Before the populist breakthrough of the 2010s, conventional wisdom was that once populists actually came into power, they would quickly fail because they themselves would become the elite that they had previously fought against when they were in opposition. “When you are part of the elite, you cannot fight the elite” was the idea. Yet, according to Tamás Boros, the reality of the past years, particularly in Hungary, showed that this logic was flawed.
Despite eight years in government and the fact that oligarchs with close ties to the Prime Minister saw their wealth swell to billions of euros, in the early 2018 election campaign, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party still campaigned as an insurgent, using anti-elite rhetoric.
Orbán found the “ideal” enemy for this type of rhetoric in George Soros, an American billionaire who originally hailed from Hungary. In the governing party’s narrative, George Soros is a leader of the global elite that strives to undermine nation-states, and Viktor Orbán is the man destined to stop him from realising this evil aspiration. According to the narrative crafted by the governing party, the global elite is cosmopolitan, liberal, pro-migration and greedy – in contrast to the national elite, which is nationalist, conservative, anti-migration and on the side of the people. By successfully portraying the world as a Manichean struggle between the global elite and national leaders, Viktor Orbán has managed to cast himself as an ordinary man of the people despite exercising unfettered power over Hungary and controlling billions of euros in wealth.
George Soros’ name was already widely known in Hungary before the recent governmental campaign honed in on his person. After all, the billionaire has been trying to promote the democratic transition in Hungary from communism since 1984, and he has supported social convergence, healthcare and education with numerous programmes and many millions of dollars. Previously, the leaders of the governing Fidesz party had correspondingly regarded him as a philanthropist. The turn in their relations dates to the autumn of 2015, when Viktor Orbán began to blame Soros for the refugee crisis and then sketched an alternative image of reality in which George Soros controls numerous international organisations with the goal of destroying the nation states, by using migrants to completely transform European culture. This was the point when government propaganda deliberately set out to turn George Soros into a scapegoat. The main tool used to this end were state funded propaganda campaigns, on which the government spent over 100 million euros of taxpayers’ money. This was complemented by the government-friendly media outlets’ character assassinations of Soros, vast efforts at discrediting him – over the past years, an average of 6,000 (!) articles were published in Hungary about Soros each month.
The anti-Soros and anti-migrant campaigns have significantly contributed to the fact that Viktor Orbán won 49% of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 2018.
The perfect scapegoat
Soros embodies everything that right-wing populists loath: He is a believer in an open and heterogeneous society, he believes in the system of international institutions, and he supports social minorities. He has the money, the network and the ideology to do all this. That is why Soros has emerged as a political enemy in numerous countries – from Russia all the way to Macedonia. In fact, the characteristics pinned on Soros by Orbán – the mendacious and actual elements alike – had also appeared in several previous anti-Soros campaigns outside Hungary. In and of itself, this could be seen as part of the standard political tug of war. What makes Orbán’s populist campaign unique is not the novelty of its content, but the utter unscrupulousness that manifests itself in its (lack of) morality and the sheer unlimited material resources used to drive its messages home. Using the government apparatus in an anti-Soros campaign; spending millions of euros from the central budget on this campaign; using every tool of communication conceivable; repeating the same arguments ad nauseam; stirring a war-like atmosphere – this essentially subordinates the state to the needs and goals of populism.
The anti-Soros and anti-migrant campaigns have significantly contributed to the fact that Viktor Orbán won 49% of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 2018. This political success will lead many other populists on the continent to conclude that anti-Soros and anti-migrant campaigns provide a recipe for political success in Europe today. However, one of the reasons for the success of such a strategy lies in the fact that the progressive parties have failed to identify issues with an emotional appeal that resonate more strongly with voters than their apprehensions about migrants, anti-elite sentiments and conspiracy theories. Another key insight of the populist campaigns is that it is a mistake to look down on them, to consider them primitive, easy to rebut or extreme. The challenge for progressives is not to react to these but to identify those issues that are important to society and resonate with the public, which will effectively deprive the populists’ artificial enemy-creation mechanisms – the core element of their electoral success – of their dominant role in public discourse.