Hungary as a blueprint for an autocratic United States

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.”

February 2, 2017
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Roderick S. Beck
Guest

Really? As noted earlier, the US is not Hungary. In fact, the first two weeks strengthen the notion that Trump is too incompetent to be a dictator. The real concern is not the US becoming an autocracy, but rather the damage this incompetent fool will inflict on the world at large. I don’t know why this blog is so obsessed with this low probability event. Does anyone here have a clue about how diverse America relative to Hungary?

petofi
Guest

Quite, right, Mr. Beck. The central US government cannot intimidate or control the economy the way it’s done in a miserable country like Hungary. As for Russia, their economy is so one-dimensional, that would-be businessmen have to toe the line to get along. This can’t happen in the US.

But, what can happen, is the alienation of former allies like
Mexico. Notice that countries like Britain are working at keeping Trump away from their shores.

It’s a shame that breaking up the power monopoly of big business/big banks/big oil has to have a champion like Trump…mind you, he’s already thinking of abandoning the
phrase, “draining the swamp”.

At heart, Trump is a schemer, a liar, and a con; and probably hasn’t found the 50 billion bribe he wouldn’t happily take…

petofi
Guest

PS…let’s remember that Tillerson’s oil/gas deal with Putin was in the neighbourhood of 500 billion dollars.
I’m sure that in the triumvirate, the boys would be happy to give Trump-meister the lion’s share of 200 billion.

All in all, my under/over on the Trump presidency is 9 months…

webber
Guest

From your mouth to God’s ears.
I’d give him two years, because I’m guessing it will take at least that long for the bozos and crooks running the Republican Party to realize that if they don’t jettison him, everything will go down the drain (remember Nixon?).

seinean
Guest

I beg to differ. The example of Nicolae Ceaușescu shows that huge incompetence was not an obstacle to a 24 years long dictatorship.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

In a democratic system incompetence is a huge obstacle. The business class supported Trump reluctantly and if he screws up royally then he is toast.

Observer
Guest

Petofi,

“At heart, Trump is a schemer, a liar, and a con..”

Love that.

pappp
Guest

In Hungary people are simply afraid to act. They are. This isn’t exaggeration. Whether this fear is justified or irrational is impossible to know, but Orban and his corrupt system in indeed known to be aggressive and very vindictive.

If the referendum on the Olympics will be held in Budapest (which is a big if because Orban can still opt to cancel it by amending laws) it will be an interesting gauging of the current political temperature – of Budapest at least which is known to be much more left-leaning and anti-Orban than the rest of Hungary.

The migrant referendum was a good sign for those at least who are willing to see it that Orban is weakened. Hopefully, this referendum will be another such sign.

But people are registered by Orban if they sign the call for referendum, if they (despite the pressure) failed to vote at the migrant referendum or if they will vote at the Olympics referendum (in which case the government will certainly campaign to prevent people from casting a ballot by emphasizing that it will have the data on attendance and that will be taken into account at the next round of firings.

petofi
Guest

@ pappp

You obviously have no experience of Hungary. The people are right to fear. If the Orban gang want your business, they just take it. As for jobs, just get your face on the films they take
at demonstrations and your job–unless the most menial–is history.

Observer
Guest

And let’s not forget the thousands investigated upon gov reports (feljelentés), the hundreds imprisoned in preliminary detention (some for years) or indicted on up charges only to be acquired years later.
Obviously the puppet Chief Prosecutor can blast billions in hopless trials to achieve the regime’s goal – not winning the cases, but terrorizing the political opponents and intimidating the public, so no resources are spared. After all it’s the hapless dupes ( zemberek) who foot the bill, again.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

American checks and balances are probably the strongest in the world. Five judges have ruled against Trump and Trump has backed down in many respects on his travel ban. He is also about to lose a Senate confirmation, which rarely happens. There have been demonstrations and protests every day since Inauguration, a poorly attended event. Trump does not have the ability to amend the Constitution. As dangerous as Trump is, I don’t see the parallels between Hungary and the US. I think the US democrats have to be rather pleased with Trump’s erratic behavior.

Istvan
Guest
Really on a policy level Team Trump only backed down on some green card holders (permeant residents), but even then team Trump did not concede that green card holders can’t be excluded from the US based on the power of the President. The executive order still appears to affect foreign students, workers and other visa holders from the targeted countries. The courts ordered people who have already reached the United States and are holding valid papers be released from detention at airports. But many were forced out and sent out of the USA prior to the orders and a few after the orders were issued. Now the targeted people from the middle east are simply not able to get on airplanes to the USA. The specific power of President Trump is found under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it allows the President to restrict any class of aliens he deems “detrimental to the interests of the United States” without needing legislation or congressional approval. According to polling data I have seen from Quinnipiac released last week shows more American voters support President Trump’s executive order to temporarily suspend immigration from several Middle Eastern and North African countries than oppose it.… Read more »
Roderick S. Beck
Guest

Sorry, the ban has been lifted. Airlines are now accepting visa holders from the banned countries. Trump is crying on Twitter.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

And Federal laws forbids discrimination by nationality. So it is not as clear as you claim. He has a weak legal argument and the public outcry does influence judicial decisions whether acknowledged or not.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

There is no legal right to break Federal law or ignore right to due process. Law is not your field otherwise you would be aware that Federal law denies discrimination on the basis of nationality. Judges might waive the right to due process in the case where national survival is at stake. Otherwise Mr. Trump has heavy burden of proof in terms of legal evidence. He has to convince a judge that this is not arbitrary action by a lunatic. At this point that is the working hypothesis regarding the US President – arbitrary action by a lunatic.

webber
Guest

Arbitrary action by a lunatic (I agree), but I think you mean the executive order arguably violates the Constitution, not federal law. I under that the judge felt that the argument that the Constitution had been violated was tenable enough to entertain, and therefore suspended the order until the case is through the court.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

No, there is a Federal law banning discrimination by nationality. Not part of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

webber
Guest

Sure about that?

Discrimination is what is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has re-affirmed that in case after case (most recently, gay marriage).

All reports are that the Federal Court found the law could be unconstitutional, and therefore suspended it.

And it was not discrimination by nationality, but by religion that the states were arguing before the Federal judge.

Joe Simon
Guest

Éva has a new champion: David Frum.
He has written Dead Right, coined the slogan Axis of Evil, promoting unbridled US imperialism. Frum calls John Stuart Mill a socialist. Frum advocates free markets where a man like Soros should be able to buy the OTP or the Parliament Buildings. That is his definition of liberalism.

Pole
Guest

I don’t believe that Hungarians are so afraid of Orban regime. I watch the rise of Polish autocracy and I can say one thing People of Poland sold our freedom for social benefits like 100 euro for a child, lower age of retirenment and so on. This is reality.

Ferenc
Guest

Believe me, many people in Hungary are afraid of OV and his bunch of blind-followers. Especially those who don’t agree with many things from OV, but direct or indirect depend on his system in order to just make a living.
It really takes courage to stand up in Hungary against OV&co.

PS: which site(s) can you recommend to follow Polish matters (in English)

Pole
Guest

Yes I admit that after seven years people can be afraid. We are in Poland just on the beginning of the road just after one year of Kaczyński rule. I don’t know good sites about Poland in English but certainly I can recommend interpreter.mag about Ukraine and Russia.

Delenda
Guest

“Democracy” by which you really mean “weak government” that is incapable of protecting national interests is not what most people want. What most people want is, ya know, actual democracy. This blogger’s endorsement of David Frum’s article will no doubt be delicious fodder for some disturbing conspiracy theories.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

Wrong. Trump’s ban violates US law. The ban was completely lifted yesterday. Checks and balances make America a much better place to live than autocratic Russia or Hungary.

webber
Guest

Arguably violates the Constitution, not “the law”.

petofi
Guest

(Working overtime, Mr. Joe Simon?)

David Frum, the son of the luminous Barbara Frum of Toronto,
is a perceptive commentator.

As for buying OTP, better Soros than a KGB operative, think you not?

Guest

“Frum advocates free markets where a man like Soros should be able to buy the OTP or the Parliament Buildings.”

If Soros would buy the Parliament building he would have assured himself beforehand that he could resell it to the Walt Disney Company with a profit. Not impossible because with its countless towers and pinnacles the building would fit nicely in the company’s real estate portefeuille. A further attraction would be that anybody who enters it looses all sense of reality.

petofi
Guest

The blueprint comes not from Hungary but from Putin, Orban’s mentor.

Pole
Guest

Putin’s Russia is role model for everybody Erdogan Orban Kaczyński are imitating Putin illiberal democracy. One student Erdogan is even better than the master.

Delenda
Guest

Neocons showing their stripes. He should still be apologizing for the Americans he helped kill in Iraq.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

I am still waiting for the blueprint and the parallels.

Ovidiu
Guest
Orban’s revolution was the “revolution” of the local (national) elites which felt that their power was slipping away under the EU regulatory system. The EU system, with its pan-European and uniform body of rules, was forcing these local elites to follow the EU rules for competition (which means that you can also fail) instead of their usual way of making sure money through corruption (if they were state employees) or through preferential, set aside contracts with the sate, the public money (if they were private capitalists). EU (big powers, France and Germany) did a “mistake” in its polices toward their economic colonies in the East (former communist countries) : they engaged in a process of modernization of those societies. That’s not how the things were done in the past, and not what the national elites of those East-European countries expected when they happily agreed for their countries to join the EU. They expected that they will required to align the economy of their country with the economic interests of the West but, in exchange, they expected that they would be given some room of action for their corrupt practices, which thus would allow them (as all elites want) to perpetuate… Read more »
Guest

Ovidiu, I think you deliberately misuse, twist and distort many words and concepts in this post, among them “economic colonies in the East” and “when they happily agreed”. With respect, the term “colony” has connotations of being ruthlessly coerced against your will by cruel and uncaring colonial powers. I don’t see that this is the case in any way, shape or form in the former East Block countries you refer to, given that your so-called colonies, such as Hungary or Romania, for instance, were and are utterly desperate for the benefits emanating from their supposed colonial status with respect to, presumably Germany, Holland, France and until recently, Britain, supposedly their cruel and uncaring colonizers in your alternate universe. And with respect to your “happily agreed” distortion, my impression has always been that former East Block countries, such as Hungary, have always been absolutely desperate to join the EU, rather than “agreeing” to join out of some infinite generosity of heart. As to your portrayal of liberal democracy, it is a disgusting twisting and distortion of the actual facts of the case.

Guest

Ovidiu, I think that your post is full of conceptual and factual distortions and misrepresentations, among them the notion of what is an economic colony, or that the former East Block countries happily “agreed” to join the EU. With respect, the term “colony” has connotations of ruthless coercion and exploitation by a cruel and uncaring colonial power. It is mighty strange therefore that your former East Block countries are, and have always been, more than eager, nay, desperate to endure supposedly ruthless coercion and exploitation by their supposed colonial overlords, the “central powers” of the EU. Colonies don’t behave like that, only masochists do, except perhaps in your alternate universe. As to the former East Block countries having happily “agreed” to join the EU, my impression has always been that they were utterly desperate to join, rather than having “agreed” to join out of some infinite generosity of the heart on their part. As to your portrayal of the nature of liberal democracy, I think that it is not only malign and disgusting, but profoundly misinformed to boot.

Ovidiu
Guest
Ambalint, “Colony” is a loaded word which I choose to stress the unpleasant reality that these East-European are weak and underdeveloped countries which can’t stand alone and never did did. Since early 19th century, when the modern era started, their choice has always been between being an economical and political satellite of the Western powers or being a pseudo-state which is de facto part of the Russian empire/federation. My description of liberal democracy is cynical, machiavellian, but basically correct, and it is not “malign”. Self-government is an illusion but it is not an illusion that you can have a modicum of freedom and protection of people’s rights if the state is organized along the principle of deliberately breaking and fragmenting the power of the elites (separation of powers and independent institutions) and thus encouraging these (administratively created) gangs to fight eachother, People should always fight for themselves (just as elites always do) and this means fighting to prevent one gang taking control over the whole state (as in Russia and Hungary). You always have to support the weaker side, the opposition. Ideology doesn’t really matter but whether there us more power or less power for the small guy matters (if… Read more »
Roderick S. Beck
Guest

Correct.

Guest

Trump is like an ignorant bull in the china shop. With all his senseless unforced errors and general thrashing about, I doubt that he would actually be allowed to last out his presidency. I suspect that Mike Pence will more than likely take over from him well before the end of the current presidential term.

Istvan
Guest

I think it is delusional to keep speculating about impeachment of of President Trump in the future. The bar for impeachment is very high and there is zero evidence that the Republican controlled Congress would ever vote to impeach. There have been so many smoking guns discovered about President Trump that new ones have little or no impact on the people here in the USA.

Guest

Back to Hungary. Impeach Orban.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

Agreed. But it is equally to think that the Trump, who lost the popular vote, has a mandate or the means to transform the American system into an autocracy. People with visas are now flying to America from the those countries banned by Trump because he has been over-ruled at least short term by a judge. Appears to me to be a big victory for America constitutional order.

Observer
Guest

Jean P

Dictators cannot be impeached, they are overthrown, or if are lucky God can help.
Orban is not a full dictator yet, but the Hungarians have to hurry, as he most probably be if he wins the 2018 election.

Guest

Observer

My comment shouldn’t be taken literally. I meant that commenters on HS ought to speculate about how to get rid of Orban in stead of how to get rid of Trump. However, I don’t exclude that the second might lead to the first.

Observer
Guest

Istvan
You are thinking on the basis of now. If the economy doesn’t improve, and I’m convinced it will deteriorate, people will see Trumps trashing around in a different light and a poor showing of the Reps in midterm congressional elections will force them to do something. Otherwise there will be a Dem victory or landslide in 2020.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

Judge lifted Friday Trump’s travel ban and airlines are now accepting from those 7 countries. It looks like American checks and balances are more than a metaphor.

Observer
Guest

Yes, and there are tens of thousands of them, all independent, dedicated professionals.
And then there are the states, a federal country is much more difficult to occupy then almost grotesquely centralized Hungary (Budapest area has 25% of the population and produces more than 40% of GDP).

The manipulation of people, however, works in pretty much the same way everywhere.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

The manipulation is the same everywhere. But the institutions in Hungary were particularly weak.

Observer
Guest

R.Beck

Yes, this is the lack of democratic traditions , i.e. fewer democrats and more fascists. An institution is, after all, a group of people functioning within the frame of a legal set up. Both elements count.
The law/rules can be changed by the gov without resistance from the public/voters.
The rules can always be bent or abused or even broken, if the officers are encouraged to do so by the powers that be.

Guest

A bit OT but very interesting – and disturbing in a way:
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-politics-of-hope-donald-trump-as-an-entrepreneur-of-identity/
This very detaild analysis was written before the election! Just a small excerpt:
We would argue that the same is true of those who supported Trump. Some, undoubtedly, were white supremacists. All were prepared to live with his racist statements about Muslims, Mexicans and others. But are racism, bigotry and bias the main reasons people supported Trump? Certainly not. We argue instead that we need to analyze and understand the way he appealed to people and why he elicited their support. Moreover, we need to respect those we study if we want to understand their worldview, their preferences and their decisions. The more distant these are from our own, the harder this task is, but also, the more important it becomes.

Roderick S. Beck
Guest

It is a good article.

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