The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

That the American right hopes to emulate Hungary is telling

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a speech during an extraordinary session of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Balna cultural center of Budapest on May 19. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP)
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It has long been a fixture of the American political right that Americans should embrace the nation’s exceptionalism. Love it or leave it, the saying goes. In 2019, Gallup polling found that nearly all Republicans were very or extremely proud to be American. Republican political rallies are star-spangled and red-and-white striped.

In recent years, though, the furthest reaches of the right have moved away from using the American flag as a marker of their ideology in favor of desaturated flags honoring the police or of blue-and-block-letter Donald Trump banners. And just as American jingoism has proven insufficient to capture what the right stands for, so has the American system itself.

Last week, the American Conservative Union held an iteration of its Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a gathering usually set somewhere within ranting distance of Washington. This particular gathering, though, was in Hungary — the latest in a series of occasional international meetings. Unlike past overseas CPACs, the event should be read not only as an effort to expand the group’s borders (so to speak) but also as a function of the emergent appreciation the right has for Hungary and its autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban.

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Hungary has been an object of fascination for the right for some time. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor has a multipart series exploring the ways in which that has manifested, but we can summarize it with a few high-profile examples. Last August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson hosted his show from Hungary for a week, praising Orban for “fearlessly raising an alarm about the kind of society European elites want to create.” (This was particularly manifested in Orban’s hard line position on immigration.) Before Orban sought reelection in this year’s parliamentary elections — rigged for his Fidesz party — he received an endorsement from Trump himself. After Orban’s party (predictably) retained its leadership, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) hailed his win.

At CPAC Hungary, the love flowed both ways. In a recorded segment, Trump praised Orban as “a great leader, a great gentleman.” In a speech of his own, the Hungarian leader celebrated Carlson, suggesting that the Fox host should be on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He told attendees that “we need to take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels.”

The country was chosen, CPAC’s website reads, because it is “one of the bastions of the conservative resistance to the ultraprogressive 'woke’ revolution.” The “guiding thread” of the conference, it continued, was “the trinity of God, Home, Family, as we are convinced that this will connect real conservatives to live anywhere in the world.”

An unexpected framing for the movement of “America first.”

What’s important to recognize is that the fealty to Orban is a symptom, not the disease. The shift of Orban and his party to authoritarianism has a variety of causes, but it also reflects an international movement away from liberal democracy and toward populist rhetoric. It’s a pattern we see both with Fidesz and with the Republican Party.

The V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenburg tracks both of those shifts by party over time. Over the past 20 years, both parties have become measurably more illiberal (anti-pluralistic; higher on the chart below) and more populist (further to the right on the chart). Fidesz’s shift has been larger, but this is the point: Orban’s party has moved away from democratic ideals more quickly than the GOP, and elements of the right see that as worthy of emulation.

It’s easy to gloss over both shifts. Democrats hold majorities in both chambers of Congress and the White House. Hungary still holds elections. The Hungarian opposition can still object to Orban’s leadership. But there is a substantial portion of the American right that would be happy to move closer to Hungary’s Potemkin democracy.

In 2017, the World Values Survey asked Americans how they felt about the prospect of having a strong leader who didn’t have to bother with elections or legislative bodies at all. Most Americans rejected that as a bad idea. But 44 percent of Republicans said it would be a “fairly good” or “very good” idea. That includes a majority of Republicans under 50.

This is a step further than Orbanism, though not a big step further.

Many on the American right are saying, very loudly, that they view movement away from liberal democracy as acceptable, if not welcome. The Republican Party has shifted in that direction, and its members often leaned into the idea that a minority holding majority political power is an unavoidable part of the American system. At times, even the idea of democracy itself has come under fire.

CPAC held a conference overseas last year, too. It was held in Brazil, where the crowd heard from President Jair Bolsonaro, himself a budding autocrat. His son Eduardo also attended that conference and spoke at CPAC Hungary.

A globalist rejection of America’s uniqueness.

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