Why MAGA Republicans Look to Viktor Orbán for Guidance

President Trump Hosts Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban At The White House

2024 is a crucial year, with a rise in support for far-right parties across the globe. In Europe, this trend is evident in recent elections. In France, Emmanuel Macron dissolved the national assembly and called for snap elections after the results signaled a potential shift in the country’s political direction and its relationship with the European Union. Austria’s Freedom Party is poised to take office in the autumn elections. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, is seen as a key figure in the next European Parliament, following the success of her Brothers of Italy party. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party’s electoral gains threaten the governing coalition. And this precedes the anticipated return of Donald Trump, who The Economist predicts has a strong chance of defeating Joe Biden in November.

While success for far-right parties is one thing, maintaining power is another. However, Viktor Orbán’s premiership in Hungary offers a model for how populists can solidify their gains and establish long-lasting influence. Perhaps no one admires Orbán’s approach more than MAGA Republicans.

Orbán has held a constitutional majority for 14 consecutive years, granting him significant influence to reshape Hungary according to his vision. His tenure reveals how democratic institutions can become vulnerable to the authoritarian far right.

To understand Orbán’s success, we must recognize the key characteristics of modern right-wing populists: charismatic appeal and the ability to communicate simple, convincing messages about national pride, prosperity, and defense against perceived or real external threats. Additionally, they excel in building political infrastructure, allowing them to control their country’s political, legal, and media institutions.

Few populists possess both traits. Jarosław Kaczynski of Poland’s Law and Justice party successfully captured state infrastructure from 2015 to 2023, but lacked the charisma to maintain his position.

Leaders like Trump possess the charisma but struggle with organization and system-building. Recognizing this, Trump’s team has launched a program and made strategic hires in preparation for a more effective second term. This strategy appears to be inspired by Hungary. MAGA Republicans and their media allies frequently praise Orbán. Senator J.D. Vance, seen as a potential successor to Trump, recently suggested that the U.S. “could learn a lot” from Hungary. Trump himself has said: “There’s nobody that’s better, smarter, or a better leader than Viktor Orbán. He’s fantastic.”

This praise exemplifies the growing appeal of what I call the “Budapest Playbook,” a roadmap for right-wing populists on how to maintain power. It includes gerrymandering and district manipulation to favor the ruling party; placing intelligence services under political control; aligning the judiciary with political will; undermining judicial independence; replacing constitutional court judges with party loyalists; and seizing control of the media through a propaganda ministry. These measures, when combined, can yield near-unlimited power, enabling an aspiring autocrat to maintain long-term influence while hollowing out democratic institutions.

Orbán’s “success” in these areas is largely due to his ability to avoid unpopular measures while building a political infrastructure and a new economic elite based on personal connections. Today, every major institution in Hungary is led by someone hand-picked by Orbán. A new class of billionaires like Lőrinc Mészáros, a childhood friend of Orbán who has risen from humble beginnings to become the country’s richest person and a facilitator of Russian funding for allied populists, including Marine Le Pen, are also beholden to Orbán.

Presenting himself as a “heroic protector” of the people, Orbán often claims that Hungary is engaged in an existential struggle with Brussels and other international forces. He uses manipulated surveys to support his stance. These consultations, designed to create the illusion of democratic inclusion, invariably include leading questions and blame government failings on figures like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the liberal Hungarian American billionaire businessman George Soros, a frequent target of state-backed smear campaigns. While elements of this rhetoric are familiar to populists, a fully developed “power-factory” is still an aspiration for most.

The possible inflection point for the populist right in Europe, coupled with the looming return of Donald Trump in the U.S., highlights the importance of voters and state apparatuses worldwide paying attention to the Budapest Playbook. Orbán’s subversion of Hungarian democracy over a decade underscores the speed at which state capture can occur.

The hope is that the Budapest Playbook never becomes an international bestseller and ultimately fades into irrelevance, even in Hungary.