On August 4, 2022, Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán spoke at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas. CPAC is a conference where American conservatives meet, hold events, and discuss their beliefs and political platforms. In his speech, Orban discussed usual right-wing grievances – among them conspiracies about philanthropist George Soros and moral panic over transgender children. The speech sounded like a typical right-wing campaign. So, what is worrying about this performance? The person giving the speech.
Since becoming Prime Minister in 2010, Orbán has aggressively sought to transform Hungary’s political regime from democracy to autocracy, whether it be through cracking down on civil liberties, the free press, higher education, or other key institutions. He has championed himself on the world stage as a proponent of “illiberal democracy.”
Orbán’s policies under illiberal democracy have included capturing the media, with one source stating, “With the purchase of the local newspapers, it is estimated that some 90% of all media in Hungary is now directly or indirectly controlled by Fidesz.” Hungary has also adopted a law that bans content that “popularizes” homosexuality, and has faced accusations of abuse against migrants at its border that has included tear gassing, use of dogs, kickings and beatings, as well as the forcing of the body through small openings in wire fence. In addition, Orbán crafted legislation specifically, and to ultimately force the closure of, Central European University, a school popular among migrants. This driven by Orban’s obsession with the university’s funder, George Soros. Under Orbán’s “illiberal democracy,” in May of 2020, Freedom House downgraded Hungary’s status from one of a democracy to a “hybrid regime.”
Much of the dismantling of Hungary’s democracy by Orbán can be characterized as what Ozan O. Varol terms “stealth authoritarianism.” Stealth authoritarianism is defined as “a way to protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option.” As opposed to traditional means of repression and consolidation of power, stealth authoritarianism uses existing institutions and the law, such as suing a journalist for libel instead of outright jailing them. By maintaining courts and other key institutions, stealth authoritarians are able to keep a veneer of legitimacy when compared to autocracies.
The American Right’s infatuation with Viktor Orbán should concern every American. Orbán has weakened institutions, curtailed the press, gerrymandered districts, and repressed basic civil liberties. Unfortunately, many Americans in the Republican party seem eager to replicate Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” policies here. In addition to his recent speech at CPAC, conservative news anchor Tucker Carlson recently filmed a documentary in Hungary as well.
With conservative capture of the judiciary and the reversal of Roe v. Wade, framing of the media as “the enemy of the people,” and the record number of anti-LGBT laws passed in recent years, it is easy to see the United States headed down the path of Hungary. Currently in the Republican party, there are enough candidates who deny the results of the 2020 election that 60% of Americans had an election denier on the ballot this fall. As shown by the insurrection on January 6, Republicans will stop at nearly nothing to achieve and stay in power. If Viktor Orbán is the Republican model for a future America, the party has a serious problem. If we continue to elect them, the entire country will soon have a serious problem.