Republicans believe that Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán has figured out the “secret sauce” to turn a republic into a hard-right oligarchy, and today they’re in Budapest drinking deep from his insights on the fine points of destroying democracy.
In two speeches this week, Orbán laid out his Hungarian version of the racist American “Great Replacement Theory,” trashed Jewish financier George Soros as a proxy for Jews around the world, reiterated the importance of having friendly rightwing billionaires seize control of a nation’s media, and attacked societies that allow gay marriage and tolerate trans people as engaging in “gender madness.”
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.
Steve Bannon celebrated Orbán as “Trump before Trump,” and Casey Michel on the NBC News site Think noted: “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.”
In August of 1989, 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.
For 20 years, Hungary was a functioning democracy; today, it’s a corrupt neofascist oligarchy.
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 rule.
Republicans now want to do the same here, which will also promote the end of democracy around the rest of the world.
Orbán took over the Fidesz Party, once a conventional “conservative” political party like the GOP, with the themes of restoring “Christian purity” and “making Hungary great again.” His rallies regularly draw tens of thousands.
He campaigned on building a wall across the entirety of Hungary’s southern border to keep out the “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 now do 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.
Last year Hungary passed laws requiring “conservative” sex education in schools (“gay is bad” and “abstinence only”) and banning any positive portrayal of LGBTQ people on TV. In public campaigns they’ve conflated homosexuality with pedophilia. The latest anti-gay law passed the Hungarian Parliament by a vote of 157 to 1.
Republicans are trying to do the same here.
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 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 GOP style, “Immigration brings increased crime, especially crimes against women, and lets in the virus of terrorism.”
Five years and one week before Trump applauded “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 new class of pro-Orbán businessmen (it appears all are men) who have now seized almost complete control of the nation’s economy, as 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 just like rightwing media here. Billboards and social media proclaim Orbán’s patriotism.
He told the American CPAC conference in Budapest this week they should do the same in America when Republicans 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 speech, many American media outlets were banned from attending CPAC in Budapest this week. 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, right-wing message. Tucker Carlson and Fox recently took him up on his invitation, broadcasting his poison directly into American homes from his presidential palace.
Orbán recently began dismantling the Hungarian Science Academy, replacing or simply firing scientists who acknowledge climate change, which, like Trump and the GOP, 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, increasing his two reelection margins as his handmaids in the Hungarian media proclaimed him a victim of a European “deep state” and meddling foreigners, particularly Jewish financier George Soros (who, ironically, once paid for young Orbán to attend college in Britain).
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 Zelensky allegedly tried to sabotage the U.S. president.
Orbán has helped wannabee theocrats fully reinvented Christianity in Hungary, embracing a hard-right movement within the Catholic Church and among protestant evangelicals. He recently reshaped Hungary’s abortion laws to make it extremely difficult for a woman to terminate a pregnancy (and generally requiring a man’s consent/signature to perform the procedure).
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, 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.’” As noted in The Guardian in 2018: “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 installed his own versions of corrupt senior officials like Bill Barr and Mike Pompeo. 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, 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 American and European efforts to stop Russian aggression as “warmongers,” and refuses to participate in the EU embargoes of Russian fossil fuels.
Orban has now largely crushed dissent in Hungary, arresting opposition politicians, “troublemakers,” and members of the independent press, much to the delight of American Republicans who hope to do the same here.
As Zach Beauchamp writes for Vox, “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.
Orbán’s speeches this week raise the question: Is he teaching the American GOP through his example, or are Republicans teaching him through their “replacement theory” and new laws banning books and classes on American history and civics?
Increasingly it appears that the answer is: “Putin’s teaching them both.”
Thom HartmannIndependent Media Institute
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.