizens from women and homosexuals, to single people and non-Christians. And that led to the new homophobic legislation, threatening to punish anyone who lets a minor know that non-heterosexuality exists. “Liberalism limits my parental freedoms,” said Orbán in the first person, when defending the law in his weekly radio sermon.
But homophobia doesn’t seem to win him a single new voter – let alone international allies. So that leaves us wondering if it is a personal issue for him that he can’t resist venting.
For the first time since his reign began, Orbán is giving signs that he is bringing his own, personal grievances to national politics.
The homophobic propaganda cannot be understood as a good idea from any angle – yet he seems to have chosen it for his 2022 reelection campaign as well as the theme of his war against Brussels. It only decreases his chances in both.
Just take the domestic reception of the state-mandated homophobia. In 2021, the number of Pride participants ballooned to the tens of thousands, triggered by the government’s vicious homophobic propaganda. The number of counterprotesters, however, didn’t increase.
But the counterprotesters felt emboldened in every sense this year. The usual extreme right aggressors declared orgastically in the microphones that the law is finally on their side, and what they have been saying for years is now endorsed by the government. Between two Hitler salutes they swore to uphold the new (and viciously ambiguous) homophobic law and enforce it themselves if they must. They started immediately, taking photos of minors participating in the Pride. According to the new law, their guardians (and the Pride, possibly) are punishable for exposing them to the existence of homosexuality.
Analysts are speculating about the supposed strategic purpose of the homophobic incitement. These speculations usually start by assuming that Orbán is a genius and if he is doing it, it must be a good idea. For the purposes to keep himself in power, that is.
But what if it isn´t? Not this time.
Why would homophobia be the red line Orbán cannot cross?
After all, there have been many transgressions that Orbán got away with – even stronger. Even when he threatened to veto the entire EU Covid relief package just to ensure that he will never be subject to independent prosecution and that money coming from the EU remained stealable without accountability, it seemed to have gone unpunished.
The reason this might be the thin red line is that this is the first topic that gives (any) western politician the green light to shoot at him – and score with his voters at home.
After all, homophobia is enough to give even the most ardent western defenders of Orbán a pause. Just think about the east German AfD and how they are popular in the land of proud sexual liberation. Homophobia in general has been disappearing from the anti-human rule book of extremists, left and right. They still have a lot to improve and the imaginary threat of forced sex-change surgeries on helpless children still incites righteous rage and a sense of mission in them that keeps them in line for their leaders´ use. But Orbán’s communication at home is just plain, old homophobia. As Orbán himself put it, liberalism delimits his control over his children.
The German, French, British, etc. turbo-nationalists kept supporting Orbán’s other transgressions and overlooking his statism and kleptocracy that are incompatible with even the most degraded definition of conservatism – but even those useful idiots are baffled by his homophobia. It is such a bad idea strategically, it makes Orbán-bashing popular among western voters who would otherwise not look at the disciplining of the leader of an insignificant country favorably.
A western European politician can now score proper points with his voters by crossing Orbán.
It is no longer looked upon as wasted resources to deal with the internal idiocy of a small, eastern European country. It now looks like a civilizatory duty in the eyes of otherwise indifferent voters. It is almost unacceptable not to say something against Orbán and not to distance themselves from him.
Homophobia also doesn´t fare well domestically.
Polls show that Hungarians are surprisingly liberal in the issue – despite a decade of conditioning to hate everyone and everything that is different. 56% of adults (and more of the young) are tolerant with homosexuals, even a quarter of Fidesz voters disapprove of the homophobic law (and they have been around the block when it comes to swallowing Orbán’s new hate targets). If Orbán is to win new voters, they would be from the extreme fringes – but they are already voting for him. Some analysts speculate that Orbán might be doing this to attract voters from specifically Jobbik, but Jobbik has voted for the homophobic law and Orbán caters to them perfectly in many other ways.
In the meantime, the anti-LBGT hate campaign gave non-Orbánist Hungarians almost as much righteousness and as strong a sense of mission as his pet nazis usually have.
And that is a first. The public is desensitized to the wholesale theft of public money, so they don’t get angry anymore as they feel helpless against it. It was not an obvious thing to side with refugees when they were in the crosshairs. But it is a no-brainer to side with an attacked Hungarian minority.
It is heroic and right and unlike the migrant crisis (that didn´t even exist in Hungary), protecting local minorities attacked by the state rings the bells of 20th century history. The only thing that would remind people of their citizen duty even stronger would be a similarly open anti-Jewish propaganda.
Orbán’s homophobic campaign makes no sense – not on the national level, nor internationally. This is why the speculation arose that this is personal for him. If that is true, Orbán is in decline. Bringing your own personal hobby horse to the center of your politics is a sign of decline for populists who gain power by saying whatever people need to hear to vote for them. They lie, they don´t bring themselves to the forefront until they feel safe that whatever they do can be pushed down the throats of voters – or they get tired and make a miscalculation. The former is not the case.