Why MAGA Republicans Are Obsessed With Viktor Orbán

Donald Trump greets Viktor Orban at the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, May 13, 2019. Credit - Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

2024 is a make-or-break election year, with seemingly existential democratic contests in many parts of the globe. In Europe, ballooning support for parties of the political extreme was confirmed by the recent European elections. In France, the results pushed Emmanuel Macron to dissolve the national assembly and call for snap elections, which could usher in a radical shift in the political direction of the country and its relationship with the E.U. In Austria, the Freedom Party is on course to take office in autumn’s national elections. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, is now widely fêted as a kingmaker in the next E.U. parliament, following the inexorable rise of her Brothers of Italy party. In Germany, the electoral growth of Alternative for Germany is eroding the authority of the governing center-left SDP-led coalition. And this precedes the anticipated return of Donald Trump, who The Economist forecasts has a three-in-four shot at beating Joe Biden come November.

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Electoral success for the far right is one thing, maintaining power is quite another. But in Hungary, with the premiership of Viktor Orbán, today’s populists have a live case study of how to solidify gains into long-lasting influence. Perhaps no one is paying closer attention to Orbán than MAGA Republicans.

Orbán has been Prime Minister of Hungary, with a constitutional majority, for 14 years straight. This has given him extraordinary influence to reshape the country according to his personal vision—and his tenure atop the political system reveals a lot about how democratic institutions can become vulnerable to the authoritarian far right.

When we speak of Orbán, we should first identify the essential characteristics that modern populists on the right must possess to achieve success. These two dimensions are: charismatic appeal and an ability to address people with simple, convincing messages about national pride, prosperity, and their capacity to defend against external threats, whether perceived or real. And, more discreetly, their expertise in building-out political infrastructure, which allows them to take control of their country’s political, legal, and media institutions.

Few of today’s populists exhibit both traits. Jarosław Kaczynski of Poland’s Law and Justice party succeeded in capturing state infrastructure (2015-2023), but ultimately lacked the charisma to retain office.

Leaders like Trump possess the first quality, but struggle with organization and system-building. Recognizing this, the former President’s team has since launched the Agenda 2025 program and made strategic hires in preparation for a more effective second term. The influence for this work seems to stem from Hungary. On an almost daily basis, supporters and media allies of the MAGA Republicans laud Orbán. Senator J.D. Vance, who is widely seen as a prospective running mate for Trump, recently stated that the U.S. “could learn a lot” from Hungary. While Trump, himself, has proclaimed: “There’s nobody that’s better, smarter, or a better leader than Viktor Orbán. He's fantastic.”

This praise exemplifies the growing appeal of what I call the “Budapest Playbook” and the roadmap it provides to others on the populist right about how to keep power. It includes gaming the electoral system and districts to favor the ruling party; subordinating intelligence services to political control, aligning the prosecutor’s office with political will, undermining judicial independence, hollowing out the constitutional court and filling it with party loyalists, and seizing control of the media through a propaganda ministry. These measures, taken together, can yield near-unlimited power, and help an aspiring autocrat maintain their influence over the long-term, while democratic institutions are hollowed out.

Orbán’s “success” on these fronts owes much to his ability to avoid unpopular measures while erecting a political infrastructure and new economic elite based on personal connections. Today, in Hungary, every major institution is now led by a person hand-picked by Orbán. A new class of billionaires like Lőrinc Mészáros, a childhood friend of Orbán—who has risen from a humble background to become the country’s richest man and a facilitator of Russian funding for allied populists, including Marine Le Pen—are also beholden to Orbán.

Casting himself as a “heroic protector” of the people, Orbán often claims that Hungary is locked in an existential struggle with Brussels and other international forces, and uses national consultation surveys to support his stance. These consultations, which give the illusion of democratic inclusion, invariably contain leading questions and shift blame for government failings to figures like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the liberal Hungarian American billionaire businessman George Soros, the latter being a frequent target of state-backed smear campaigns. No doubt, elements of this rhetoric are familiar to populists, but a fully developed “power-factory” is still just an aspiration for most.

A possible inflection point for the populist right in Europe, and the looming return of Donald Trump in the U.S., is why voters and state apparatuses the world over should pay attention to the Budapest Playbook. Orbán’s subversion of Hungarian democracy in little over a decade speaks to the speed at which state capture can be achieved.

The great hope is that the Budapest Playbook never becomes an international bestseller and eventually fades into irrelevance, even in Hungary.

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