The link from the “you-will-not-replace-us” chant of the people carrying Tiki torches in Charlottesville five summers ago to the replacement-theory-rhetoric of Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is direct. And some democracy experts say that the march to the far right at this dangerous moment for American democracy makes it imperative that the media brings its A-game to their coverage of the Hungarian leader’s appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week in Dallas.
Since he came into power, Orbán’s government has “made access to asylum close to impossible, interfered with independent media and academia, launched an assault on members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and undermined women’s rights,” according to a 2021 Human Rights Watch World report. He even has his own 12-step playbook for gaining and holding power, which he laid out at the CPAC gathering in May.
But Jennifer Dresden, policy advocate for Protect Democracy, has a playbook of her own. She is the lead author on the report “The Authoritarian Playbook: How reporters can contextualize and cover authoritarian threats as distinct from politics-as-usual,” and she calls for coverage of Orbán to be “handled with care and context” by the media.
“This attempt to hold Orbán’s Hungary up as a model has been growing for over a year now, and that is concerning,” Dresden said. “The academic and think tank research has been really clear: Hungary has been on this incremental path (toward authoritarianism) for over a decade at this point, and Orbán has followed the playbook very, very closely in ways that everybody should be worried about.”
Her group’s playbook lays out seven fundamental tactics used by “aspiring authoritarians” and offers guides as to how reporters and editors can recognize and report on them. The steps used to gain authoritarian control range from trying to control the media to stoking violence and corrupting elections, according to the report.
Coverage of Orbán at CPAC should include “the fact that the vast majority of media in Hungary are controlled by the government or allies of the government,” Dresden said. It should also include “the electoral system changes that were put in place, which have given an outsize advantage to the ruling party at the expense of opposition parties in terms of how districts are drawn and elections are run,” she added.
Another piece of essential context is the timing of Orbán’s arrival at CPAC.
Last summer in writing about Tucker Carlson hosting several of his prime-time Fox News shows from Hungary, I said, “This celebration of Orbán, who controls the press and the courts in Hungary, might not be so alarming if American democracy was not at such a precarious point after Trump’s efforts to undermine the rule of law, government institutions and such democratic norms as the peaceful transfer of power.”
One year later, the state of our democracy has been further weakened by restrictive voting laws, Supreme Court rulings and continued amplification of lies by Donald Trump and his allies about the 2020 election. A growing number of citizens and analysts question whether our democracy can survive the assault it is under.
What does it say about the state of the American conversation of democracy today that a major conservative organization like CPAC is showcasing a leader who last month warned against “race mixing” in such racist language that it led to a 20-year adviser of his resigning as she labeled his words a “pure Nazi text”? And he will be appearing on the same CPAC stage as former President Trump and more than 20 members of Congress.
“You don’t want to give this guy airtime, but it’s a story you have to cover,” said Robert C. Lieberman, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
“The fact that American conservatives seem to admire him and think of him as someone to emulate really reveals the true colors of that wing of the Republican Party and American conservative movement,” the co-author of “Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy” added.
“It’s one thing when Tucker Carlson says nice things about him on television or does his show from Budapest (last summer). It’s even another thing when CPAC has a meeting in Budapest (in May),” Lieberman said. “But I think having Orbán standing up in the United States as a mouthpiece for this movement is taking that to another level of potential harm.”
Dresden says it’s a story “that shouldn’t be ignored, but it is also a situation where amplifying Orbán and his role in this in some ways can also have negative effects.”
She cautions against sensationalism: “And that extends beyond reporters. We know from other research in other areas that headlines matter a lot and imagery matters a lot … So, just being thoughtful and taking a second to think about coverage is the first thing I would say.”
There has been a considerable amount of thoughtful pre-speech coverage.
In a strong piece published on August 2 in The Dispatch, Dalibor Rohac asked if “U.S. conservatives know what they are signing up for in embracing Hungary’s strongman?”
The Washington Post’s editorial board made a powerful case in a July 30 piece, saying Orbán’s racist comments should have been cause for CPAC to disinvite him.
And CNN’s Fareed Zakaria provided necessary context as he explained on July 31 how Orbán’s warning about “mixed races” ignored the facts of the country’s history.
Lieberman is hoping those who read and see such coverage will think about the seriousness and possible danger of Orbán’s visit to CPAC.
“We used to think of CPAC as a circus,” he said. “Here are these people who get together and wear their silly outfits and talk among themselves. And they’re kind of harmless. But that’s not the case anymore.”