Eastern Europe Makes American Democracy Look Pretty Good

We have a long way to go before we lose the fight.
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A protest against a scheduled visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as against the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on February 16, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

I just got back from a trip to Hungary last week, and I had this revelation: Things aren’t all that bad in the United States right now.

The current cynical take is that we’re still OK because the Trump administration’s malevolence has been counterbalanced by its incompetence. That’s hardly a consolation, much less a fail-safe plan for the next three and a half years.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Yale University historian Timothy Snyder identified 20 lessons from the 20th century about how authoritarianism takes root in democratic societies, but even he agrees that it’s a little premature to be disillusioned. So far, we still are fighting back. Even though we should never say never when it comes to the Trump state, we could keep a few things in context. Hungary, for instance.

I went to Hungary for personal reasons: I used to live there, and my in-laws still do, and I visit every few years. The country’s trajectory since 2010 is a cautionary tale for us.

From the country’s independence in 1920 through 1989, Hungary was governed by nationalist or communist autocrats. Its experience with democracy only functionally began in 1989 when the Iron Curtain fell and the newly freed nation amended its constitution to transform into a modern democratic republic.

But since 2010, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has steadily transformed Hungary from a once-promising emergent democracy into a throwback to its authoritarian and nationalist past. There are a lot of little reasons for Hungary’s backsliding, but the main one is Orbán himself, a man, like Trump, who knows how to seize a political moment.

In the 1980s, this dynamic young lawyer became one of the first public figures to call for the end of the Soviet occupation, and his party, Fidesz, was an advocate of Western values in opposition to the socialist government. After Fidesz obtained a supermajority of Parliament seats in 2010, Orbán rapidly consolidated power, forcing critics out of the party and passing constitutional amendments that tightened government control of broadcast and print media and reduced the independence of the judiciary.

Orbán’s nationalism found another target in the waves of refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions that began pouring over the border from Serbia in 2015 until the government fenced off the border. Orbán also has been trying to rid Hungary of NGOs, particularly those that draw funding from Western sources.

His favorite boogeyman is Hungarian American financier George Soros, who opened his Open Society Foundations’ Budapest office in 1984 to promote democratization and civil society and established Central European University in the city to educate a new generation of democratic leaders from the region. This year the government launched a $21 million advertising campaign—with billboards along highways and posters in train stations and other public places—which takes aim at Soros with thinly disguised anti-Semitism.

We have a nationalist authoritarian in charge, and we also have had frequent demonstrations across the country.

It’s a strategy that has benefitted Orbán: The third-largest political party in Parliament is now Jobbik, an extremist right-wing group that has its own paramilitary group of supporters. Over the years, Orbán has co-opted several Jobbik positions to maintain his popularity, but the only result has been to make Jobbik lurch even further rightward. Street protests against the government are common in Budapest these days, but the rest of the country, especially the rural areas, is more quiescent.

The xenophobia, the bigotry, the rural people versus city people—it’s all familiar. We have a nationalist authoritarian in charge, and we also have had frequent demonstrations across the country.

But it’s our Constitution and our centuries of experience building “a more perfect union” that distinguishes us from Hungary. When we argue about the U.S. Constitution, it’s mostly about whether this law is supported or precluded by that clause or amendment. By design, it’s hard to alter: It’s only happened 27 times in 228 years, and 10 of those amendments came all at once at the start. The most recent amendment, the 27th, also was first proposed in 1789 but was only finally ratified in 1992.

Our court system is still independent. The top justices in the land are beholden to no one, most recently as evidenced by Chief Justice John Roberts, who has joined the court’s liberals in some decisions and seems reluctant to have the court that bears his name become synonymous with rubber-stamping authority.

My latest visit to Hungary has convinced me that the U.S. democracy machine is still working.

Also, any media outlet that chooses to put the screws to the Trump administration can. Trump may tweet insults at reporters who expose his wrongdoing, but we still have a robust First Amendment that has survived numerous challenges from (mostly) right-wing extremists over the years. The 1964 landmark Supreme Court case The New York Times v. Sullivan explicitly affirmed constitutional protections for media covering public officials, and Trump would be running up against that if he decided to make up his own libel laws.

My latest visit to Hungary has convinced me that the U.S. democracy machine is still working. Certainly Trump is an abomination, and recent years have shown us that our political system can be gamed and undermined. So this is not about looking on the bright side, but rather seeing the value of the fight. Even the government’s civil servants—park rangers!—have been doing their best to expose wrongdoing and stop bad policies. We have a long way to go before we get to the point of shrugging off democracy to the extent that Hungary (or Poland or Turkey) has now. Americans are often accused of forgetting the lessons of history. We only have to look at what’s happening overseas to remind us.