Princeton sociologist explains why MAGA Republicans adore Viktor Orbán's ‘strongman vision of politics’

Princeton sociologist explains why MAGA Republicans adore Viktor Orbán's ‘strongman vision of politics’

From Fox News' Tucker Carlson to "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance (who is seeking the GOP nomination in Ohio's 2022 U.S. Senate race) to former President Donald Trump, MAGA Republicans adore Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — a far-right authoritarian with White nationalist views who has seriously undermined democracy in his country. The New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner discussed the MAGA far-right's disturbing Orbán fetish with Kim Lane Scheppele, a sociology professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. And The New Yorker published that interview as a Q&A on August 10.

"Since his second stint as prime minister of Hungary began in 2010, Viktor Orbán has chipped away at the country's democratic systems," Chotiner explains. "A proponent of what he calls an 'illiberal' form of government, Orbán has imposed policies that are hostile to LGBTQ people and immigrants, and has steadily increased his control of Hungary's public square by cracking down on the press, the academy, and the judiciary. But the end of his tenure could be near: Orbán is up for reelection in 2022, and a coalition of six opposition parties, from the left to the far right, has formed to defeat him."

Chotiner notes that Orbán has "become something of a hero to conservatives throughout Europe and has piqued the interest of the American right wing as well." Carlson, Chotiner points out, recently "visited Hungary and, over dinner, lauded the prime minister as someone that the West could learn from."

None of that is to say that Orbán is universally loved by American conservatives. On August 10, for example, The Bulwark published a scathing article by veteran conservative columnist Mona Charen, who argued that MAGA Republicans who go to Hungary and praise Orbán are no better than American "leftist intellectuals" of the past who visited Cuba and praised dictator Fidel Castro and his ally Che Guevara. Charen and many other Never Trump conservatives find the MAGA far-right's love affair with Orbán deeply disturbing.

Explaining how Orbán has operated in Hungary, Scheppele — who lived in Hungary during the 1990s — told Chotiner, "In the speech where Orbán claimed to want an illiberal state, he was also talking about what he calls a force field of power. He was telling his supporters that what he hoped was for Hungary to eliminate political debate through a force field of power, by which he meant: Let's stop arguing over stuff in politics, and let's just get stuff done. No point in taking different viewpoints into account, because I know what we should do. Which is to say that he was proposing in that speech to shut down ordinary, democratic political debate, which is exactly what he did as soon as he came to power."

The Princeton sociologist continued, "And then, because there was such a strong reaction to it, he backpedaled from that phrase into something that might be more politically acceptable. So first, it was, 'Well, we're an illiberal state because we've marginalized the liberals.' It was like 'owning the libs' in the United States, and since he was branding his opponents as liberals, therefore, he was an illiberal."

Comparing Trump's authoritarianism and Orbán's authoritarianism, Scheppele argued that Orbán has more self-discipline.

"As for the corruption, the difference between Orbán and Trump is, frankly, that Orbán is cleverer," Scheppele told Chotiner. "He's also a lawyer. So, everything Orbán has done in Hungary has been legal. Trump just kind of wakes up one morning, decides to do something, orders people to do it, and is vaguely annoyed if they don't just do it. Orbán wakes up one morning, decides to do something, drafts a law, rams it through the parliament, and then does it."

During the interview, Scheppele went on to outline the reasons why many Trumpistas in the U.S. find Orbán so appealing.

Scheppele told Chotiner, "Look at Trumpism: no need for an independent judiciary, because they might go after Trump's corruption. No need for liberals to be around at all. It is better if you just have one voice screaming in the wilderness. That's a strongman vision of politics, in which the things we think of as the basic requisites of the democratic order are missing. No need to have a pluralistic free press, because they should just say what the leader says. Orbán has done all of that."

The professor continued, "Orbán claims to be a man of the masses who is constantly getting reelected by acclaim. That's not the story of what's happened in Hungary. So, I worry that Orbán is the complete package. He uses the rhetoric that appeals to the right, the way that Trump's rhetoric appealed to the right wing of U.S. politics. But underneath it, there is a dictator who is running things by himself. I'm concerned that that vision is what's actually appealing to the American right."


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