Viktor Orban
Credit: European Council/Flickr

In the 1949 film The Third Man, set in post-war Vienna, the Austrian capital is a bombed-out city where Orson Welles’s character, Harry Lime, makes a killing on the black market for medical supplies. Lime steals military stocks of penicillin, dilutes the antibiotic, and sells it to unsuspecting patients who die from the watered-down drug.

Profiting in desperate times is immoral and unjustifiable.

It is also common.

While most people are conscientious, showing strangers compassion, love and selflessness, craven examples abound of certain individuals profiting from the COVID-19 crisis, and others, by hoarding, price gouging, or simply leveraging market forces. The $138 bottle of hand sanitizer is the poster child product of this lockdown moment.

Money motivates the unscrupulous and greedy. Power is the other potent aphrodisiac. In its pursuit, power hungry leaders fan the flames of popular fears and exploit nativist anger.

Money and power are a killer combo.

Across the world, from Ankara to Beijing, Caracas to Moscow, powerful (and newly rich) leaders see the current crisis as a way to build themselves an unassailable permanent political role. Case in point? Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán now rules by decree.

He just shut down opposition and locked down his power. This week, the charismatic Orbán wrangled his party’s parliamentary majority to vote him all-powerful. They handed down a legal edict to declare a limitless state of emergency, suspend Parliament, cancel elections, allow for draconian eight-year prison sentences when forced quarantines are broken, and permit shutting down inconvenient press. It’s unclear how much European Union crisis funding Orbán might be able to direct toward his cronies and family in this power consolidation. But what is clear is that he has accumulated more power than even the Hungarian Communist regime and overlord Soviet Union he once valiantly and honorably fought.

Here comes the big disclaimer: I know Viktor Orbán. As a journalist, I covered some of the most dramatic moments of modern Hungarian history, starting with my on-the-ground reporting of the March 15, 1989 nonviolent street demonstration. President Obama appointed my wife to be U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 2010-2013 when she actively sparred with Orbán and fought to strengthen civil society and democratic institutions. She wrote the book Madam Ambassador about this time. During those three years, our entire family lived in Budapest, and I earned my political science doctorate at Hungary’s Central European University. CEU was founded by financier-philanthropist George Soros, a man Orbán has publicly demonized and ostracized. Orbán recently succeeded in kicking CEU out of Hungary, forcing the university to relocate to neighboring Vienna, the rebuilt capital where “The Third Man” was filmed.

Orbán is the Harry Lime of democratic politics. He has leveraged liberal electoral practices to destroy his opposition, muzzle critical voices, threaten political dissent, systematically rig elections and, in the process, dilute democracy.

In The Third Man, Harry Lime nearly got away with his profitable but deadly medicine-dilution scheme, using the chaos of post-war Austria to hide in Vienna’s underground sewers. Budapest was once Vienna’s sister-capital of an empire now vanished, but it is there that Orbán sits in his ornate Parliament building, scheming with his comrades and sycophants about how to steal as much money, power, and authority as possible at this critical moment. He moved quickly to consolidate power now because the public health crisis provides the perfect opportunity to take advantage of Hungarians’ sense of vulnerability, fear, and anger.

The tyrant looks upon crisis and sees nothing but selfish opportunity. The democrat inspires people to act selflessly, rise above fear, believe in society’s common humanity. The democrat engenders compassion, and understands sacrifice for a greater good.

Orbán is peddling his autocratic prescription to his society. His diagnosis is that the current public health crisis needs an injection of strongman tactics, subordinated institutions, and centrally controlled messaging. In this worldview, the people cannot be trusted to act selflessly, but rather must be managed, directed, and threatened to follow the leader’s social, political, and legal dictates. To make matters worse, the European Union appears toothless while American diplomacy is enabling, if not outright supportive of, Orbán.

Like Harry Lime, Orbán is a ruthless charmer. He’s smart, quick witted, and smooth. His illiberal behavior is facilely rationalized. Orbán-dependent national media propagate and justify his political acts, easily selling the autocrat’s narrative to an accepting popular political base for whom xenophobia and intolerance has historic precedence and contemporary resonance.

Orbán plays to people’s basest instincts. Like Harry Lime, whose smile betrayed his dark acts and murderous behavior and who was guilty of poisoning people, Orbán is guilty of poisoning the body politic. For democracy-loving Hungarians, this is a dark movie they’ve seen before.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).