Friday, August 5, 2022

The Hungarian Model

Ron DeSantis is following a trail blazed by a Hungarian authoritarian

By Zack Beauchamp April 28, 2022

The Florida governor isn’t doing “competent Trumpism.” He’s inventing American Orbánism.

Tucker Carlson, the most influential media figure in today’s GOP, is at the forefront of this effort. In January, Carlson released a “documentary” on Orbán’s government lionizing his regime and encouraging Republicans to emulate it. That same month, Donald Trump endorsed Orbán for reelection, calling him a “strong leader” who has “done a powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary.”

In June of last year, Hungary’s far-right government passed a law cracking down on LGBTQ rights, including a provision prohibiting instruction on LGBTQ topics in sex education classes.

Gov. Ron DeSantis
arrives to speak at CPAC '22
About nine months later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” up through third grade. According to some knowledgeable observers on the right, these two bills were closely connected.

“About the Don’t Say Gay law, it was in fact modeled in part on what Hungary did last summer,” Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative magazine, said during a panel interview in Budapest. “I was told this by a conservative reporter who ... said he talked to the press secretary of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and she said, ‘Oh yeah, we were watching the Hungarians, so yay Hungary.’”

(When I asked DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw about a possible connection, she initially denied knowing of Hungarian inspiration for Florida’s law. After I showed her the quote from Dreher, she did not respond further. Dreher did not reply to two requests for comment.)

It’s easy to see the connections between the bills — in both provisions and justifications. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described his country’s anti-LGBTQ law as an effort to prevent gay people from preying on children; Pushaw described Florida’s law as an “anti-grooming bill” on Twitter, adding that “if you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer” — meaning a person preparing children to become targets of sexual abuse, a slur targeting LGBTQ people and their supporters that’s becoming increasingly common on the right.

This is not a one-off example. DeSantis, who has built a profile as a pugilistic culture warrior with eyes on the presidency, has steadily put together a policy agenda with strong echoes of Orbán’s governing ethos — one in which an allegedly existential cultural threat from the left justifies aggressive uses of state power against the right’s enemies.

Most recently, there was DeSantis’s crackdown on Disney’s special tax exemption; using regulatory powers to punish opposing political speech is one of Orbán’s signature moves. On issues ranging from higher education to social media to gerrymandering, DeSantis has followed a trail blazed by Orbán, turning policy into a tool for targeting outgroups while entrenching his party’s hold on power.

Higher education is another area where DeSantis, like Orban, has taken special aim. On April 22, DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act”, a bill that, among other things, expressly regulates what professors are allowed to teach about race and gender in college courses. In a letter to Florida State University, the free speech advocacy group FIRE argued that the bill (also known as HB 7) was so obviously an unconstitutional abridgment of speech that administrators might simply “refuse to enforce” the bill.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán
Orbán has recently emerged as an aspirational model for many on the Trump-friendly right. During his presidency, many observers on both sides of the aisle compared Trump to the Hungarian autocrat — and not without some justification. But after a 2018 visit to Hungary, I concluded that Trump was not competent or disciplined enough to implement Orbán-style authoritarianism in America on his own. The real worry, I argued, was a GOP that took on features of Orbán’s Fidesz party.

In this political context, any diffusion of Hungarian-style culture-war authoritarianism to the state governments is extremely disturbing — potentially accelerating a decade-plus process of democratic decline in Republican-governed states. If DeSantis is in fact creating a blueprint for American Orbánism that Republicans across the country choose to follow, the implications for American democracy could well be disastrous. [Gov. Ron DeSantis is potentially running for president.]

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