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Political consumption and the global new right
In late 2020, the first Roger Scruton-themed coffee shop opened in Budapest, Hungary. Scruton, the late conservative English philosopher, is beloved by right-wing nationalists in Europe and North America, including in the Hungarian capital. More recently, I watched the newest installment of Vice News’s Breaking the Vote docuseries, in which the reporter interviewed American ex-pats Gladden Pappin and Rod Dreher, who are now in Hungary to study Viktor Orbán’s brand of illiberal Magyarism. They met in a Scruton café.
Roger Scruton was an admirer of England in all its glory as a green and pleasant land. He wrote often about English life and culture. He was an elegant writer and a profound thinker about the role of beauty and tradition in social life. But, as Anne Applebaum has noted, there was also a hard edge in Scruton’s nostalgic nationalism. In Twilight of Democracy, she describes his work England: An Elegy, as “apocalyptic” and an “outpouring of cultural despair.” In the book, Scruton mourns that
The English are no longer a sovereign people, and their law is no longer their own. Again, the pressure towards this outcome has come from within—from businessmen wedded to the global economy, from bureaucrats in love with administrative power or programmed to carry out some defunct project of ‘reform’, and from progressive intellectuals who regard national loyalty as a crime against enlightenment.
And it’s these kinds of sentiments, that harder edge, that have been latched onto by so-called national conservatives. That is what’s being celebrated in these coffeeshops, where great minds of the new nationalist right are meant to congregate.
The irony of this is that the whole thing is dripping in globalized, consumerist cliches. The far right—and what are the likes of Dreher and Pappin if not far right—has itself gone global. The NatCons would not deny that they’re engaged in a worldwide project. In fact, they openly discuss the need for a “network” against globalization. But those networks necessarily map onto the web of globalization. Moreover, right wing politics has become increasingly marked by this kind of global consumption.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss has observed that consumption and branding play a key role in both extending far-right ideas into mainstream youth culture and enabling subtler, more attractive forms of expression for those ideas. In her book Hate in the Homeland, she says
today’s far right consumers can choose from a wide array of high-quality products that touch nearly every aspect of their lives, from the way they cook to the clothes they wear. There are dedicated YouTube talk-shows and blogs … clothing brands, music streaming services, and a neo-Nazi coffee company owned by a white supremacist podcaster.
Watching Pappin and Dreher, dapper and bespectacled, sip espresso and discuss the need to use the state to overcome their opponents, it’s difficult not to see this as simply an older, grayer playing out of a similar phenomenon to the one Miller-Idriss describes.
Whether they grasp it or not, they’ve decamped to quite a global historical city. Budapest itself is a city made glorious by cosmopolitanism. Today, Orbán has launched a program to restore and revitalize the city’s historical buildings as part of his broader effort to promote Hungarianism. Americans like Stephen Sholl, a visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, have applauded this, with Sholl telling Vice’s Matthew Cassel: “It is reminding people that, you know, you come from a great line of people. What is a more visual depiction of your ideology, of your culture, of your society than the architecture that you see?”
Much of the architecture and urban aesthetic that the Orbán government now promotes as emblematic of the Hungarian spirit dates to one of the heady days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though of course some dates to more brutally authoritarian moments in its history. The Hungary of the 19th century was ethnically and linguistically diverse, though there has been substantial debate about just how tolerant that era’s policy of Magyarization could be considered. Even the name of the organization that brought Sholl in is somewhat contradictory given that the Hungary of Mathias Corvinus was a true renaissance state, famous for its humanist artists.
The Scruton café is a salon for the Americans who have come to Hungary to study the Orbán œuvre, the ones who imagine themselves to be partaking in a new version of turn-of-the-century Vienna. At the same moment Budapest was Europe’s fastest growing city and home to a vibrant Jewish community among its many heritages. Interviewed by Cassel at one such cafe, Pappin extols Hungary as “a traditional Christian society,” going on to say “as an anti-liberal, I think that’s good.” Pappin then defends altering the Constitution to tilt power toward the right and strip protections from groups he feels have undermined American traditional values. There is both tragedy and farce to this, both in light of the rich historical complexity and cultural diversity laid out above and in the face of the clearly hostile and anti-democratic forces at work today.
Those who market unfashionable ideas do not necessarily have a desire to be unfashionable. And the booming global market of right-wing and fringe political goods both shows the allure of a well-packaged ideology and betrays a level of hypocrisy in the pious attacks on globalists and intellectual elites. It’s a difficult fight to wage. And it’s the one any truly free-market-but-pluralist society has to wage—because we cannot simply silence those with disagreeable, even reprehensible, views. Though as Duck Soup’s Chicolini would say, the food is better over here.