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Florida’s Ron DeSantis Is Just a Step Behind Hungary’s Fascist Viktor Orbán

Anti-LGBTQ attacks in Hungary are offering bigoted inspiration to the far right in the U.S.

The similarities between the tactics used by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are not incidental.

This month the right-dominated Parliament of Hungary passed a federal law encouraging its citizens to report same-sex families with children to local authorities. The bill targets same-sex families for breaching the “constitutionally recognized role of marriage and the family.”

This isn’t the first attack by Hungary’s Parliament on the small Eastern European country’s LGBTQ communities. In 2020, Hungary ended the legal recognition of transgender and intersex people, leading to the end of previous provisions under which transgender Hungarians could change their gender designations and names on official documents. In 2021, the Parliament also passed legislation that banned the inclusion of LGBTQ people in school educational materials, which was likened to Russia’s 2013 law against “gay propaganda.” Additionally, in 2022, the government passed a censorship law that prohibited LGBTQ individuals from being featured in educational materials for youth and banned companies from making advertisements that support the LGBTQ community if the product being advertised could be considered to be targeting youth.

For people in the United States who have been experiencing and following the relentless legislative attacks on LGBTQ people this year in the U.S. — including more than 450 bills across the country and 10 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in Florida alone — Hungary’s escalating legislative attacks on LGBTQ lives sound chillingly familiar, and the echoes between the attacks in both countries are not just coincidental.

The U.S. Right Wing Looks to Hungary for Inspiration

In response to the recent legislative attack on Hungarian same-sex couples, Gillian Branstetter, communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project and LGBTQ & HIV Project, warned that legislation like Hungary’s may soon be “coming to a red state near you.”

The similarities between the tactics used by the GOP and the government of Viktor Orbán — the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary — are not incidental.

“Many right-wing U.S. intellectuals and journalists (Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, Tucker Carslon, etc.) consider Orbán as a role model,” Zsolt Enyedi, a professor at Central European University in Vienna told Truthout. “For a while I thought that they don’t know what Orbán is doing in terms of centralization, removing checks and balances, clampdown on freedom of speech, etc., but now I think they know it and they like it…. Once [Donald] Trump is replaced by a better organized and smarter leader, U.S. democracy can get into real danger.”

Orbán, the head of Hungary’s far right Fidesz party, which secured a third supermajority in the Parliament in 2022, has unapologetically dubbed his own style of governance as an “illiberal democracy” — a regime that Amnesty International describes as being characterized by “a strong state, a weak opposition, and emaciated checks and balances.” In the past decade, Orbán has targeted marginalized populations such as the Roma, LGBTQ and Jewish communities.

Activist Viktor Mak, who moved from Hungary to Vienna in March, explained to Truthout that the Orbán government has tactfully fostered Orbán as “the leader of this global conservative movement,” fostering the authoritarian turn of the Republican Party and stoking the far right in the U.S.

William Horne, a history scholar and postdoctoral fellow at Villanova University, also underscored the active connections between right-wing forces in Hungary and the U.S.

“While we tend to think about these as separate threats, in many respects, they are part of the same global fascist movement supported and spread by the same far right information networks,” Horne told Truthout. “While Republicans praise the repressive regimes of adversaries because of their oppressive nature, they have worked hard to court and create what is now a burgeoning global fascist movement. [The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)] is a prime example of these efforts, with Christian nationalist dictators like Orbán literally taking center stage.”

Close on Hungary’s Heels, Florida Tests Out Authoritarian Polices in the U.S.

The recent anti-democratic attacks in state legislatures across the U.S., such as silencing and ousting political opponents, targeting citizens’ bodily autonomy, undermining intellectual freedom and limiting minorities’ access to public life are part of the basic playbook of authoritarian governments. Specifically, the attack on transgender existence, the study of gender studies in schools and universities, and LGBTQ rights is a tactic used by authoritarian governments to consolidate power and limit free expression.

While Florida is certainly not the only state toying with authoritarian policies, it may be the canary in a coal mine warning of what may be coming to the national stage very, very soon. Not only has Orbán spoken at CPAC and with Trump, but, recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently met with the new Hungarian President Katalin Novak, who is a close ally to Orbán and heavily funded by him.

In early March, Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Florida) condemned DeSantis for enacting fascist policies in Florida. “He is abusing his power and using the state to target political opponents and political enemies. And there’s a word for that, and it’s fascism, and we have to be honest about it,” said Frost.

DeSantis has been in the news for targeting LGBTQ people, censoring academic freedom, targeting immigrants and restricting people’s right to access abortion care. While DeSantis’s policies are visibly easy to distinguish as slipping into authoritarian tactics, he is not alone. The far right politicians and commentators in states like Texas, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana and Tennessee are engaging increasingly in anti-democratic actions that are similar to tactics used in “illiberal democracies” like in Orbán’s Hungary.

Transgender activist and journalist Erin Reed told Truthout that Florida’s legislature acts as an incubator and testing zone for authoritarian bills before being exported across the country and to Congress. For example, Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay” law got so much coverage in 2022, but this legislative session dozens of similar bills have been introduced across the country, normalizing the legislation, and allowing Florida and other states to go even further in future legislation.

“I think that Florida is one of the exporters of these pieces of legislation that have moved all over the country,” Reed told Truthout. “We’ve seen Florida be the first to pass some of the worst anti LGBT bills and then we’ve seen the bills that Florida passes emanate for the rest of the country.”

This legislative session, Florida has introduced 10 anti-LGBTQ bills and is ranked by Reed as one of 12 states for having the worst active anti-trans laws. In June 2022, Florida announced that it would be ending Medicaid coverage for transgender adults for their gender-affirming care and in November, the Florida medical board voted to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. Recently, Florida has also expanded its “Don’t Say Gay” law to all grade levels, banned youth attendance of drag shows, which has led to preemptive canceling of Pride events in the state, and is expected to pass anti-trans bills that would detransition trans adults and criminalize them for using the bathrooms and changing rooms of their choice.

In addition to the state’s attack on its LGBTQ community, it has also targeted academic freedom and is considering passing legislation that would ban the teaching of critical race theory and gender studies at public universities. Professors anticipating the passage of this legislation have been forced to leave the state to continue their scholarship.

DeSantis has also supported the introduced Senate Bill 1718, which would make it a felony to have an undocumented person in your home or your car. In 2022, the ACLU of Florida stated that “Gov. Ron DeSantis has created a platform out of dehumanizing and cruelly villainizing immigrants in Florida…. DeSantis has doubled down on his fear mongering rhetoric against the immigrant community during this year’s election cycle.”

European Analysts Are Tracking Rise of “Illiberal Democracy” in Florida

The sort of attack that Florida Republicans are waging on the LGBTQ community and “gender studies” is a well-known tactic also used by the far right in Europe as a way to create so-called enemies in the state in order to consolidate power and motivate their voter base.

“‘Gender’ is just a proxy that the illiberal are using to create enemies with hate and exclusion, and they do not have real people in mind independently of their populist rhetoric,” said gender studies professor Andrea Pető, a Hungarian historian who teaches at Central European University in Vienna. Pető added that, “this hateful propaganda not only normalizes hate but has an impact on everyday life and everyday interactions,” because the attack on the LGBTQ community by authoritarian regimes can be “successfully used for political mobilization.”

DeSantis’s attack on academic freedom is eerily similar to Orbán’s 2017 bill that forced the Central European University out of Hungary in 2019. Orbán’s Fidesz party drafted the bill to specifically target the university. The university was forced to relocate to Vienna, Austria, in 2019.

While the European Court of Justice found in 2020 that the law violated Hungary’s commitments under the World Trade Organization and infringed upon the provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union relating to academic freedom, in 2021 the government modified the law and the university has not returned to Budapest. In addition to targeting Central European University, Hungary also removed gender studies from its list of approved master’s degree programs.

On March 10, 2023, Michael Ignatieff, previous rector and president of Central European University spoke at a webinar hosted by the Open Society University on “Academic Freedom in the Balance: Central European University and New College Florida.” In response to the news that DeSantis had effectively packed the New College of Florida Board of Trustees with conservative leadership, billionaire philanthropist and Central European University Founder George Soros’s Open Society network is working with students to defy DeSantis’s educational reforms.

In addition to targeting academic freedom, Florida has also followed in Hungary’s footsteps in censoring free speech. The European Federation of Journalists reports that Hungary has “systematically dismantled media independence, freedom and pluralism, distorted the media market and divided the journalistic community in the country, achieving a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state.” The report shows that “nearly 80 percent of the market for political and public affairs news is ‘financed by sources decided by the ruling party.’

“[Orbán] basically bought up all of the media landscape. So, imagine if Trump or DeSantis or the Republican Party owned MSNBC and CNN and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, … and it’s not the same. There’s diversity in how pro-[government] they are, but they’re all all-pro, and they’ve served different niches right,” Vienna-based activist Mak told Truthout.

While DeSantis has not moved to control the entire media landscape as Orbán does, the Florida Legislature has taken steps in that direction by introducing legislation that would require bloggers who write about the governor to register with the state. Additionally, an Axios reporter was recently fired for responding to a DeSantis press release, calling it “propaganda.”

In Hungary, independent media organizations were forcefully closed by the government, and editors and writers who criticized Orbán were fired from outlets. Writers in Florida have recently become increasingly concerned in a similar fashion that they may soon be targeted by the state for criticizing DeSantis’ policies.

“I guess Ron DeSantis doesn’t like all of the stories I’m writing about his horrible anti-trans bills. If this passes, I would have to register with his ‘ethics department’ to write about him,” said Reed.

Meanwhile, there are also parallels between Orbán and DeSantis in how they target ethnic and religious minorities in their countries. Orbán has engaged in ongoing campaigns against Hungary’s Roma population and espoused anti-Roma rhetoric, deterred refugee asylum seekers and called migrants “invaders,” and often promotes anti-Semitic imagery and rhetoric, particularly concerning Soros.

In response to the indictment of Trump, DeSantis similarly employed anti-Soros rhetoric to question the credibility of the judicial process. “So I’ve seen rumors swirl, I have not seen any facts yet,” he said. “The Manhattan district attorney is a Soros-funded prosecutor,” DeSantis said. “He, like other Soros-funded prosecutors, they weaponize their office to impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety.”

Activists in Hungary and the U.S. Continue to Protest Against Authoritarianism

In the wake of the apparent victory of Orbán’s party in Hungary’s general election in 2018, Amnesty International’s Europe director, Gauri van Gulik, said that, “Whilst the climate may be hostile, we are steadfast in our resolve. We will resist the rollback of human rights in Hungary for, and with, all the people and groups who fight for everybody’s rights and freedoms.”

Since that election, humanitarian organizations and activists in Hungary have continued to push back against Orbán’s authoritarian policies. Despite facing harsh penalties for protesting, thousands of Hungarian students have marched against Orbán’s anti-LGBTQ education laws, the legislature’s attack on academic freedom, assaults on media freedoms and pro-government bias in public media, and against corruption. This protest, dubbed a “freedom march,” criticized an increasingly “centralized authoritarian system” in education that has “taken away autonomy from those working in the public sphere,” according to AP News.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., hundreds of drag queens rallied in Florida on April 25 to protest after the legislature passed a bill banning children from adult live performances, specifically drag performances. In response to the passage of this bill, at least one Pride organization preemptively cancelled its parade in fear that the event would be unable to comply with the new law and may be penalized. The April 25 rally was just one of many recent protests against the state’s targeting of students, LGBTQ activists, and reproductive justice advocates in the state as organizers have continued to protest attacks on civil liberties and organize to protect their communities.

Soon progressive activists in both Hungary and the U.S. will be forced to look on while right-wing forces in both countries join together to share their reactionary strategies: This May, CPAC will be holding its conference in Hungary, and conference organizers have invited Orbán to give the keynote speech. And though Tucker Carlson (one of Orbán’s most fervent fans) has been ousted from Fox News, other right-wing media figures in the U.S. are sure to continue stoking right-wing excitement about Orbán’s authoritarian policies throughout CPAC and beyond.

As Orbán continues to work actively to stoke right-wing movements in the U.S. and spread his “illiberal democracy” model abroad, it becomes ever more important for U.S. activists to connect with left-wing Hungarian organizers and learn from the strategies they have designed to challenge authoritarian policies in their own country.

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