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Insights from Hungary to beat Trumpism

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Three pitfalls from a Hungarian perspective that could hinder beating Trumpism after Trump vacates the White House.


The official start of the transition to the Biden Administration signals the end of the battle against Donald Trump. However, Trump’s legacy will not end when he finally vacates the White House. Just as crucial as defeating Trump will be defeating Trumpism. To do that, Democrats will need to avoid three pitfalls.

I have lived through the consequences of these mistakes as an opposition Member of Parliament in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: mistaking Orbán for Orbánism, reducing Orbánism to xenophobia, and campaigning with a message of returning to the pre-Orbán-era status quo. These mistakes have motivated me to research the roots of the decade-long stability of Orbánism, distilled in my recent book.

The pandemic helped to temporarily flatten the populism curve and relieve the pressure on status quo politics. Had Trump managed the corona crisis more reasonably, he might very well have been reelected. However, a second populist wave is certain if these three mistakes prevail. And there are signs that they will. Warning against the dangers of “left-wing populism,” Tony Blair has recently joined the growing chorus of centrist Democrats who also blame progressives for the underperformance of Democrats in Houses races. Hungary’s lesson suggests that without addressing the underlying inequalities and dislocations, Trumpism will come back.


First, Trumpism is more than Trump.

His 72.8 million voters and 88-million Twitter followers – potentially making him a kingmaker among Republicans – are only the tip of the Trump iceberg. Not only Trump, but the whole Republican Party has shed its loyalty for liberal democracy and has moved towards Orbán-type illiberalism. This poisoning of public life includes waging culture wars, rewriting electoral rules, suppressing the minority vote, and packing crucial institutions with party loyalists.

Building his campaign on “I am not Trump” allowed President-elect Joe Biden to carry the day. However, Trumpism is not just a temporary blip. Making voters realize Trump’s character flaws will not be sufficient to beat Trumpism in the upcoming Senate races. Opposition politicians and pundits in Hungary have also fixated on Viktor Orbán, blaming the retreat of liberal democracy solely on his devilish political tactics. However, without a compelling narrative and identity that shows the opposition has learned from its past mistakes, Orbán keeps winning. Orban and Trump are not lone wolfs. They are reflections of a global tendency that Mark Blyth described as “Global Trumpism”, of which Hungary’s authoritarian capitalism is an avant-garde version.


Second, Trumpism is more than just racism.

Trumpism – racist as Trump is – attracts support not just because of racism’s appeal to a narrow group of white nationalists. Trump did better in 2020 with every race and gender except white men. Though Orbán hits the global news mainly with his anti-migrant politics, he won two elections (2010, 2014) with a sweeping majority before the 2015 migration crisis. Perhaps surprisingly, Orbán’s Fidesz party draws the majority of the Roma vote. Vote rigging and intimidation plays a role in this but such illiberal practices alone do not explain why Hungary’s biggest ethnic minority does not support the opposition.

Many centrist liberals focus on race to the point of downplaying the role of economic polarization. However, both Trump and Orbán have relied on workers’ anger in left-behind areas. Regions that lost a significant share of manufacturing employment, with stagnating real wages and elevated death rates tend to support populist insurgents. Writing these voters off as racists makes liberals neglect on-the-ground party structures in working-class communities.

It is not only workers who are propping up national-populist politics. The primary beneficiaries of Trumpism and Orbánism are the elites. Even though inequality undermines economic development in the long run, upward redistribution can bolster growth in the short run. Thus, national populists can also attract the support of the national bourgeoisie, foreign investors, and the upper-middle-class.


Finally, moderate status-quo politics is not enough to beat Trumpism.

Progressives have to go mainstream and avoid being stigmatized as fringe; such slurs can cost elections. Yet, this is no vindication of status quo politics. Centrist Democrats should recognize that their party’s rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s set the stage for Trumpism. When the left moves right on social and economic policy, right-wing populists win. After waves of avant-garde neoliberal reforms, the Hungarian Socialist Party collapsed in 2010, when most electors viewed the party as the economic elite’s parliamentary wing. In 2014, four years after Orban’s return to power, when his party’s popularity was relatively low, the opposition united behind Lajos Bokros as mayoral candidate. Bokros was a former finance minister in 1995, a well-known liberal technocrat, a former director for the World Bank. Even though Budapest is by far the most liberal city in Hungary, Bokros lost by 13%. Five years later, with Fidesz significantly more popular than in 2014, the opposition united behind a young progressive candidate, Gergely Karácsony, co-chair of a small green-left party, after he had beaten one of the country’s most well-known centrist-liberal media celebrities in the primary election. Mr. Karácsony then went on to beat the incumbent mayor supported by Fidesz, Istvan Tarlós, by 6%.

Courting the mythical disillusioned Republican, corporate-friendly centrist Democrats failed in most parts of the US, such as Theresa Greenfield in Iowa. Data show that progressive candidates performed better in swing districts. All co-sponsors of Medicare for All won their races. While the Democrats lost eight seats in the House and gained only three, the US progressive left now counts more elected representatives in its ranks than at any other moment in modern history. Progressive policies are winning even in states where Trump won, as Florida’s $15 minimum wage shows. State-run health care is seeing overwhelming support even in states with conservative legacies, such as Georgia. Progressive mobilization among communities of color and the young were crucial for Democrat’s successes in Arizona and Georgia.

If Democrats do not avoid these pitfalls, the US could end up with a Trump 2.0. The next likely candidate will not be a hysterical narcissist, but a cool-headed, cynical, efficient populist, like Orbán, Erdogan, or Modi.


Originally published on openDemocracy, on November 30, 2020.


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