In his performance at the NATO summit and his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, President Trump confirmed the worst apprehensions of those involved in the struggle for democracy: His open admiration for autocrats and his hostility toward democratic allies are the defining elements of his personal diplomacy. But to what degree is Trump’s nationalist, values-free approach shared by mainstream conservatives and Republicans?
It’s a critical question given the trends in conservative political thought that have intensified since Trump became president. Conservative support for an American foreign policy that seeks to encourage and defend democratic change in other countries—once a mainstay within the GOP—is now up for debate.
“Demoskepticism” does not yet prevail among Republicans in Congress, nor among neoconservatives. But it is a growing phenomenon among conservative writers and this shift is a sign that the Trump presidency is reshaping foreign policy thinking on the right.
Some conservatives now dismiss policies that are infused with democratic values. Chris Buskirk, the publisher and editor of American Greatness, condemns pro-democracy foreign policy as a reflection of American “moral imperialism.” Others have identified certain antid-emocratic rulers as conservative kindred spirits—excusing their acts of repression, praising their leadership qualities, even fawning over their roughshod tactics.
At the top of this list of favored despots is Vladimir Putin. Some praise him as a kind of man’s man among world leaders. Matt Drudge hailed Putin as the “leader of the free world.” Rudy Giuliani described Putin as someone who “makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.”
Another group, consisting primarily of Christian social conservatives, has lauded Putin for his close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, his denunciation of a morally corrupt Europe, and his crackdown on Russian LGBT activists. In response to Russia’s adoption of a law banning “gay propaganda,” Franklin Graham hailed Putin for protecting “his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
American conservatives are not Putin’s only admirers in the world’s leading democracies. He is widely revered by European populists and radicals on both ends of the political spectrum, who cheer his hostility toward the European Union and his anti-Americanism.
Domestic abuses during his tenure have run the gamut, encompassing the assassination of political opponents and journalists, rigged elections, persecution of religious minorities, show trials in kangaroo courts, the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin in state propaganda, and the arbitrary seizure of billions of dollars in assets from private businesses as part of a kleptocracy. (It’s fun to contemplate how Trump-supporters can make excuses for Putin while simultaneously decrying the the supposedly-outlaw Mueller investigation.)
On the global stage, Putin’s record is similarly unambiguous. He has invaded foreign countries to grab their territory, and provided critical military and diplomatic support for some of the world’s most odious regimes. Admiration of the Russian leader requires American conservatives to ignore the many instances in which his government has undermined American interests, menaced the United States’ democratic allies, and interfered in the workings of American democracy.
The stumbling blocks are less obvious in the cases of Poland and Hungary, whose anti-democratic governments also now draw support from some American conservatives.
There are no assassinations or lists of political prisoners in these countries. And whereas Putin makes little attempt to hide his animosity toward the United States, Poland and Hungary remain NATO allies and continue to value their membership in the European Union.
In both countries, however, the nominally conservative ruling parties have taken aggressive steps to neutralize institutional checks on their power. The democratic guardrails designed to protect individual freedom from a tyranny of the majority have been systematically weakened, and in some cases obliterated, by Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland.
Hungary has become a model for the dismantling of a European democracy by a democratically elected government. Like Putin, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán started with the media. Broadcast, print, and online news outlets have gradually come under the control of Fidesz cronies and business allies, and the state media have been turned into propaganda instruments. With the help of this tamed media sector, Hungarian political discourse now consists of an endless series of shrill, demagogic campaigns directed at Orbán’s favorite scapegoats: refugees, George Soros, Brussels, and any civil society organizations that can be tied to them.
Other Hungarian institutions that once enjoyed a strong degree of independence from the central government are being brought under political control, too. Education, formerly decentralized, has been taken over by the national authorities. Academic institutes and cultural entities have lost much of their autonomy. Fidesz has also worked to weaken and transform the judiciary. In one of its latest moves, the party yet again amended the constitution to create a parallel administrative court system that could be stacked with new appointees and used to manage politically sensitive cases.
In Poland, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński has emulated Orbán, but his actions have been more brazen. Elected in late 2015, PiS immediately moved to defang the Constitutional Tribunal and fill it with loyalists, going so far as to ignore the body’s rulings until it secured a reliable majority on the bench. With this court in hand, the party was free to disregard constitutional barriers and take over the rest of the judiciary through acts of legislation. The effort culminated this summer in a sweeping purge of the country’s Supreme Court.
PiS has also launched a state-driven reinterpretation of Polish history. Earlier this year, the government pushed through a law that criminalizes any reference to Polish responsibility for crimes committed under Nazi rule during World War II. Exceptions carved out for scholarly research and works of art did not allay fears about the potential persecution of those holding to the “wrong” explanation of wartime events, particularly given that an eminent historian who had published books on Polish crimes against Jews had already been harassed by prosecutors and attacked by regime propagandists. By adopting a law that thrusts the state into the interpretation of history, Poland has joined outright autocracies like Russia and China in a disturbing trend toward political falsification of the past.
Such defenders of Orbán and Kaczyński as John Fonte and James P. Pinkerton argue, among other things, that they are merely asking questions about the effectiveness of liberal democracy in Europe, bucking a suffocating political correctness that emanates from Brussels, standing up for national sovereignty, and carrying out the will of ordinary people whose political needs were ignored by the previous center-left governments.
But this is clearly not all that they are doing. In 2010, Orbán declared that his ultimate goal was the replacement of the multiparty system with a de facto one-party regime where elections are conducted but power is concentrated in Fidesz’s hands through control of the administrative, legal, information, and economic spheres. Eight years later, that ambitious project has effectively been achieved.
Hungarian observers such as Balint Magyar have compared Orbán’s Hungary to the urban machines dominated by party bosses in America’s big cities during much of the 20th century. Indeed, Fidesz leaders have spoken admiringly of old-school Democratic party organizations in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities, where political discipline was maintained through control of government contracts, patronage jobs, and corrupt relationships with the police, media, and business elites.
Conservatives once regarded machine politics as a perversion of democracy; among the most acute critics were editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, who regularly assailed gerrymandering, bid rigging, and other mechanisms employed to keep the Daleys and Frank Hagues of the country in power. Today, it is often conservatives who turn a blind eye to similar tactics in Hungary. John O’Sullivan, a former National Review editor who currently heads a think tank in Budapest, routinely makes the case that Orbán’s violation of democratic standards is actually no different from the way things are done in Britain, Sweden, or the United States.
O’Sullivan has tried to come to terms with Hungarian realities by relabeling Orbánism as “national conservatism,” a phrase no more credible than terms such as “managed democracy” and “sovereign democracy” that were concocted by Putin’s ideologists in an effort to salvage a measure of legitimacy for his dictatorship.
Furthermore, apologists for modern authoritarians often employ the kind of dodgy arguments that Putin, Orban, and their publicists put forward to divert attention from their own anti-democratic policies to deficiencies of the West.
Thus in dismissing denunciations of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Pat Buchanan, in a weak imitation of Putin’s “whataboutism,” points to America’s failure to take measures against the Soviet Union for its Cold War military interventions in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.
O’Sullivan and other commentators have argued that the fact of having won at the polls give Fidesz and Law and Justice the right to carry out the will of the people, free of interference by the media, the judiciary, or other entities which exist to provide checks-and-balances. But as Dalibor Rohac, an analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, notes, authoritarian-minded Central European leaders act as if majorities at the ballot box “entitle them to do anything they please.”
“Normally,” Rohac writes, “conservatives would be the first ones to point out that unconstrained majoritarianism leads to tyranny.” But for some reason, that’s not happening this time.
Conservatives, led by eminent historians such as Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest, once distinguished themselves by their ability to explain how tyrants could come to power as easily through lies and promises as through the sword. It is tragic to see conservative voices now being raised to celebrate demagogues and rationalize oppression just because the Republican president has an affinity for strongmen.
If you truly want to put America first, you must understand that anti-democratic leaders are not, and cannot be, true allies of either the United States or democracy itself.