My own first memory of Hungary was from when I was just 8 years old and Hungarian nationalists rose up against the Soviet occupiers (1956). I wasn't aware of what dirty little fascists the Hungarians have, more or less, always been, nor was I sophisticated enough to understand how the corporate media was pulling my chain and getting me to cheer for the "freedom loving" Hungarians. Starting as a peaceful student protest, it was the first real challenge to the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet troops were almost immediately shooting unarmed students. At first the protestors appeared to have won and a new government was set up by "moderate" Communist Imre Nagy who announced he was withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. The Russians were having none of it and quickly invaded, deposed, arrested, deported and executed Nagy for treason.
Hungary was a more-than-willing ally of Hitler's and one of the more enthusiastic countries about prosecuting the Holocaust, murdering something like 600,000 Hungarian Jews. In 2010 Hungarians went to the polls and overwhelmingly elected the fascist Fidesz Party of Viktor Orbán. Political scientists debate whether Orbán's grotesquely corrupt Hungary is more a pure fascist state or more a classic kleptocracy. In any case, it was the Trumpiest place on earth outside the confines of Trump's Oval Office.
Yesterday, New York Magazine published a piece by Jonathan Chait about Tucker Carlson's much discussed trip behind the lines into fascist Hungary, Tucker Carlson Has Seen the Future, and It Is Fascist. I think the first time I visited Hungary was in 1969 and I found Budapest much more romantic and friendly than staid old Vienna. I don't think Tucker Carlson was looking for romance or friends-- just for a "road map for American authoritarianism."
Last weekend, Carlson used his Fox News show "as an infomercial for Viktor Orban’s illiberal regime." Carlson was "laying down a marker in the highest profile way he can that Orban’s iron fist is the future the Republican Party should want. The splashy imprimatur of a Fox News prime-time personality, who is probably the right’s most influential media figure, is an important milestone in the Republican Party’s long evolution into authoritarianism... The Trump administration lavished Orbán with praise. Trump has even likened the Hungarian strongman to himself, calling him a 'tough man, but he is a respected man… probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe.' Trump’s ambassador in Budapest confessed frankly that his boss envies Orbán’s ability to bully and suppress his critics: 'I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.'
What makes this alliance especially chilling is that Hungary is the model of democratic backsliding that has loomed largest in their imaginations of internationalist thinkers. Orbán’s corruption of a former democracy occurred step by step. He gerrymandered the electoral map to give his supporters an overwhelming advantage, stacked the judiciary with supporters, leveraged state power to force large businesses to support his party, and installed supporters in charge of the country’s largest media organs. (Think about Trump’s efforts to bully Jeff Bezos into putting a leash on the Washington Post by denying Amazon a lucrative Pentagon contract, and you have a picture of the methods Orbán has used, with more success.)
Hungary’s democratic backsliding was slow and gradual, without a single dramatic moment when its character flipped from democracy to dictatorship. Even now, it retains the surface trappings of a democracy without the liberal characteristics that make those processes meaningful. If America ceases to be a democracy, it will likely follow a path similar to Orbán’s.
The broad lesson of Trump’s presidency is that clumsy, violent efforts to seize power-- such as the January 6 insurrection-- will meet with intra-party resistance, but subtler power grabs will not. Republicans decided to shrug at abuses like Trump using American diplomacy as a lever to coerce Ukraine to smear his opponent, refusing to accept the election outcome, or using the presidency to line his own pockets. They have enthusiastically joined in state laws to restrict voting and hand power over elections to party hacks.
What they seem to want is a leader who shares Trump’s contempt for democracy, but possesses a subtler touch. That is the vision Orbán offers.
The difference between the left-wing American enthusiasts for Soviet communism a century ago and the conservative enthusiasts for Orbanism today is that at least the former were blinded by devotion to an ideal. They believed and hoped the Soviets were building a workers paradise and allowed this dream to blind them to the terror state that actually existed. Carlson is not ignoring Orbán’s iron hand. For him, the repression is the very allure.
Atlantic reporter Adam Serwer asked an insightful question today: why aren't police unions outraged over the Capitol rioters who violently attacked police? Serwer noted that there are no condemnations of the Capitol rioters who attacked police officers on January 6 on the Fraternal Order of Police Twitter feed. Nor, he wrote, will you find "any clips of FOP members on Fox News confronting its prime-time hosts for mocking the testimony of police officers who faced the mob that day. You won’t even find the FOP highlighting the compelling testimony of those officers, whose recollections paint a vivid picture of the rioters and their motives. You will find only the FOP’s careful statement seeking to clear up 'confusion' about its position, a deeply unusual situation for the FOP to be in."
The officers at the Capitol who fulfilled their oath by protecting lawmakers from a mob in thrall to a dangerous fantasy-- that they could change the outcome of the 2020 election through violence-- are now being attacked as traitors. “To my perpetual confusion,” Hodges testified, “I saw the ‘thin blue line flag,’ a symbol of support for law enforcement, more than once being carried by the terrorists as they ignored our commands and continued to assault us.” One Trump supporter accused of assaulting officers during the riot was photographed that day wearing a patch with a symbol of the murderous Marvel Comics vigilante the Punisher, decorated with the colors of the “thin blue line” flag.
The apparent discrepancy is simple to explain. The officers were seen as treasonous by the rioters because they were supposed to join the mob in overthrowing the constitutional order and casting down the liberal usurpers, as well as the illegitimate multiracial coalition that brought Democrats to power. They viewed the officers holding to their vow to defend the Constitution as betraying their true obligations, as Trump and the mob understood them.
Because the right hold the police in such high regard, the Fraternal Order of Police is uniquely positioned to disabuse conservatives of the idea that the rioters were heroic or that the riot itself was carried out by leftists, and any other manner of conspiracy theories deployed to obfuscate what happened on January 6. The organization is ideally suited to pressure Republican lawmakers to support the commission examining the incident, and to criticize those who seek to turn that process into a circus or rewrite the events of the day. The union could use its stature to attack the legitimacy of right-wing political violence, and to reject the harmful notion that the role of American police is to act as a partisan militia, rather than to impartially enforce the law.
The FOP has chosen instead to remain meekly silent on the Capitol riot, in effect reserving harsher language for protesters against police brutality than for a mob that brutalized police. When asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper why the FOP was not more forcefully defending the Capitol Police officers, FOP President Patrick Yoes offered a tame paraphrase of the group’s press release, and insisted that he had not seen Fox News hosts maligning these officers as emotionally weak cowards on the network that he and his subordinates frequently appear on for friendly interviews.
The FOP has many reasons to remain quiet. Much of its rank-and-file membership is strongly supportive of Trump, whom the organization endorsed and worked to elect in 2016 and 2020. FOP leaders also know that some off-duty officers were in the mob, and might not want to suggest that they should be fired or prosecuted. And they probably also do not want to antagonize right-wing voters who will reflexively support their members as long as any police abuses are aimed at the communities those voters hate and fear.
All of these reasons, however, are a tremendous indictment of police unions in general and the FOP in particular. The group has placed its parochial interests ahead of the needs of the public, from whom police derive their authority, and ahead of its sworn brothers and sisters in Washington, who drew the wrath of a political constituency that police unions would prefer not to antagonize. If a commitment to “law and order” does not include support for the peaceful and democratic transition of power, it is meaningless.
The officers who defended the Capitol have noticed the FOP’s relative silence. Officer Michael Fanone, who also testified this week, told CNN that he spoke with Yoes. “I asked him to publicly denounce any active-duty or retired law-enforcement officer that participated in an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 and in doing so betrayed their oath of honor,” Fanone said. Yoes, he added, would not commit to doing so.
Perhaps the nation’s largest police union simply does not see trying to overthrow an election in the name of Donald Trump as such a betrayal. But a commitment to democracy is not a position that an organization representing armed agents of the state should ever have to “clarify.” That it did so only through gritted teeth gives the public little reason to trust its sincerity.
Don't expect the rank and file police to ever be on the side of democracy or the people if Trump or his acolytes decide to attempt another coup down the road or if some Orbán-like character shows up.