Today, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán posted on Facebook a photo of Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson visiting him. Carlson is broadcasting his television show from Hungary this week, before he speaks on Saturday at MCC Feszt, an event hosted by a government-sponsored university whose mission is to produce a conservative elite.
Hungary is a country in central Europe of about 10 million people who have, in the decade since Orbán took power for the second time, watched their democracy erode. On paper, Hungary is a democracy in that it still holds elections, but it is, in fact, a one-party state overseen by the prime minister.
Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace the multiculturalism at the heart of democracy with Christian culture, stop the immigration that he believes undermines Hungarian culture, and reject “adaptable family models” with “the Christian family model.”
No matter what he calls it, Orbán’s model is not democracy at all. As soon as he retook office in 2010, he began to establish control over the media, cracking down on those critical of his party, Fidesz, and rewarding those who toed the party line. In 2012, his supporters rewrote the country’s constitution to strengthen his hand, and extreme gerrymandering gave his party more power while changes to election rules benefited his campaigns. Increasingly, he used the power of the state to concentrate wealth among his cronies, and he reworked the country’s judicial system and civil service system to stack it with his loyalists. While Hungary still has elections, state control of the media and the apparatus of voting means that it is impossible for Orbán’s opponents to take power.
Trump supporters have long admired Orbán’s nationalism and centering of Christianity, while the fact that Hungary continues to have elections enables them to pretend that the country remains a democracy.
Currently, political patterns in America look much like those Orbán used to gather power into his own hands. Republican-dominated legislatures are passing new measures to suppress the vote, aided by the Big Lie that former president Trump did not lose the 2020 election. Trump and his supporters are focusing on the so-called “forensic audit” of Maricopa County in Arizona, paid for and conducted by Trump loyalists who insist that Trump actually won despite the repeated investigations that have proved the election was clean.
Today, a piece by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker revealed how the money for that audit is coming not from local protesters, but rather from “sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives.” Those organizations “have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.”
Mayer details how organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the anti-regulation FreedomWorks, and the Judicial Education Project (which is tied to Leonard Leo, a chair of the Federalist Society, which has worked since the 1980s to stack the courts with originalists) have turned from their previous advocacy to focus on voter suppression. These groups are bankrolled by Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, whose board member Cleta Mitchell was on Trump’s January 3, 2021, call to Georgia election officials.
In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent noted that the goal of these audits is to undermine Americans’ faith in elections altogether. Continued questioning of election results even after repeated recounts and verification makes any outcome seem untrustworthy. In such a case, a state legislature might argue it was justified either in “finding” enough votes to swing an election—as Trump tried to get Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to do in Georgia in 2020—or in throwing out the vote altogether and advancing its own slate of electors to the Electoral College.
Mayer points out that organizations funded by the Bradley Foundation are, indeed, talking about taking the choice of electors away from voters and giving it instead to state officials.
Carlson has shown support for Hungary in the past. Notably, in 2019, he endorsed that country’s anti-abortion and anti-immigration policies; in that year, according to investigative researcher Anna Massoglia of Open Secrets, Hungary paid a D.C. lobbying firm $265,000, in part to arrange an interview on Carlson’s show.
But for him to visit Orbán and to broadcast from Hungary right now, when American democracy is under the very sort of threat Orbán represents, seemed to me to be a deliberate demonstration of the Trump Republicans’ plans for our future.
Hello from Hungary!
I'm here with my family for another few weeks before heading back for the start of the fall semester. Today's post hits harder than others (and many of these letters hit plenty hard).
My wife and her family are Hungarian. She and I lived here from 2004-2010. She earned her master's at Central European University, the institution Orban later forced out of Hungary by passing a law that targeted the University because its founder is George Soros - a powerful critic of Orban. So now, if my wife wants to visit her alma mater, a school that was founded in the city of her birth, she has to cross the border to Vienna where the school relocated.
Shortly after my wife graduated from CEU, I got a job at the school as a lecturer. I was teaching composition and professional communication to a multinational group of students. It was a wonderful part of my early career as an academic. I too was sorry to see the school leave Budapest, but we understood. Shortly after having our first child in 2010, our family decided to leave Hungary. The far-right was holding regular marches. Antisemitic and anti-Roma rhetoric was becoming commonplace. Members of Parliament displayed "Greater Hungary" stickers on their cars - stickers that reject the borders created by the Treaty of Trianon. Those stickers were particularly hard to stomach for those of my in-laws who are Jewish; the rejection of the present-day borders was a major motivation for Hungary's alliance with Nazi Germany.
And that's an important part of how Orban came to power. He courted the hard-right. They formed a political alliance that put him in the PM's seat. He has since put some distance between those radicals and his own party, but he couldn't have won those early elections without their help. He's cleaned up that part of his image a bit since, but our friends and family all remember how low he sank to rise this high.
We visit those friends and family every year. The country is still beautiful. Budapest is looking a bit rough around the edges this year, but people here say that's mostly because the city elected a mayor from an opposition party in 2019. People tell me the flow of funding for city projects has slowed since then. I can't confirm that, but it is certainly the belief on the street. The most commonly heard refrain is that if you want to succeed in Hungary, you need to be seen as Orban's political ally. Budapest's mayor is clearly not one.
There is some optimistic reporting about that mayor and the chance of a diverse coalition of opposition parties presenting a real challenge to Orban in 2022 (a right-left coalition similar to the one that defeated Benjamin Netanyahu this year). But the people I speak to are less optimistic than the reporting. Orban's control of the media is the first thing people bring up. He has provided a tremendous megaphone to rhetorically savvy pundits. Every day there's everything from foul-mouthed blowhards to professionally pressed-and-dressed analysts on the TV and radio, all of them presenting a one-sided view.
So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised to learn that Tucker Carlson was invited to speak and the Hungarian equivalent of CPAC. If there is one thing the Hungarians learned from the US, it is how to present a counter-narrative that is loose with facts but polished enough to look like news.
If I could offer one hopeful shred of an idea for the US, it would be this: Hungary doesn't have much experience when it comes to preventing power from pooling into the hands of the few. There simply was no democratic bureaucracy in place in 1989 when the Soviet-back government left power. And Orban was there in '89 to learn and understand the workings of Hungary's fledgling democracy. He didn't just know about the levers of power, he put many of them in place. That's not the case for the US. We have the means to stop this slide we are on, but we have to protect them.
Thank you for helping me understand that, Prof. Richardson.
Another apropos piece, Heather.
I know Orban well, since he's been in power, on (mostly) and off since the days Hungary was first admitted to NATO (literally, their THIRD day in NATO, when Orban infamously denied use of Hungary's airfields for NATO operations in Kosovo due to "special considerations" for ethnic Hungarians--nationalism first, since Day One). I was a young Captain in the Army then; I'm a five-years retired Lieutenant Colonel now--tells you how long this guy's been around. He's joined the Putin-Mubarak-Mugabe-Erdoğan Club, absolutely.
Orban has ALWAYS been looked at--State, DoD and the FP establishment--as pro-authoritarian and a threat to democratic growth in Eastern Europe. His bona fides in that regard are indisputable. For FC (Tucker Carlson. Think about it) to cozy up to this guy is unabashedly, exactly what you you're outlining--a man whose ideology and self-importance are bent on destroying our constitution and our country (all while telling himself he's saving it, of course).
Our biggest enemy in the next 2-4 years, is our own 5-minute attention span--made harder if we don't artificially stoke the fire (let's try not to). It's a grind, not a flash fire. We cannot flag in our vigilance and daily determination to oppose and turn back these efforts, bit-by-bit. Understanding these sorts of sideshows (I know FP ain't our thing in 'Merica) and that they really mean is important.