Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric shows us ‘fake news’ is rife in European politics too, writes Robert Philpot
‘The people are tired of reason,’ the left-wing German playwright Ernst Toller observed as he watched the destruction of democracy across Europe in the 1930s. ‘Tired of thought and reflection. They ask, “What has reason done in the last few years years, what good have insights and knowledge done us?”’
Toller’s words have rarely seemed more apt than they do today.
Last week, the prime minister of a European Union state, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, celebrated his country’s national day by reciting a list of those it had successfully overcome in the past – the Ottomans, the Kaiser, and the Soviets – before going on to pledge: ‘now we will send home Uncle George.’
Few of his listeners will have missed Orbán’s reference to George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist whose generous support for liberal causes has made him a favourite whipping boy of the far right. As Hungary goes to the polls next month, the prime minister has turned Soros into his principal opponent.
There was little subtlety about Orbán’s latest attack on Soros: ‘we are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.’
There are unpleasant antisemitic undertones to the Hungarian government’s depiction of Soros as a shadowy puppetmaster at the centre of a conspiracy to destroy European civilisation by supporting immigration.
Unsurprisingly, Orbán was one of the only European leaders to express enthusiasm for Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Both before and after he entered the White House, the president has been an enthusiastic promoter of conspiracy theories, using the notion of a ‘deep state’ in cahoots with the ‘fake news’ media as a means to discredit his political foes and detract from the mounting scandals which imperil his survival in office.
As the Times columnist David Aaronovitch suggested in Voodoo Histories, his brilliant and entertaining evisceration of conspiracy theories: ‘there is a more sinister aspect to jovial arguments about whether or not the moon landings actually took place, and to speculation about why we enjoy such arguments. The belief in conspiracy theories is…harmful in itself. It distorts our view of history and therefore of the present, and – if widespread enough – leads to disastrous decisions.’
Michael Gerson, a trenchant conservative critic of Trump, has correctly identified why conspiracy theories are so dangerous to democracy: ‘people who believe conspiracy theories cease to believe in the possibility of discourse and deliberation. When the whole game is rigged, debates can only be decided by power.’
Britain is not immune from such trends. Last month, the Daily Telegraph ran a front page splash on Soros’ foundation supporting a pro-EU group in Britain. Its headline accused Soros of backing a ‘secret plot to thwart Brexit’. There was nothing secret about Soros’ donation, nor – despite the admonitions of the Daily Mail – does campaigning against a policy you disagree with amount to a plot.
Like the Hungarian attack on Soros, although admittedly unintentionally, the Telegraph’s headline also tapped classic antisemitic tropes. ‘A modicum of cultural awareness and a glancing acquaintance with old Jew-hatred and its modern iterations,’ suggested the Guardian’s Rafael Behr in response, ‘would have alerted a half-decent editor to the signal being sent by that front page’.
The belief in conspiracy theories is not the preserve of right wing populists. Last weekend’s heated social media debate over whether or not the BBC’s Newsnight programme photoshopped an image of Jeremy Corbyn to make his hat look more ‘Russian’ (it didn’t) may have had a certain comic quality as conspiracy theories go. Nonetheless, it was both telling and concerning that some on the hard left seemed far more outraged at this than the topic under discussion in the programme –Russia’s use of chemical weapons on British soil, a crime which left three people seriously ill and many more requiring hospital treatment.
This being the Labour party in 2018, it did not, of course, take long for Corbyn’s more avid supporters – including one former frontbencher – to begin spreading conspiracy theories which attempted to shift the blame for the Kremlin’s attack on to a country they are far happier demonising: Israel.
Those who follow the likes of Trump and Orbán down the path of conspiracies and plots – abandoning reason because it does not fit into their rigid, ideological view of the world – do not just harm the public discourse, they imperil democracy itself.
Last weekend saw the 15th anniversary of Robin Cook’s dramatic resignation speech on the eve of the Iraq war. The former Cabinet minister, suggested Emily Thornberry in an article to mark it, was the ‘lodestar for Labour’s foreign policy’.
The shadow foreign secretary’s attempt to appropriate Cook’s legacy received a swift rebuke from his former special adviser and close aide, David Clark. ‘I have absolutely no doubt,’ he wrote of Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on the Salisbury attack, ‘that Robin would have been equally dismayed with his own front bench this week as he was fifteen years ago. He was always clear that an ethical foreign policy means standing up to aggression.’
The words ‘consequential’ and ‘Liberal Democrats’ rarely appear in the same sentence together. This week, though, we learned that Christopher Wylie – the whistleblower who helped expose the hijacking of millions of Facebook profiles users in order to target US voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election – had first tried to interest the party in his ideas for identifying potential new supporters. When the Lib Dems, apparently viewing Wylie’s predictions of electoral meltdown in 2015 as unduly pessimistic, rejected his insights, the young Canadian instead ended up working for Cambridge Analytica. There, he found Steve Bannon, the vice president of the company’s United States arm and Donald Trump’s future campaign manager and chief political strategist, only too happy to listen to, and act upon, them.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.