I have never thought that I would read the best in-a-nutshell summary of what went wrong in Hungary (and how eerily unspectacular it was) in an American magazine, but here it goes. So let us go through the similarities and differences between two leaders of illiberal intentions and inclinations, Trump and Orbán.
“What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example—and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.
“The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
“Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.”
— David Frum: How to Build an Autocracy, The Atlantic, March 2017
PM Viktor Orbán first came into politics riding the wave of the liberal tide of 1989 – but liberal values, human rights and a free society no longer serve him. So he ditched them and by 2010 reemerged as a would-be autocrat with a step-by-step plan. The last 7 years were full of outrageous political moves – if your standpoint remained consistently pro-civilization and pro-citizen. But chances are, even the most principled standpoints supporting free societies have wavered since then. The attacks of liberal values are not only coming from Russia – the smart-ass, little wise guys are now among us, on all sides of every political divide and debate, pecking away at the principles that made the world a better place to live in for actual people. It is actually hard to imagine that they came up with their counter-intuitive little arguments all at once and all by themselves.
It all happened gradually, so that no single step seemed big enough to make a fuss about. They could all be explained away. When the Hungarian constitution was replaced by the basic law by a single party behind it and it was obviously lacking in constitutional principles, for instance, they argued that there were precedents in commendable countries of each and every element of their new basic law – just perhaps not in this combination. The distinction is crucial though, because the lines of the new basic law now pieced together happen to be the opposite of constitutional. They don’t set ambition against ambition, they create no counterbalance to the executive power, and they gut independent institutions to serve the government’s whims
faster and with no resistance effectively.
Deniability and complicity
The public was free to play it down (there were protests, but they don’t matter anymore) because the power grab was deniable, gradual – and the government even offered the excuses to explain it away.
To remain with the example of the constitution: those who understood it, naturally did react. But constitutional jargon is way too complex to awaken passion. The government’s explanation is, however, gut-level: they need the empowerment to act quickly because there are enemies out there.
The argument of emergency
The argument from emergency suits Orbán doubly well: Not only is he a textbook strongman but he also personally thrives in war. He said it a million times, everyone knows it, this is his modus operandi. And if there is no actual blood-fanged enemy out there he can create one or conjure up a shadow to scare his folks. Anything to make them feel helpless and cede control.
That’s the one reason the public is petrified. How could they protest against the man who protects them? He may be wrong on this or that but for God’s sake, he is defending us! We are in grave danger, this is war and not the time for nitpicking and pesky human rights.
The other reason people shut up is less innocent: they are served an excuse for forgiving the strongman – and they are happy to use that excuse. Not only is he protecting us, goes the argument, but we have no reason to revolt. See, he is not crushing us. He is just elevating his friends. Okay, that means they are stealing. But they are stealing from the public but we have no concept of being a taxpayer and citizen. Besides, it goes on on such a large scale, we are running out of outrage, we can’t get ourselves worked up sufficiently for each billion that goes into sham projects.
The point is to protect the cronies – Not to attack the opposition. At least at first
Hungarians no longer trust the courts to defend their rights, so they simply stopped assuming they have rights or that it matters. But at least they are not personally attacked (if they stay silent). Courts are there to protect the cronies from legal consequences, and that is a lesser sin than convicting grandma.
“The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
And that is were Orbán looks a lot like Trump. Trump’s frenzied efforts to pardon everyone is just a more spectacular expression of the same mechanism in Hungary: the takeover of the prosecution, the disciplining of justice, and the effective impunity of Fidesz leaders and friends. There doesn’t have to be an outright legal attack on the opposition for it to be the erosion of justice and the entire political system – although there will be attacks. If there is anything we’ve learned about the gradual erosion of freedom with any certainty, it is that grandma will see her own turn in court – only by then there will be no one to protest for her. Gradualism thus works spectacularly against humans.
““Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz late last year. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce … Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.” Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary.”