Since the beginning of 2015 Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz government has produced one hate campaign after another, targeting migrants, the EU (or rather, “Brussels”), American financier George Soros and institutions connected to him, and even the UN.
The government used state-financed country-wide billboards, media advertisements, national consultations and even a popular referendum, all of which were allegedly meant to inform the population and consult citizens, but which actually served to propagate the already established standpoint of the government.
Orbán claims the campaigns to have been successful, and indeed, public opinion on most of these subjects has shown a steady deterioration since the start of the hate campaigns. What could explain the success of such campaigns in Hungary?
Evolution of the Enemy
Orbán has created numerous enemy figures over the years to cement his position as the strong-handed protector of the nation, but only recently has he started to articulate a coherent narrative that incorporates them all into a veritable conspiracy theory. His first target was the enemy within: the left that ruled the country for the major part of the first twenty years after the transition.
In Orbán’s book, the left sold the country out to foreigners and big capital in the name of economic liberalization and privatization, while it continued its corrupt practices which benefited only the political elites and left the country and its people worse off.
While this narrative earned him two election victories, after his re-election Orbán’s popularity started to plummet, and he saw the potential in refugees as the next great threat that could stabilize his position even before the crisis.
At first, the outsiders were said to be economic migrants who want to live on welfare, take people’s jobs, and break the country’s laws. Later, they also became the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, the creators of no-go zones, and finally the invaders who would wipe out European civilization and replace it with their own.
With the ensuing refugee crisis came the attacks on the EU. When the EU reproached Orbán for his measures against refugees and pushed for a common European solution without actually finding one, Orbán accused the EU of encouraging migration, endangering its population, going against the will of its people, and meddling in internal affairs.
George Soros appeared only in 2017 as the missing piece that unified the worldwide conspiracy. The Hungarian “left-liberal” opposition, the government-critical media, the EU, the UN, and international and civil organizations all became mere instruments in the hands of Soros to execute his “plan”.
The “Soros plan”, according to state propaganda, is to create a multicultural Europe without nation-states by flooding the continent with Muslim migrants, and he uses his network of “paid political agents” to topple democratically elected national governments that oppose this.
As absurd as this narrative may seem, poll results show that Hungarians are the nation most afraid of migrants in the world, with more than two-thirds of them believing migration to be a major threat. There have been instances of people calling the police on tourists, foreign volunteers, and even their fellow Hungarians for so much as a headscarf or a darker skin tone, because they were believed to be illegal migrants.
While the campaign against the EU was not particularly successful, in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary elections many people thought that George Soros and his party were actually running for election and that he was going to help opposition leaders dismantle the border fence just like they saw on the billboards.
Why Are People So Susceptible to Propaganda?
Well, one reason is that as far-fetched as some of Orbán’s narratives are, people perceive them to have some basis in reality. Hungarians experienced a drop in living standards and a rise in unemployment with the coming of economic liberalization that has only recently subsided.
Even today, a growing number of the employed are facing poverty and 25% of the population live under the poverty line. The threat of migration was piled cleverly onto the people’s already existing uncertainty about their livelihoods.
At the same time, most people believe political connections to be necessary for enrichment and see the wealthy as corrupt. This view was only reinforced by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s admittance to corruption in 2006, which made the entire socialist-liberal left and what they stood for lose credibility with voters. This provided fertile soil for the demonization of the American financier.
These are only a handful of examples for why people might fear for their jobs and welfare, see liberalism in a negative light, and view the rich with suspicion, and Orbán is very good at reminding people of these. What is more, he managed to create a coherent, easily understandable narrative of impending doom around them using refugees and Soros, which symbolized the problems people already had, only magnified.
Since people were relatively unfamiliar with both, the state media was quick to provide the missing information through its “information campaigns”, and while much of that information was either manipulated or flat-out fake news, it was constructed in such a way that it seemed plausible. And since most people had no experiences of their own that would have negated the claims made in the propaganda, much of it was easily accepted.
The messages were simple, yet powerful, because they exploited and exacerbated existential fears that people already had had. Once the narrative was in place, every piece of communication from every government official through every communication channel repeated the same uniform message over and over. Not only has this strategy succeeded in keeping the people in a state of perpetual fear, it also presented Orbán as the only leader that could protect them from the looming threat.
At the onset, Orbán used to stand alone with his radical rejection of migration, and the only candidate likely to counterbalance his argumentation seemed to be the EU committed to a common solution based on solidarity. However, as Orbán won his third consecutive term in office with a two-thirds majority in April 2018, not least thanks to his campaign to “Stop Soros” from facilitating mass migration to Europe, migration has also become a hot issue on the European agenda.
As more and more European leaders are yielding to public opinion and strive to reduce the number of people their country has to accommodate, Orbán’s views on migration are becoming more the rule than the exception. With EU member states divided and pushing their own agenda for a common European solution and an increasing number of countries siding with Hungary, a crackdown on Orbán’s hard-line stance by the EU seems more unlikely than ever.