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Warning to America: Hungarian Green on Authoritarianism as Trump Hosts PM Viktor Orbán at Mar-a-Lago

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It’s official: Following Tuesday’s primaries, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump appear set for a rematch in November after both candidates secured enough delegates to win their parties’ nominations. This past weekend, Republican front-runner Donald Trump hosted Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Mar-a-Lago and openly praised Orbán’s autocratic style of rule. To talk more about Orbán and Trump, we spoke Tuesday with Gábor Scheiring, a former Green Party member of parliament in Hungary, who has a new essay titled “I watched Hungary’s democracy dissolve into authoritarianism as a member of parliament — and I see troubling parallels in Trumpism and its appeal to workers.” He explains that “strongmen” like Orbán and Trump are subverting democracy “from the inside, gradually,” using tactics like gerrymandering and control of the courts to seize and consolidate power.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

It’s official: Following Tuesday’s primaries, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump appear set for a rematch in November after both candidates secured enough delegates to win their party’s nomination. This past weekend, Donald Trump hosted Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Mar-a-Lago. We, Juan and I, spoke yesterday with a Hungarian Green activist. But first let’s go to President Trump praising Orbán at Mar-a-Lago.

DONALD TRUMP: There’s nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orbán. He’s fantastic. He’s the, as you know, the prime minister of Hungary and does a great job. He’s a noncontroversial figure because he said, “This is the way it’s going to be,” and that’s the end of it, right? He’s the boss.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Orbán and Trump, we spoke Tuesday with Gábor Scheiring, visiting fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, assistant professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, Green Party member of the Hungarian parliament in 2010 to '14, his new piece headlined “I watched Hungary's democracy dissolve into authoritarianism as a member of parliament — and I see troubling parallels in Trumpism and its appeal to workers.” I asked Scheiring to elaborate on what happened in Hungary and the parallels he sees here in the United States.

GÁBOR SCHEIRING: Indeed, as the title suggests, there are quite a few parallels between the United States and Hungary. But to reiterate, what happened in Hungary is basically now the country is the first authoritarian regime, first nondemocracy in the European Union, and this democratic backsliding happened under Viktor Orbán’s leadership, who was elected in 2010 to lead the country, which is the same year I was elected to the Hungarian parliament. And back then we had really high hopes as Green Party MPs to fix the country’s economy and move towards sustainability. We had detailed policy plans. But within a few years, it became clear that Viktor Orbán had other plans. As he said, he was building an illiberal state. And there, negotiating policy proposals with the opposition was not part of the big picture.

So, he basically gradually conquered independent institutions. He stuffed the courts, the public prosecution with his loyalists, so that any misconduct by those in power remain hidden. He has built a nationwide conservative media network that resembles the conservative media network in the U.S. but is even more centralized. And he has also used the state to kind of pressure investors to — media investors to fall in line. And we have seen examples of Donald Trump, while he was in power, doing that, pressuring media investors to fall in line with his narratives and cover him favorably.

So, these things are both happening in the two countries. But, of course, Hungary is much more advanced in this process of democratic backsliding, but there is certainly a mutual learning going on between the Republicans in the U.S. and Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Gábor Scheiring, how was it that Orbán was able to exercise this increased power? What was the role of the opposition parties or any checks and balances? How exactly did he do it?

GÁBOR SCHEIRING: Yeah. So, within a few years, it turned out that, basically, the opposition was powerless inside the parliament, because he was sidelining all the usual democratic mechanisms. He had his own policy team outside the ministries, outside the government machinery. So there was very often very little time to discuss his proposals. Sometimes we had to stay late, until early in the morning, because he introduced something just the day before, and then we had to prepare and go for a debate, and then there was voting just the next day. So, he used the parliament as basically a stamping machine from early on.

But then there are these other institutional aspects. Like I mentioned, the media system is crucial. The court system, controlling it is also crucial. The courts are the last elements where you can still find some independence, but Orbán has been working quite heavily to conquer that part, as well. And crucially, the prosecution is an important part of it. So, that prosecutor’s office makes sure that whenever there might be anything that is against the law corruption-wise or related by government or people affiliated with the government, that that thing stays hidden. But they can also rewrite the law. And they do that. They have done that. So, you know, they’re increasingly not going against the law, because the law favors them. Another element is gerrymandering and rewriting local electoral districts. This is something also, we know, from the U.S. The word itself is coming from the U.S. But he also changed the electoral system in a way that favors Fidesz.

So, basically, this boils down to subverting democracy from the inside, without necessarily — without violence. And that’s what makes this really a big challenge. And this is what these strongmen are doing around the world. They don’t use kind of the military anymore to subvert democracy, but they do this from the inside, gradually. And I think this is what’s inspiring also for Donald Trump and for other wannabe authoritarian, populist leaders, because this gives them like a playbook of how to — how to tee off the democratic playing field in a way that makes the job of the opposition and any independent institutions to check them very, very difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to go to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in a video posted on social media. Trump shared the video on his Truth Social account.

PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBÁN: [translated] My meeting with President Trump has come to an end. President Trump was a president of peace. He commanded respect in the world, and thus created the conditions for peace. During his presidency, there was peace in the Middle East and peace in Ukraine. And there would be no war today if he were still the president of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán after visiting with Trump in Mar-a-Lago. And I’m looking at your piece as it appears in Common Dreams, Gabor, and its headline, “I Was There When Orbán Came to Power in Hungary. Here Is My Warning to Americans About Trump: If the liberal center appears uncaring, authoritarian populists can mobilize voters against both the cultural and economic threats posed by globalization.” So, you were a Green member of the Hungarian parliament. Now you’re in the United States, and you see all of this unfolding. Explain what it is that you’re watching with President Trump, violence used on January 6th, but then, as you say, you don’t necessarily need violence to turn a country into an authoritarian regime.

GÁBOR SCHEIRING: Exactly. So, I think that the real power of these authoritarian populists doesn’t really lie in the institutions that they hijack, but in the new kind of electoral support coalition that they create. So, these are strongmen who promise kind of drama, action and quick solution to the problems of globalization. And the real tragedy is that globalization indeed poses problems that parties of the liberal democratic establishment have not been able to solve. And this is what creates a strategic opening for authoritarian populists like Viktor Orbán and for Donald Trump to attract these voters.

And for a large part of the 20th century, it was parties of the left, the central-left social democrats who provided home, political home, for workers who wanted more economic security. And during this time, workers cared for democracy, for liberal democracy, because they won also economically when their parties won. But then, by the end of the 20th century, parties of the left moved to the right. They became more and more responsive to corporate interests, less and less responsive to workers’ interests. And this created a situation where, really, the left and right appeared just different shades of the same economic and social policy. And then, with globalization, an increasing number of workers were losing out, while the 1% became richer and richer, wealthier and wealthier. So this was a situation where, really, an increasing number of workers asked themselves, “If liberal democracy doesn’t care for me, why should I care for liberal democracy?” But they what really want is a reform of the economic system. But when they don’t see the political establishment deliver those reforms, then they kind of become disillusioned with the whole political system. So that’s really the responsibility of the liberal democratic center to not really allow these huge masses of voters to become disillusioned.

And when that happens, then these authoritarian populists can really bring together two types of voters. When we talk about the radical right, we very often talk about those people who are culturally motivated, motivated by bigotry, motivated by racism, and that’s certainly part of the picture. But, really, the successful right-wing populist parties these days bring in, integrate another group, and sometimes even this group is even bigger, who are concerned about the economic aspects, the economic threats of globalization. And they bring these people together by using a kind of nationalist or nativist language and attacking liberal globalization as such, attacking both the cultural liberalism and the kind of the economic liberalization aspects. And I think that’s a very, very dangerous situation when that happens. And when the parties of the left allow that happen, that’s the real problem.

And you can see this unfolding in the United States with the Republicans becoming a party of the working class. So, really, also in the U.S. there is this debate, whether it’s about race, whether it’s a white working-class problem or not. But I don’t see it as a white working-class problem. The Democrats don’t have a white or a white working-class problem. They have a working-class problem. They are losing also nonwhite voters without college degree, and they have been losing for the past years. Even Donald Trump has managed to increase the appeal of his party, of the Republicans, for nonwhites without a college degree. So, this is a problem that the Democrats have in the sense of their declining ability to appeal to workers.

This was taking place in Poland. The same happened. The left collapsed because it moved right on an economic policies, and then you had a radical right-wing challenger gaining power, uniting these people, care both for fearing both the culture and economic aspects of globalization. But you see it also in Western Europe, how increasingly workers in France or many other countries — in Germany, certainly — are increasingly voting for radical right populists. And that can be a very powerful electoral coalition.

And I think that’s the most important thing for the liberal democrats or those concerned with democracy on the left, but also center-right. They need to understand that they need to prevent this happening, and they need to kind of dismantle this electoral coalition by bringing back in those who are economically disillusioned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Gábor Scheiring, you say that racial animosity is a part, but not a complete explanation of the rise of these right-wing movements, but all of the movements seem to share in common their opposition to immigration and migration from the Global South. So, in a large measure, that is clearly a racist view, because those who are coming, the migrants, are also workers, and they generally all often have the worst jobs in these societies, whether it’s the United States France, Germany or Hungary. I’m wondering the responsibility of those, quote, “workers” who rally to these right-wing movements for their own actions.

GÁBOR SCHEIRING: Yes. So, these are not alternative explanations, like the culture and the economic, but they are intertwined in different ways. So, if you have an increasing number of people disillusioned, economically sliding downward — real wages have been stagnating for workers in the United States for decades. The same took place in Hungary for two decades, stagnating real wages. But there’s even real suffering. We know that in the U.S., counties with increasing mortality rates are more likely to vote for Donald Trump. In Hungary, the same happened. Local districts and counties with increasing mortality in the ’90s during the liberal reforms were much more likely to desert the left later on. So, we see this kind of real economic suffering hurting the left and pushing people, pushing workers to the right.

And then, the other problem is if the left is not able to integrate these workers and provide them a kind of identity that talks to their economic pain without blaming immigrants, right? That’s what the right is doing. They are claiming that it’s because of the migrants. And that’s the real problem, because those economic problems that the workers feel, they don’t come from the migrants. It’s coming from inequalities. It’s coming from too much corporate interest over policymaking.

And those are the things that the left should fix. But then, if the left doesn’t fix them, then the right comes in and proposes its own right illiberal solutions. And if that’s the only thing that the workers see as an alternative, then they will go for that. And there are some who are indeed more attracted by the racism aspect, but then there are those who are more attracted by Trump’s economic nationalism, by when he’s saying, “I will bring manufacturing jobs back. I will increase” — I mean, “I will create jobs here in the U.S. and not abroad.” And Viktor Orbán is doing the same thing. So these are really interrelated things, and also a lot depends on whether there is an alternative, political alternative, for these workers to express their anger.

AMY GOODMAN: Gábor Scheiring, visiting fellow at the Center for European studies at Harvard University and assistant professor at Georgetown University in Qatar. He was a Green member of the Hungarian parliament from 2010 to 2014. We spoke to him about his new pieces in The Conversation and Common Dreams, the headline, “I watched Hungary’s democracy dissolve into authoritarianism as a member of parliament — and I see troubling parallels in Trumpism and its appeal to workers.”

Tomorrow on Democracy Now!, on Thursday, we’ll speak with the acclaimed TV broadcaster and author Mehdi Hasan, who left MSNBC after his show was canceled, one of the most prominent Muslim voices on American television. In October, the news outlet Semafor reported MSNBC had reduced the roles of Hasan and two other Muslim broadcasters on the network.

And that does it for our show. Coming up next month, I’ll be speaking at KPFA’s 75th anniversary celebration in Berkeley. I can’t wait to see everyone there in person in Berkeley on April 6th. Go to democracynow.org for details.

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Hana Elias. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude, Dennis McCormick, Matt Ealy, Anna Ozbek, Emily Andersen and Buffy Saint Marie Hernandez. To see our podcasts, video and audio, and transcripts of all shows, you can go to democracynow.org, and check us out on Facebook. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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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