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DeSantis Grooms a Cheap Import From Hungary: Orbánism
Debating whether he or Trump would be more dangerous as president is beside the point
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is raising Republican hopes of finding a “sane Trump”—a less erratic standard-bearer for a Trumpist agenda. But there has been some interesting debate over whether this is better or worse.
Last year, former Republican Congressman David Jolly declared DeSantis “more dangerous” because: “He’s more savvy. He’s more coy. And he doesn’t have the pitfalls that Donald Trump does.”
Damon Linker recently made the case that Trump is the greater threat.
Let’s stipulate that Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis would both try to do bad things in office. Mr. Trump still brings something distinctive and much more dangerous to the contest—or rather, several things. He’s flagrantly corrupt. He lies constantly. He’s impulsive and capricious. And he displays a lust for power combined with complete indifference to democratic laws and norms that constrain presidential power.
But Linker accurately sums up the argument against DeSantis:
Mr. Trump’s ability to wreak havoc was limited by his ineptness. Based on what we’ve seen of Mr. DeSantis’s performance as governor of Florida, a DeSantis administration would likely display much greater discipline and competence than what the country endured under Mr. Trump.
In this view, an authoritarian without the discipline to see his schemes through is less dangerous than an authoritarian capable of consistently bending the system to his will.
Yet there is something silly about this whole debate. Jonathan Last compares it to asking “who would win in a fight—a gorilla, an alligator, or a shark.” It’s an amusing mental exercise, but the larger point is that you wouldn’t want to face any of them.
More important, the reason we’re having this debate is that a lot of people still don’t get what DeSantis and today’s Republican Party are really trying to do. While acknowledging that DeSantis is “a bully” who threatens civil rights, for example, Linker describes his goal as being to “advance the GOP dream of gutting the social safety net in return for tax cuts that benefit wealthy right-wing donors.”
So ironically, after taking “fellow liberals” to task for crying wolf about past Republican candidates, Linker presents the most histrionic description of a standard Reaganite Republican with an interest in entitlement reform. But while it would have been accurate to describe DeSantis as a small-government Reaganite when he was a freshman congressman in 2010, he and his party have since moved on to a much different agenda.
This has all been on display in Florida, where DeSantis has been very clearly implementing a model of autocratic rule pioneered by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Laboratories of Autocracy
DeSantis’ policies are not exactly the same as Orbán’s, but there are broad parallels. It might be more accurate to say that DeSantis is following the version of the Orbán model that American nationalist conservatives have been promoting for several years now. Its basic premise was summarized by Rod Dreher, an American conservative who has gone so far as to move to Hungary to show his admiration.
Blake Masters at #NatCon3 says we on the right have got to get comfortable using state power to achieve conservative ends. … Sounds like he is absorbing the Viktor Orban lesson.
This echoes Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad, who wrote, “The right must be comfortable wielding the levers of state power” and “using them to reward friends and punish enemies.” (Azerrad adds, as an afterthought, that this should be done “within the confines of the rule of law,” but this is a self-contradiction, because the rule of law implies the very impartiality in the use of power that he is rejecting.)
So this is the model: to abuse government power to support their side in the culture war.
This approach is very hard to replicate on the national level in the U.S., where there are many institutional checks, and it is difficult to gain and keep the kind of dominant conservative majority the nationalists fantasize about. But Orbánism is much easier to replicate on the state level, where it is easier to gain a legislative majority and where governors tend to have more unilateral power.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described the states as “laboratories of democracy,” but “red state” governors are starting to use them as laboratories of autocracy.
Hungary for Power
Let’s take a look at the elements of the Orbán model.
It begins with economic controls, which is one of the things that differentiates the nationalist model from old small-government Reaganism. The key to this model is not to oppose government subsidies and regulations, but to harness them. Orbán, for example, spends a lot of time railing against the European Union—and then makes sure that he gets to distribute billions in EU subsidies on which the Hungarian economy depends, directing the money to his political supporters and, for example, arbitrarily denying energy subsidies to cities run by mayors in the political opposition.
As H. David Baer, a contributor to The UnPopulist, recently pointed out to me, Orbán offers much the same terms Vladimir Putin extended to Russian businessmen 10 to 15 years ago: “You can live a normal life, so long as you keep your head down,” either by staying out of politics or by playing along with the regime.
This is precisely the deal DeSantis has been attempting to impose on one of his state’s big employers, the Walt Disney Company. It is hard for a governor to squeeze a company that can easily move its economic activity across state lines. But Disney has one big, fixed asset that DeSantis can use as leverage: its giant resort in Orlando. So as Reuters reports, he just appointed his own hand-picked board to control the local district that provides Disney World with its infrastructure:
The bill, which DeSantis signed into law in February, authorizes the governor to appoint five supervisors to operate the quasi-government entity, overseeing municipal services, such as fire protection, public utilities, waste collection, and road maintenance. …
But DeSantis' agenda reaches beyond operational minutiae. “Leaders must stand up and fight back when big corporations make the mistake, as Disney did, of using their economic might to advance a political agenda,” DeSantis wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “We are making Florida the state where woke goes to die.”
By corporations “advancing a political agenda,” DeSantis means opposing his agenda. This is a transparent attempt to make businessmen subservient to their political masters, as I have argued elsewhere.
Notably, this is stated very specifically in terms of threatening Disney over the supposedly “woke”—i.e., left-leaning content—of its media enterprises. As one of the new DeSantis-appointed overseers of Disney World put it, “My hope is that Walt Disney’s vision will be restored and the woke ideologies will be removed from Disney forever.” This echoes another element of Orbánism: control of the media. Orbán used harassment and starvation—depriving independent media of government advertising—to force a takeover of Hungarian mass media by a foundation run by his cronies.
DeSantis’ conflict with Disney began with the company’s opposition to his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which harnessed a gay panic to impose broadly worded controls on what can be said in schools and what books can be carried in school libraries. Ditto for Hungary, where Orbán has also passed laws against so-called “homosexual propaganda.”
But it doesn’t stop with the excuse of protecting children. In Hungary, Orbán has attempted to exert control over higher education as well. Five years ago, the Orbán regime harassed and forced out the Central European University, a world-class academic program. In its place, Orbán has used billions in government funds to prop up the Matthias Corvinus Collegium, an academic program that is less impressive but has a curriculum built around nationalism. All of this is money that is not going into Hungary’s existing universities, nor into its notoriously underfunded primary and secondary schools.
DeSantis seems intent on copying this with his takeover of New College, a small liberal arts school within the Florida public university system. He has stacked the board of trustees with conservative culture warriors who quickly fired the university’s president and talked about firing much of its faculty. A particularly revealing comment came from trustee Chris Rufo—a conservative activist who made his name crusading against “critical race theory” as a catchall for left-of-center views:
We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time: some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we'll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.
It is a frank admission that the college will now have an explicit ideological mission, and students will be expected to align themselves with it.
The Nationalist Mecca
Those who know Hungary well tell me that the hot issues of the American culture war are not actually central to Orbán’s agenda, which is focused more narrowly on nationalism, perhaps in reaction to his country’s economic dependence on the EU and German automakers. A lot of the noise Orbán makes on these issues is not because transgenderism is a pressing concern in Budapest. It is primarily for foreign consumption—something for Rod Dreher to write up in his columns.
That’s the final element of this model—the very fact that it serves as a model and becomes a mecca for ideological pilgrims traveling to pay homage to the new nationalist conservative paradise. Dreher has moved there. A British conservative started the state-funded Danube Institute, and the Matthias Corvinus Collegium has been bringing in a steady stream of right-leaning Western European and American intellectuals on junkets where they are treated well and given access to adoring audiences. They then come back and dutifully file glowing reports on how academic freedom is flourishing in a country that shuts down universities it doesn’t like.
This also is being copied in Florida. DeSantis clearly wants to transform New College into a new Hillsdale College, making Florida a land of opportunity for embittered conservative academics. Conservative think tanks like the Claremont Institute are already opening branches there.
Let’s sum up the model DeSantis is adapting for America: using government control of business, the public schools, the universities and—to the extent he can—the press, to prop up conservative voices and suppress ideological and political opposition.
Much of this effort will not succeed, and substantial elements of his Stop WOKE Act, which sought to control teaching in the state’s universities, have already been struck down by the courts as obvious violations of the First Amendment. But the point is that he is systematically and relentlessly trying—pushing the boundaries of what he can get away with and coming up with new angles. Moreover, he holds an office that will allow him, over time, to chip away through his judicial appointments at any barriers posed by the state courts. And he is expected to seek a higher office that will allow him to reshape the federal judiciary.
The question of whether this is more dangerous than Trump seems a bit beside the point. It is enough to establish that both men are dangerous, and that they are both dangerous in the same way. They threaten not just to impose a few bad policies, but to undermine the institutions of a free society.
And more than that: They represent an ideological trend and a political faction with growing support. This is the real danger.