By Embracing Viktor Orbán, the Right Is Signaling Support for “Illiberal Democracy” at Home

The American right increasingly looks to Hungary as a model for the United States. They already have the antidemocratic tactics down. Now they’re looking to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for a comprehensive political philosophy to match.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a visit to Spain earlier this year. (Vox España / Wikimedia Commons)

At first glance, “Viktor Orbán will speak at CPAC” reads like a simple news item. In reality, it’s an ominous political forecast. If we want to understand conservative leaders’ designs for the country, it’s worth asking why the activists and intellectuals who gather at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) have made the right-wing Hungarian prime minister their guest of honor.

The American Right has always had an instrumental view of democracy, happy to play by the rules to achieve its ends and equally happy to discard them when they get in the way. Across the country, Republicans draw unfair voter districts and pass arbitrary rules to suppress the vote. They fire bureaucrats who won’t tow their line. They abuse arcane procedural rules like the filibuster to help them stack the judiciary and grind the basic functions of government to a halt.

From an objective standpoint, all this rule-rigging makes it difficult to establish how much of a mandate any particular conservative government has, though that never stops Republicans from claiming one when they’re in the majority and pressing their advantage as far as they can. If they still can’t come up with enough legislative support for their agenda after all that, their lifetime-appointed activists in the judiciary simply concoct a legal argument for their desired outcome.

Like many trends in American politics, this one is a hodgepodge: an easy way to vote eliminated here, a probable civil rights violation there. The details make headlines, but the whole picture largely flies under the national radar. Phenomena like hours-long lines to vote in pro-Democratic precincts come to seem like a normal part of the election process. Given that much of the Right’s strategizing happens in secret, it’s difficult to know exactly to what degree these attacks on democracy are coordinated, and to what extent they’re simply the natural outcome of shared principles.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has centralized and perfected these tactics, dismantling democratic rights and traditions piecemeal, slowly but steadily — and, almost always, legally. As Branko Marcetic put it in Jacobin:

Over his last twelve years in power, Orbán has seized control of the judiciary, turned elections into a sham, put independent media under his thumb, undermined checks and balances, and used his power over cultural, educational, and religious institutions to advance his nativist and nationalist vision. He’s outlawed homelessness, rolled back LGBT rights, facilitated an upward transfer of wealth, and generally used state power to force his particular brand of social conservatism on the entire population.

Like the GOP, Orbán’s strategy has been to nibble away at democratic rights and norms, making it difficult to fight back. Any one change can go unnoticed or seem not worth fighting in the face of bigger problems. Maybe it doesn’t even seem so unreasonable. Only when the sum total is examined does a broader plan become evident. Like Republicans, Orbán has a real, sizable voter base — but he has even more systematically and successfully used this base to stamp out any but token resistance to his agenda, while also establishing more and more state power over Hungarians’ lives.

As Andrew Marantz reported in the New Yorker, a significant number of British and American conservative thinkers have openly embraced Orbán, not in spite of Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” but because of it. So have Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. Furthermore, Orbán has openly embraced a racist, traditionalist ideology that in public, most Republicans will still only dance around.

“We’re going to keep our heritage for ourselves, our Christian heritage, our ethnic heritage . . . that’s what I think [American conservatives] want to say but they can’t say, and so they point to someone who can say it,” an Orbán advisor told Marantz.

That’s what makes the Right’s increasingly overt embrace of Viktor Orbán significant — not only have his tactics gone further and become more unified at a national level than Republicans’ have so far, but his frank intention to wholly remake society gives them a deeper meaning. The public admiration of Orbán’s success hints at a conservative desire to further cohere illiberal tactics into a governing philosophy — to eliminate many of the liberal advances of the twentieth and even the nineteenth century.

Orbán’s appearance at CPAC, arguably the most significant public gathering of the conservative movement, will help American conservatives cement a theory around the antidemocratic practices they’ve already spent years honing. But unlike Hungary, the United States still has a national party capable of stopping the illiberal creep. The question is whether the Democrats will do anything to confront the steady advance of the Republicans following Orbán’s footsteps, or whether they are content to consign themselves to a permanent minority.