It has been hard for me to see the historical outlines of the present-day attack on American democracy clearly. But this morning, as I was reading a piece in Vox by foreign affairs specialist Zack Beauchamp, describing Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s path in Florida as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the penny dropped.
Here’s what I see:
Before Trump won the presidency in 2016, the modern-day Republican Party was well on its way to endorsing oligarchy. It had followed the usual U.S. historical pattern to that point. In the 1850s, 1890s, 1920s, and then again in the modern era, wealthy people had come around to the idea that society worked best if a few wealthy men ran everything.
Although those people had been represented by the Democrats in the 1850s and the Republicans in the 1890s, 1920s, and 2000s, they had gotten there in the same way: first a popular movement had demanded that the government protect equality of opportunity and equal justice before the law for those who had previously not had either and that popular pressure had significantly expanded rights.
Then, in reaction, wealthier Americans began to argue that the expansion of rights threatened to take away their liberty to run their enterprises as they wished. To tamp down the expansion of rights, they played on the racism of the poorer white male voters who controlled the government, telling them that legislation to protect equal rights was a plan to turn the government over to Black or Brown Americans, or immigrants from southern Europe or Asia, who would use their voting power to redistribute wealth.
The idea that poor men of color voting meant socialism resonated with white voters, who turned against the government’s protecting equal rights and instead supported a government that favored men of property. As wealth moved upward, popular culture championed economic leaders as true heroes, and lawmakers suppressed voting in order to “redeem” American society from “socialists” who wanted to redistribute wealth. Capital moved upward until a very few people controlled most of it, and then, usually after an economic crash made ordinary Americans turn against the system that favored the wealthy, the cycle began again.
When Trump was elected, the U.S. was at the place where wealth had concentrated among the top 1%, Republican politicians denigrated their opponents as un-American “takers” and celebrated economic leaders as “makers,” and the process of skewing the vote through gerrymandering and voter suppression was well underway. But the Republican Party still valued the rule of law. It’s impossible to run a successful business without a level playing field, as businessmen realized after the 1929 Great Crash, when it became clear that insider trading had meant that winners and losers were determined not by the market but by cronyism.
Trump’s election brought a new right-wing ideology onto the political stage to challenge the rule of law. He was an autocrat, interested not in making money for a specific class of people, but rather in obtaining wealth and power for himself, his family, and a few insiders. The established Republican Party was willing to back him so long as he could deliver the voters that would enable them to stay in power and continue with tax cuts and deregulation.
But their initial distancing didn’t last. Trump proved able to forge such a strong base that it is virtually a cult following, and politicians quickly discovered that crossing his followers brought down their wrath. Lawmakers’ determination to hold Trump’s base meant they acquitted him in both impeachment trials. Meanwhile, Trump packed state Republican machinery with his own loyalists, and they have helped make the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election an article of faith.
It is not clear whether Trump can translate his following back into the White House, both because of mounting legal troubles and because his routine is old and unlikely to bring the new voters he would need to win. It may be that another family authoritarian can, but right now that is not obvious.
Still, his deliberate destabilization of faith in our democratic norms is deadly dangerous, creating space for two right-wing, antidemocratic ideologies to take root.
One is pushed by Texas governor Greg Abbott, who is embracing a traditional American states’ rights approach to attack the active federal government that has expanded equality since World War II. The Trump years put the states’ rights ideology of the Confederacy on steroids, first to justify destroying business regulation, social welfare legislation, and international diplomacy, and then to absolve the federal government from responsibility for combating the coronavirus pandemic. Then, of course, the January 6 insurrection saw state legislatures refusing to accept the results of a federal election and rioters carrying the Confederate flag into the United States Capitol.
That Confederate impulse has been a growing part of the South’s mindset since at least 1948, when President Harry S. Truman announced the federal government would desegregate the armed forces, and white southerners who recognized that desegregation was coming briefly formed their own political party to stop it.
Abbott and the Texas legislature have tapped into this traditional white southern ideology in their quest to commandeer the right wing. Texas S.B. 8, which uses a sly workaround to permit a state to undermine the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision declaring abortion a constitutional right, has become a model for other Republican states. In June 2021, along with Arizona governor Doug Ducey, Abbott asked other state governors to send state national guard troops or law enforcement officers to the Mexican border because, he said, “the Biden administration has proven unwilling or unable to do the job.”
Abbott’s recent stunt at the border, shutting down trade between Mexico and the U.S., was expensive and backfired, but it was also a significant escalation of his claim of state power: he essentially took the federal government’s power to conduct foreign affairs directly into his own hands.
The other new ideology at work is in the hands of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who, as Beauchamp pointed out, is trying to recreate Orbánism in the U.S. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has eroded Hungary’s democracy since he took power for the second time, about a decade ago. Orbán has been open about his determination to overthrow the concept of western democracy, replacing it with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy” or “Christian democracy.” He wants to replace the equality at the heart of democracy with religious nationalism.
To accomplish his vision, Orbán has taken control of Hungary’s media, ensuring that his party wins all elections; has manipulated election districts in his own favor; and has consolidated the economy into the hands of his cronies by threatening opponents with harassing investigations, regulations, and taxes unless they sell out. Beauchamp calls this system “soft fascism.”
DeSantis is following this model right down to the fact that observers believe that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was modeled on a similar Hungarian law. DeSantis’s attack on Disney mirrors Orbán’s use of regulatory laws to punish political opponents (although the new law was so hasty and flawed it threatens to do DeSantis more harm than good). DeSantis is not alone in his support for Orban’s tactics: Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson openly admires Orbán, and next month the Conservative Political Action Committee will hold its conference in Hungary, with Orbán as a keynote speaker.
Trump’s type of family autocracy is hard to replicate right now, and our history has given us the knowledge and tools to defend democracy in the face of the ideology of states’ rights. But the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “soft fascism” is new to us, and the first step toward rolling it back is recognizing that it is different from Trump’s autocracy or states’ rights, and that its poison is spreading in the United States.
—Heather Cox Richardson