Orbán dazzles US conservatives — what do they see in him?
The Conservative Political Action Conference, known commonly as CPAC, recently met in Dallas with former President Donald Trump as the headliner. Speaking alongside Trump on the program is the U.S. conservative movement’s favorite foreign leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary.
What do American conservatives see in Orbán? Why would the leader of a country the size of Indiana with a population less than New York City have such an outsized effect on the Trump-wing of the Republican Party?
Orbán is proof of concept that a proudly un-woke leader can repeatedly win elections by leading with illiberalism. Over the 12 years, Orbán has been in power — extended for four years with his reelection in April 2022 — Orbán has set off culture wars. From demonizing Hungarian-American George Soros with dog-whistled anti-Semitism to fighting immigration as a global plot to mix races to campaigning against gender fluidity and LGBTIQ equality, Orbán has been the bad boy of Europe, seemingly enjoying the discomfort of European leaders whose values he attacks. Most recently, he generated controversy by using Nazi terminology to refer to those who are not Christian Europeans as belonging to completely different species.
Behind the culture wars façade, however, lies another threat to democracy, one that CPAC’s leaders may value even more than Orbán’s anti-wokeness. Orbán has demonstrated how to translate roughly one-third support in the polls into overwhelming election triumphs by designing election rules to guarantee victory. Orbán provides proof of concept that elections are won or lost by rigging the rules at least as much as they are won or lost on actual voter support.
One of Orbán’s first acts as prime minister in 2010 was to cut the size of the Parliament in half. Halving the Parliament allowed Orbán to redraw all of the districts and create a “wild gerrymander” that ensured that his party would win the vast majority of the districts for years to come. Of course, gerrymandering was invented in the U.S., but Orbán has exploited it to extremes.
When it looked like his power was slipping, Orbán changed the rules again so that splintered opposition parties could only win by combining forces into a single coalition against him — a strange-bedfellows assemblage that couldn’t agree on a message but that weakened each of the parties individually. When the opposition persisted anyhow, Orbán changed the rules again so that he could move his voters anywhere in the country to shore up close districts with an influx of support.
During this time, Orbán controlled the media environment so that the opposition found it nearly impossible to get its message out. In addition, Orbán understood that packing the courts blocks challenges. As the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observers diplomatically noted about Hungary’s April election, legal challenges to election infractions “fell short of providing effective legal remedy.”
Like Orbán, Trump can claim a little over one-third of the voters as a solid base while a party-controlled media empire blasts out his messages. Getting to a victorious plurality on election day relies on a combination of anti-majoritarian sleights of hand and training the party media on the opposition like a weapon.
The election system is very different in the U.S. than it is in Hungary, so Orbán’s innovations must be tweaked to travel. But the principle that elections can be won by clever lawyering has clearly caught on among Republicans and some of Orbán’s innovations have migrated. Republicans are already racing to rewrite the rules.
The U.S. Constitution establishes an Electoral College, which provides many opportunities for mischief as we saw in the last election when Trump’s lawyers tried to generate confusion over the choice of electors that handed President Jos Biden his victory. This confusion was manufactured by their edgy readings of the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act to favor Trump’s cause. It almost worked.
Now, Republicans are advocating a once-fringe interpretation of the Constitution that gives to “state legislatures” the power to design federal election rules. According to the “independent state legislature theory,” neither governors nor state courts can intervene in this process.
Republicans have for years wildly gerrymandered state legislative districts to produce overwhelming Republican majorities in close-call swing states but they are less likely to control governors and courts. The new theory cuts these wild cards out of the Republican rules-writing loop. The now conservative-packed federal Supreme Court’s acceptance of this theory in a case they have agreed to decide next term will allow federal election rules to be written reliably by the party faithful, just as Orbán’s pliant parliament and packed courts allowed Orbán to design an election system that guaranteed he would never lose.
Orbán provides a formula for the permanent power of a minority party. Lead with culture wars to fire up the base. Discredit opponents through party-controlled media. Engineer the election rules by controlling their design. Orbán has demonstrated that this playbook works — and the Republicans are paying attention.
Kim Lane Scheppele is Laurance S. Rockefeller professor of sociology and international affairs in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and the University Center for Human Values.