Authoritarianism Is Making A Comeback, And Hungary Sets The Standard

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Viktor Orban, elected to a fourth term as Hungary's prime minister, is often held up as a case study in authoritarianism, a style of "strongman" leadership that's challenging democracies around the world.

It's a convincing portrayal when you look at his record in Hungary, an officially democratic nation since 1989 that's bordered by Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and other countries that once made up the Eastern Bloc.

Orban used to be a left-wing crusader but more recently called immigration — especially Muslim immigration —  a threat to the homeland. He claimed he is the only person capable of defending Hungary and characterized EU leaders as meddling bureaucrats who are  also a threat to national sovereignty.

Orban's rhetoric about immigration turned more pointed during the campaign. "We do not want to be a multicolored country," he said, adding that he did not want Hungarians to interact with immigrants "in such a way that our color is mixed with others' colors."

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He also has seemed to threaten political opponents at a March 2018 campaign rally, proclaiming: "We will seek moral, legal and political recourse after the elections."

Orban has specifically targeted non-governmental organizations funded by the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist, well-known in the U.S. for funding liberal causes. One of the first laws parliament is expected to pass is a "stop Soros" bill, imposing a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to organizations in Hungary that back immigration. Many call the fixation here anti-Semitic.

Coincidentally, Orban was the recipient of a Soros Foundation fellowship early in his career when he was a liberal.

These turns of fate and philosophy in Eastern Europe and beyond are becoming more common. Poland has a similar leader in power, writes Foreign Affairs, predicting that the Czech Republic and Romania will soon follow.

That's not to mention an authoritarian trend in Russia, China and Latin America. Some say President Donald Trump is just a little too comfortable with ultra-strong governments, too.

In some cases, these authoritarian rulers are supported by their citizens. Political scientists say some people have latent authoritarian tendencies that can be "activated" under certain circumstances. Social change that they see as destabilizing is a prime example. 

An NYU professor describes the impulse this way: "In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant." A challenge for an authoritarian leader is to keep the threat going in the minds of supporters, even after it no longer exists — if it ever did to begin with. 

Therein lies the power: appearing as the one and only person capable of protecting against danger.