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How Viktor Orban Has Quelled Liberalism As Hungary's Prime Minister


In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Franklin Foer writes about Hungary and what the magazine calls Viktor Orban's war on intellect. Foer traveled to Central European University in Budapest. It's a school Orban has effectively forced to leave the country, founded by Orban's nemesis, George Soros, to promote an open society. As Foer explains, it's not just this one institution. He says Viktor Orban has waged war on all Hungarian universities and more.

FRANKLIN FOER: Most universities in Hungary are funded by the state. So he's imposed chancellors on each university who control the purse strings. He's taken the Hungarian Academy of Science, which funds research, and he's diverted all the money for research to be controlled by one of his cronies.

And this takes place in an even larger context, where the media has been destroyed in the country, where the number of free media outlets has been reduced. There are very, very few organs that oppose the government. And so he's going after Central European University because he's gone after the rest of Hungarian civil society.

SHAPIRO: But at risk of asking an obvious question, why are universities a threat to him?

FOER: So universities are the source of criticism. They're the places that train the people who would potentially march in the street against Viktor Orban. And so he's set out to destroy them. And Hungary has lost a million people over the course of the last 10 years. They've left the country. They've gone to - most of them have gone to places like Germany or to France or to England. And these tend to be the college-educated parts of the population.

These are the people who form a natural opposition to Viktor Orban. And Orban has been quite clear that he intends to govern Hungary for an extremely long period of time. And he wants to create the institutions and the circumstances that permit him to govern for this extended period.

SHAPIRO: Part of Orban's project has been to change public sentiment within Hungary, a country where people used to be very open to liberal, Western democratic ideas. How have the attitudes of the Hungarian people changed?

FOER: Hungary was one of the great success stories of post-Soviet times. It was - it was a country that made its way into the European Union, that created democratic institutions, that housed a robust press. But over the term of Viktor Orban's presidency, the institutions have started to weaken and then disappear. And public opinion has started to shift.

The week that I was in Hungary, CNN published a poll showing that Hungarians had become the most anti-Semitic country in the whole of Europe. One of the pro-government publications published a magazine that had a cover featuring the head of the Jewish federation. And his face was put against a black backdrop, and money was raining down.

And, you know, it's just pretty shocking that our government can't find a way to criticize this government, which seems to be fostering so many ideas that are just so contrary to everything we're supposed to stand for.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that I think makes Orban so interesting to Americans is the similarities between him and President Trump, especially on this day, when the two of them are meeting at the White House. You met the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, a man named David Cornstein, who was a jeweler in New York and knew Trump for decades. And Ambassador Cornstein told you Trump - and this is a quote - "would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn't." What does that mean?

FOER: So, you know, we do constantly look to the autocratic, illiberal leaders in places like Brazil or Hungary or Russia. And we try to see similarities between Trump and these leaders. And we ask ourselves constantly, is he one of them? Are we projecting Trump onto them or projecting them onto Trump? And so to have one of his old friends - to have a United States diplomat say explicitly that Donald Trump wishes he could be an authoritarian leader, it's quite a chilling thing to hear.

SHAPIRO: Franklin Foer, thanks for talking with us today.

FOER: Pleasure.

SHAPIRO: He writes about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.