Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024
Members of the Parliament applaud Viktor Orban after voting him on May 16 as the prime minister of Hungary for a fourth consecutive term. | Attila Volgyi/Xinhua via Getty Images

How Hungary turned replacement theory into state ideology.

On May 16, just days after the deadly mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, motivated by conspiratorial fears of white Westerners’ “Great Replacement” by minorities, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán endorsed the shooter’s ideology in a nationally televised speech.

“Part of the picture of the decade of war facing us will be recurring waves of suicidal policy in the Western world. One such suicide attempt that I see is the great European population replacement program, which seeks to replace the missing European Christian children with migrants, with adults arriving from other civilizations,” Orbán said.

Orbán is a close observer of American politics; the speech literally contains an exhortation to “make Hungary great again.” It is implausible, as the Guardian notes, that he was unaware of the concern in Washington over “Great Replacement” ideology — a conspiracy theory that posits a shadowy plan to “replace” the white Western population with immigrants and the children of nonwhites.

But Orbán is not adopting this language in response to events in America: It has been a central element of his ideology for years.

“I think there are many people who would like to see the end of Christian Europe,” he said in a representative 2018 radio interview. “They believe that if they replace its cultural subsoil, if they bring in millions of people from new ethnic groups which are not rooted in Christian culture, then they will transform Europe according to their conception.”

In contemporary Hungary, we see a country where “Great Replacement” theory dominates not just official rhetoric but also policy. Migrants are treated cruelly at the border, while the government casts LGBTQ minorities as a threat to Hungarian birthrates and pushes a message to convince women to take up “traditional” roles as homemakers and mothers. Advocates for immigration and immigrant rights, like the Hungarian American Jewish philanthropist George Soros, are described as enemies of the state and attacked accordingly.

Meanwhile, Republicans are increasingly seeing Orbánism as a model. Currently, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) is holding a major conference in Budapest. Orbán gave a speech Thursday morning; both Tucker Carlson and Trump’s former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows will be giving addresses by videoconference. The event serves as ratification of a trend I’ve been writing about for years: the GOP’s evolution into an illiberal faction that closely resembles Orbán’s Fidesz party.

At the conference, my colleague Noel King met with István Kiss, the executive director of the Danube Institute, a government-sponsored think tank with links to prominent Western conservatives. She asked Kiss directly whether his government’s embrace of replacement theory bothered him. He said, more or less, that it didn’t.

“If Hungary changes, then Hungary no longer exists,” he says. “If you have a society or civilization which is unwilling to reproduce themselves, then that shows that there’s something wrong within our societies. Because that’s strange; that’s kind of suicidal.”

These are the ideas spreading out from Budapest to Washington. And the implications for America are more than a little ominous.

How Orbán turned the “Great Replacement” into governing ideology

In the United States, replacement theory has been popular with the racist fringe — people like the Buffalo shooter and Charlottesville, Virginia, marchers — for decades. Only recently has it made its way into the GOP mainstream, due in no small part to the influence of Carlson’s Fox show.

In Europe, the idea is widespread among both neo-Nazis and the continent’s far-right political parties, like the Netherlands’ Freedom Party and Germany’s AfD. After these parties surged in popularity in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, such ideas moved closer to the political mainstream. During the 2022 French presidential election, Valérie Pécresse — the candidate of the center-right Republican party used the term “Great Replacement” in a campaign speech railing against immigration.

But nowhere has the idea been more influential than Hungary, where Orbán and his increasingly far-right Fidesz party has engineered the political system to give itself a virtual hammerlock on power without parallel in the European Union. The Hungarian prime minister has elevated fear of demographic replacement into a central governing ideology, serving as justification for a policy agenda that demonizes minorities and helps cement his hold on power.

Orbán’s vision goes like this: Hungary is a small country of about 10 million people, with a unique culture and language, that has been repeatedly invaded and subjugated throughout its history. Today, the biggest threat to this nation’s continuation is low birthrates: “Hungarians are an endangered species,” as he once put it.

Immigration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa is, on this worldview, the principal reason for this “endangered” status. Because Orbán sees “Hungarianness” as defined in ethnonational terms, there is no sense that the children of migrants could ever become Hungarian. By bringing in their own cultures and language, they pose an existential threat to the Hungarian nation’s future.

Armend Nimani/AFP via Getty Images
Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border near the town of Horgos, Serbia, in September 2015.

“We do not need numbers, but Hungarian children. In our minds, immigration means surrender,” as he put it in a 2019 speech. “If we resign ourselves to the fact that we are unable to sustain ourselves even biologically, by doing so we admit that we are not important even for ourselves.”

Only about 2.1 percent of the Hungarian population is foreign-born, according to 2020 data (though that’s up from 1.6 percent in 2018). Most hail from nearby European states, like Ukraine and Romania; 97 percent of the country’s population is currently made up of ethnic Hungarians. Yet Orbán still describes migration as a deliberate plot against Hungary — an intentional great replacement orchestrated by bureaucrats in Brussels and George Soros.

“What they want is that henceforward it will increasingly not be we and our descendants who live here, but others,” as he said in a speech commemorating the country’s 1848 revolution. “External forces and international powers want to force all this upon us, with the help of their allies here in our country.”

The upshot of this conspiracy theory is that Orbán and his allies in Fidesz are justified in doing nearly anything — however cruel and authoritarian — in service of preventing migration. They have built a fence on the border with Serbia to block migrants from entering; when I visited there in 2018, I saw a detention center, with some migrants stuck in a miserable processing system while others slept in squalid tents on the Hungarian side.

That year, the government passed something called the “Stop Soros” law: a bill punishing the Hungarians for “promoting and supporting illegal migration,” with provisions so broadly worded that, in theory, the government could arrest someone who provides food to an undocumented migrant on the street or attends a political rally in favor of their rights.

Replacement theory’s influence extends beyond immigration policy. Orbán’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric centers on the idea that “gender ideology” poses a threat to Hungarian continuity by allegedly weakening the heterosexual family (and thus discouraging reproduction). This view is so central to Fidesz’s thinking that, in 2021, it codified it as a constitutional amendment.

“Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation,” the amendment reads. “Family ties shall be based on marriage or the relationship between parents and children. The mother shall be a woman, the father shall be a man.”

Some of Hungary’s birthrate-related policies are less alarming: Subsidies for families with children, in particular, are entirely defensible social policy. However, they take place in a broader context of government rhetoric and policymaking that sees women as obligated to serve the nation by becoming mothers and homemakers.

“I’d like to have an agreement with the Hungarian ladies, and their role in the nation’s future,” the prime minister once said. “Child-bearing is a private matter, but also a very public one.”

Replacement theory, from Budapest to Washington

It’s unclear how much Orbán actually believes his “Great Replacement” theorizing. In the 1980s and ’90s, he positioned himself as a committed political liberal before making an abrupt right turn. Hungary is a socially conservative country by European standards, so some of his polices on this front are genuinely popular. And many of the policies justified by replacement rhetoric just so happen to weaken his enemies and expand state power to stifle dissent, furthering his undemocratic regime’s primary goal of staying in power.

Regardless of his true beliefs, Orbán is now very committed to the politics of replacement and has invested in exporting it — attempting to build an alliance of far-right Western politicians, bringing prominent right-wing intellectuals to meet with him in Budapest, and even funding institutes and journals that spread the tenets of Orbán thought in English.

He seems to have found his greatest success in the United States, where the leading figures in the Republican Party are seeing him as a model.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán meets with then-President Donald Trump at the White House in May 2019.

In January, Donald Trump endorsed Orbán in the latter’s reeelection bid, calling him a “strong leader” who “truly loves his country and wants safety for his people.” Later that month, the party’s leading media ally Tucker Carlson released a special titled Hungary vs. Soros that attempted to disseminate Orbán’s “Great Replacement” mythology to an American audience.

In the episode, Carlson argues that migration to Hungary is akin to an actual military invasion — one in which migrants are effectively trying to colonize Hungary and replace its population with their babies.

“Unlike the threats from the Soviets and the Ottoman Empire, the threat posed by George Soros and his nonprofit organizations is much more subtle and hard to detect,” Carlson says. Not coincidentally, Carlson is the leading mainstream exponent of the idea that a similar process is underway in America: arguing that Democrats are using immigration policy to conduct “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”

And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis — a leading figure in the GOP and potential 2024 candidate — is pioneering a kind of American Orbánism. While DeSantis has not openly endorsed Orbán’s replacement rhetoric in the way that Carlson does, he has picked up on the style of using social conservative ideas as a justification for policies that attack one’s political enemies. There’s some evidence that his infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill was directly influenced by Hungary’s recently passed restrictions on LGBT speech.

Which brings us back to CPAC in Budapest. The group has held international events before in attempts to build cross-national conservative linkages, but this is the first conference in Europe. Even though few prominent Republican politicians are attending in person, the significance for the direction of the conservative movement is lost on no one.

The transatlantic mainstreaming of “Great Replacement” rhetoric is especially troubling, given that it has inspired white supremacist attacks on mosques in New Zealand, Latinos in El Paso, and, most recently, Black shoppers at a Buffalo supermarket. It is a style of thinking that is not only conspiratorial, but inherently prone to justifying violence and repression. It posits that the very existence of nonwhite people in a country is a threat to the body politic.

We have seen how this has facilitated the development of an illiberal authoritarian state in Hungary; it seems the Republican Party has no qualms about traveling down a similar path. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the No. 3 ranking Republican in the House, has shown no contrition for her past comments endorsing replacement theory. And there are no signs she will face any consequences.

During Orbán’s address at CPAC Budapest, he outlined a 12-point “recipe” for political success that the American right could borrow. The very first point, he said, “is that we must play by our own rules” — that conservatives “must not be discouraged by being shouted at, by being labeled unfit, or by being treated as troublemakers.”

In context of recent developments, this advice sounds less likely friendly pointers and more like the words of an enabler. And it’s clear the Republican Party is taking the idea to heart.

Today, Explained, Vox’s daily news explainer podcast, is following CPAC to Hungary. In a three-part series May 18-20, host Noel King reports on why American conservatives want to align themselves with — and express such admiration for — an increasingly authoritarian country. Listen to Today, Explained wherever you find podcasts.

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