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Orban and DeSantis

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This essay argues that while many parallels have been drawn between Trump and Orban, a more accurate comparison would be between Orban and Ron DeSantis:

These similarities reflect a certain ideological convergence between the post-Trump Republican Party and Fidesz: a belief in the central importance of cultural war and the need to wage it using state power.

Broadly speaking, both Orbán and DeSantis characterize themselves as standing for ordinary citizens against a corrupt and immoral left-wing cosmopolitan elite. These factions are so powerful, in their telling, that aggressive steps must be taken to defeat their influence and defend traditional values. University professors, the LGBTQ community, “woke” corporations, undocumented immigrants, opposition political parties — these are not merely rivals or constituents in a democratic political system, but threats to a traditional way of life.

In such an existential struggle, the old norms of tolerance and limited government need to be adjusted, tailored to a world where the left controls the commanding heights of culture. Since the left can’t be beaten in that realm, government must be seized and wielded in service of a right-wing cultural agenda.

These ideas are not exclusive to these two political figures: They are widely shared among far-right thinkers and parties across the Western world. You can find versions of them in factions ranging from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

In the United States, Trump was supposed to be the avatar of this far-right thinking — which, in this country, is broadly associated with a loose group of intellectuals and writers called “the New Right.” But it turned out he was too self-absorbed and haphazard to successfully implement a New Right agenda. Trump’s most notable legislative achievement? A tax cut written by old-school, pro-business conservatives.

DeSantis is actually walking the New Right walk. His policy agenda has been described as “competent Trumpism,” but that’s a bit misleading. Trumpism was never a coherent intellectual doctrine, because the person whose name it bore did not have a coherent ideology. What DeSantis is doing is taking far-right ideas and making them into policy reality.

“There are important parallels [between Orbán and DeSantis], although I think they’re less exclusive to Orbán than they are indicative of a broader shift in right-wing parties across the West,” Nate Hochman, a writer at National Review affiliated with the New Right, tells me. “DeSantis and Orbán do share a much starker view of politics than the traditional, laissez-faire, business-friendly Republican approach to politics, which is much more willing to draw sharp lines between political friends and enemies.”

That starker view of politics, and the foregrounding of the culture wars it entails, threatens to further undermine the status and security of marginalized groups. It also serves as a vehicle for maintaining and expanding Orbán’s and DeSantis’s own power and influence — at democracy’s expense.

The piece also points out that Orban’s Hungary represents the kind of “competitive authoritarianism” that the contemporary GOP is working hard to install in America: A system in which elections are not technically rigged, but in which the background rules are so loaded in favor of one party that, as a practical matter, political competition at least at the national level is limited to contending factions within what is essentially a one-party state.

I still doubt that DeSantis will challenge Trump directly in 2024: rather, he seems to be positioning himself to inherit the mantle of national party leadership as soon as Trump dies, is severely incapacitated, chooses to “retire” from electoral politics for whatever complex and erratic set of motivations, or loses another presidential election, and isn’t installed in office despite that loss.

In any event, DeSantis’s willingness to take on at least some traditional business elites in the service of all-out culture war indicates the extent to which the latter project has become essentially the entire reason for the contemporary Republican party to exist.

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