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Viktor Orbán Has Eroded Democracy in Hungary. Now He’s Being Embraced by CPAC & American Right

StoryAugust 08, 2022
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CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, ended Saturday in Texas with a speech by former President Trump, after kicking off with far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who just won a fourth term in office. Political scientist Kim Lane Scheppele says American conservatives look to populist leaders turned autocrats in foreign countries like Hungary, Israel and Brazil for strategies to undermine the constitutional democratic process and consolidate power. Orbán, for example, is sharing the “playbook” for “taking over the courts, developing a compliant parliament, shutting down all the independent think tanks, shutting down all the independent agencies of government,” says Scheppele.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

On Saturday, CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, wrapped up in Dallas with a speech by former President Donald Trump, who outlined plans for Republicans if they take control of Congress after the midterm elections, like restoring, quote, “public safety,” and repeating his call for the death penalty for drug dealers.

This comes as several Republican candidates who supported Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen won their races in recent primary elections. One of the booths at CPAC featured a mock jail cell with a man pretending to be a January 6th prisoner crying inside the cell as people stood on the other side of the bars listening to testimony from the January 6th hearings on headsets. The display was set up by right-wing influencer Brandon Straka, who was convicted in January for his role in the January 6th insurrection.

CPAC’s opening day featured a speech by far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who recently won reelection to a fourth term. He appeared after saying in a speech the week before that Europeans, quote, “do not want to become peoples of mixed race.” Orbán spoke Thursday for more than half an hour, drew multiple standing ovations, perhaps the loudest when he was condemning same-sex families. He said a battle is being fought for Western civilization.

PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBÁN: You have midterm elections this year, then presidential and congressional elections in ’24. And we will have election in the European Parliament same year. These two locations will define the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization. Today we hold neither of them. Yet we need both. You have two years to get ready.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, just before Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s address to CPAC in Texas, Democracy Now!’s Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke with Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University who specializes in the rise and fall of constitutional government, focusing on Hungary. Today we bring you Part 2 of our discussion. Scheppele began by talking about the significance of Orbán addressing CPAC.

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: CPAC is clearly going international. And I think a lot of that is because there’s something that I call the Illiberals International — right? — which is that there are a lot of leaders who start as charismatic populists, who get themselves elected, and then who take this sharp autocratic turn by locking down power so people can’t get rid of them. And it turns out that in many cases they’re sharing the tools they use to stay in power. So, since that started happening — and Orbán, I think, has really modeled the genre, because he got there first and because he’s been packaging these little developments for taking over the courts, you know, developing a compliant parliament, shutting down all the independent think tanks, shutting down all the independent agencies of government. Because he’s been so successful at it and he keeps appearing to win elections, and for a long time people thought he was still a Democrat, including a Christian Democrat, all of that looks really enticing. So, I think what CPAC has now realized is that there are models for how to do this around the world that they want to learn from. So, they’ve been learning from Orbán. They’ve gone to Brazil with Bolsonaro. They’ve gone to Israel, where Netanyahu has sort of, you know, been able to whip up nationalism and to keeping himself in power for a long time, and so on. So, CPAC is definitely going international, and I think they’re learning a lot of things.

So, let me, if I can, give you one example of what I think CPAC has just recently learned or what the conservative movement in the U.S. has learned from Orbán. When Orbán first came to power, he distrusted the civil service, because many people working in the government were not on his team, so to speak. So he used the excuse of an IMF austerity program, which Hungary was under, to say, “We need to fire a big chunk of the civil service.” So they changed the law that nominally protects people who work in the civil service from political influence. They then fired thousands of people who were not associated with their political party. They then reinstated the law on the civil service. And then Orbán increased the size of the civil service by — you know, they doubled it from what it had been when he first came to power, except that all the new people were his people, right?

So, we’ve just seen — there was a scoop by Jonathan Swan of Axios a couple of weeks ago — that there are now these boot camps training young conservatives of Trumpist mode to immediately go into government as soon as a Republican is elected. And the idea is that they will transfer a lot of current civil servants onto this thing that Trump invented in his first term called Schedule F, which means you reclassify them, and suddenly they don’t have their job protections anymore. And then, whoever the Republican president is will be able to fire large numbers of civil service employees, while then hiring into regular civil service jobs, that are protected, all of their own people. So, you see already Steve Bannon has been running these boot camps for young conservatives to go in and take over the government, not just through the political appointments, but through the civil service. And that was one of the things Orbán pioneered, and now they’re doing it here.

So, this is really — CPAC is now picking up all of these tricks from autocrats who have managed to install themselves in power forever, while still appearing to the outside world — you know, the debate in the outside world is: Is it still a democracy or not? The answer is, no, it hasn’t been since probably about 2012. But it’s taken a very long time for analysts to catch up to it, because it looks different than your 20th century dictatorships.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Scheppele, I also wanted to ask you, as Orbán addresses CPAC and we are in the midst of these public hearings on the January 6th insurrection, about this Christian nationalism, which is increasingly a term that is used here, or white Christian nationalism. It’s how proximate it is, how close it is to white supremacists. Also, I’m thinking of Katherine Stewart’s book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Can you talk about how all of this comes together?

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Yeah. So, in this regard, Hungary and the U.S. are actually quite different. So, Hungary is a country in which something like 8% of the population attends religious services regularly. So it’s just not a religious country. It’s a kind of secular, cynical, individualistic society. So that’s why Orbán’s Christian democracy appeal strikes me as being primarily for outsiders. It’s not really something that’s whipping up, you know, lots of religious groups in Hungary. On the other hand, what Orbán’s appeal does do is to whip up nationalism — Hungary against the EU, Hungary against its historic enemies, and so on — and to whip up racism, which is a big part of Orbán’s appeal — you know, no Black and Brown people, no Muslim people, etc. So, that is really an appeal.

So, the U.S. version is much more Christian-focused, although, you know, it looks to me like some of the groups that were behind — the sort of muscle behind January 6th were not themselves Christian organizations. So, it seems to me that these right-wing movements actually have a number of different strands in them, some of which are the religious right, that would be all in on banning abortion, for example, some of which would be all in it for, you know, the great replacement theory — right? — which is that Black and Brown people shall not replace white people as governors of the states where white people have dominated. And some of it is this nationalism of our country first — we’re sick of globalization, we’re sick of being dependent, watching our jobs go to other countries, and so on.

So, there’s a mix of all of those strands in the U.S., and there’s a mix of the anti-globalization strand and the white nationalism strand in Hungary. But the Christian democracy, despite Orbán’s rhetoric, is not the main thing going on there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Who is the base for supporting Orbán in Hungary, and then the base here for Trump? What is the demographic that you’ve identified?

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Yeah, so, Trump’s base and also Orbán’s base are, you know, sort of rural, less educated voters who feel left behind by globalization. So, it’s the former working class, it’s the former farmers, who have found themselves, you know, in the wake of globalization, with far less prosperous lives than they might have otherwise had. And so it’s a kind of resentment against the — against these global forces. It’s also a resentment against this perception that in the city there are all of these educated people who look down on them and who would much prefer to mingle with company that doesn’t look like them. So, it’s that same kind of, basically, rural, small town, small city, less well educated — people who don’t get out much, shall we say? So, it’s the people who don’t have passports. It’s the people who have never left the country. It’s the people who don’t speak languages.

I mean, one thing that I think is important to understand about Hungary, which you can also say about the U.S., is that people don’t speak languages. There was a recent survey that showed that something like 12% of Hungarians can carry out a conversation in any other language besides Hungarian. And Hungarian isn’t a big popular language. Like, even the neighboring countries don’t speak it, right? And we have a bit this problem in the U.S., where we have lots of Americans who just don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the world, because they don’t have languages, they don’t travel, they don’t have passports.

So it’s that base, the base that thinks of home as everything, who thinks of their local communities as everything, that is supporting these kind of right-wing nationalists, in part because the right-wing nationalists are saying, “We don’t want those global forces, either. We don’t want those strange people coming in to our a peaceful little communities” — you know, peaceful communities in the U.S. with guns, but nonetheless.

So, I think, in that sense, the bases are very similar. And actually, when you look at these right-wing movements — you look at Bolsonaro in Brazil, you look at Modi in India, you know, you look at Erdogan in Turkey — that this is the base that all of them are drawing from. It’s the rural, small town, you know, group that doesn’t ever leave their own countries, doesn’t get out of their language bubbles, doesn’t get out of their cultural bubbles, and that isn’t very well educated. And that’s what’s propping up these leaders in almost every place it happens.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, isn’t that also the case with Israel in the United States, the increasing support they have to turn to not the young Jewish population in the United States, but the Christian —

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — nationalists is who they’re most —

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — turning to for support in the United States right now.

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Exactly, exactly. And so, you know, the bond between the evangelical Christian movement and Jewish nationalists, the sort of Zionists in Israel, is really one of those underreported stories. And, you know, as young people in the U.S. become — move more and more to the left, Israel is finding that young Jews are not really their primary basis of support — the Netanyahu sort of nationalist group in Israel. So, absolutely.

This is really a global trend. And I think this is one reason why CPAC is looking abroad, because I think they’ve realized that this is a global trend. This is something where they can take advantage of the lessons learned from others about how to get power, you know, what kinds of campaigns work, and, you know — and then, also, once they have power, how to keep it.

And I think, you know, much as I’m — every time these culture war issues come up, I mean, I also get pretty outraged by what they say, just as a substantive matter. But I think we also need not to take our eye off the ball, that what’s going on underneath the surface is changes of laws that lock in power. And in many ways, you know, once you lose the ability to change leaders through free and fair elections, you’re really in a different world. And Hungary is a few steps ahead of the U.S. on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s where —

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: And I’m very — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — I wanted to go next, is that issue —

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Yeah, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: — of you following Hungary as increasingly authoritarian, and if you see the United States following suit? I mean, we just came out of a primary where one person after another who ran for office in the Republican primaries, from Arizona to Michigan, even those that are running for secretary of state — who run the elections — are election deniers.

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Exactly. Well, this is such a familiar playbook from Orbán. So, the reason why is that one thing Orbán did as soon as he came to power was he captured the election rules and the election machinery, so that it was his people counting the votes, it was his people in all the election commissions, and it was his people in the courts. So, what Orbán has shown you is that if you can control writing the rules, and then you can control the courts that hear disputes under those rules, it doesn’t matter how people vote, because your rules will overcome any popular vote.

And that’s — you know, Orbán has engineered these supermajorities in the Hungarian parliament from, you know, having less than a majority at home. And, you know, one thing Orbán and Trump share is that in the polls their base is about one-third of the public, near one-third. Maybe it gets up to 40% when they’re having a good day. But neither Trump nor Orbán have ever had majority support. And so, the question is: How do you go on winning elections if you don’t have majority support? And the answer is, you fiddle with the rules. And if that doesn’t work, you fiddle with the counts. Right? You put your people in place.

And this is where, you know, frankly, the Democrats still think this is really all about turnout and voter suppression. And, you know, that was true at one point, that that was how the Republicans played it. But the Republicans are playing a totally different game now in which you win or lose elections before anybody ever casts a vote, because you’ve set up a system designed to produce a certain result, no matter what the votes say. That’s how Orbán wins. And that’s what we’re moving into. And I’m very afraid that CPAC and the Trump — you know, the Trump Republican Party is borrowing from Orbán’s playbook.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Scheppele, just before we end, how would you respond to those who say that there are many more checks on power in the U.S., and therefore it can never be quite as concentrated as it is in some of these countries, from Brazil to Hungary to the other instances that you — other countries that you named?

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Well, that’s actually not true anymore. So, if you think about how you learn civics — right? — the three branches and checks and balances and all of that — all of our checks, our constitutional checks, as well as our system of federalism, which is another kind of check, are supposed to — they work because the officers in those branches are defending the prerogatives of their branches. Right? So, the Senate is supposed to defend the prerogatives of the Senate. The judiciary is supposed to defend itself. The states are supposed to resist, you know, incursions from the federal government. All that kind of — that’s how checks and balances work.

Well, all of that falls apart if people are putting party above their institutions. And once you have Republican control running through all of the branches and running down into the states, all those checks and balances disappear. You know, we’re now seeing a Senate which has basically decided it will govern by blocking anything a Democratic president wants to do, even when it’s in the interests of their members, right? That’s something that the Senate wouldn’t do if it were defending the Senate, as opposed to defending the party.

So, essentially, what’s been happening now with the Republican Party is that it’s disabled all these checks and balances. You know, we still teach students that checks and balances are what keeps our democracy afloat. And the fact is, they’ve already been undermined. So we are a lot closer to dictatorship than I think anyone realizes. And that’s because our Constitution is not working as function — as it was designed to function.

And the thing that I must say really has me particularly freaked out, in light of the Hungarian experience, is that Orbán very early on captured the top court in the system. And once the courts are going to come to bat for you and defend anything you do, and not say that what you’re doing is unconstitutional, or where they completely rewrite what the Constitution means through their decisions, you’re living with a captured court. And that really is something extremely hard to overcome. And unfortunately, in the U.S., we’re already there.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. We spoke to her Thursday right before Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addressed CPAC. You can see Part 1 of our interview at democracynow.org.

As we mentioned, one of the booths at CPAC featured a mock jail cell with a January 6th insurrectionist crying inside the cell as people stood on the other side of the bars listening to testimony from the January 6th hearings on headset. At one point, Republican Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene went into the cell, got on her knees to pray with the man wearing the orange jumpsuit, as some of the people surrounding the cell recited the Lord’s Prayer, some crying, others throwing money inside.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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