President Donald Trump will welcome Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House on Monday, in what sounds like a routine reception for a foreign head of state. In reality, it’s something else: A meeting between two like-minded illiberal leaders, men at the forefront of the campaign to undermine Western democracy from within.
Hungary today looks like a democracy — there are still elections, and dissidents aren’t jailed. But since winning the country’s 2010 election, Orbán has subtly consolidated power and rendered elections almost impossibly unfair. Orbán and allies of his political party, Fidesz, control nearly all of Hungary’s media; he manipulates the state’s economic powers to weaken potential rivals and empower his cronies. Widespread anti-immigrant sentiment, kicked off by the 2015 refugee crisis, has become a key propaganda tool Orbán uses to legitimize his power grabs.
Hungary is now the premier example of an emergent political model I’ve called “soft fascism”: a system that aims to stamp out dissent and seize control of every major aspect of a country’s political and social life without needing to resort to “hard” measures like banning elections and building up a police state.
Orbán has also been explicit that his goal is the defeat of liberal democracy. Trump hasn’t gone that far, but he has flashed some authoritarian instincts and his party has shown it’s willing to go along. David Cornstein, a longtime Trump associate currently serving as US ambassador to Hungary, told the Atlantic that the president “would love to have the [political] situation that Viktor Orbán has.”
It’s hard to imagine a military coup or outright abolition of elections in the United States. It’s much easier to imagine a gradual hollowing-out of democracy akin to what’s happened in Hungary, a rise of soft fascism cheered on by Fox News and Breitbart (Steve Bannon has called Orbán “the most significant guy on the scene right now”).
Orbán is one of the leading faces of the far-right backlash to democracy in the Western world today. In normal times, he would be condemned by the occupant of the White House, not treated as an honored guest. The fact that he isn’t shows just how serious the threat to democracy in the West is — and how worried Americans should be about the health of their own institutions.
Viktor Orbán’s soft fascism
For roughly the first two decades of Hungary’s post-communist history, from 1990 to 2010, Hungary was a young but stable democracy. International observers touted it as a model of a successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. When Orbán was elected prime minister the first time, in 1998, he governed as a relatively conventional European conservative; when Fidesz lost the 2002 elections, a new prime minister from the rival Socialist party took over.
But though Orbán stepped aside, he and his followers never really accepted the 2002 defeat as legitimate. Immediately after the results were announced, Fidesz party officials accused their opponents of election fraud. In interviews, Orbán blamed the defeat on the lack of Fidesz-friendly media outlets that were parroting his party’s message.
The 2002 defeat seemed to spark a dramatic change in the Fidesz leader. In opposition, he launched a nationalist movement to support Fidesz called “Forward, Hungary.” A second electoral loss for the party in 2006 only accelerated the shift. In a now-famous 2009 speech, delivered at a closed-door party meeting, Orbán touted the need for political stability in Hungary, calling for the creation of a “central political forcefield” that would govern the country for up to 20 years.
In 2010, he got a chance to turn this vision into reality. That year, Fidesz won a “constitutional majority” — winning 263 seats, just over the two-thirds margin necessary to rewrite the constitution by parliamentary vote. The Fidesz constitutional majority swiftly went to work, rewriting parts of the constitution within months of taking power. Parliamentary districts were redrawn and gerrymandered to give Fidesz a leg up.
The new constitution also expanded the size of the country’s constitutional court, which decides whether laws passed by parliament are constitutional. Orbán filled the new seats with Fidesz loyalists. All judges over the age of 62 were also forced to retire, so their seats could be filled with even more Fidesz-friendly jurists.
Private media was a principal target of the Fidesz power grab. After the 2010 victory, the Fidesz government used the power of the state to pressure private media corporations to sell to the state or to oligarchs aligned with Fidesz. By 2017, 90 percent of all media (including every single regional newspaper) in Hungary was owned by either the state or a Fidesz ally, according to a count by Budapest-based scholar Marius Dragomir.
Some anti-democratic tactics have been particularly shady. In the past two elections, Fidesz helped create several fake parties — including one party that was being run by someone who turned out to be homeless — that got on the ballot using signatures of Fidesz supporters and dead people. These parties split the anti-Fidesz vote in competitive districts, making it much easier for the Fidesz candidate to win a plurality.
Economic policy, too, is cleverly designed both to enrich Orbán’s allies and to neutralize potential threats to their hold on power. Fidesz watches Hungary’s business community closely because they’re the people who could finance an anti-government uprising, and punishes those it sees as potentially serious threats.
Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s college roommate and a founding member of Fidesz, amassed a media and construction empire based largely on government ad revenue and contracts. He played an essential part in the prime minister’s rise to power, helping him build up the media infrastructure that allows Fidesz to so profoundly control public opinion.
But the two men eventually had a very public falling-out, and the government money that had kept Simicska’s business empire afloat suddenly stopped flowing in. He fell from No. 6 on the richest Hungarians list in 2015 to No. 21 in 2017. By July of 2018, he was so thoroughly defeated that he announced plans to sell off the remains of his business interests to one of his partners.
If there’s one policy issue on which Orban has built his success, it’s the migrant crisis. The state media outlets controlled by Orbán routinely pump out anti-migrant propaganda. Hungary no longer faces 2015 levels of migration, and in fact has a miniscule percentage of foreign-born residents by EU standards. But many Hungarians are still convinced it is a dire threat to their country, in large part thanks to government propaganda.
Orbán has personally made an enemy out of Hungarian American financier George Soros, a Holocaust survivor who he alleges is responsible for a plot to undermine Hungary demographically. In the run-up to the 2018 parliamentary elections, Fidesz blanketed the country in huge posters featuring Soros’s grinning face, with captions like “99 percent reject illegal immigration” and “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”
In one campaign speech, Orbán described migration as an existential threat and blamed it on Soros. The language he used to describe the conspiracy supposedly led by his former benefactor barely concealed its anti-Semitism:
Soros’s pro-democracy charity, the Open Society Foundation, was forced to close its Budapest operations in 2018. This year, Central European University — one of Hungary’s top universities, founded by Soros — will move to Vienna under immense pressure from the Orbán government.
No single one of these moves destroyed democracy in Hungary. Cumulatively, though, they created a system in which it was very difficult for the opposition to compete on a fair playing field.
There’s a famous line from an Orbán speech from over a decade ago, back when Fidesz was out of government: “We have only to win once, but then properly.” Since 2010, he’s followed this maxim to a tee.
Why Orbán’s White House visit is so chilling
In a remarkable 2017 speech, Orbán defined his project as not merely remaking Hungary but developing a new governing ideology that could challenge liberal democracy across the West.
He has labeled his vision both “Christian democracy” and, more ominously, “illiberal democracy.” Here’s how he defined the difference between this and more conventional notions of democracy in his July speech:
The “democracy” part of Orbán’s illiberal democracy is, of course, a sham. But it’s not hard to see echoes of Trump and the modern GOP in Orbán’s ideological justification for soft fascism.
The personal similarities between the American and Hungarian leaders are hard to miss. Trump, like Orbán, is personally disdainful of constraints on his power and the free press. Trump, like Orbán, has built his political career around anti-immigrant populism. Trump, like Orbán, has bent the powers of state toward personal enrichment — and allowed his top officials to do the same.
But the most worrying part of all of this most isn’t the obvious Trump-Orbán similarity. It’s the parallels between the Republican Party and Fidesz.
Trump is, on his own, neither competent enough nor institutionally powerful enough to fatally undermine American democracy. Unlike Orbán in 2010, he didn’t come into office with a set of concrete plans for transforming the political system. Orbán had rewritten the Hungarian constitution within two years of taking office; Trump’s only major legislative accomplishment in two years is a tax cut.
In order for a Hungarian-style system to come to America, the GOP — not just Trump, but the party as a whole — would need to play a significant role. And Republican legislators, at both the state and national level, have shown a willingness to deploy Fidesz-like tactics that undermine the fairness of the democratic system.
Republicans have, for years now, engaged in a systematic and nationally coordinated effort to rewrite the rules of the political game in their favor. The spread of extreme partisan gerrymandering and voter ID laws, tools used by Republicans to marginalize minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies, are some of the most obvious examples.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) wrote draft legislation that Republican state legislatures around the country quickly and easily adapted into their own voter ID laws. Another effort, Project REDMAP, an initiative of the Republican State Leadership Committee, was a national coordinating committee helping Republicans at the state level put together extreme partisan gerrymanders in the wake of their sweeping 2010 victories.
In both cases, Republican or GOP-aligned organizations at the national level spearheaded a campaign to systematically undermine the fairness of the electoral system. They’re trying to change the system so Democrats can’t win in the first place — and at times, they’re even honest about it.
“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map in a way to help foster what I think is better for the country,” North Carolina state Rep. David Lewis, chair of the legislature’s redistricting effort, once said in defense of his gerrymander.
There are other examples of Fidesz-like electoral manipulation tactics at the state level. Ohio Republicans developed a system, upheld by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority last year, for purging thousands of voters from the rolls. When North Carolina voters elected a Democratic governor in 2016, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill stripping him of key powers. Wisconsin and Michigan Republicans tried similar moves after Democrats won the gubernatorial elections in their states in 2018.
Also like Fidesz, the GOP has built up a state-aligned media infrastructure while simultaneously working to discredit neutral outlets. A 2017 study from Emory University political scientist Gregory Martin and Stanford economist Ali Yurukoglu found, as my colleague Dylan Matthews explains, that Fox News’s reach and partisan tilt is large enough to swing whole elections (CNN and MSNBC had no comparable impact). Sinclair Media, a pro-Trump local news conglomerate, currently reaches 40 percent of American households through its various stations.
And Republican voters are profoundly hostile toward the mainstream media. Ninety-two percent of Republican voters believe “news sources report news they know to be fake, false or purposely misleading,” an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll from June found. An August 2018 Ipsos poll found that a plurality of Republicans — 43 percent — believe “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”
Finally, Republican elites have shown no willingness to stand up to Trump’s corruption or denounce his anti-immigrant populism. The party’s congressional delegation has covered for the former, refusing to investigate his numerous conflicts of interest, and embraced the latter, with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and the bulk of the GOP congressional caucus backing an immigration reform bill that mirrored Trump’s hardline positions. Vice President Mike Pence went from calling Trump’s Muslim ban “offensive and unconstitutional” before the election to defending the travel ban once in office.
There remain vital distinctions between Fidesz and the GOP, though. While Orbán seems to actively want to destroy Hungarian democracy, there is no evidence that Republicans have any kind of similar desire — let alone a plan for turning it into action. The concern in the United States is more that Republicans are indifferent to the consequences of their actions: that they want to secure their hold on power and are willing to undermine democracy in the process of doing so.
While it’s not inevitable that Republicans will go further in this direction, it’s easy to imagine them doing so as the American electorate becomes more diverse and more liberal: with more extreme gerrymandering, harsher voter restrictions, and more right-wing media consolidation and harassment of independent outlets. No single law or anti-immigrant speech would inaugurate a soft fascist regime. But a version of Hungary’s system could plausibly take root without many Americans realizing it.
This is the lesson the Hungarian experience offers for the United States. A political party that was once dedicated to democracy can, over time, become so preoccupied with holding power that it no longer cares enough about the substance of democracy to play by the rules.
We are not on the immediate precipice of this happening. But Trump’s welcoming of Orbán is an opportunity to remind ourselves that we’re farther along that path than any of us would’ve dreamed a few years ago.