The Path to Autocracy

A second Trump term will leave America’s political system and culture looking even more like Orbán’s Hungary.

An illustration of Viktor Orbán
Horacio Villalobos / Corbis / Getty / The Atlantic

Over the past decade, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party have transformed a democracy into something close to an autocracy. Shortly after his first reelection in 2014, Orbán gave a speech outlining his political project. Citing globalization’s economic and social failures, Orbán defended the course he had set by noting that those nations best prepared for the future were “not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.” Drawing on that message, he defined a form of regime change. “The Hungarian,” he said, “is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened, and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”

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Hungary had to be anchored in a sense of nationalism, Orbán believed, and that nationalism required an autocratic hand, and that hand belonged only to him and Fidesz. The identity of the Hungarian nation and Viktor Orbán’s politics would be one and the same.

Orbán had spent years softening up his nation for this turn. In his first term, he systematically worked to remold Hungary’s democratic institutions. Parliamentary districts were redrawn to benefit Fidesz. Ethnic Hungarians outside the country were given the right to vote. The courts were methodically packed with right-wing judges. Fidesz’s cronies were enriched and, in turn, members of the business elite funded Orbán’s politics. The government constructed a massive propaganda machine, as independent media were bullied and bought out and right-wing media were transformed into quasi state-media. Whereas Fidesz once had a foreign policy formed in opposition to Russian dominance, Orbán embraced Vladimir Putin and courted Russian investment and the corruption that went along with it.

In the United States, the Republican Party has plowed similar ground for a decade. The grievances of the 2008 financial crisis were marshaled into the Tea Party, a right-wing populist movement that offered a traditional form of belonging to largely white and Christian voters. Republican officeholders have weaponized redistricting to protect themselves. Half of American states have put in place restrictive voting laws over the past decade. In post–Citizens United America, Republican policies have enriched an elite donor class that has spent billions on right-wing politics. Fox News serves as the linchpin of a sprawling right-wing propaganda machine, which includes television, radio, websites, and social-media platforms. The GOP has focused methodically on the courts—from obstructing Obama appointees to accelerating a transformation of the judiciary under Trump. And like Fidesz, the Republican Party has shifted from a foreign policy rooted in opposition to Russia to a cynical mix of courtship and denialism with respect to Russian interference in our democracy.

In Hungary, to justify his efforts, Orbán has skillfully and relentlessly deployed a right-wing populism focused on the failings of liberal democracy and the allure of an older national story: Christian identity, national sovereignty, distrust of international institutions, opposition to immigration, and contempt for politically correct liberal elites. Smash the status quo. Make the masses feel powerful by responding to their grievances. Sandor Lederer, a Hungarian anti-corruption activist who runs an NGO called K-Monitor, summed up this simple us-versus-them frame: “We’ve got to protect Hungarians against this dot or that dot, and you can fill out this project with new topics”—globalist multinational corporations, Muslims, migrants, European Union bureaucrats, the liberal media, and George Soros.

Similarly, in the United States, Donald Trump provided the illiberal, nationalist bow that tied his party’s efforts together and consolidated an authoritarian direction. Like Orbán, he melds grievances with a rotating cast of villains in a form of ethno-nationalist us-versus-them politics. But the occasionally buffoonish nature of these fights should not obscure what is happening behind the Twitter tirades. In line with Steve Bannon’s commitment after Trump took office, this administration has pursued the “deconstruction of the administrative state” coupled with a disregard for democratic norms, as loyalists are promoted, Trump allies are pardoned, domestic spending is redirected over congressional objection, foreign governments are pressured to investigate Trump’s political opponents, inspectors general are purged, ethics rules are flouted, and nearly any form of congressional oversight is resisted.

Most insidiously, under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Justice Department is being transformed into an extension of Trump’s political interests. This led to the spectacle of the Justice Department attempting to drop charges against former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, despite his pleading guilty to the crime of lying to the government, and the department going to extraordinary lengths to investigate its own clearly justified conduct in the Russia investigation. In the most ominous glimpse of where this can lead, Barr stood in Lafayette Square as peaceful protesters were dispersed by security forces for a photo opportunity, lending the imprimatur of the Justice Department to a violation of the most basic freedom in the Bill of Rights.

After his first reelection, Orbán’s focus on the persecution of his enemies intensified. Political opponents, civil society, and independent media have learned to live with various forms of harassment, including ceaseless disinformation and legal threats. Hungary completed a fence to keep migrants out. Conspiracy theories about Soros evolved into a campaign used to justify everything, including onerous restrictions on civil society and sham investigations. Corruption mushroomed and became a backdrop of Hungary’s government spending. Hungary’s historical sins—including complicity in the Holocaust—were whitewashed, as prominent statues and revised curricula rooted Hungary’s future in right-wing aspects of its past.

The structural changes to Hungary’s democracy enabled this: Orbán was elected to a third term in 2018 with less than half the popular vote, yet he presides over all of Hungary’s levers of power like a colossus. If Trump is reelected, he, too, is almost certain to receive less than half of the popular vote. But as Trump casts aside democratic norms and campaigns on conspiracy theories, it’s clear that a second Trump term will leave America’s political system and culture looking even more like Hungary’s.

Civil society is similarly besieged. Márta Pardavi, a co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights organization, described a constant barrage of government laws that it has challenged in court, and Fidesz-friendly media attacks. Right-wing journalists have camped outside the committee’s office and routinely disparage its work. The effort is meant to demoralize people, dissuading them from engaging in public life. The message that Orbán wants to get across, she said, is that “politics is risky, it’s dirty, it’s corrupt, so I should not associate myself with it.” That apathy is meant to cripple opposition.

Lederer sees a common thread between Orbán and Trump. “You just simply create a bigger scandal,” he said, “or a bigger story to prevent people from talking about the real issues in the country, so you have a completely irrelevant, fake debate about symbolically important things, but never about a sense of how you run a country or how your country is currently working.” This, Pardavi laments, is the emptiness that characterizes Orbán’s politics as he has sought to hold power. Instead of offering solutions to problems, “he starts weaponizing hate.” And all of that hate serves no real purpose. “I think the saddest and most alarming part of this is that this political system is built up so that Orbán would stay in power and Fidesz would be well funded,” she said. For all the talk of nationalism, Orbán’s real purpose is the pursuit of power.

A similar politics of hate and power could easily take root in a second Trump term. As with Orbán, we can expect all-encompassing conspiracy theories, like the amorphous “Obamagate,” to offer pretexts to hound and prosecute Trump’s political opponents while a compliant Justice Department offers virtual immunity for selective Trump associates to engage in corruption. With legislative oversight ignored and executive-branch self-policing silenced, the basic functions of government will become indistinguishable from Trump’s short-term political interests. Assuming Trump maintains the fealty of a Republican majority in the Senate, the courts will be further transformed in Trump’s image, removing any other meaningful check on his actions. With no reelection to consider, Trump will be unbound from accountability, with the most powerful institution in the history of the world—the United States government—at his fingertips. Meanwhile, manufactured polarization will continue to allow him to sustain the support of his followers while trying to demoralize his opponents. In a country already wrestling with the deep and open wounds of racism, our national fabric will continue to tear at the seams.

Concerns about democracy itself do not often animate voters. Instead, issues that cut closer to home—the state of the economy, access to health care, or issues related to social identity—are more often the focus of political campaigns. There is, of course, mounting evidence that Trump’s hostility to the competent functioning of government and preoccupation with his own political fortunes have exacerbated a crisis that threatens every American’s health and economic security. But more fundamentally, Americans should consider what they are validating if—given the evidence of four years—they choose to continue down a course that is hostile to the democratic norms and constitutional checks and balances that have been a secular religion in America for nearly 250 years; a course that welcomes the continued weaponization of hatred from the Oval Office in ways that threaten the social cohesion that a diverse democracy depends on.

Orbán and Trump are part of the ascendance of authoritarian nationalists around the world—from Brazil to Russia to Turkey to India to China to the Philippines. Their success rests on an argument that Orbán made out loud after he was reelected—that globalization and liberal democracy have failed, and that a more traditional form of nationalism is required to make their countries great again. And looking at the span of history, it is not hard to argue that authoritarian nationalism—rather than liberal democracy—is actually the norm, while liberal democracy stands out more as a post-war exception. The horrors of World War II awakened the public to the dangers of authoritarian nationalism, and to the damage that it could do both to individual countries and to the relations among them. But now, on the precipice of a defining election at home and rising great-power conflict abroad, that lesson seems forgotten.

Bannon once called Orbán “Trump before Trump.” A few weeks into the pandemic, Orbán granted himself near-dictatorial powers, and he has since detained citizens for crimes as trivial as criticizing the government on Facebook. The United States is not approaching that level of autocracy—yet. But our democracy’s insurance policy is supposed to be the resilience of our democratic institutions, and there is ample daily evidence that they are now being molded into something different before our eyes—transformed from obstacles that could contain Trump’s impulses, into vehicles to punish his opponents. Meanwhile, things that were once unimaginable in American politics—say, the president of the United States regularly demanding that his opponents be jailed—barely raise an eyebrow. And Trump himself has not been shy about expressing his regard for autocrats, including Orbán. Last year, he welcomed him to the Oval Office and praised him for doing “a tremendous job in so many different ways,” noting that he was, “like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay.”

Americans are not conditioned to think that our political system might be transformed, and Trump’s own incompetence offers false reassurance that there are limits to what he can do. But Trump’s authoritarian impulses have fit into the Republican Party’s illiberal tendencies like a plug into a socket, powering an authoritarian movement.

A few weeks ago, I emailed Lederer to see how he was doing after Orbán’s power grab. He took it in stride. “To be frank,” he wrote, “I’m more worried for the U.S. than for Hungary at the moment; horrifying news keeps coming every day. Please do share if you have any optimistic scenario for America.”

Orbán has shown that after winning an election, a leader and his party can dismantle democracy while offering the public a constant cocktail of nationalism and hatred. That, I fear, is what a second Trump term will yield—unless voters reject him in November. The optimistic scenario—for America, as well as Hungary—is if that augurs a broader backlash against a dangerous brand of politics that has failed in the current crisis and offers only a darker future.