What has happened in Hungary since 2010 offers an example — and a blueprint for would-be strongmen. Hungary is a member state of the European Union and a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. It has elections and uncensored internet. Yet Hungary is ceasing to be a free country.
The transition has been nonviolent, often not even very dramatic. Opponents of the regime are not murdered or imprisoned, although many are harassed with building inspections and tax audits. If they work for the government, or for a company susceptible to government pressure, they risk their jobs by speaking out. Nonetheless, they are free to emigrate anytime they like. Those with money can even take it with them. Day in and day out, the regime works more through inducements than through intimidation. The courts are packed, and forgiving of the regime’s allies. Friends of the government win state contracts at high prices and borrow on easy terms from the central bank. Those on the inside grow rich by favoritism; those on the outside suffer from the general deterioration of the economy. As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”
21st century autocracy does not resemble 20th century autocracy. It’s a different ballgame. And we’re facing it right here in America, right now. I’m not going to say that the president of the United States brazenly pushing for a lighter criminal sentence for his long-time friend and co-conspirator is the worst that it can get. It’s not, and I think it’s going to get worse. But let’s stop pretending that Trump and his enablers haven’t already crossed the autocrat line. This is where we are; let’s deal with it with our eyes wide open.