When Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban was escorted into the White House on Monday, Donald Trump met a mini-Trump who shares his skill at manipulating and exploiting the politics of fear.
Orban was elected in 2010 and reelected in 2014 and 2018 by repeatedly stimulating Hungarians’ fear of outsiders. He has attacked the European Union in Brussels as “the new Moscow.” He has warned Hungarians that Middle East migrants are “a threat to Christian civilization.’’ He has campaigned on a familiar slogan, “Make Hungary great again.”
Orban has used the politics of fear to create an authoritarian model of governance that he calls “illiberal democracy.” He claims that democratic elections are a means and mandate to undermine democratic institutions. He has rewritten the Hungarian constitution and eliminated its checks and balances. He has subverted an independent judiciary by packing the courts, limiting their jurisdiction and forcing judges to retire. He has taken over an independent media by using political and financial pressure, regulation and disinformation. He has attacked civil society by accusing NGOs of being foreign agents. He has controlled universities by cutting their funding, managing their curricula, and subjecting them to regulatory repression.
The durability of Orban’s “illiberal democracy” — he has now been in office for nine years — has made him the strongman of the far right on both sides of the Atlantic. Former Trump presidential adviser Steve Bannon has called Orban “Trump before there was Trump.”
Orban and Trump have much in common.
There are three models of the Trump presidency, each similar to Orban’s. First is the authoritarian model. The president assaults pluralist institutions like the media, which he calls “the enemy of the people,” through the blatant use of lying and disinformation against what he calls “fake news.” Second is the anti-government model. The Trump presidency is tearing down the administrative state by deregulation, especially on economic and environmental issues, and dismantling the professional civil service. Third is the polarization model, which involves appealing to populist fear by stimulating racism, smearing opponents, and destroying the norms of democratic governance.
The threats that American democracy faces today are symbolized by the Trump-Orban summit. Can these threats stimulate a democratic revival? Four things will have to happen.
First, it must be understood that the populist-nationalist fear that Trump and Orban are exploiting for their authoritarian ends is a reaction to the excesses of globalization and the elites that are promoting it, destroying communities and leaving people behind in dying cities and towns across America and Europe.
Second, in response to this fear, coalitions must be built across political divides, putting aside differences to connect citizens outraged by growing economic inequality and demanding fairness and opportunity on issues like health care, education, taxes and public spending.
Third, defenders of democracy must vote and encourage others to vote, focusing on the battleground states where the presidential election will be decided.
Fourth, saving and strengthening democracy must become a patriotic cause for national survival, not a partisan political campaign. For too long American liberals have ignored the symbols of patriotism that should motivate the struggle for constitutional democracy. The flag and the nation must be reclaimed from the promoters of fear on the far right.
A European observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, once observed that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than other nations, but in her ability to repair her faults.” To repair the faults of American democracy, the Trump-Orban models of authoritarian governance built on the exploitation of fear must be firmly and clearly rejected by the voters.
John Shattuck is professor of practice in diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.