We speak with international affairs scholar Kim Lane Scheppele on the rise and fall of Hungary’s constitutional democracy and how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has gained popularity among the American right ahead of his speech today at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Orbán presents, especially for the American right, a kind of irresistible combination of culture war issues,” says Scheppele. “These culture war issues in Hungary disguise the fact that underneath the surface Orbán has been changing the laws of the country so that gradually he has shut down all of the independent institutions that might tell him no.” She says U.S. Republicans are now engaging in a very “Orbán-like” campaign to rig elections so they win regardless of the popular vote.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
Donald Trump has welcomed Hungary’s [Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, ahead of the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, which opens today in Dallas, Texas. Trump is delivering closing remarks Saturday. Orbán is speaking today. CPAC’s warm welcome of Orbán comes just days after he delivered a racist speech in Romania criticizing what he called race mixing in other European countries.
PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBÁN: [translated] There is a world in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe. Now, that is a mixed-race world. And then there is our world, where people from within Europe mix with one another.
AMY GOODMAN: Orbán’s comments sparked outcry even from within his own government. One longtime aide resigned, describing Orbán’s remarks as a, quote, “pure Nazi text worthy of Goebbels.” Budapest’s Chief Rabbi Zoltán Radnóti also criticized Orbán’s remarks.
CHIEF RABBI ZOLTÁN RADNÓTI: [translated] We cannot accept in any way the kind of communications that includes talking about races, pure races and mixing of races. Within the Jewish community, this evokes a very painful era and painful memories.
AMY GOODMAN: So far, none of the prominent conservatives scheduled to share the stage with Viktor Orbán at CPAC have condemned his racist remarks, including the far-right TV personalities Sean Hannity — who did a week of programs from Hungary and interviewed Orbán there [sic] — and Glenn Beck, Senator Ted Cruz, Congressmembers Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan.
To talk more about Hungary and the American right’s obsession with Viktor Orbán, we’re joined by Kim Lane Scheppele. She is a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University, specializing in the rise and fall of constitutional government, focusing in particular on Hungary.
So, we’re going to talk about Hungary and here, right through to the insurrection, Professor Scheppele, but start with Orbán’s speech today and his significance.
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Well, Orbán’s speech, what you were playing was one paragraph out of a speech that went on for an hour and 15 minutes. So, it wasn’t as prominent in the speech as the international press attention. But still, it was a shocker for Hungarians, because for the first time Orbán used language that had not been heard since the 1930s and '40s. And he used a word in Hungarian that was the word that referred to Jews at that time. So it's no wonder that you’re getting this reaction from both one of his advisers, who quit, who was one of his few advisers who was Jewish, as well as from the rabbi you quoted from, from Hungary.
I might say that it will tell you something about Orbán’s Hungary that when Zsuzsa Hegedus, his adviser, quit, Orbán then wrote this letter: you know, “Dear Zsuzsa, we’ve known each other forever. You know I’m not a racist.” And within a few days, she said, “Oh, yes, Viktor, I know you’re not a racist,” and she offered to come back. So, it will tell you something about Orbán’s Hungary, that criticism never lasts long, and he manages to squelch it quite quickly. He’s a dictator, which is a bigger — you know, which is an additional problem, I guess, in addition to his racism.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, what counts, though, is what he’s doing in terms of — I mean, it counts a lot in Hungary, of course.
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But the fact that the American right, CPAC, has invited him today to give this major speech on the opening day.
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Exactly. Well, I think one of the reasons why Orbán used that language in Hungary is that he knew he was coming to CPAC. And Orbán is quite well informed. He’ll understand that a lot of Trump’s base loves dog-whistle or even not-so-subtle racism. Orbán will understand perfectly well that white supremacists form a big chunk of Trump’s base. And frankly, I think Orbán was playing at least as much to this American audience as he was playing to the Hungarian audience when he gave that speech.
If you’ve been following Orbán since he came back to power in 2010 — and he’s been in power continuously since that time because he’s rigged the elections so no one else can win them — it turns out that he’s been saying these kinds of things about mixing of races for a long time. He dog-whistles antisemitism. One of his political campaigns, he was demonizing George Soros with a lot of language that was clearly antisemitic. He’s the guy who stood up against the wave of migration from Syria and Iraq and other places, making references to a kind of another Islamic invasion of Europe. So, none of this is really new. The thing that was new was the use of that particular language. And that means that CPAC could not possibly be surprised that Orbán is going to come and dog-whistle white nationalism.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Scheppele, could we talk — I mean, you’ve just said a little bit now about his record and the fact that he’s been in power for over 15 years, 12 of them consecutively since 2010. What do you think accounts for his appeal? As you’ve pointed out, he’s a lawyer. But he has appeal far beyond Hungary. I mean, as you’ve said, that the elections are rigged in Hungary, so the fact that he’s remained in power is not an indication of how much support he has. But why is he supported, or why have people abroad also expressed an interest in him, foremost, of course Trump?
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Well, of course, Trump loves winners, and Orbán, you know, is a winner of every election he’s been engineering. But I think that Orbán presents, especially for the American right, a kind of irresistible combination of culture war issues. So, now we see racism, white nationalism. But in the past he’s demonized LGBTQ people. He’s railed against gender studies and gender fluidity. When he rewrote the Constitution of Hungary in 2011, the Constitution says that fetal life is protected from the moment of conception. So, he’s been on every single culture war issue for the last dozen years, that also has been the program of the American right. So the culture wars are really Orbán’s specialization, to kind of whip up hysteria.
The thing is, though, that these culture war issues in Hungary disguise the fact that underneath the surface Orbán has been changing the laws of the country so that gradually he has shut down all of the independent institutions that might tell him no. And, in fact, since the COVID epidemic started, he’s been governing by decree. He wakes up one morning, issues a decree, that’s law. So, essentially, Hungary is now a country that is a dictatorship, in which he’s rigged the election laws, he’s rigged almost all the other laws.
And I think what the American right sees in him is the use of culture wars as a kind of cover for creeping autocracy. And you see it because the Republicans are right now engaged in a campaign, a very Orbán-like campaign, to rig the rules of the election by changing laws in the U.S. states so that the Republicans are going to win, no matter who wins the popular vote. That’s the kind of thing Orbán did in Hungary. Some of the specific tactics the Republicans are using here exactly mirror what Orbán did in Hungary. So, I think, you know, come for the racism, stay for the autocracy. I think that’s what’s in it for CPAC.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Scheppele, you’ve called him the, quote, “ultimate 21st century dictator.” He himself refers to himself as a Christian Democrat. Could you explain what the significance of this is and how it fits into the European tradition of Christian democracy? I mean, most recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came from the Christian Democratic Party.
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Yes. So, let me start with Christian democracy and back into dictatorship. So, Orbán’s political party is called Fidesz, and it’s associated at European level with the European People’s Party, which is the Christian Democratic Party in Europe that Angela Merkel’s party was also involved in. And because Orbán’s party was in that Christian Democratic European party, those people, including especially Angela Merkel, have acquiesced in Orbán’s rise to power because they saw him as an ally. So, Christian democracy is this incredibly useful cover for Orbán, because it gave him protection in the EU, because other Christian Democratic leaders for a long time thought he was one of them because of his public rhetoric.
Now, you know, Orbán is — you know, like Trump, Orbán has the support of evangelicals and conservative Christians without ever setting foot in church. And, in fact, in Orbán’s first couple of years in power, he presided over taking the number of registered religious organizations in Hungary — sort of churches and synagogues and mosques, etc. — there were 350 of those, and in his first year he cut them down to 32. And by removing the tax-exempt status from the others, he literally pushed hundreds of mostly small evangelical Christian denominations out of the country. So, you can decide for yourself whether that looks like Christian democracy.
But on the question about dictatorship and being the ultimate 21st century dictator, I think that when we think about dictatorships, we have in mind, you know, Hitler, Stalin. They come with big ideology, and they repress their populations. In fact, the modern human rights movement really grew out of a list of the horrible things that were done under those dictatorships. So, what’s a 21st century dictatorship? Well, it governs in a very different kind of way. So, first of all, you know, the mass human rights violations that we saw in the 20th century are not Orbán’s stock and trade. In fact, if anything, what he does is he exerts economic pressure against his opponents. And, of course, in a world that’s been made safe for capitalism, economic interests are not protected by rights. So, if you lose your job, if your business goes under, if you’re denied social welfare benefits, if there’s no unemployment insurance, you can’t claim any of those things as a matter of right, but you can certainly feel pressure if the government controls all of those things and keeps you in line with these kinds of economic pressures. So, Orbán has kind of analyzed these 20th century dictatorships and stepped into all of these places that still allow him to exercise this immense pressure on the people that he’s trying to control, without ever stepping over the line of violating human rights. So that makes him a very different kind of dictator.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor, last year Fox News host Tucker Carlson took his show to Hungary — I said it was Sean Hannity, but it was Carlson — where —
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — Tucker Carlson repeatedly praised Orbán’s immigration policies. This is what he said.
TUCKER CARLSON: That is exactly why Democrats become hysterical when you mention the obvious successes that are on display here in Hungary on the immigration question. They don’t want you to know that there is an option to the chaos and filth and crime growing all around us. We don’t have to live like that anymore. Actually, we could have a functioning country.
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can comment on this and the whole white nationalist trend in the United States, some of the people actually modeling themselves on Orbán — as Orbán followers?
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Yeah. In fact, it’s exactly on immigration that you see the sharpest parallels between Orbán and Trump. So, you know, if you know what Trump did to stop immigration, he first built a wall. Well, Viktor Orbán first built a fence. Then Trump pushes the people who are seeking asylum back across the border to wait in this kind of limbo before they can get into the country. Orbán set up these things he called transit zones, which, again, were a kind of limbo as people awaited entry.
The similarities between Trump and Orbán are so extreme that there was even a point, about six months before the U.S. started doing it, when Orbán started separating parents and children. Now, they didn’t lose track of which parents were connected to what kids, as happened here, but they decided that they had no human rights obligation to feed the parents in these transit camps, but they did have an international obligation to feed the children. So they took —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Professor.
KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Oh, yeah. They took the children, fed them, and then brought them back to their parents, so the kids couldn’t share food. So, all of that was stuff Trump copied.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University, specializing in the rise and fall of constitutional government, focusing on Hungary. That does it for our show. We’ll do Part 2 with Professor Scheppele and post it online at democracynow.org.
Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Messiah Rhodes. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.