Ron DeSantis is Viktor Orbán’s true American disciple
In June of last year, Hungary’s far-right government passed a law cracking down on LGBTQ rights, including a provision prohibiting instruction on LGBTQ topics in sex education classes.
About nine months later, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” up through third grade. According to some knowledgeable observers on the right, these two bills were closely connected.
“About the Don’t Say Gay law, it was in fact modeled in part on what Hungary did last summer,” Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative magazine, said during a panel interview in Budapest. “I was told this by a conservative reporter who … said he talked to the press secretary of Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and she said, ‘Oh yeah, we were watching the Hungarians, so yay Hungary.’”
When I asked DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw about a possible connection, she initially denied knowing of Hungarian inspiration for Florida’s law After I showed her the quote from Dreher, she did not respond further. (Dreher did not reply to two requests for comment.)
It’s easy to see the connections between the bills — both in provisions and justifications. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described his country’s anti-LGBTQ law as an effort to prevent gay people from preying on children; Pushaw described Florida’s law as an “anti-grooming bill” on Twitter, adding that “if you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer” — meaning a person preparing children to become targets of sexual abuse, a slur targeting LGBTQ people and their supporters that’s becoming increasingly common on the right.
This is not a one-off example. DeSantis, who has built a profile as a pugilistic culture warrior with eyes on the presidency, has steadily put together a policy agenda with strong echoes of Orbán’s governing ethos — one in which an allegedly existential cultural threat from the left justifies aggressive uses of state power against the right’s enemies.
Most recently, there was DeSantis’s crackdown on Disney’s special tax exemption; using regulatory powers to punish opposing political speech is one of Orbán’s signature moves. On issues ranging from higher education to social media to gerrymandering, DeSantis has followed a trail blazed by Orbán, turning policy into a tool for targeting outgroups while entrenching his party’s hold on power.
Orbán has recently emerged as an aspirational model for many on the Trump-friendly right. During his presidency, many observers on both sides of the aisle compared Trump to the Hungarian autocrat — and not without some justification. But after a 2018 visit to Hungary, I concluded that Trump was not competent or disciplined enough to implement Orbán-style authoritarianism in America on his own. The real worry, I argued, was a GOP that took on features of Orbán’s Fidesz party.
DeSantis’s agenda in Florida is evidence that the Republican shift in this direction is continuing, maybe even accelerating. He has shown little interest in moderation or consensus-building, instead centering his governing philosophy on using policy to own the libs. While Trump may have been an ideological catalyst for the GOP’s authoritarian lurch, DeSantis is showing how it could actually be implemented in practice. The consequences for democracy in Florida, and America in general, could be dire.
The many places where DeSantis and Orbán meet
There is no doubt that Hungary, an authoritarian state in all but name, is becoming more and more important in the American right-wing imagination.
Tucker Carlson, the most influential media figure in today’s GOP, is at the forefront of this effort. In January, Carlson released a “documentary” on Orbán’s government lionizing his regime and encouraging Republicans to emulate it. That same month, Donald Trump endorsed Orbán for reelection, calling him a “strong leader” who has “done a powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary.”
This makes the echoes between DeSantis’s agenda and Orbán’s especially notable — with the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and the ensuing fight with Disney, being the most glaring examples.
Orbán’s political model has frequently employed a demagogic two-step: stand up a feared or marginalized group as an enemy, then use the supposed need to combat this group’s influence to justify punitive policies that also happen to expand his regime’s power. Targets have included Muslim immigrants, Jewish financier George Soros, and most recently LGBTQ Hungarians. Hungary’s version of the “Don’t Say Gay” law — which the government labeled an anti-pedophilia bill — expanded both government control over curricula and its powers to regulate programming on Hungary’s airwaves.
You see a similar logic in DeSantis’s Florida. Alleging that classroom education on LGBTQ topics somehow threatens children, the governor and his allies pushed through a vague and broadly worded bill that empowers both the state and private citizens to go after schools that teach about LGBTQ identity. A moral panic about alleged LGBTQ “grooming” serves to justify the imposition of ideological controls on public education — and the speech rights of progressive and LGBTQ teachers. (Relatedly, both Orbán and DeSantis have taken aim at curricula and textbooks used in K-12 schools on expressly political-cultural grounds.)
Predictably, the Florida bill provoked a backlash from corporate America — which DeSantis used as a justification to engage in even more Orbán-like behavior.
After Disney put out a statement criticizing the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, DeSantis moved to strip the corporation of its special tax status in a 40-square-mile area around Disney World. In this area, called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Florida allows the mega-corporation to essentially function as a local government, giving it the power to, for example, collect taxes (from itself) and build roads. These privileges, first granted by the state in 1967, are hugely beneficial for the company — and, on Friday, DeSantis signed a bill revoking them.
In doing so, he was very explicit about his reasoning: This move was direct punishment for Disney’s stance on the “Don’t Say Gay” law. In a fundraising email, DeSantis wrote that “Disney and other woke corporations won’t get away with peddling their unchecked pressure campaigns any longer.” In an appearance on Newsmax, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez noted that Disney had “changed what they really espouse,” lambasting the company’s “very public agenda to indoctrinate our children.”
This use of regulatory power to punish political opponents is right out of Orbán’s playbook. In 2015, Lajos Simicska — an extremely wealthy Hungarian businessman and longtime Orbán ally — turned on his patron, using a vulgar term to describe the prime minister.
In retaliation, the government cut its advertising in Simicska’s media outlets and shifted contracts away from his construction companies. After Fidesz’s 2018 election, Simicska sold his corporate holdings (mostly to pro-government figures). He moved to an isolated village in western Hungary; his last remaining business interest was an agricultural firm owned by his wife.
DeSantis isn’t the first Republican to follow Orbán here. Trump tried this kind of move a few times, most notably attempting to block AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner because he hated CNN’s coverage of his campaign and administration, according to Jane Mayer’s reporting in the New Yorker. But he failed to follow through, whereas DeSantis actually made good on his threats (at least for now).
Higher education is another area where DeSantis, like Orban, has taken special aim. On April 22, DeSantis signed the “Stop WOKE Act,” a bill that, among other things, expressly regulates what professors are allowed to teach about race and gender in college courses. In a letter to Florida State University, the free speech advocacy group FIRE argued that the bill (also known as HB 7) was so obviously an unconstitutional abridgment of speech that administrators might simply “refuse to enforce” the bill.
“By barring any ‘instruction’ that ‘espouses,’ ‘promotes,’ or ‘advances’ a prohibited concept, HB7 chills vast swaths of academic discussion and inquiry protected by the First Amendment,” FIRE writes. “Florida’s new prohibition will silence discussions on (among other topics) systemic racism, the gender pay gap, affirmative action, [and] reparations for slavery or indigenous peoples.”
Orbán’s assault on higher ed has been even more striking. In 2018, his government issued a decree removing accreditation for Hungarian gender studies degrees, a move that effectively banned Hungarian universities from teaching the subject. Later that year, his government forced Budapest’s Central European University — a widely respected liberal arts college founded by Orbán’s foil, George Soros — to leave the country altogether.
For both men, the focus on academia is unsurprising: Universities are places where cultural liberal views flourish, and a forceful conservative agenda should take the fight to them. Conservatives believe state power can and should be wielded to prevent professors from “indoctrinating” students into a left-wing worldview (which doesn’t actually happen).
On another hot-button culture-war issue, social media, DeSantis has actually outstripped Orbán.
In February 2021, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga proposed a bill to regulate “the Hungarian operations of large tech companies” to counteract what she earlier called their alleged restrictions on “Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions.” While Varga’s bill never passed, a version of it became law in Florida just three months after her proposal. Florida Senate Bill 7072 gave state regulators the power to fine social media companies if state authorities determined they improperly “deplatformed” a political candidate for office. (Shortly after its enactment, a court ruled that the bill violated the First Amendment; oral arguments for Florida’s appeal are set for mid-May.)
Finally, the Hungarian and Florida governments share a penchant for extreme gerrymandering (as, to be fair, do quite a few other Democratic and Republican state governments).
Shortly after its initial victory in 2010, Fidesz created a new set of single-member districts that gave its supporters outsize representation in the country’s parliament. In the 2022 election, Fidesz won 53 percent of the vote nationally and 83 percent of the seats in single-member districts — including a whopping 98 percent of seats in districts outside of Budapest.
During the current redistricting cycle, DeSantis rejected a congressional map drawn by Florida’s Republican legislature, instead insisting on new maps that would give the party a substantially larger leg up in House elections. The statehouse complied, producing new maps that are so biased that, by one estimate, they could swing the national House bias a full point in the GOP’s direction.
Why DeSantis and Orbán have converged
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.
Democracy in Hungary — and in Florida
Any politics that puts emphasis on punishing political and cultural enemies tends toward illiberal and anti-democratic practices.
In the Hungarian case, this was a feature rather than a bug: Orbán designed his ideological message around his desire to create a “central political forcefield” that would dominate the country. The culture war was more of a means than an end, a legitimating tactic for policies explicitly designed to undermine Hungarian democracy, weaken political rivals, and strengthen Fidesz’s grip on power.
Today, the Hungarian political system is best described as a form of “competitive authoritarianism”: a system where leaders do not ban elections or nakedly stuff ballot boxes, but instead hold contests under profoundly unfair background conditions — pervasive state control of the media, for example. By combining repressive tools with a culture-war message that genuinely resonates in Hungary’s conservative countryside, the government can maintain a near-absolute hammerlock on power without needing to resort to the most obvious forms of electoral cheating.
This model has been proven effective. Orbán has been in power since 2010, and has won three separate reelection bids — in 2014, 2018, and April 2022 — on an increasingly uneven playing field.
DeSantis is operating in a very different context. His goal is not establishing a permanent DeSantis regime in Florida, but rather improving his status in the national Republican Party in order to launch an eventual presidential bid. Bare-knuckles culture warring in Florida is also constrained by national politics and a legal system his party doesn’t (entirely) control. It is very plausible that some of his signature legislation, like the revocation of Disney’s tax status, will be struck down on constitutional grounds.
But that is cold comfort. The American federal system delegates huge amounts of power to state governments, enough to severely undermine democracy within a state’s boundaries. The United States has a long history of state-level authoritarianism: Jim Crow laws, in addition to being a form of racial apartheid, were also designed to guarantee indefinite Democratic control over Southern states.
In this political context, any diffusion of Hungarian-style culture-war authoritarianism to the state governments is extremely disturbing — potentially accelerating a decade-plus process of democratic decline in Republican-governed states. If DeSantis is in fact creating a blueprint for American Orbánism that Republicans across the country choose to follow, the implications for American democracy could well be disastrous.