People watch with their mouths agape, trying to understand the scandal of Donald Trump leading a criminal insurrection to hold onto power even though he’d lost the election; of Supreme Court justices on the take; of political figures putting into law religious doctrine about the role of women in society.
They’re astonished by a media industry that seems to be a captive of the billionaire neofascist class.
They can’t figure out why extraordinarily wealthy people spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year stirring people up to hate each other.
They don’t understand why the morbidly rich are leading a campaign to destroy public schools, end Social Security, and prevent people from voting.
Why are these people so committed to propagating ideas and doing things that seem so antithetical to historic American standards of government and ethical behavior? Of democracy itself?
And if it’s just to get more money for the morbidly rich and political power for the players—as it appears—are they following a script? Is there a model they’re trying to emulate?
Or a person? Do they have a role model? Is somebody, who got there first, showing them the way?
It appears there’s an answer, one that grows clearer every day.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is hosting the CPAC Republican fascist-fest this week in Budapest, where the Hungarian “soft fascism” strongman president told the audience, to a standing ovation:
“Hungary is actually an incubator where experiments are done on the future of conservative policies. Hungary is the place where we didn’t just talk about defeating the progressives and liberals and causing a conservative Christian political turn, but we actually did it.”
Orbán’s Fidesz Party and the GOP in most Red States have become virtually indistinguishable, from cronies owning the media, to packing the courts, to rigging elections through purging voters and gerrymanders, to putting polluting businesses in charge of regulatory agencies.
Now both have their sights set on the American federal government. Seriously, both. Orbán is now inserting himself into American Republican politics in a big way: last August he gave a major speech to Republicans in Dallas. Orbán has become a role model for many American politicians, particularly those in the GOP’s Sedition Caucus.
“From targeting migrants to inflaming an ethnonationalist base, from attacking the press to whipping up nativist conspiracies, from ushering in unprecedented corruption to tearing down basic democratic protections, Trumpism is increasingly indistinguishable from Orbánism.”
So, who is this guy, and what can we learn about the direction Republicans want to take America from his example they appear to be following?
I first heard of Orbán in August of 1989, when my best friend Jerry Schneiderman and I spent the better part of a week sitting in outdoor cafes on the Buda side of the Danube River, eating extraordinary (and cheap!) food, staying in a grand old hotel, and generally exploring Budapest.
Two months earlier there had been massive pro-democracy demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people demanding that the Soviet Union let Hungary go. The summer we were there, over a quarter-million showed up in Heroes’ Square for the reinterment of the body of Imre Nagy, a hero of the ill-fated 1956 rebellion against the USSR.
The final speaker was 26-year-old Viktor Orbán, a rising politician who would soon be a member of Parliament. To an explosion of enthusiastic cheers, Orbán defied the Soviets (the only speaker to overtly do so) and openly called for “the swift withdrawal of Russian troops.”
Nine months later, in March of 1990 and with the approval of Mikhail Gorbachev, Hungary held its first real elections since 1945; in 1999, it joined NATO; and in 2004, it became a member of the European Union.
And then, when he acquired power, Viktor Orbán succeeded in pulling off what Donald Trump had only tried.
For 20 years, Hungary was a functioning democracy; today, it’s a corrupt neofascist oligarchy. Europeans refer to it as “soft fascism.”
In the few short years after he was elected in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, now fabulously wealthy by Hungarian standards and an oligarch himself, succeeded in transforming his nation’s government from a functioning European democracy into an autocratic and oligarchic regime of single-party neofascist rule.
Republicans now want to do the same here, and the Hungarian strongman has dedicated himself to showing them how.
Orbán took over the Fidesz Party, once a conventional “conservative” political party like the GOP, with the themes: “Restore Christian purity” and “Make Hungary great again.” His rallies regularly drew tens of thousands.
He campaigned on building a wall across the entirety of Hungary’s southern border to keep out the brown-skinned “rapists and murderers” fleeing Russian violence in Syria, a promise he has largely kept.
He altered the nation’s Constitution to enable what we’d call gerrymandering and voter suppression in much the same way Republicans are now doing across Red State America, ensuring that his party, Fidesz, would win a majority of the votes in pretty much every election well into the future.
He’s packed the courts just like Trump and McConnell did, particularly Hungary’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, so thoroughly that even the most serious legal challenges against him and his party go nowhere.
Under Orbán, Hungary passed laws requiring “conservative” sex education in schools (“gay is bad” and “abstinence only”) and criminalized any positive portrayal of LGBTQ people on TV. In public campaigns he’s conflated homosexuality with pedophilia and the penalties are draconian. The latest anti-gay law passed the Hungarian Parliament by a vote of 157 to 1.
Republicans are trying to do the same here. Ron DeSantis is running, in Florida, a virtual clone of Orbán’s agenda in his effort to become the US president. Right down to creating his own private army and police force answerable only to himself.
Orbán’s party railed against teaching multiracialism and racial tolerance, instead rewriting elementary school textbooks to proclaim that refugees entering the country are a threat because “it can be problematic for different cultures to coexist.” Using this logic, he has locked up brown-skinned Syrian refugee children in cages with the enthusiastic support of Hungarian white supremacists.
When the Helsinki Committee said Hungary’s “indefinite detention of many vulnerable migrants, including families with small children, is cruel and inhuman,” Orbán said the influx of Syrian refugees seeking asylum “poses a security risk and endangers the continent’s Christian culture and identity.” He added, in true fascist style, “Immigration brings increased crime, especially crimes against women, and lets in the virus of terrorism.”
Five years and one week before Trump applauded the “Jews will not replace us” American Nazis who rallied in Charlottesville and murdered Heather Heyer, a group of some 700 right-wing “patriots” held a torchlight parade that ended in front of the homes of Hungary’s largest minority group, chanting “We will set your homes on fire!”
Orbán’s police watched the thugs, laughing and refusing to intervene, as Roma families fled their homes in terror. In 2013, Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Orbán’s party, had called the Roma “animals… unfit to live among people.” Orbán refused to condemn him or the violence, and life has become more and more difficult for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Not only are they routinely excluded from job markets, but are also frequently subject to violence at the hands of all-white “militias.”
Orbán has handed government contracts to his favored few, elevating an entire group of pro-Orbán businessmen (it appears all are men) who have now seized almost complete control of the nation’s economy. Those who opposed him have lost their businesses, been forced to sell their companies, and often fled the country.
Virtually all of Hungary’s press is now in the hands of oligarchs and corporations loyal to Orbán, with hard-right talk radio and television across the country singing his praises daily. Progressive media is functionally banned. Billboards and social media proclaim Orbán’s patriotism.
He told the American CPAC conference in Budapest last year they should do the same in America when Republicans next seize control of the US government:
“Have your own media,” he said. “It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left. The problem is that the western media is adjusted to the leftist viewpoint. Those who taught reporters in universities already had progressive leftist principles.”
“Of course, the GOP has its media allies but they can’t compete with the mainstream liberal media. My friend Tucker Carlson is the only one who puts himself out there. His show is the most popular. What does it mean? It means programs like his should be broadcasted day and night. Or, as you say, 24/7.”
After his 2022 speech was publicized in the US, many American media outlets were banned from attending CPAC in Budapest. As Vice News reported:
“Besides VICE News, journalists from Rolling Stone, Vox Media, and the New Yorker were turned away from the conference on Thursday, despite repeated assurances from the American Conservative Union that access would be provided. Journalists from other non-Hungarian media outlets, including the Guardian and Associated Press, tweeted that they had also been denied accreditation, despite months of requests.”
His media allies are now reaching out to purchase media across the rest of Europe and inviting American rightwing groups to Hungary to help spread his racist, “soft fascist” message. Tucker Carlson took him up on his invitation last year, broadcasting his poison directly into American homes from his presidential palace.
Yesterday, in his opening comments, CPAC chairman (and accused sexual harasser) Matt Schlapp echoed Orbán’s strategy, as the Associated Press noted:
“In opening comments, CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp said that CPAC in the U.S. had decided to ‘go Hungarian’ in their approach to the media, deciding for themselves ‘who is a journalist and who is not a journalist’ when determining which outlets to allow into their events.”
But journalism isn’t the only institution fascists want to tear down. Orbán recently began dismantling the Hungarian Science Academy, replacing or simply firing scientists who acknowledge climate change, which he has called “left-wing trickery made up by Barack Obama.”
The world, in particular the EU, has watched this rolling political nightmare with increasing alarm, and even the EU’s 2015 and 2018 attempts to essentially impeach Orbán have backfired.
EU criticism of him increased his two reelection margins, as his handmaids in the Hungarian media proclaimed him the victim of a European “deep state.” They say that meddling foreigners, particularly Jewish financier George Soros (who, ironically, once paid for young Orbán to attend college in Britain), are bent on imposing “tyrannical” government strictures on Hungary.
In May 2020, the same month Rudy Giuliani said he had a former Ukrainian prosecutor willing to testify that Joe Biden was corrupt, Donald Trump invited Orbán to the White House for a state visit; Orbán became one of Trump’s two primary sources of lies about how Ukraine’s Zelenskyy allegedly tried to sabotage the U.S. president.
Orbán has helped violent theocrats fully reinvent Christianity in Hungary, embracing a hard-right movement within the Catholic Church and among Protestant evangelicals.
He reshaped Hungary’s abortion laws to make it extremely difficult for a woman to terminate a pregnancy (it must threaten the life of the mother or be the result of a crime).
The Central European University fled Hungary in the face of growing threats of violence against progressive religious organizations, a ban on classes, and the tight embrace of rightwing churches by the government. Its rector, Michael Ignatieff, said:
“There’s just no doubt that this is organized as a way of saying that ‘Christianity’ means ‘white conservative Europe’. It’s a trope. Say the world ‘Christian’ and it says everything else that you want to say.”
Thus, Trump told Orbán:
“You have been great with respect to Christian communities…and we appreciate that very much.”
In a rally three months before his White House meeting with Trump, Orbán said that countries that accept non-Christian or non-white refugees are producing “mixed-race nations,” a trope frequently used in American rightwing media today.
Women in Hungary have been marginalized since Orbán came to power, both in business and in government. As the Hungarian Spectrum notes:
“According to him, Hungarian politics is built on ‘continual character assassination,’ which … ‘women cannot endure.’”
“Orbán’s Fidesz party and its coalition partners the Christian Democrats have 133 MPs between them, of whom just 11 are women.”
Orbán is now ruthlessly using his own nation’s diplomatic and criminal justice systems to aid foreign criminal oligarchs, having surrounded himself with corrupt yes-men.
He has increasingly turned Hungary into a place of refuge for corrupt oligarchs and neofascists from other nations, most famously granting “asylum to convicted felon, fascist oligarch, and former Prime Minister of Macedonia Nikola Gruevski” in 2018.
Orbán is the only leader of an EU nation to refuse to condemn Putin for his slaughter in Ukraine, saying he doesn’t want to get “between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian sledgehammer.”
He refers to those in Hungary who support Ukraine as “warmongers,” and refuses to participate in the EU embargoes of Russian fossil fuels.
Orbán has now largely crushed dissent in Hungary, arresting opposition politicians, “troublemakers,” and members of the independent press.
“At dawn on a Tuesday in May, the police took a man named András from his home in northeastern Hungary. His alleged crime? Writing a Facebook post that called the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a ‘dictator.’”
Orbán’s hard-right party is also reaching out to other white supremacist parties in Europe to forge alliances to overthrow the “liberal order” of the EU.
Conservatives in America are taking notice and writing glowing pieces about him, as rightwing movements across the world draw inspiration from both Orbán and Putin.
The international movement away from democracy and toward strongman authoritarian fascist and neofascist government is growing, and Viktor Orbán is one of its rising stars.
According to the Freedom in the World 2020 Reportfrom Freedom House, 25 of the world’s 41 established democracies experienced net losses in 2019, and the report downgraded the freedom scores of 73 countries, representing 75 percent of the global population.
Putin, Xi, and Orbán are leaders of this movement, with Orbán having the greatest influence over the American Republican Party.
The tight embrace he’s held with by rightwing hate radio, Fox “News,” the GOP, and our domestic conservative movement make clear the danger of America sliding into the sort of “soft fascism” that Viktor Orbán has pioneered in Hungary.
If you want to see the GOP’s vision of America’s future, just visit that nation.
Forewarned is forearmed. Spread the word.
Common Dreams has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 1997. They are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.