Ever since the U.S. Senate failed to convict Donald Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection and disqualify him from running for president again, a lot of people, myself included, have been warning that a second Trump term could bring about the extinction of American democracy. Essential features of the system, including the rule of law, honest vote tallies, and orderly succession, would be at risk.
Today, however, we can do more than just speculate about how a second Trump term would unfold, because the MAGA movement has been telegraphing its plans in some detail. In a host of ways—including the overt embrace of illiberal foreign leaders; the ruthless behavior of Republican elected officials since the 2020 election; Trump allies’ elaborate scheming, as uncovered by the House’s January 6 committee, to prevent the peaceful transition of power; and Trump’s own actions in the waning weeks of his presidency and now as ex-president—the former president and his allies have laid out their model and their methods.
Begin with the model. Viktor Orbán has been the prime minister of Hungary twice. His current tenure began in 2010. He is not a heavy-handed tyrant; he has not led a military coup or appointed himself maximum leader. Instead, he follows the path of what he has called “illiberal democracy.” Combining populist rhetoric with machine politics, he and his party, Fidesz, have rotted Hungarian democracy from within by politicizing media regulation, buying or bankrupting independent media outlets, appointing judges who toe the party line, creating obstacles for opposition parties, and more. Hungary has not gone from democracy to dictatorship, but it has gone from democracy to democracy-ish. Freedom House rates it only partly free. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s ratings show declines in every democratic indicator since Fidesz took power.
The MAGA movement has studied Orbán and Fidesz attentively. Hungary is where Tucker Carlson, the leading U.S. conservative-media personality (who is sometimes mentioned as a possible presidential contender), took his show for a week of fawning broadcasts. Orbán is the leader whom the Conservative Political Action Conference brought in as a keynote speaker in August. He told the group what it loves to hear: “We cannot fight successfully by liberal means.” Trump himself has made clear his admiration for Orbán, praising him as “a strong leader and respected by all.”
The U.S. is an older and better-established democracy than Hungary. How, then, could MAGA acolytes emulate Orbán in the American context? To simplify matters, set aside the possibility of a stolen or contested 2024 election and suppose that Trump wins a fair Electoral College victory. In this scenario, beginning on January 20, 2025, he and his supporters set about bringing Budapest to the Potomac by increments. Their playbook: [Continue reading…]