Trump/GOP And Orban/Fidesz – Two Of A Kind
There is something sickeningly appropriate about Trump hosting the xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-intellectual Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban at the White House the other day and praising him as a man “respected all over Europe” who has done “a tremendous job”. After all, David Cornstein, a New York jeweler who has known Trump for decades and is now the ambassador to Hungary, has commented on what Orban himself has described as an “illiberal democracy” by stating “It’s a question of a personal view, or what the American people, or the president of the United States, think of illiberal democracy, and what its definition is. 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”. Trump may not have Orban’s autocratic powers quite yet, but he seems determined to get there as quickly as he can.
Viktor Orban created his self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” or, in other words, autocracy, through the often lawful manipulation of the legal and judicial systems of a fairly well functioning democracy in Hungary and by using the resulting state power to control the media. Using its supermajority in the Hungarian legislature gained in 2010, Orban’s party, Fidesz, was able to gerrymander parliamentary districts in its favor, expand the courts and pack them with party loyalists, and replace much of the existing civil service with similar party hacks. Orban then used his expanded executive power to force private media to close or to sell out to the state or Fidesz allies. By 2017, 90% of the Hungarian media was effectively state controlled. Corruption, a long-standing problem in the country, is now the de-facto standard for business in Hungary, effectively making Orban a kleptocratic overlord. He now uses the state media to stoke anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic paranoia in a so-called defense of Europe’s Christian culture.
While Trump’s “situation”, as his ambassador so genteelly puts it, is not identical to Orban’s, the similarities are striking. The Republican party has become Trump’s Fidesz, moving in virtual lockstep with the President in his attack on democracy. Like Fidesz, the GOP has used its supermajority status in numerous states to gerrymander election districts and implement other measures such as voter ID and voter registration purges to increase its chances of winning elections. The anti-democratic structure of the Senate and the Electoral College also provide similar electoral and therefore political advantages for Trump and the Republicans. Despite widespread evidence of foreign attacks on our elections, Republicans have repeatedly refused to take steps to protect our electoral system primarily because the President believes that foreign intervention will be to his benefit and is actively pursuing such assistance, but also because those down-ballot Republicans are also benefitting from money indirectly provided by foreign governments.
Republicans in Congress are now solely interested in protecting the President at all costs. Despite the President having been named an unindicted co-conspirator in a felony campaign finance violation and accused by the Mueller report of widespread obstruction of justice abuses, it is clear that Republicans in the Senate will never convict the President if an impeachment charge is sent to them. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has first recommended that the President’s son defy a valid Congressional subpoena and is now suggesting he plead the Fifth if he does show up. Members of the GOP Senate caucus are criticizing Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr for having the temerity to subpoena the President’s son, despite overwhelming evidence he previously lied to the Committee and his consistent refusal to show up voluntarily, with Rand Paul suggesting that Burr “didn’t get the memo” that there should be no more investigations. The President’s trade policies are devastating certain red state economies, but there is no actual legislative effort to curtail those policies, with GOP plans revolving around perhaps writing a letter to the President or trying to find a way to temporarily pay farmers off for their losses.
Like Fisdesz, the Republican party is also remaking the federal judiciary. The party has spent the last decade preventing a Democratic President from filling open judicial seats and are now packing those seats with largely unqualified political hacks who are loyal to Trump and the party and not the rule of law. By the end of Obama’s second term, Republicans had had managed to hold open 110 judicial seats, including one on the Supreme Court that they vowed would never get filled if Hillary Clinton became President. Since Trump has been elected, the Republicans have demolished Senate rules, eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, the blue slip, debate time, and now the tradition of not confirming a nominee opposed by both of the state’s Senators, all in the name of packing the courts as quickly as possible. Just the other day, Republicans confirmed a judge who declared Obama an “un-American imposter” and dozens of Trump nominees have refused to admit that the landmark case of Brown v Board of Ed was correctly decided. And the court-packing is having the desired effect. With two new conservative justice on the Supreme Court, one of them representing a stolen Democratic seat, long-standing judicial precedents are being destroyed at an alarming rate and the postwar gains on civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights are in critical danger of not just being rolled back but put in a worse place than status quo ante. There are now federal circuits where Republicans can bring cases where they are almost certain to get their desired results. And, just to ensure that any federal circuits where the GOP has not been able to pack the courts can not restrain the administration from its illegal actions such as family separation and the Muslim ban, there are plans to try and limit the courts’ use of nationwide injunctions, effectively neutering any judicial restraint on the executive power of the government until the case is decided by the Supreme Court.
Trump has also gone about the business of “deconstructing the administrative state”, to use Steve Bannon’s phrase, in similar ways to Orban’s remaking of the Hungarian civil service. The administrative functions of the State Department have been largely obliterated, with a small cadre of Trump advisors and longtime friends and business associates of Trump taking their place. The governmental advisors primarily consist of Kushner, Pompeo, and now Bolton. The work of ambassadors has largely been replaced by Trump’s personal emissaries or grifting Republican operatives, all operating outside normal State Department channels. In other cabinet departments, GOP loyalists have gone in and weeded out career employees who refuse to follow the party line and instead do their job as defined under the law. For example, economists in the Agriculture Department are leaving their jobs in droves because they can no longer stand to be “persecuted for publishing reports that shed an unflattering light on Donald Trump’s policies”. Similar departures have occurred at the EPA and the Interior Department as long-time civil servants could not in good conscience undermine that stated goals of those cabinet departments as desired by the Trump administration.
The post-Watergate consensus concerning the independence of the Department of Justice has been obliterated, perhaps permanently. Trump has successfully purged all those in the Department who were involved in the counterintelligence investigation of the Russian interference in our elections and that investigation has gone dark, with not even the Congressional Intelligence Committees being briefed on it since Comey’s firing as required by law. Instead, Trump has installed the Attorney General he has always sought, one who is loyal to him and not the rule of law. At this point, it is at least a reasonable question to ask whether the Mueller investigation was shut down by the Attorney General. Certainly, the decision to launch the fourth official investigation of the investigators by the Attorney General, two of which are already ongoing within the DOJ, was done at the insistence of the President, and the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has vowed to do the same. In addition, the President has asked the AG to look at the possibility of investigating his political foes, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
The Justice Department has also given up its traditional role of defending existing law, despite a change in administrations. It has joined a lawsuit to rule the ACA unconstitutional by making absurd legal arguments, and has taken entirely opposite legal positions depending on the individual case involved, the idea that there can be no obstruction of justice if there is no underlying crime being the most obvious. DOJ opinions are increasingly frivolous and without legal merit. Yesterday, the OLC, in an attempt to help expedite state executions, ruled that the FDA can not regulate drugs used in those executions but could regulate drugs used to euthanize animals because “animal euthanasia has long been considered part of an accepted part of veterinary practice, whereas capital punishment has not been a part of medical practice”.
At the same time that Trump has reshaped the judiciary and the DOJ, he has also been taking steps to consolidate power. He has consistently attacked judges and other federal officials who threaten his power in any way. His intimidation of those within the DOJ who have investigated his campaign and administration, which includes not only getting them fired but also limiting their pensions and now potentially exposing them to criminal investigations, is intended to inhibit future investigations, probably with some effect. The President, with the willing compliance of his Republican colleagues in Congress, has instructed witnesses to testify falsely to Congress and has so far refused to provide a single document or respond to a single subpoena from House Democrats who are simply fulfilling their constitutional duty of oversight. Today, Trump’s personal lawyers actually argued in court that Congress had no right to investigate the President and suggested that the Watergate and Whitewater Congressional investigations were essentially illegal. The President’s lawyers are also arguing that the President can not be subject to civil actions as well. Combine those two positions with the DOJ position that the President can not be indicted, Trump is effectively arguing there can be no investigation of a president other than impeachment proceedings, which, for all we know, he might also legally object to.
The President has also abused the power to declare national emergencies, using it first to implement aluminum and steel tariffs and now to reallocate congressionally authorized funds for his border wall. The administration is also apparently preventing the governor of Florida from letting the public know which two counties’ electoral systems the Russians hacked in 2016, not due to national security considerations but simply because the federal government somehow got him to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Unlike Orban, however, Trump has no need to use state power to control the media, although he is not above using that power to try and intimidate certain outlets, such as his threats against the ATT-Time Warner merger and attacks on Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Instead, Trump can already rely on successful propaganda outlets like Fox and Sinclair to provide cover for him and spout the party line. The traditional media, either through willful avoidance in order to pad their profits or obstinate dedication to “both-sides” journalism that refuses to objectively report reality, still does not know how to cover Trump. Too many outlets engage in stenography, repeating Trump’s lies and those of his administration with little context.
Thankfully, corruption in the US is not as endemic as it has now become in Hungary. But Trump is leading the most corrupt administration in a century. Businesses and foreign interests know they can gain access to the President and preferential treatment from him by spending money at his properties. Taxpayers are in effect paying Trump every time he himself visits those properties. The President’s family is constantly selling access to presidential power and those who have administration positions continually mix their business interests with their governmental activity. Three cabinet members have resigned because of allegations of outright corruption and at least a handful of others have similar exposure or have serious conflict of interest issues. Business and lobbyists are literally signing off on administrative decisions made by agency heads.
Of course, when it comes to creating xenophobic hysteria, Trump and Orban are virtually identical. Tier language concerning Muslims and Latin American refugees is almost identical, posing those cultures as existential threats to white Christian hegemony. Orban actually did build a fence on Hungary’s southern border in order to deter Syrian, Middle Eastern, and North African refugees from migrating through the country to Northern Europe. Trump has not succeeded in doing that on the US southern border, despite his pledge to do so, but not for lack of trying.
There is one other striking parallel between Orban and FIdesz and Trump and the GOP. Orban and Fidesz actually gained power in 1998 and then lost it in 2002. But the party and its leader were never really willing or able to accept that defeat as legitimate. After another defeat in 2006, rather than moderating, the party became more extreme and vowed to build a long-lasting ruling majority, with Orban openly stating “we only have to win once, and then properly”, which they were able to do in 2010 in the wake of the financial crisis. This mirrors the broad swath of the Republican right, with Donald Trump as its most ardent champion, that refused to accept the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. And a second loss in 2012 did not moderate the party but actually made it more extreme. And there is nothing in Trump’s long history of always “winning” and unable to actually accept defeat that should make us feel secure about his giving up his power should he lose in 2020. Some of his most trusted advisors believe he will not go quietly.
Additionally, were Orban to pass away tomorrow, there would be no radical change in the policies and direction of Fidesz. A new leader would be chosen who would guard and wield the enormous powers the party has gained. Similarly, it is irrational to believe that the Republican party would substantially reform without Trump as its leader. The almost impenetrable powers the party has gained can only be sustained by another leader with a similar approach.
The only “epiphany” for Fidesz or the GOP will come when they have no power at all. But too often, our focus is on the autocrat and not on the largely corrupt power base that enables the autocrat’s rule. Orban is no one without Fidesz and Trump is simply a multiply bankrupt businessman and con man without the GOP. Lastly, for Hungary and the US, there is no going back to the democracy we knew before Orban and Trump gained power. The institutions of governance have been so thoroughly broken, they must be totally rebuilt and renewed.
Hungary today is not a police state in the traditional sense. People go about their daily business every day without hassles from the government. Private businesses thrive and people are free to criticize the government and even demonstrate against it. As an illiberal democracy, there are still elections but the outcome is rarely in doubt. What is not allowed is the creation of any kind power base that may threaten the power of Orban and Fidesz. From the outside, it looks like an adequately performing democracy. Similarly, America looks like an adequately performing democracy but that belies the structural electoral and political advantages that are currently built in for the Republican party.
America under Trump is clearly not the same as Hungary under Orban. But the parallels are striking. And the President is likely to try and grab even more power as investigations close in on him and his family. It may be that Trump and the Republicans may not have a judiciary as complaint as Orban’s in Hungary and that branch of the government will ultimately defend the rule of law. It is almost certainly true that the Democrats have more electoral and political power than the opposition parties in Hungary and may be able to force real accountability and even remove Trump at the ballot box. But It’s also quite possible that Trump squeaks out another Electoral College victory in 2020 and has another four years to consolidate power so that he largely has the same powers Orban has today. So, perhaps the most disturbing thing is not that Trump has invited Orban to the White House and praised him as a respected European leader but that the President is closer to having the same “situation” as Orban than we even imagine.