August 2, 2021
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.