The bromance between the Republican Party and the Hungarian Fidesz government has raised eyebrows — and questions. What does the GOP see in the illiberal leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbán? What can they learn from his autocratic takeover of power, and how worried should we be?
Viktor Orbán and GOP authoritarians: The bromance
Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz government happily hosted the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in May in Budapest. Tucker Carlson hosted his show from Hungary in the fall of 2021. Orbán traveled to Texas for the CPAC conference in August, denouncing globalists, immigration, and gay rights. To roars of approval from the crowd, he announced that “we should unite our forces” in fighting threats he and his deputies have cast as outrages against common people: immigrants (“Muslim invaders,”), gender studies (“absurd”), and gay rights (equivalent to pedophilia). Conservative commentators such as Rod Dreher and Matt Schlapp pointed to Hungary as a model to emulate, and former President Trump praised Orbán as his friend.
This Republican championing of Orbán and his tactics has led commentators to worry that “America’s far-right embraces Hungary’s autocratic president” and that “the GOP is Viktor Orbán’s party now.”
So what does the GOP see in Orbán, how much can the Republicans follow his precedent, and how worried should we be?
A template to emulate?
Orbán is the sanitized, urbane face of far-right politics. He provokes occasional outrage, but there are no wild-eyed conspiracy theorists among his advisers, he does not profess love for Kim Jong-un, and he has capably exploited international institutions such as the European Union, rather than attempting to explode them from within. He is able to project a calm professionalism on the international stage, even as he stokes up fiery controversies over immigration, xenophobia, LGBTQ+ rights, and so on at home. Orbán has repeatedly outmaneuvered the opposition — he has repeatedly, and successfully, “owned the libs.”
Even more importantly, Orbán has achieved autocratic control through seemingly democratic means. He has harnessed state power to entrench himself, and has done so without open fraud, coercion, or repression. As I have argued elsewhere, he has managed this through a concerted effort to suborn formal institutions, undermine informal norms, and reward his supporters.
After coming to power in 2010 (with a minority of the popular vote that translated into a constitutional supermajority), Orbán’s Fidesz government rewrote the constitution, and transformed the judiciary from an independent court system to a largely politicized one, loyal to the governing party. Fidesz gerrymandered elections, halving the number of MPs in Hungary’s parliament but then designing new electoral districts that varied enormously in size (not surprisingly, Fidesz-dominant districts were tiny, while Fidesz voters were diluted in districts several times bigger). These moves scrupulously followed legal procedure: enabling motions, parliamentary votes, new bills, laws, and regulations.
The state also prosecuted the culture wars, again through legal means. Civil society organizations were stigmatized as “foreign agents” and burdened with registration and tax requirements in 2017. University gender studies departments have been eliminated, and the Central European University, the premier private university in Hungary, was hounded out of the country in 2018 under the weight of new regulatory requirements. The government equated homosexuality with pedophilia, and passed laws in 2021 that banned the presence of gay and trans adults in schools, public media, and educational materials.
Orbán and Fidesz have virtually silenced the opposition political parties, limiting their time to speak in the parliament, banning them from introducing bills or amendments, and giving the opposition candidate 5 minutes on national TV during the most recent electoral campaign this spring. The government obtained control over the media through tax policies and ad buys, targeting opposition media with fines and systematically starving opposition media of all-important government advertising. As a result, 80 percent of the news market is now dominated by Fidesz affiliates.
At the same time, the state offered powerful rewards to supporters. Fidesz substituted public sector employment for social welfare and unemployment benefits, so that at least 5 percent of the workforce now is employed by the state; exempted young people from taxes; and gave new housing benefits to couples planning large families. Orbán’s cronies have benefited from the nationalization of sectors ranging from pharmacies to oil, and from noncompetitive contract tenders. Tax laws and targeted legal efforts have undermined competition and hurt the disloyal.
Orbán thus followed an authoritarian template that his fellow autocrats in Poland, Venezuela, or Turkey have also implemented: go after the institutions of independent monitoring and oversight, stifle the opposition, entrench yourself in the economy, and reward your supporters with welfare and subsidies.
The result in Hungary has been that Fidesz has assumed a near control of politics, economy, and society. Visitors to Budapest might be surprised: cafés are bustling, people speak freely, and elections are still held. But Fidesz has systematically entrenched itself in power, successfully suborning the state to change the constitution, control the economy, win the culture wars, and buy itself durable support.
The attractions of authoritarianism
Not surprisingly, the parallels are there for the taking: a political party that could not achieve a majority of the vote through democratic means (Fidesz only obtained a majority of the vote in the 2022 elections, which were no longer fair) transforms the institutions of the state to ensure its hold on power. The appeal is obvious to a party that is similarly dependent on the disproportionality of electoral procedures and institutions to hold onto power.
Fidesz and the GOP are waging a similar culture war, with Fidesz successfully fighting their “enemies” through legislation that limits their rights and makes their activities illegal, and virtually eliminating the political opposition.
Orbán demonstrates how to wield the power of the state to create what he unapologetically calls an illiberal, Christian democracy. For Republicans who see a Leftist dominance of both culture and technology, the state is the only way to establish conservative cultural and political power. As Rod Dreher put it, “we need to unapologetically embrace state power.” After all, “our team talks incessantly about how horrible wokeness is,” Dreher said at the conference. “Orbán actually does something about it.” He further argued that “if Americans want to see the conservatism of the future, they should go to Budapest and learn how and why to use state power for conservative ends.”
This autocratic project also resonates with the Republican-adjacent Catholic integralism of writers such as Adrian Vermeule or Sohrab Ahmari, who openly call for the end of liberal democracy in the name of an illiberal Christian state that pursues the “common good,” as defined by “natural law” (as interpreted, presumably, by the integralists themselves.)
How worried should we be?
Yet even if his Republican supporters share Orbán’s goals, there are limits to the diffusion of the autocratic template.
The institutional inertia and built-in veto points of the American system preclude the kind of takeover Fidesz engineered. Fidesz only needed a one-time parliamentary supermajority to instantly replace Hungary’s constitution with its preferred variant. In the United States, three-quarters of the states would have to ratify an amendment, and before that stage it would have to survive a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress or come out of a convention demanded by two-thirds of the states.
Second, so long as the United States is a federation, the kind of unitary takeover of power that Orbán was able to engineer is impossible. The American states have historically served as laboratories for democracy, where new rights and policy experiments were forged—and as laboratories against democracy, as national-level partisan conflicts and polarization have resulted in distinct policies on climate change, health care, reproductive rights, and voting itself. As a result, we may very well get a patchwork of democratic and autocratic states that echoes the post-Reconstruction Southern authoritarian enclaves, but a federal takeover is much less likely. In contrast, Hungary has a unitary and parliamentary system. Control over the executive and the legislative arms belongs to the party or coalition with the majority of the seats. There is no other separation of powers, and the judiciary is the only check: That is what made the takeover of the courts so critical to Fidesz’s project. In the United States, on the other hand, different parties often control the legislative and the executive branches in the United States. Finally, there is no state-owned media for the majority party to take over — and unlike in Hungary, the U.S. government does not make massive ad buys that make or break media outlets.
Most importantly, using the state as adroitly as Orbán has is a nonstarter. For all the corporate subsidies and favorable tax policy U.S. government provides, the idea of rewarding supporters with an expansion of welfare benefits or public goods runs into the teeth of the GOP’s remaining fiscal conservatives — and the race politics of the Unites States. Today’s politicians certainly fight the culture wars. They even try to punish corporate opponents, as Governor Ron DeSantis tried to do to Disney. But there is little appetite for mass hiring by the state, tax exemptions for young voters (as opposed to senescent corporations), or direct housing subsidies for families with many children. In post-communist Hungary, the state is an accepted and active player in the economy, in ways that both allow public investment and autocratic entrenchment. In the United States, the state’s active involvement is met with skepticism and suspicion (unless it subsidizes corporations and selected elites.)
Beyond these formal strictures, a successful takeover of the state requires competence. Fidesz began as a party of young law students, and attorneys continue to dominate its top echelons. It is disciplined, it votes on and enacts precise laws rather than diktats, and it has proven capable in dealing with outside critics such as the EU. Poland shows why this competence is so important. The Polish PiS, in power since 2015, operates in a similar unitary, parliamentary regime as Hungary. It may have undermined the autonomy of the court system and limited reproductive rights even further — but it was unable to take over the state as Fidesz did, largely because its efforts verged on the bumbling at times (different versions of bills were sent to the Senate and to the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, massive protests meet the government’s every effort, and a lively independent media has survived attempts to curtail it.)
What we should worry about
As a result, the GOP cannot simply emulate Orbán and transfer his template for the takeover of the judiciary, the economy, and the state. There are many reasons to worry about democracy in the United States, but they have little to do with the diffusion of autocratic models from abroad.
The GOP has plenty of its own ideas for the culture wars, for the suppression of inconvenient minorities, or for rewarding its corporate supporters both politically and financially. Nor is Orbán the first autocrat the Republicans have praised: The party has long flirted with autocrats from Pinochet to Putin, tolerating apartheid South Africa and endorsing the corrupt Marcos regime. None of these have resulted in a wholesale transfer of autocratic ideas.
Instead, the biggest dangers to American democracy are home-grown, and they have nothing to do with Orbán.
One egregious example is the undermining of faith in the integrity of elections, the most essential institution in any democracy. Even as President Trump won the 2016 elections, he claimed he had won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” In 2020, he refused to accept his electoral loss, and engineered the “Stop the Steal” campaign that culminated in the violence of January 6. The Republican party elites, after their initial shock, fell into line and refused to disavow the Big Lie, or Trump’s conspiratorial fantasies. When recount after recount and court decision after court decision reaffirmed the electoral results, Trump and his supporters refused to acknowledge the truth. Yet even the conservative Heritage Foundation has been able to find only 1,384 individual acts of electoral fraud since 1979, out of over 2 billion votes cast in federal elections during this time period, making American elections among the safest in the world.
Thanks to the endless repetition of this lie, 70 percent of Republicans do not believe President Joe Biden is the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. The result has been a spate not only of voter suppression laws, but attempts at vote subversion. These include Big Lie supporters running to become secretaries of state, efforts in over 30 states to change how and which votes are counted, and the assertion by state legislatures that they alone can decide who is sent to the Electoral College. (Orbán, for his part, has quite understandably not called into question either the electoral process that brought him into power or the electoral outcomes that keep him there.)
As a result, even if a sizeable chunk of the GOP sees Orbán as a template, a relatively sophisticated and capable autocrat who has used the state to entrench himself, Orbán’s regime in America is a pipe dream. Ultimately, we have far less to fear from Hungary than we do from our own home-grown autocrats, and their ready willingness to undermine the most fundamental institutions of democracy.
Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University. She is also Director of Stanford’s Europe Center and a Senior Fellow at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute.
Photo credit: iStock