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Reviews |  Why Republicans love the land of ‘illiberal democracy’


This year, the American Conservative Union has decided to hold one of its Conservative Political Action Conference rallies in Hungary. The group met last week in Budapest, guests of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who – since taking office in 2010 – has led the country away from liberal democracy towards a system he proudly calls ” illiberal democracy”.

Of course, with its endemic corruption, repression of sexual minorities, de facto state control over the media, constitutional manipulation and an electoral system designed to give the ruling party supermajorities whether the votes are there or not. , there are few democratic things in the politics of Orban. democracy.

For American conservatives, however, the decay of Hungarian democracy is a feature, not a bug, of Orban’s rule.

Hungary isn’t a particularly large country (in terms of population, it’s about the size of Michigan) or a particularly wealthy country (its gross domestic product puts it somewhere between Nebraska and Kansas), but it is a showcase of how a reactionary movement in a country seemingly a free society could take control of the state to reshape society in its own image. And the goal, for both Orban and his American admirers, is the suppression of “awakening,” a pejorative term for a wide range of progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality. This includes, for some, the mere existence of LGBT people on an equal footing.

This shared goal of suppressing awakening is why Tucker Carlson, one of America’s most prominent conservatives, hosted his show from Hungary for a week last year. “If you care about Western civilization, democracy and families and the ferocious assault on those three things by the leaders of our global institutions,” Carlson told his audience at the time, “you should know what’s going on here right now.” It’s also why Rod Dreher, a popular conservative blogger and author, wrote that his readers “should make their way to Hungary.” And that’s why Donald Trump backed Orban’s re-election campaign not once, but twice.

That is to say, this CPAC session may have been held in Hungary for conservatives to learn a bit more about how they could untangle American democracy to impose their cultural and ideological vision on the country. They even received a little encouragement from Orban himself. “We have to take back the institutions in Washington and in Brussels,” he said in his opening remarks on Thursday. “We have to find friends and we have to find allies. We have to coordinate the movement of our troops, because we have a big challenge ahead of us. Attendees heard from Trump, his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, and Carlson himself, whom Orban praised: “His program is the most watched. What does it mean? That means shows like his should be on the air day and night. Or as you say, 24/7.

What is striking about this display of nostalgia and affection for Orban’s regime – beyond the obvious sight of people who are ostensibly American nationalists working in concert with a foreign autocrat – is the way he emphasizes a defining trait of conservative populists, if not conservative populism itself. Despite all the talk of “America First”, there is a deep disdain among members of this group for Americans and American political tradition.

This disdain is evident in the way they talk about their political opponents. They regularly place entire groups of citizens outside the political community. Carlson, for example, said on a recent episode of his show that pro-choice Democrats are “totalitarians” who hope to destroy religious belief in the United States.

As president, Trump has regularly framed his opposition as a threat to the very integrity of the United States. “Our nation is witnessing a relentless campaign to erase our history, defame our heroes, erase our values ​​and indoctrinate our children,” he said in a July 4, 2020 speech. The culprits? “Angry crowds” and “radicals” he identified with “liberal democrats”. Less publicized but still telling was the assertion by a writer from the Claremont Institute, an influential pro-Trump think tank in Southern California, that “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half – are in no way American. significant meaning of the term. »

To all this, add the fact that so many populist and Trump-aligned conservatives have embraced the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which treats American pluralism and diversity as an existential challenge to the nation itself.

As for conservative populist disdain for American political tradition? This is evident in the way the Tories turned to Hungary for advice in the first place, praising an underage strongman as if he were a figure of world historic significance.

That said, you can almost forgive conservatives for looking to Europe for intellectual inspiration. As historian Barbara Fields observed in a 1990 essay for the New Left Review, the “only historical ground that could have nurtured” a tradition of “thorough, consistent, and honest political conservatism” in the United States was “the southern slave society. .” But that society, she wrote, was “contaminated by the need to satisfy the democratic aspirations of a propertied, emancipated, and armed white majority.” This contradiction has left us with a world in which only a few conservatives are willing to argue on principle that “hereditary inequality and subordination should be the lot of the majority,” even if that is where their politics ultimately lead.

So it makes sense that authoritarian-minded conservatives would try to import or emulate politics and ideology like this rather than rooting it in the soil from which it actually sprang. As explicitly autocratic as orbanism is, the singer still offers a level of plausible deniability that a more local reactionary politics might lack.

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