Is Hungary a Vision of America’s Future?

Alan Zendell, August 3, 2021

The idea is not original with me. I witnessed an important event that supports it, but I am grateful to Boston College historian Heather Richardson for bringing it to light today in her newsletter, Letters from an American. (If you’re interested in an objective view of the day’s events presented in a historical context, I highly recommend it.) Richardson wrote about the erosion of democracy in Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has held that position since 2010, has been systematically dismantling the apparatuses that are vital to a democratic society for eleven years.

According to Richardson, “Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy.” His first target was the media, which he subjected to a reward and punishment loyalty test that had zero tolerance for political opposition. His parliament re-wrote Hungary’s constitution in 2012 to increase Orban’s power, which enabled him to stack the country’s judicial and election systems with loyalists and reward his financial supporters by greatly increasing their wealth. Richardson concluded that “[w]hile Hungary still has elections, state control of the media and the apparatus of voting means that it is impossible for Orbán’s opponents to take power.”

Sound familiar? It should. In case there is any doubt about what this could mean for America, Orban now has a new friend in right wing media star Tucker Carlson. Orban spent a quarter of a million dollars to arrange an appearance on Carlson’s FOX News program, and Carlson recently visited Orban in Hungary. Orban’s transformation of Hungary’s democracy into a one-party system dominated by an autocratic “strong man” in just eleven years fits perfectly with Carlson’s view of how America should evolve. Not incidentally, Donald Trump is in full agreement.

Much has been written about the similarity between Trump’s tactics and the rise of Fascism in 1930s, and Hungary appears to be quietly following the same Fascist playbook. But it’s not only Professor Richardson’s article that convinced me. I was in Hungary in 2015, a few months before Donald Trump was elected president. With all the chaos Trump has generated, it can be difficult to remember the specifics of the outrage he sparked back then with his inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, refugees, and White Supremacy. Apparently, the rest of the world took notice and greeted his potential election with considerable alarm. Could this actually be the United States of America they were observing?

I happened to arrive in Budapest during the week of the mass exodus of refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria. The status of those refugees dominated international media for months, with several countries, led by Germany, Austria, and Sweden pledging to accept and shelter hundreds of thousands. Giving refugees resident status wasn’t necessarily the humanitarian gesture it seemed to be, as those nations were desperately in need of low-end workers, but it was a workable solution that saved countless families. Countries like France and the UK, where anti-immigrant sentiment had been growing, encountered strong opposition to resettling Syrian refugees within their borders, but even they reached a workable accommodation.

The route taken by the army of Syrian refugees, almost entirely families traveling on foot carrying everything they owned, passed through Budapest. On my second day in Hungary, Prime Minister Orban delivered a scathing, televised address attacking the refugees, calling them criminals and terrorists, and loudly proclaiming that Hungary was a Christian nation that did not want Muslims. The refugees were corralled in Budapest’s main railway terminal, and forced to continue their march along the international highway connecting Hungary to Austria and Germany.

European media described Orban as the Hungarian Donald Trump, which in 2016, really got my attention. It meant fear of Trump’s values and ambitions for America had already spread to Europe and dominated its news media. Perhaps I was naïve to be shocked, but it made me see the danger Trump posed at home in a new light. Thus, this blog.

If the prospect of Tucker Carlson and FOX News partnering with Orban, the way they have with Trump for six years doesn’t horrify you, it should. It’s one thing to compare Trump to Mussolini and Hitler, but most Americans are ambivalent about Hungary if they feel anything at all. The idea of an unabashedly biased right wing media outlet with tens of millions of viewers posturing Hungary as the future of Europe scares me. With their lack of respect for facts, holding up Orban’s transformation of Hungary as the nation-state of the future can only strengthen the trend toward one-party autocracy in America.

Is that the future we want?

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