For several years, Hungary has been the name American liberal intellectuals have given to their worst domestic nightmares. Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán, has fashioned an apparently permanent majority for his conservative Fidesz Party by wielding the levers of the state to marginalize the social, political, and legal power of his opposition. American conservatives are now becoming fascinated in equal measure with Orbán’s Hungary. The liberal nightmare of an authoritarian America is becoming the conservative dream.
Orbán’s attacks on liberal democracy long predate Donald Trump’s candidacy. Five years ago, Orbán delivered a famous speech denouncing liberal democracy (“liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex, and violence”) and promising an alternative. To the extent American conservatives paid Orbán any attention then, it was to denounce him, perhaps while throwing in a swipe at the Obama administration for failing to confront him forcefully enough. The Republican Party’s growing defense of Orbán is a window through which we can glimpse its slow descent into authoritarianism.
Orbán’s political style, combining hyperbolic denunciations of Muslim immigrants with anti-Semitic tropes targeting George Soros as puppeteer, anticipated Trump’s by several years. He has won a place in the president’s circle of trust. Orbán, along with Vladimir Putin, reportedly helped persuade Trump to distrust Ukraine’s reformist president. Connie Mack IV, a former Republican member of Congress and a paid lobbyist for Orbán, participated in a whisper campaign undermining hawkish Russia adviser Fiona Hill as a tool of Soros.
Trump’s oft-professed admiration for Orbán is not merely a cold calculation of national interest, as he and his allies sometimes rationalize Trump’s preference for autocrats over democratic allies. Trump genuinely respects and even envies Orbán’s methods of political control. “Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways,” Trump told reporters last spring, while granting his Hungarian counterpart a cordial White House visit. “Respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay.” In June, David Cornstein, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, told Franklin Foer, “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”
Trump’s admiration for Orbán is no mere personal idiosyncrasy, either. In recent years, a growing circle of right-wing intellectuals have defended Orbán’s illiberalism as a model they wish to import. Columns in the New York Post and the Federalist have praised Orbán for defunding progressive academic departments, and — temporarily forgetting their supposed concern about campus illiberalism — urged Trump to do the same in the United States. Representative Steve King has called Orbán the Churchill of Western civilization. Prestigious conservative journals like the Claremont Review and National Review have flattered the Hungarian strongman with lengthy, fawning profiles.
The conservative movement is hardly united behind Orbán, who has also been the subject of some sharp attacks from the right. What is telling, and ominous, about the debate over Orbán on the right is how closely it tracks the right’s schism over Trump. Conservative critics of Orbán, like Robert Tracinski and Jay Nordlinger, are also Trump critics, while the right’s Orbán defenders are also vocal Trump apologists.
Conservative Orbán apologists dismiss Orbán’s authoritarianism in terms that echo their defenses of Trump’s abuses of power. The Heritage Foundation dismisses liberal condemnations of Orbán’s authoritarianism, arguing, “Their beef is with the Hungarian electorate, which keeps reelecting him democratically by ever-increasing numbers.” “One of the strange things about modern political rhetoric is that Viktor Orbán should so often be described as a threat to ‘democracy,’ although his power had been won in free elections,” argues Christopher Caldwell — as if it were in any way strange for an authoritarian to initially win power through democratic means before consolidating control. Liberals’ “professed concerns for liberty and democracy are fraudulent, meant to mask their attempts to accrue and consolidate power,” argues Nathanael Blake, insisting that Orbán’s gerrymandering scheme and growing control of the news media are justified because American liberals would do the same. (“Although gerrymandering is one of our oldest political traditions — one that Democrats remain enthusiastic about when they get the opportunity to indulge in it — Orbán is condemned for it … The media that overwhelmingly backed President Obama and almost-president Hillary Clinton complains that supporters of Orbán and Fidesz control too much of the Hungarian media.”
There is a grain of truth in these arguments: The violations that have made Orbán a pariah among democracy activists are just souped-up versions of the same methods Trump has honed. Both men describe their enemies as a shadowy cabal of globalist financiers. Here is Trump: “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind … It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”
And here is Orbán: “They do not fight directly, but by stealth. They are not honorable, but unprincipled. They are not national, but international. They do not believe in work, but speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”
Orbán has a tendency to float wild authoritarian schemes, only to pull them back and make his less-extreme plans seem comparatively mild. “He’ll generally put in one outrageous thing and one super-outrageous thing,” the legal scholar Kim Lane Scheppele explained to The New Yorker earlier this year. “But the super-outrageous thing isn’t really necessary — it’s designed to be jettisoned.”
Trump follows the same strategy, calling the media the enemy of the people, threatening to imprison his enemies or remain in office for more than two terms, all of which makes his actual maneuvers seem mild and even legitimate. He has ordered up Department of Justice investigations into the officials who probed his ties with Russia, and manipulated federal contracting to punish Jeff Bezos as retribution for the Washington Post’s critical coverage. Bezos is wealthy enough that even the withholding of a $10 billion Pentagon contract is not enough to force him to sell the paper, but it’s surely enough to get the attention of other media owners. If Trump’s message of intimidation of Bezos stands, and it serves as a pattern he can replicate against other independent media, it may eventually be seen as the first step in an Orbánesque campaign to gain functional control of the media.
Of course, such an outcome is hardly inevitable. Liberals can draw some comfort in a couple of important points of contrast between the authoritarian Orbán and the would-be authoritarian Trump. Orbán is gifted with strategic patience and a deep grasp of the system gleaned over years in politics. Trump has neither. Impeachment is merely the latest self-inflicted casualty brought on by Trump’s childish temperament and ignorance of the workings of the system. More importantly, while both men won power through a system that gives more weight to their rural power bases, Orbán has been able to massively extend the rural bias of his electoral system, while the Constitution and the Democratic-run House will make such naked electoral rigging impossible for Trump.
Even so, the appearance of Orbánism on the American right is yet another sign that the most dangerous undercurrents of the Trump era are not particular to one buffoonish septuagenarian reality television star. Trump has brought out a strain of authoritarianism on the right that will survive his presidency. Whether or not Trump succeeds in his transparent goal of becoming America’s Orbán, he will not be the last to try.