At any given moment of history, there are always multiple possible futures. If you want to see what America might look like a decade from now if President Trump is permitted to follow through on his indisputably authoritarian instincts, you could do worse than examine what's happened to Hungary over the last eight years under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
This past weekend, Orbán's right-wing populist party, Fidesz, won about 50 percent of the vote. Thanks to laws backed by Orbán that amplify the power of the largest party, this bare majority of voters should be enough to give Fidesz an astonishing 134 out of 199 seats in the Hungarian parliament and Orbán himself a third term in office.
Political scientists judge the legitimacy of elections using the criteria of whether a vote was "free and fair." Evaluated by that standard, the Hungarian election was questionably legitimate, since it was free but far from fully fair. After another four years during which Fidesz will have the votes to change the constitution, the chances of the next election being even less legitimate are high — at least based on the way things have been moving over the past decade.
As Slate's Yascha Mounk notes in his postmortum on the Hungarian vote, Orbán has inflated his party's vote-share by enfranchising "people of Hungarian origin who have always lived in neighboring countries like Romania, while disenfranchising many current Hungarian citizens who happen to reside abroad." Moreover, there have also been "widespread reports of irregularities ranging from state employees who were effectively forced to vote for Orbán to the misuse of government funds for campaign purposes."
Perhaps more significant of all,
Orbán turned Hungary’s state media into a pure propaganda outlet. He used his power to engineer the sale of critical opposition outlets into the hands of his loyalists. He used his control over the country’s electoral commission to impose arbitrary fines on opposition parties, effectively rendering them incapable of mounting a real campaign. [Slate]
Add in Orbán's demagogic demonization of Muslim refugees and anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish billionaire George Soros for posing existential threats to the Hungarian nation and we're left with a deliberate attempt to transform Hungary into an explicitly illiberal democracy. (Orbán uses the term himself, and without apology.)
Mounk is also right to point out that this does not amount to an attack on Orbán on policy grounds, as Orbán's growing chorus of defenders among conservatives throughout the Western world are fond of claiming. Liberal democratic governments can legitimately debate whether to restrict immigration or admit refugees. What they cannot do while remaining liberal democracies is throw up obstacles against opposition parties, amplify the power of governing parties, abolish the independence of the judiciary, or destroy the freedom of the press. (Tuesday morning, two days after the Hungarian election, one of the country's leading opposition newspapers announced it was closing down after an 80-year run.)
Until recently, it seemed far-fetched to think that Trump could accomplish anything as transformative and destructive in the United States as Orbán has done in Hungary. That Trump's own instincts clearly incline toward authoritarianism is obvious. It's there in his swooning admiration for foreign strongmen, in his venomous contempt for journalists and judges, and in his conviction that federal law enforcement should serve to advance his personal interests. Yet Trump's own ignorance of how to use the immense powers of his office limits the damage he can do, as does the age and vitality of America's liberal democratic norms, habits, and institutions, which have so far managed to contain the threat that the president poses to the system.
But that could change — and may already have begun to do so.
Gerrymandering already enhances the political power of the Republican Party beyond what its popular support would justify. The president's recently revived attack on the legitimacy of American elections could make that worse, especially if agents of the executive branch act to make it more difficult for Democratic constituencies to exercise their franchise. The same could be said about the Trump administration's efforts to exclude non-citizens from the upcoming census, which could further diminish the political power of Democrats.
Then there's the devolution of Fox News into a form of state media marching in lock-step along with the president's agenda — and the efforts of the Sinclair Broadcast Group (with the help of the Trump administration's FCC) to create a right-wing propaganda network at local TV stations around the country. And the president's threats to use government power to penalize cable TV outlets and newspapers that publish news critical of him.
Most recently, and perhaps most chillingly, there's the president's rant on Monday afternoon about the FBI's raids on the office and hotel room of Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. In addition to laying into Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, accusing them of flagrant bias, the president described the raids as "an attack on our country."
It would have been bad enough — a clear assault on the rule of law — if the president had merely dismissed the legitimacy of a search warrant approved by a federal court by saying that the FBI lawlessly "broke into" his attorney's office. But by describing his own legal troubles as an attack on the country as a whole, a standard move by despots, Trump went quite a bit further in an authoritarian direction. (That the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader, both Republicans, have remained silent in the face of these attacks on key liberal institutions confirms their party's tacit approval of the president's behavior.)
For now much of the public probably rolls its eyes at such despotic assertions on the part of the president. But if that began to change — if a solid plurality of Americans came to accept this conflation of the president's fate with the fate of the country — the U.S. would be well on the road to becoming the kind of illiberal democracy Viktor Orbán is busy fashioning in Hungary.
Despite it all, the president's approval appears stuck around 40 percent. Orbán's Fidesz party won 50 percent of the vote last weekend. That's roughly 10 percentage points separating a weak and beatable would-be petty tyrant from an electoral force formidable enough to snuff out (or at least seriously suppress) liberal democracy in America.
Those who care about the fate of free government in the United States better hope the president's popularity doesn't inch up any higher.