In Budapest, Mike Pence Sells American Autocracy
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These days, all roads lead to Viktor Orbán's Budapest for the GOP and its American media and political allies. Moscow retains its standing as a hub of far-right funding and traffic. But Vladimir Putin is a bit too toxic for some right now, given accelerating international anti-kleptocratic efforts. The Department of Justice just arrested Mark Gyetvay, CFO of Russia's Novatek gas company, for tax fraud.
Budapest, in contrast, offers illiberal rule with a veneer of respectability. The country has EU funding and we hear less about people falling out of windows or being poisoned. In reality, Orbán has domesticated the country's media, captured the courts, and expertly used threat as well as financial and legal harassment against dissenters. As of 2020, he rules by decree. He allows a few critics to appear at high-profile conferences, such as those at the August gathering at which Tucker Carlson also spoke. That costs him nothing, but makes it easier for his foreign megaphones, such as Carlson and Rod Dreher, to argue that Hungary is a free country.
Orbán's charm offensive has now lured Mike Pence to the Hungarian capital for a "Demographic Summit" attended by the premiers of Poland and other right-wing states. As Donald Trump's vice president, Pence often used foreign trips to display a more forceful personality than the role of poker-faced subordinate he played at home. As he prepares a possible 2024 presidential run, Pence knows that showing up in Budapest is an efficient way to declare yourself part of the far-right community, even and especially if you live in an America still plagued with the rule of law, reproductive rights, and other trappings of democracy.
That will change if Pence and other GOP politicians get their way. In Hungary, Pence can see a reality he has long worked to bring to America. There, right-wing anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-abortion platforms have become national policy. Orbán banned gender studies from higher education (2018), ended the legal recognition of transgender and intersex people (2020), and banned the depiction of LGBTQ people in educational materials and television programs aimed at children under the age of 18 (2021).
"Hungary must defend itself because the Western left wing is attacking. It is trying to relativize the notion of family. Its tools for doing so are gender ideology and the LBGTQ lobby," Orbán claimed at the summit. "The state has to protect families and do away with obstacles preventing the formation of families" -- "do away with" being a classic authoritarian euphemism for state persecution of individuals of the wrong faith, race, or sexual orientation. "A country is only viable if its citizens share the same values. Otherwise, Europe will collapse."
From Fascism onward, such fearmongering has fueled population engineering schemes--known as biopolitics -- that come with the restriction of freedom. History teaches that when empty cribs become a state preoccupation, full prisons are not far behind.
In Budapest, Pence dutifully sounded the alarm: "We see a crisis that brings us here today, a crisis that strikes at the very heart of civilization itself. The erosion of the nuclear family, marked by declining marriage rates, rising divorce, widespread abortion and plummeting birth rates."
Pence is less bombastic than Trump. His speech focused on his core mission of ending the right to abortion, rather than on himself as a savior figure. "It is our hope and prayer that in the coming days, a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court of the United States will take action to restore the sanctity of life at the center of American law," he told the Budapest audience.
Certainly, Pence was in his element: only men spoke at the main session of the "demographic summit" (Pence famously refuses to be alone with any woman but his wife in any room where food or alcohol are being served). Family Minister Katalin Novak was reduced to the role of moderator and billed as a mother of three children. Pence, who calls his wife, Karen, "Mother," likely approved of this misogynistic move.
State control of media means that Pence, an Evangelical Christian, surely heard about Orbán as the "defender of Christianity," but perhaps not as the persecutor of 300 small churches run by non-loyalists. His government stripped them of their legal status and subjected them to court proceedings that exhausted their finances.
And what do Pence and his ultra-wealthy libertarian backers think about Orbán as predator of Hungarian businesses? As in Russia and Turkey, if you have a profitable enterprise, the leader's cronies come calling, pressuring you to sell it (at a cut-rate price) or face smears, audits, or worse.
Pence and other Republicans who celebrate Hungary as a model for America signal their approval of Orbán's kleptocracy in the making and his shutdown of fair elections, justice, and the free press. In Budapest, they can sell an autocratic vision of America's future that will come into focus over the next year. Perhaps that's why the 2022 edition of the Conservative Political Action Committee conference will be held in the Hungarian capital. Destroying democracy at home goes hand in hand with making America a partner of autocracies abroad. With this trip, Pence declares his commitment to both causes.