Former President Donald Trump (left), Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (middle), and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (right). Global trends of far-right populism and democratic decline reveal just how much U.S. conservatism overlaps with its European counterparts. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland.

Exactly 100 years after Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome, in which fascist Blackshirts seized power in Italy via sheer intimidation, the totalitarian’s legacy has experienced something of a revival; only this time, it has arrived by means of an entirely honest, and weapon-free, democratic election. 

Elected Oct. 22, 2022, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, at first glance, stifles the alarm expected from the victory of a party such as her own. Representing Fratelli d’Italia, or Brothers of Italy, a far-right populist faction of neo-fascist roots, Meloni has herself praised Mussolini as a “good politician” and selfless leader, according to The Guardian; however, she fiercely rejects the term “fascist” as a label for her agenda, and in no obvious way makes appeals to nostalgia for the era of Mussolini. Instead, she’s built her platform on the anti-liberal, modern conservative dogma so familiar to those living above rocks in the United States. 

Although Meloni denies speculation that she’ll roll back abortion access and oppress Queer Italians beyond their already restricted rights, she has repeatedly denounced same-sex marriage and parenting, as well as what she calls liberal “gender ideology.” She also remarked that she intends to “fully enforce” Law 194, Italy’s answer to abortion protections in which those seeking to terminate their pregnancies are subject to conscientious objection, among other hindrances. 

Additionally, her administration’s strict anti-immigration position and attacks on asylum seekers are aggressive. Sicily is a high-traffic destination for Northwest African migrants crossing the central Mediterranean, a treacherous passage that many do not survive. Although seeking asylum is a human right defended by international law, Meloni has already begun to refuse migrants this license. Her administration has denied several humanitarian vessels safe mooring at Sicilian ports, ordering them to disembark with sometimes dozens of potentially traumatized or physically ill passengers. 

The underlying, if not plainly stated, sentiments and extreme othering of minorities are undoubtedly familiar. In the U.S., right-wing politicians and pundits have seemingly placed their eggs into an exchange of oppressive policy and rhetoric with their European counterparts. A particular landlocked country in Central Europe, slightly larger than the state of Indiana, has managed to attract the attention of prominent American conservatives especially. 

While the Hungarian People’s Republic was headed for its demise in the late 1980’s, Viktor Orbán emerged on the scene as a co-founder of the Federation of Young Democrats (or Fidesz), an anti-communist party that, in Hungary’s first free election of 1990, would win a fringe 22 seats in Parliament. Eight years later, Fidesz—now the Hungarian Civic Party, which panders to the moderate right—would win the largest number of seats in that year’s general election. At the age of 35, Orbán would become Hungary’s second youngest prime minister. 

During his first term in office, Orbán didn’t deviate much from his centrist disposition. It wasn’t until he was ousted from office in 2002 that Orbán’s apparent salivation for power began to shift the focus of his agenda, transitioning from conventional conservatism to antagonistic nationalism, with the launching of his “Forward, Hungary” campaign. Fidesz declared their defeat by the socialist coalition a fraud, and blamed the media for its lack of support. 

After years of struggling to regain a foothold with voters and a disappointing loss in 2006, the party’s luck turned dramatically. In 2010, Fidesz managed to capture 68% of the seats in Parliament in an astonishing landslide that not only stamped out the previously governing socialists, but established a two-thirds constitutional supermajority for Orbán’s party. With Fidesz’s domination in Parliament, Orbán, once again Prime Minister, now had the means to gradually erode the systems that knocked him from his coveted position.

On the surface, Hungary maintains the facade of a functioning democracy. Elections are still held, competition is still legal, and votes are still counted. There are no secret police banging on the doors of traitors, or militant marchers parading through the streets. Orbán’s inherent dissolving of political opposition and consolidation of authority has been purposefully subtle, and generally went unnoticed outside of Hungary. By the time the European Union took notice, districts had been gerrymandered to the advantage of Fidesz. The courts had been packed with loyalists. Parties had been fabricated to cripple the opposition’s attempts to consolidate support. 90% of the media is either owned by the state, or by Orbán-friendly oligarchs. During Hungary’s parliamentary elections last April, Orbán’s opponents were given only five minutes throughout their entire campaign to promote themselves on state television. “Hungary is not a democracy anymore,” Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a former representative in the Hungarian Parliament, told Vox. “The parliament is a decoration for a one-party state.” 

Orbán’s public strategy falls along the lines of Meloni’s: Inflame a sense of national identity by persecuting immigrants and refugees, the Western liberal elitists, and the LGBTQ+ community. His administration has alter the constitution to strictly conserve Christian values, and invalidate non-heterosexual marriages. They’ve constructed a surveillanced barbed-wire fence around the Croatia-Serbia border to keep out Syrian asylum seekers, and criminalized organizations that assist migrants. In a speech on July 23, he promoted Eurocentrism and Nazi-reminiscent racial ideology. He employs this rhetoric while upholding what the European Parliament has declared an “electoral autocracy,” a mere imitation of democratic values, or, to use Orbán’s term, “illiberalism.”

What should be shocking, but couldn’t be, is the U.S. far-right’s brazen emulation of these figures who seemingly cherry pick the democratic values that best serve their interests.

After Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Parental Rights in Education” bill (commonly nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) into law, his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, remarked, “we were watching the Hungarians.” The policy, which bans educators from teaching students in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation and gender identity, or content that isn’t “developmentally appropriate” for students of all ages, is similar, if less extreme, than a Hungarian law passed in 2021 that bans LGBTQ+ content from being taught to students 18 and younger. “So yay Hungary,” added Pushaw.

Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republicans Club, told viewers at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), “we demand nothing short of American Orbánism.” He remarked that the U.S. would follow Hungary’s lead in establishing a “form of conservatism that sees the media as the enemy, and actually conserves what we hold near and dear.” 

Then again, Americans couldn’t be shocked by the embrace of figures like Viktor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni after witnessing domestic struggles with fundamentally undemocratic crusades: the vicious campaign to invalidate the results of the 2020 presidential election; the constant recounts and dismissed fraud lawsuits; the removal of ballot boxes and criminalization of distributing food and water to voters, some of whom stood in lines for upwards of ten hours; and of course, Donald Trump’s attempt to halt the electoral process by inciting a fatal insurrection at the United States Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Election-denying Republicans won seats in a number of 2022 midterm elections. American conservatives, whether by the example of extremist leaders overseas or not, have taken their own extreme measures to consolidate power.

Ultimately, no issue, especially one of this scale and complexity, can be blamed on any one influence. However, journalists, analysts, and politicians alike have proposed a deal of theories to explain the noticeable amplification of extremist behavior within the U.S. and abroad; when doing so, it’s difficult to ignore the elephant in the approximately 3,000 mile-long room: Donald Trump. 

Both Franklin World History teacher Samuel Hutchinstein and Dr. Sarah Henderson, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Oregon State University, rejected the suggestion that Trump incited a national, let alone global, far-right movement. “Trump is the expression of a wave of populism,” Dr. Henderson said. She explained that, similar to left-leaning populists such as Bernie Sanders, Trump’s success is rooted in his critiques of the “old system, that appeals to people who’ve been disenfranchised.” This strategy, as she pointed out, dates much farther back than Trump’s presidency: “You can trace all the way back to the 1992 congressional elections,” she says, citing Newt Gingrich’s use of wedge politics to further divide the electorate by transforming partisan discussion into a bureaucratic No Man’s Land. His use of accusatory terminology and vilification of the Democratic Party defined the two-party system in terms of conflicts between virtuous and evil, everyman and elitist. Gingrich’s rhetoric paved the way for Donald Trump.

Hutchinstein held a similar sentiment, describing Trump as “more of a symptom than a cause.” He did, however, credit Trump with damaging political norms: “That he was able to run in the matter in which he ran, [insulting] entire groups of people…without any consequences. That’s his contribution, if you can call it that.” Dr. Henderson referred to Trump’s Access Hollywood Tape scandal, his infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” remark, as a demonstration of the precedents he dismantled: “Once you blow through that norm, almost anything becomes possible.” Trump taught the GOP that hesitancy, calculation, and respect for conventionalism are weaknesses, a lesson that’s emboldened their investments in such representatives as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. Even when such provocative behavior isn’t appealing, American voters don’t have much of a choice beyond the lesser of two evils. 

Capitalizing on issues the public cares about to your personal benefit is basic political strategy. For instance, during last month’s midterms, the Democratic Party primarily focused on the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade to mobilize voters. However, when it’s used to fearmonger and inflame hatred, to deny groups of people their basic rights and promote undemocratic values, there is a distinction that can’t be ignored. “[We] should always worry when there’s a party with views that run counter to the things the global community has been working towards since World War II,” Dr. Henderson warns. “It’s important not to get complacent,” she adds.

“I think we should always be concerned about [democracy],” Hutchinstein corroborates. “There’s nothing that’s set in stone,” he says.

From where we stand, there’s no telling what the future of democracies here and abroad will look like in the coming years. Dr. Henderson points out that, since 2005, political scientists have seen more democratic decline than advancement around the globe, within systems young and old, vulnerable and stable. 

With the chasmic ideological polarization we’re currently facing, it’s difficult to perceive a future in which compromise is possible. But then again, that may be an underestimate of the voter. “I think this past midterm has shown that we, on the whole, reject extremism; the majority of the country,” Hutchinstein commented. “I don’t feel great, but it could have been a lot worse.”

On this note, I could leave you with some disingenuous silver lining in all this, or demand that you vote (though you’ve undoubtedly heard this ad nauseam). Instead, I’ll close with a seemingly timeless quote that will provide, if not solace, material for your student government campaign. From Charles Chaplin in “The Great Dictator” (1940):

“To those who can hear me, I say do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed. The bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die. And the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

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