A Plot Against Democracy: How the GOP has shamelessly taken the playbook of oppressive regimes
The GOP seems to have gone nuts. But, in reality, they are just following a plan. And it is not even a new plan. It has worked elsewhere.
Seventeen Republican-controlled states have now passed 28 voter suppression laws, in most cases even asserting that if elections don’t turn out the way the Party likes they can simply change or ignore the results. It’s driven Texas legislators, faced with another law like that, to flee the state in a desperate effort to preserve their voting rights.
Meanwhile, the GOP has gone all-in on embracing white supremacy and demonizing nonwhite people while rejecting basic science about everything from the climate emergency to vaccines to teaching science and history in our schools.
They’re fighting to prevent the IRS from auditing the returns of tax-cheat billionaires who cost the country hundreds of billions a year while opposing any efforts to repair or improve our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
They’ve packed the courts with “corporations are people, my friend” oligarchy-supporting judges and are propped up by billionaire-funded national media and think-tank networks.
Big money, big oil, big Pharma and big corruption have become their brand.
Where is all this leading? If they continue down the road they’re currently following, what will it mean for the nature and character of America and American governance?
To see the GOP’s 2022-2024 playbook we don’t have to dig through musty archives or watch old documentaries: today’s Republican playbook is actually nothing new. It’s just the American version of something that’s played out repeatedly in democratic republics since the 1920s in Italy, Spain and Germany.
Hungary is probably the best and most instructive example of today’s version of this, with mind-boggling parallels to the US. Steve Bannon, for example, said that Hungary’s strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was “Trump before Trump.”
In August of 1989, my best friend Jerry Schneiderman and I spent the better part of a week sitting in outdoor cafes on the Buda side of the Danube River, eating extraordinary (and cheap!) food, staying in a grand old hotel, and generally exploring Budapest.
Two months earlier there had been massive pro-democracy demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people demanding that the Soviet Union let Hungary go. The summer we were there, over a quarter-million showed up in Heroes’ Square for the reinterment of the body of Imre Nagy, a hero of the ill-fated 1956 rebellion against the USSR.
The final speaker was 26-year-old Viktor Orbán, a rising politician who would soon be a member of Parliament. To an explosion of enthusiastic cheers, Orbán defied the Soviets (the only speaker to overtly do so) and openly called for “the swift withdrawal of Russian troops.”
Nine months later, in March of 1990 and with the approval of Mikhail Gorbachev, Hungary held its first real elections since 1945; in 1999, it joined NATO; and in 2004, it became a member of the European Union.
For 20 years, Hungary was a functioning democracy; today, it’s a corrupt oligarchy.
In nine short years after he was elected in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, now fabulously wealthy by Hungarian standards and an oligarch himself, succeeded in transforming his nation’s government from a functioning European democracy into an autocratic and oligarchic regime of single-party rule.
Orbán took over the Fidesz Party, once a conventional “conservative” political party like the GOP, with the theme of restoring “Christian” purity and “making Hungary great again.” His rallies regularly draw tens of thousands.
He campaigned on building a wall across the entirety of Hungary’s southern border, a promise he has largely kept.
He altered the nation’s Constitution to do what we’d call gerrymandering and voter suppression in much the same way Texas is now trying to do and Georgia just did, ensuring that his party, Fidesz, would win a majority of the votes in pretty much every federal election well into the future.
He’s now packed the courts, particularly Hungary’s equivalent of the Supreme Court, so thoroughly that legal challenges against him and his party go nowhere.
Last month Hungary passed laws requiring “conservative” sex education in schools (“gay is bad”) and banning any positive portrayal of LGBTQ people on TV. In public campaigns they’ve conflated homosexuality with pedophilia. The latest anti-gay law passed the Hungarian Parliament by a vote of 157 to 1.
His party railed against teaching multiracialism and racial tolerance, instead rewriting grade school textbooks to say that refugees entering the country are a threat because “it can be problematic for different cultures to coexist.” Using this logic, he has locked up refugee children in cages.
When the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said “the indefinite detention of many vulnerable migrants, including families with small children, is cruel and inhuman,” Orbán said the influx of Syrian refugees seeking asylum “poses a security risk and endangers the continent’s Christian culture and identity.” He added, “Immigration brings increased crime, especially crimes against women, and lets in the virus of terrorism.”
Five years and one week before American Nazis rallied in Charlottesville and murdered Heather Heyer, a group of some 700 right-wing “patriots” held a torchlight parade that ended in front of the homes of Hungary’s largest minority group, chanting “We will set your homes on fire!” Orbán’s police watched without intervening. In 2013, Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Orbán’s party, had called the Roma “animals… unfit to live among people.” Orbán refused to condemn him or the anti-Roma violence.
Orbán has handed government contracts to his favored few, elevating an entire new class of pro-Orbán businesspeople who have now seized almost complete control of the nation’s economy, as those who opposed him have lost their businesses, been forced to sell their companies, and often fled the country.
Virtually the entire nation’s press is now in the hands of oligarchs and corporations loyal to him, with hard-right talk radio and television across the country singing his praises daily. Billboards and social media proclaim his patriotism. His media allies are now reaching out to purchase media across the rest of Europe to spread his racist, right-wing message.
He recently began dismantling the Hungarian Science Academy, replacing or simply firing scientists who acknowledge climate change, which he has called “left-wing trickery made up by Barack Obama.”
The world, in particular the EU, has watched this rolling political nightmare with increasing alarm, and even the EU’s 2015 and 2018 attempts to essentially impeach Orbán have backfired, increasing his two reelection margins as his handmaids in the media proclaim him a victim of a European “deep state” and meddling foreigners, particularly George Soros (who, ironically, once paid for young Orbán to attend college in Britain).
While he blasts Soros and his own country’s Jewish leaders with anti-Semitic tropes, he was feted by fellow rightwinger and former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who called him “a true friend of Israel.” Orbán, an anti-Semite to his core, nonetheless replied, “A Hungarian patriot and a Jewish Israeli patriot will always find something in common.”
In May 2020, the same month Rudy Giuliani said he had a former Ukrainian prosecutor willing to testify that Joe Biden was corrupt, Donald Trump invited Orbán to the White House for a state visit; Orbán became one of Trump’s two primary sources of information about how Ukraine opposed or tried to sabotage the U.S. president.
Orbán has fully reinvented Christianity in Hungary, embracing a hard-right movement within the Catholic Church and among protestant evangelicals.
The Central European University just moved out of Hungary in the face of a growing threat of violence against progressive religious organizations, a ban on classes, and the tight embrace of rightwing churches by the government. Its rector, Michael Ignatieff, said, “There’s just no doubt that this is organized as a way of saying that ‘Christianity’ means ‘white conservative Europe’. It’s a trope. Say the world ‘Christian’ and it says everything else that you want to say.”
Thus, Trump told Orbán, “You have been great with respect to Christian communities…and we appreciate that very much.” In a rally three months before his White House meeting, Orbán said that countries that accept non-Christian or non-white refugees are producing “mixed-race nations.”
Orbán is now ruthlessly using his own nation’s diplomatic and criminal justice systems to aid foreign criminal oligarchs, having hired his own versions of corrupt senior officials like Bill Barr and Mike Pompeo.
His hard-right party is also reaching out to other white supremacist parties in Europe to forge alliances to overthrow the “liberal order” of the EU. Conservatives in America are taking notice and writing glowing pieces about him.
Before you say that what the GOP is doing won’t work or can’t end democracy in America, you may want to take a trip to Budapest.
It can still happen here.