Americans should pay close attention to how Hungary lost its democracy.
By Norman L. Eisen, J.D.
With Tucker Carlson’s exit from his perch on Fox News, his activities are in the news less, but they continue to be influential for millions who now watch his broadcasts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Case in point is his alarming interview late last month with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Orbán has transformed Hungary into what he describes as an “illiberal state” – openly embracing autocracy – and recently declared his intent to stay in power for more than another decade. To Tucker and many on the American right, Orbán’s government is a model to emulate in the United States. That should be concerning to any American who values their own democracy. And this isn’t the first time Orbán has had a prominent U.S. platform – just a year ago, he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, warning ominously, “Politics are not enough. This war is a culture war.”
Carlson’s dialogue is the latest alarm bell about the threat posed by Orbán and the disinformation spread by him and his authoritarian compatriots. For example, Carlson claimed that Hungary’s press “is much freer than ours.” That’s not true. Orbán and his allies have wrested control of much of the country’s media, a classic tactic of autocrats as they consolidate their rule. Carlson also praised Orbán for supposedly winning a “fair election” in 2022. That is not true either. Independent observers concluded that the election was neither free, nor fair, because it did not provide opposition parties with a “level playing field.”
In the interview, Orbán claimed that his liberal critics in Washington are the ones who are “against freedom” and an “enemy of freedom.” That is also false. Orbán’s democratic backsliding has been widely documented. As a result, Freedom House, an independent democracy watchdog, has downgraded Hungary to only “partly free” in its most recent rankings.
Americans should pay close attention to how Hungary lost its democracy. Leaders on the American right seem to be embarking on a similar course. It is easy to see the parallels between the Hungarian prime minister and the policies of former President Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. And the political movements of Trump and his imitators like DeSantis are intertwined with Orbán’s.
For example, a key pillar of Orbán’s and Trump’s political program is conspiracism – a reflexive belief that dark forces are undermining the will of the people. In typical autocratic fashion, Orbán and Trump claim that only they can save their people from these nefarious actors. In fact, Orbán told Carlson that only Trump “can save the Western world.” Carlson is America’s chief propagandist for this conspiratorial and apocalyptic worldview. It is inherently corrosive for democracy. In this view, American politics are no longer about differences over policy, but instead part of an epic and zero-sum civilizational struggle.
Consider the “great replacement theory,” which is based on the belief that the Western elite seek to replace white Americans and Europeans with immigrants of color. This racist allegation was once confined to the fringes of the internet, on websites where white nationalists and other extremists stewed in their imaginary grievances. It is no longer fringe. Orbán made it central to his political program, while Carlson promoted it on his highly rated cable show. During his May 2022 inauguration speech, Orbán claimed he was defending Hungary against the “great European population replacement program, which seeks to replace the missing European Christian children with migrants, with adults arriving from other civilizations.” Meanwhile, Carlson insisted on his former Fox News show that the “great replacement theory” wasn’t crazy, InfoWars-style content, but instead the Democrats’ “electoral strategy.”
Trump and Carlson wield conspiracy theories as weapons against the U.S. government. Carlson eagerly promoted Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged.” After thousands of Trump’s enraged supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Carlson lied on their and Trump’s behalf – falsely claiming that the U.S. government had somehow tricked Trump’s “patriots.” This is obviously nonsense, yet many on the American right believe it. The cumulative effect of the conspiracy theories promoted by Trump, Carlson, and their ilk, is to undermine confidence in America’s democracy. As a result, most Republicans still believe that the 2020 presidential election was somehow stolen from Trump.
The truth is that Orbán is an expert at altering the rules of the game in his favor. Hungarians vote in every election, but in a tilted system that all but guarantees victory for Orbán and his Fidesz party. Orbán and Fidesz have rewritten Hungary’s constitution to change how votes are cast and counted. These changes have benefited Fidesz, while making it much more difficult for opposition parties to compete and win.
After his party won the 2010 election with more than 50 percent of the vote and captured two-thirds of the seats in parliament, for instance, Orbán and his legislative minions amended the Hungarian constitution to cut the size of the parliament in half. Fidesz then gerrymandered Hungary’s voting districts to favor conservative rural areas over the comparatively more liberal cities. As a result, urban voters are underrepresented in Hungary’s parliament. Across two of Hungary’s election cycles, from 2014 to 2018, Fidesz used this rigged system to consolidate its power even while failing to win 50 percent of the nationwide vote. Only in 2022, after severely restricting opposition media and enacting other anti-democratic measures, did Fidesz finally again garner more than half of Hungarians’ votes.
In a functioning democracy, Orbán’s overreach would be held in check by an independent judiciary. But here, too, Orbán has followed the autocrat’s path by stacking the courts with loyalists and establishing a parallel administrative court system that is loyal to him, not the rule of law.
It’s easy to see why Carlson and his followers may find Orbán’s autocratic approach to be appealing. Trump and other far-right leaders are popular in America’s predominantly white rural counties, but far less so in the more diverse and populous metropolitan areas. That is why Carlson and other rightwing extremists need something like Orbán’s seizure of all the main levers of political, judicial and media power if they have any prospect of transforming America along the anti-democratic lines they envision.
In a 2021 speech in Hungary, Carlson began by minimizing his role, remarking that “we just in the end run a cable show, we’re not elected to anything, we have no actual power.” He no longer has his cable show, but he continues to spread his anti-democratic conspiracy theories and anti-government extremism to millions on social media. Americans must pay very close attention to Carlson and to Orbán so that the style of governance they are advocating never takes root on American soil.
Originally published by the Just Security, 09.15.2023, New York University School of Law, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs-NonCommercial license.