That scene, some say, is the unraveling of democracy. In a report issued in March, a German research group, Bertelsmann Stiftung, said Hungary was “nearing” the threshold of autocracy.
In Budapest, government officials describe their societal revamp as a mainly technocratic reform effort, rather than an ideological campaign, one validated by Mr. Orban’s success at the ballot box.
“The government is using its democratic legitimacy not only to reform the state but to reform the society,” said Professor Andras Patyi, the head of a new university formed by Fidesz to train the public officials of the future. He said the current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, was doing the same thing. “This is common in democratic societies,” he said.
But Mr. Orban has recognized the political power to be gained by harnessing culture, history and civil society. He usually spends Thursdays reading books, essays and polling data, while meeting with writers and thinkers, two of his longtime associates said. The goal is not pleasure but power, said Zoltan Illes, a former Fidesz minister.
“He wants to see what the new developments are and adapt them to his politics, to increase the life span of his governance,” Mr. Illes said.
Authors with a sweeping vision of human nature and society seem to fascinate him. Last April, for example, he met with Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who created the Stanford Prison Experiment, the controversial 1971 study of authoritarianism, which explored how ordinary people would respond when placed in positions of power.
The two men spent more than two hours talking alone in Mr. Orban’s office, surrounded by paintings of Hungarian history. Mr. Orban seemed uninterested in the Stanford experiment, Mr. Zimbardo said, but was keen to understand his theory about how to energize frustrated young men who feel left behind by modern society.