I just read an article by David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. The title of the piece is “How to Build an Autocracy.” In it Frum argues that the preconditions for the establishment of an autocratic type of regime are present in the United States. He portrays an “illiberal” United States of America with President Donald Trump as an autocrat, warning that “checks and balances” is only a metaphor, not a mechanism. Frum’s imagined no longer democratic United States “is possible only if many people other than Donald Trump agree to permit it” and if Americans opt not to resist Trump and his policies. It is an extremely powerful and deeply disturbing piece.
Frum points to Viktor Orbán’s Hungary as an example of what can happen to a country captured by an autocrat. Hungary, after seven years under Viktor Orbán, has the dubious distinction of being regularly cited as an example of depravity, corruption at the highest level, frightened and oppressed media, and increasingly irrelevant elections. Let me quote the pertinent passage:
What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example—and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.
The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.
One must read the whole article to appreciate David Frum’s masterful essay and his portrayal of Donald Trump who, during whose presidency, “will corrode public integrity and the rule of law.” In his opinion, “the damage has already begun, and it will not be soon or easily undone. Yet exactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question—the most important near-term question in American politics. It is also an intensely personal one, for its answer will be determined by the answer to another question: What will you do? And you? And you?”
In Hungary, I’m afraid, too few people are ready to stand up and say, “Yes, I will take action.”