Ibram X Kendi’s paperback introduction to Stamped From the Beginning, written right after the 2016 election, uses a historical metaphor that I find very useful. He wrote that Trump’s election confounded Americans raised on pre-established historical narratives about race in America. They said that we had progressed beyond open racism in politics, or that racism ended in the 1960s and that Obama’s election proved this was a “post-racial” nation.. Kendi countered that the history of race in America is not a story of constant progress or even of two steps forward, one step back. Rather, it was a never-ending battle between opposing forces constantly changing with the times. In his formulation, “racial progress” was always countered by “racist progress.”
As Kendi reminds us, American racists don’t need white sheets to be racists. Racist politics takes many forms, adapting to the times but never leaving us. The same goes for authoritarian nationalism. Nationalists don’t need to wear uniforms and march in goosestep to be a threat. We have been deluded by the idea that fascism was some kind of unique phenomenon located at a particular point in the 20th century that was defeated once and for all in 1945. Viktor Orban’s rise and his embrace by the American Right show how authoritarian nationalism adapted itself to current realities. (I don’t always invoke the “f word” for this phenomenon but there’s a reason that neo-Nazis flocked to Trump in ways they didn’t to other Republicans.)
Taking Kendi’s lead, we should see the current wave of authoritarian nationalism in its longer historical context. In nineteenth-century Europe, after the era of revolutions, reactionaries realized they had to recruit the masses to have power, and nationalism made it possible. In France, Napoleon III created an authoritarian state with the trappings of democracy, like referendums, that combined free market economic modernization with militarism and consolidation of power. Bismarck, whose war against France both unified Germany and ended Napoleon III’s reign, erected a similar system in Germany. He instituted universal male suffrage, drastically increasing the participation of the masses, and also supported a social welfare state. At the same time, representational bodies had little power in the system, which rested in the Kaiser and his advisors.
The mix of authoritarianism, nationalism, capitalism, and trappings of representation was called “Bonapartism” after Napoleon III. The new version today is something I dub “Orbanism,” although it thrives well past Hungary's borders. It has many of the old ingredients but with a modern twist. It explicitly rejects liberalism, involves the masses in politics while rigging the system for favorable outcomes, and gets its power from resentment of marginalized “outsiders.” In the last regard, it also shows its debts to the fascist movements of the twentieth century.
Many have been asking why the conservative CPAC conference invited Orban to speak at their national convention. That question has gotten more intense after a speech he gave attacking intermarriage. Some naive liberals have been tweeting things like, “now that the mask is off how can his American supporters stay loyal to him?” Such statements completely miss how Orban’s anti-mixing stances are exactly why American conservatives love him in the first place.