Does Hungary Offer a Glimpse of America’s Authoritarian Future?
American conservatives recently hosted their flagship conference in Hungary, a country that experts call an autocracy. Its leader, Viktor Orbán, provides a potential model of what a Trump after Trump might look like.
EXCERPTS from the article By Andrew Marantz in the New Yorker: Hungary has a population comparable to Michigan’s and a G.D.P. close to that of Arkansas, but, in the imagination of the American right, it punches far above its weight. Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister since 2010, is now the longest-serving head of state in the European Union, and one of the most fiercely nativist and traditionalist. Starting in 2013, he made a political foil out of George Soros, the Jewish financier who was born in Hungary but hasn’t lived there in decades, exploiting the trope of Soros as a nefarious international puppet master. During the refugee crisis of 2015, Orbán built a militarized fence along Hungary’s southern border, and, in defiance of both E.U. law and the Geneva Conventions, expelled almost all asylum seekers from the country. Relative to other European nations, Hungary hadn’t experienced a big influx of migrants. (Out-migration is actually more common.) But the refugees, most of them from Syria or other parts of the Middle East, were an effective political scapegoat—one that Orbán continues to flog, along with academics, “globalists,” the Roma, and, more recently, queer and trans people. Last year, Hungary passed a law banning sex education involving L.G.B.T.Q. topics in schools. Nine months later, in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a similar law, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. DeSantis’s press secretary, talking about the inspiration for the law, reportedly said, “We were watching the Hungarians.”
Experts have described Orbán as a new-school despot, a soft autocrat, an anocrat, and a reactionary populist. Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of international affairs at Princeton, has referred to him as “the ultimate twenty-first-century dictator.” Some prominent American conservatives want nothing to do with him; but more have taken his side, pointing to Hungary as a potential model for America’s future. That afternoon, on the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) main stage, Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, singled out Orbán for praise: “If you cannot protect your own borders, if you cannot protect your own sovereignty, none of the other rights can be protected. That’s what the Prime Minister of Hungary understands.” The house lights dimmed and a sort of political trailer played, set to melodramatic music. “For over a millennium, to be Hungarian meant to sail the rough seas of history,” a narrator intoned over a horror-movie-style montage: Mongol invaders, migrant caravans, a glowering George Soros, drag-queen story time…
…You do not have to have emergency powers or a military coup for democracy to wither,” Aziz Huq, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Chicago, told me. “Most recent cases of backsliding, Hungary being a classic example, have occurred through legal means.” Orbán runs for reëlection every four years. In theory, there is a chance that he could lose. In practice, he has so thoroughly rigged the system that his grip on power is virtually assured. The political-science term for this is “competitive authoritarianism.” Most scholarly books about democratic backsliding (“The New Despotism,” “Democracy Rules,” “How Democracies Die”) cite Hungary, along with Brazil and Turkey, as countries that were consolidated democracies, for a while, before they started turning back the clock.
…Szánthó (the director of a Hungarian think tank called the Center for Fundamental Rights), a stout man with a smartly tailored suit and a waxed mustache, began by quibbling with the panel’s title. Szánthó lives in Hungary, but he spoke fluent Fox News-inflected English. “When it comes to border protection, when it comes to the Jewish-Christian heritage of the Continent and of the European Union, or when it comes to gender ideology,” he continued, the Hungarians, nearly alone among citizens of Western nations, “step up for conservative values.”
He mentioned “Jewish-Christian heritage,” but there aren’t many practicing Jews left in Hungary. Orbán, in his speeches, often uses the phrase “Christian democracy,” which he portrays as under continual existential threat. Given that the vast majority of Hungarians, apparently including Orbán, do not attend church regularly, it seems plausible that his audience hears the word “Christian,” at least in part, as code for something else. “If we manage to uphold our country’s ethnic homogeneity and its cultural uniformity,” he said in 2017, “Hungary will be the kind of place that will be able to show other, more developed countries what they lost.” His constant theme is that only he can preserve Hungary for the (non-Muslim, ethnically Magyar) Hungarians—about as close as any European head of state will come to an explicit rejection of ethnic pluralism in favor of state-sanctioned white nationalism. For many of his American admirers, this seems to be a core element of his appeal. Lauren Stokes, a professor of European history at Northwestern University, told me, “The offer Orbán is making to global conservatives is: I alone can save you from the ravages of Islamization and totalitarian progressivism—and, in the face of all that, who has time for checks and balances and rules?”
In recent years, Orbán or institutions affiliated with his government have hosted, among others, Mike Pence, the former Vice-President; new-media agitators including Steve Bannon, Dennis Prager, and Milo Yiannopoulos; and Jeff Sessions, the former Attorney General, who told a Hungarian newspaper that, in the struggle to “return to our Christian roots based on reason and law, which have made Western civilization great . . . the Hungarians have a solid stand.” In his hilltop office with an imposing two-story library, Orbán has met with conservative figures including Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson. “If these people think the extreme left is hijacking American society in dangerous ways, then, yes, I agree,” the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan told me. “But to go from that to ‘Let’s embrace this authoritarian leader in this backwater European country, and maybe try out a version of that model with our own charismatic leader back home’—I mean, that leap is just weird, and frankly stupid.”
…From the nineteen-fifties through the nineteen-eighties, during the period when Hungary was within the Soviet sphere of influence, Moscow allowed it a bit more latitude than other Eastern Bloc countries, a unique mixture of subjection and relative exemption that came to be known as Goulash Communism. As the Iron Curtain began to lift, Orbán emerged as a leader of the youth resistance, giving impassioned speeches against totalitarianism; in 1989, he went to Oxford to study political philosophy, on George Soros’s dime. During his first term as Prime Minister, starting in 1998, Orbán, who still identified as a liberal democrat, vowed to build up the country’s civic infrastructure. President Bill Clinton hosted him at the White House, extolling Orbán’s “youthful and vigorous and progressive leadership.” Then, in 2002, Orbán lost a reëlection campaign to a Socialist coalition and, according to the biographer József Debreczeni, resolved to return to power and change “the rules of the game” so that he would never lose again.
He enlisted Arthur Finkelstein, a political consultant from Brooklyn who had worked to elect Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and Ronald Reagan, among others. “Try to polarize the election around that issue which cuts best in your direction, i.e., drugs, crime, race,” Finkelstein wrote in a 1970 memo to the Nixon White House. In 1996, Finkelstein put this principle to work on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu, a candidate for Prime Minister of Israel who was then about twenty points down in the polls, and who started alleging that his opponent, Shimon Peres, planned to divide Jerusalem. This was a lie, but it stuck, and Netanyahu won. In 2008, Netanyahu introduced Finkelstein to his friend Orbán; Finkelstein became so indispensable that Orbán reportedly came to refer to him, dotingly, as Finkie. One of Finkelstein’s protégés later told the Swiss journalist Hannes Grassegger, “Arthur always said that you did not fight against the Nazis but against Adolf Hitler.” Orbán had been running against globalism, multiculturalism, bureaucracy in Brussels. These were abstractions. By 2013, Finkelstein had an epiphany: the face of the enemy should be George Soros.
After Orbán returned to power, his rhetoric grew more sharply nativist, laden with Islamophobic and anti-Semitic dog whistles: “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.” In 2018, several parties to the left of Orbán’s, and even a couple of neo-Fascist parties to his right, ran separate candidates for Prime Minister, splitting the opposition vote. “After that, the common narrative was that next time all we had to do was unite behind one opposition candidate, and we would definitely win,” Szilárd Pap, a left-wing writer, told me. “Well, we did unite the next time, and we lost even worse.” In Budapest, I met plenty of Hungarians who openly railed against their government. One was Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition candidate in the most recent election. Márki-Zay continues to accuse Orbán of corruption and mendacity, and he doesn’t seem worried that his sushi will be poisoned with polonium. The regime’s defenders see this relative freedom as evidence that all the talk of autocracy is reckless alarmism. Its critics see it as evidence of a cost-benefit decision: certain egregious breaches are not worth the trouble, at least for now.
“Orbán has managed to preserve the appearance of formal democracy, as long as you don’t look too closely,” Anna Grzymala-Busse, the director of the Europe Center at Stanford, told me. Since 2010, most of Hungary’s civic institutions—the courts, the universities, the systems for administering elections—have come to occupy a gray area. They haven’t been eradicated; instead, they’ve been patiently debilitated, delegitimatized, hollowed out. There are still judges who wear robes, but if Orbán finds their decisions too onerous he can appeal to friendlier courts. There are still a few independent universities, but the most prestigious one—Central European University, which was founded by Soros—has been pushed out of the country, and many of the public universities have been put under the control of oligarchs and other loyalists. There are still elections, yet international observers consider them “free but not fair”: radically gerrymandered, flush with undisclosed infusions of dark money. The system that Orbán has built during the past twelve years, a combination of freedom and subjugation not exactly like that of any other government in the world, could be called Goulash Authoritarianism. Scheppele contends that Orbán has pulled this off not by breaking laws but by ingeniously manipulating them, in what she calls a “constitutional coup.” She added, “He’s very smart and methodical. First, he changes the laws to give himself permission to do what he wants, and then he does it.”