For far too many years, Americans have made the mistake of assuming that our republican democracy will be safe as long as we elect competent and well-intentioned politicians as leaders.

Sadly, that is like thinking your surgeon, who is very good at what she does, will do a wonderful job even though the hospital can no longer provide her with sterile instruments or running water.

The reality is that democracies depend on a particular type of infrastructure to function properly. Without that infrastructure, they rapidly slide first into oligarchy and then into fascism. The two most recent examples are Russia and Hungary, although America is well down the road herself.

Recognizing the need for these core infrastructure elements to sustain democracy, neofascists within the GOP and the Supreme Court have been busily deconstructing them for the past 40 years, leading us directly to today’s crisis.

The three core pillars that hold up democratic republics are a vibrant and free press, trustworthy electoral systems, and academic independence. Which is why Republicans have been trying to destroy all three.

In Russia, for example, the word is “dzherimendering.” In the months before elections are held in that country, the government re-draws the maps for political districts to make sure Putin and his party maintain majority control of the parliament (Duma). It is a trick they brag they learned from Americans.

It’s pretty much the same in Hungary, as Project Syndicate noted:

“After Fidesz won its first supermajority in 2010, it changed the electoral law unilaterally to boost its own future results (through gerrymandering and new rules awarding extra seats for big wins in individual districts). With these changes in place, Fidesz retained its supermajority in 2014, even though it received 8% less of the vote than it had in 2010. Changing the rules has since become the party’s modus operandi. Its amendments to the electoral law now number in the hundreds; the latest were adopted just months ago. Owing to the electoral system’s skewed rules, Fidesz has secured 68% of parliamentary seats with 53% of the vote.”

And Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was only able to get 53% of the vote by similarly rigging the media. His government has taken over their public broadcasting equivalents of NPR and PBS, so they sing Orbán’s praises 24/7.

And, like in Russia, the commercial media has been almost entirely taken over by Hungarian oligarchs made rich by sweetheart government deals: almost every radio and TV station in Hungary today is broadcasting the Hungarian equivalent of Fox “News,” all deifying Orbán and his billionaire buddies who run the country.

Education is similarly under the control of the Russian and Hungarian governments. Any professor in Russia who dares discuss politics, race, or queer issues will find himself shipped off to a prison camp. In Budapest, the progressive Christian Central European University fled Hungary in the face of growing threats 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 but 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, it surprised nobody when wannabee fascist strongman Ron DeSantis seized control of Florida’s flagship liberal arts school, the New College, and replaced a third of its staff, rewrote its classes to eliminate references to African-American history or white race-based crimes, and packed the incoming student body with people on athletic scholarships.

These are also examples of ways Republicans are trying to destroy the infrastructure of democracy here. Which is why just keeping an insurrection-supporting traitor like Jim Jordan out of the House speakership isn’t going to save American democracy.

While it is important to keep toxic politicians out of office or positions of power, without elections that are not gerrymandered and thus truly reflect the will of the voters; politically independent media; and a vibrant university system to educate the next generation of American leaders, we’re inexorably heading down the path that Russia and Hungary have trod.

And it is not like Republicans and their wealthy colleagues are trying to hide it. When Orbán hosted the CPAC Republican fascist-fest this May in Budapest, the Hungarian “soft fascism” strongman president told the audience, to a standing ovation:

“Hungary is actually an incubator where experiments are done on the future of conservative policies. Hungary is the place where we didn’t just talk about defeating the progressives and liberals and causing a conservative Christian political turn, but we actually did it.”

The key, Orbán told his American fascist fanboys, was for the government and the party’s billionaires to take control of the media using the same strategy he and Putin used to hand most industrial and media operations to their favored oligarchs.

Orbán has handed government contracts to his favored few, elevating an entire group of pro-Orbán businessmen (it appears all are men) who have now seized almost complete control of that nation’s economy. Those who opposed him have lost their businesses, been forced to sell their companies, and often fled the country.

This is why virtually all of Hungary’s press is now in the hands of oligarchs and corporations loyal to Orbán, with hard-right talk radio and television across the country singing his praises daily. Progressive media is functionally banned. Billboards and social media proclaim Orbán’s patriotism everywhere.

He told the American CPAC conference in Budapest last year they should do the same in America when Republicans next seize control of the US government:

“Have your own media,” he said. “It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left. The problem is that the western media is adjusted to the leftist viewpoint. Those who taught reporters in universities already had progressive leftist principles.”

He added:

“Of course, the GOP has its media allies but they can’t compete with the mainstream liberal media. My friend Tucker Carlson is the only one who puts himself out there. His show is the most popular. What does it mean? It means programs like his should be broadcasted day and night. Or, as you say, 24/7.”

After his 2022 speech was publicized in the US, many American media outlets were banned from attending CPAC 2023 in Budapest. As Vice News reported:

“Besides VICE News, journalists from Rolling Stone, Vox Media, and the New Yorker were turned away from the conference, despite repeated assurances from the American Conservative Union that access would be provided. Journalists from other non-Hungarian media outlets, including the Guardian and Associated Press, tweeted that they had also been denied accreditation, despite months of requests.”

His media allies are now reaching out to purchase media across the rest of Europe and inviting American rightwing groups to Hungary to help spread his racist, “soft fascist” message. Tucker Carlson took him up on his invitation last year, broadcasting his poison directly into American homes from his presidential palace.

In his opening comments before Orbán took the stage, CPAC chairman – and accused sexual harasser – Matt Schlapp echoed Orbán’s strategy, as the Associated Press noted:

“In opening comments, CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp said that CPAC in the U.S. had decided to ‘go Hungarian’ in their approach to the media, deciding for themselves ‘who is a journalist and who is not a journalist’ when determining which outlets to allow into their events.”

But journalism is not the only institution fascists want to tear down. Orbán recently began dismantling the Hungarian Science Academy, replacing or simply firing scientists and professors who acknowledge climate change, which he has called “left-wing trickery made up by Barack Obama.”

Here in the US, rightwingers started building their political empires with American oligarchs and their giant corporations that wanted to become even more massive. They were willing to pay politicians nearly anything to get the job done, and, since five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court had legalized political bribery in 1978, that meant billions.

Following massive campaign contributions from wannabe monopolies, in 1983 President Reagan ordered the DOJ, SEC, and FTC to essentially stop enforcing America’s anti-trust laws. At that time, every mall and downtown in America was filled with locally-owned businesses and there were over 10,000 independent media operations in America. Most radio and television stations had a single, local owner, as did most newspapers.

In 1987 he ended enforcement of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine and in 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that both gave immunity to social media from the content they carry (making Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire) and largely ended restrictions on the number of radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers a single company could own.

Rush Limbaugh started the year after Reagan killed the fairness doctrine; Air America died when the giant radio monopoly Clear Channel, recently acquired by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, began flipping their stations to sports. Pretty much the only independent voices today are found on a handful of commercial progressive radio stations, Pacifica, and Free Speech TV.

As a result, America’s media landscape is looking more and more like Orbán’s: unwilling or unable to call our rightwing leadership out for their real agenda of American fascism.

Ninety percent of our media is now owned by six corporations; two rightwing billionaires own our largest social media operations; and Republicans are treated as if a party that’s all-in on sedition is still legitimate.

One recent weekend on the Sunday news/politics shows, for example, it was two Republicans for every Democrat as SocialDemocrat61 pointed out on Democratic Underground:

“ABC This Week: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, GOP Senator Tim Scott” – 2 republicans and 1 democrat, although cabinet Secretaries are non-partisan we will count him as a Democrat

“CBS Face the Nation: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, GOP Senator Mitch McConnell, Liz Cheney” – again 2 Republicans and 1 Democrat

“FOX News Sunday: GOP Senator Mitch McConnell, Dem Rep. Adam Smith, Newt Gingrich” – once again 2 republicans and 1 democrat

“NBC Meet the Press: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, GOP Representative Kevin McCarthy, Mike Pence.” – Yet again 2 republicans and 1 democrat”

This is nothing new. During the Bush administration the networks told us they needed more Republicans than Democrats on the Sunday shows because Republicans were in power and so we needed to hear from those who could actually make and change legislation.

During the Obama administration the pattern of more Republicans than Democrats continued, but through those 8 years we were told they needed more Republicans because the GOP was the party out of power and so we needed to hear from “the opposition.”

In the middle of the Trump administration, 2018, Media Matters for America again looked at three months worth of Sunday shows and noted that the media had maintained their same ratio:

“Over the past three months, right-leaning guest panels on the five major Sunday political news shows have outnumbered left-leaning panels 33 to six. Nearly half of all guest panels titled right, meaning they had more right-leaning than left-leaning guests; by comparison, less than 10 percent of the panels tilted left.”

This is not how you keep a democracy intact. In the third year of George Washington’s presidency, 1791, our Constitution was amended with the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment that prevents the government from legislating or dictating the news.

Four years later, according to 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, British conservative Edmund Burke defined the press as “the fourth estate of the realm.” He meant it as a slur; Burke was no egalitarian and in his opinion the press of his day, enthralled by the American revolutionaries’ example, too often tended in that direction.

In the roughly three centuries since the rise of American democracy and the British royal family’s largely surrendering sovereignty to Parliament and the people who elect them at a local level, a free and independent press has played a vital role in maintaining and preserving the robust and adversarial political system necessary for a functioning republic.

The author of the Declaration of Independence and the first draft of that Bill of Rights – in correspondence with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide, whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Make no mistake: the MAGA faction of the GOP, which has largely taken over that party nationwide, is irreversibly committed to gerrymanders that defy the will of voters, supporting oligarch-owned for-profit media that caters to them, and ending the independence of public schools, colleges, and universities.

Consider how gerrymanders fly in the face of democracy itself. In multiple states, more citizens voted for Democrats than Republicans, which is why each of those states now have a Democratic governor (a statewide election).

But Wisconsin, for example, gives us a quick view of how the GOP has gone around democracy to hang onto power against the will of the state’s people. Fully 53% of the state voted Democratic, but their delegation to the US House is made up of 6 Republicans and 2 Democrats. In the State House, Republicans hold 64 out of 99 seats; it’s the same story in the State Senate with Republicans keeping 22 out of 33 seats.

Increasingly, Democratic politicians are starting to emphasize these structural impediments to functional democracy in America. It is becoming all too clear how they’re being rigged by the GOP in Red state after Red state to hold onto power, even in the face of rising opposition from voters.

Voters who believe in democracy, a free press, and a public education system committed to honest inquiry and intellectual integrity must now step up and let their representatives know how important these things are to them. Because, as Russia and Hungary show us, once a country has lost the institutions that maintain its democracy, it is hard to get them back.

Sebastian Portillo, Microfile Org, Kim Kelley Wagner, Crush Rush, Robert Clay Photo, HW22, and Radowitz (via Shutterstock)

Subscribe to The Hartmann Report directly and read the latest views about U.S. politics and other fascinating subjects seven days a week.