In Andrew Sullivan's column in New York magazine, Yascha Mounk explains how democracy died this week with Victor Orban's majority win in Hungary. As you read this ask yourself if you find any parallels to what is underway in Trumpland.
[Hungary] has now completed a process … that has mostly remained theoretical until now: It was once a liberal democracy. As Orbán undermined the rule of law, dismantled the separation of powers, and massively violated the rights of ethnic minorities, it turned into an illiberal democracy. Now, it is effectively a dictatorship with a thin electoral veneer.
The recipe is a familiar one by now. In a society where social mores, especially in the big cities, appear to be changing very fast, there is a classic reaction. More traditional voters in the heartland begin to feel left behind, and their long-held values spurned. At the same time, a wave of unlawful migrants, fleeing terror and deprivation, appear to threaten the demographic and cultural balance still further, and seem to be encouraged by international post-national entities such as the European Union. A leftist ruling party in disarray gives a right-wing demagogue an opening, and he seizes it. And so in 2010, Orbán was able to exploit a political crisis triggered by an imploding and scandal-ridden Socialist government, and, alongside coalition partners, win a supermajority for the right in parliament.
Once in power, that supermajority allowed Orbán to amend the constitution in 2011, reducing the number of seats in the parliament from 386 to 199, gerrymandering them brutally to shore up his party’s standing in future elections, barring gay marriage in perpetuity, and mandating that in election campaigns, state media would take precedence over independent sources. He also forced a wave of early retirements in the judiciary in order to pack the courts with loyalists.
As Mounk notes, Orbán also tapped into deep grievances rooted in Hungary’s loss of territory in the 20th century, by giving the vote to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring Romania and removing it from more culturally progressive expats. But it was in response to the migration crisis in 2015, that Orbán truly galvanized public opinion behind him. Hungary, as Paul Lendvai noted in The Atlantic, had been deluged with asylum claims: 174,000 in 2015 alone, the highest per capita in the EU. Orbán responded by spreading fears of an influx of terrorists and criminals, of a poisoning of Hungarian culture, and expressing visceral nationalist hostility to the diktats of the European Union. Added to all that, of course, was a generous salting of classic central European anti-Semitism. Voters especially in rural areas flocked to him.
He further shifted the public discourse by creating and advancing new media outlets that amplified his propaganda, while attacking, harassing, and undermining all the others. He erected a huge fence to keep Muslim immigrants out, and refused to accept any of the 50,000 refugees the EU wanted to settle in his country. His political allies began to get very rich, as crony capitalism spread. By last year, Orbán had turned George Soros into a version of 1984’s Emmanuel Goldstein — an “enemy of the state” — with billboards and endless speeches, demonizing the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist, and vowing to protect the nation from external, malignant forces.
It was a potent formula, especially when backed up by the rigging of the parliamentary seats. Last week, in a surge of voter turnout, Orban won almost 50 percent of the vote, but two-thirds of the seats, giving him another supermajority (this time without coalition partners) in parliament, with further chances to amend the constitution in his favor. His voters in the heartland swamped a majority for the opposition in Budapest. One of two remaining opposition newspapers, Magyar Nemzet, shut down on Wednesday after 80 years in print. Orbán had withdrawn all government advertising in it. Some wonder whether there will ever be a free election again.
If you find many of these themes familiar, you’ve been paying attention. In the middle of a reaction against massive social change and a wave of illegal immigration, a right-wing party decides to huff some populism. A charismatic figure emerges, defined by hostility to immigration, becomes an iconic figure, and even though he doesn’t win a majority of votes, comes to office. His party is further shored up by gerrymandering, giving it a structural advantage in gaining and keeping power, including a seven percentage-point head start in the House of Representatives. That party does what it can to further suppress the vote of its opponents, especially ethnic minorities, and focuses on packing the courts, even rupturing long-standing precedents to deny a president of the opposing party his right to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat.
Openly propagandist media companies emerge, fake news surges, while the president uses the powers of his office to attack, delegitimize, and discredit other media sources, even to the point of threatening a company like Amazon. A mighty wall is proposed against immigrants on the border, alongside fears of a mass “invasion” from the South. Social conservatives are embraced tightly. The census is altered to ensure one party’s advantage in future district-drawing. Courts are disparaged and the justice system derided as rigged by political opponents.
The difference, of course, is that Orbán is an experienced politician, and knows exactly what he’s doing. Trump is a fool, an incompetent, and incapable of forming any kind of strategy, or sticking to one. The forces arrayed against the populist right, moreover, are much stronger in the U.S. than in Hungary; our institutions more robust; our culture much more diverse. Our democracy is far, far older.
And yet almost every single trend in Hungary is apparent here as well. The party of the left has deep divisions, and no unifying leader, while the ruling party is a loyalist leader-cult. The president’s party is a machine that refuses to share power, and seeks total control of all branches of government. It is propelled by powerful currents of reaction, seems indifferent to constitutional norms, and dedicated to incendiary but extremely potent populist rhetoric. The president’s supporters now support a purge in the Department of Justice and the FBI, to protect the president from being investigated.