BUDAPEST, HUNGARY. Politics is usually invisible. Its realm is language and stories in the hidden minds of the people. Economics is less mysterious, I thought, as my train from Munich pulled into Keleti Station in Hungary’s capital city, and as I saw around me winter coats and shop windows suggesting an economy less robust than Germany’s.

I was last here in Hungary in the winter of 1991, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In those early years of “new Europe,” this city’s streets and its imperial architecture built during the golden age of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the Great War were grey under a thin snow, but the faces of young Hungarians seemed bright with the possibilities of democracy and the free movement of peoples in Europe.

What I did not see then, in my youthful American ignorance, was what every Hungarian schoolchild is taught: the national myth of noble Hungary being overrun through the centuries by Ottoman and German and Russian armies. And this people’s fear that their language unique among the languages of Europe, spoken by fewer than ten million souls, could be inundated by the surrounding Slavic sea.

The schoolchildren learn that in 1526 the “Muslim” Turkish armies of Suleiman the Magnificent came from the Balkans to crush the “Christian” armies of Hungary, and for the next two centuries the Koran was taught in the city’s madrasas. They learn that after the First World War Hungary lost two-thirds of her territory, and several million Hungarian speakers, to newly formed neighboring countries. They study the Hungarian uprising against communism in 1956, crushed by the Soviet army.

Politics, though, is not always invisible. In 1989 it was manifest in roads clogged with migrants from East Germany crossing Hungary to get to “the West.” It was seen in 2015, when tens of thousands of Syrian refugees coming from Turkey and the Balkans crossed the 175-kilometer border with Serbia, en route to Germany, and made impromptu camp at Keleti Station.

That year, Chancellor Angela Merkel, recalling the shame and drama of Germany’s recent history, declared that all Syrian refugees would be accepted for asylum processing in Germany regardless of which European border they first crossed. And she declared that all countries in the European Union should accept a fair allocation of these asylum seekers for resettlement. An émigré Hungarian of great wealth, George Soros, through his Open Society Foundation, declared that Europe should accept these million refugees seeking asylum, and “a million more each year.”

In Hungary’s elections this last May, the dominant Fedesz party and its leader Victor Orban were returned to power by a landslide. Orban won by recalling the traumatic vision of Keleti Station and those refugee encampments. He railed against the European elites in Brussels, and “globalists” like Soros, who would force Hungary to accept Syrian refugees. He spoke of Hungary’s sovereignty, and its “Christian” heritage, and its right to democratic self-determination. At his rallies he raised the specter of cultural annihilation: “How do you think we Hungarians have managed to survive for a thousand years?”

In Hungary, and indeed in many countries in Europe and beyond, the inability of liberal politicians to find the words and policies to address the cultural anxieties of their citizens about immigration has left the space open for many Orbans.

His words, like the words of authoritarian demagogues in other countries, form a siren song of allure and alarm: “If you let me dominate you, then they won’t dominate us.”

But there is a second verse to this siren song: “If anyone challenges or questions me, then they are lying, and they are really attacking you.”

And so, although very few Syrian refugees stayed in Hungary, and although the crisis of 2015 should be a receding memory in Hungary, still during this election year Orban’s allies published “enemies lists” of political opponents supposedly financed by George Soros. And just this December, Orban’s government expelled Central European University, which Soros founded decades ago, and closed down many non-governmental organizations accused of “plotting” to help migrants. A company connected to Orban’s Fedesz party now owns almost all Hungarian news outlets. And judges in Hungarian courts who might hear corruption charges against Orban associates will now be appointed by Orban.

Hungary is still an electoral democracy (and member of NATO and the European Union) but I wonder now what strong protections against the gradual onset of dictatorship remain?

So as I walk the pleasant streets of this picturesque city, I fear that some bleak morning in years to come an activist student or courageous journalist, seen alive in conversation with friends the previous evening, will be found lying on a sidewalk beneath one of Budapest’s magnificent facades, neither drunk nor asleep.