Demagogues Don’t Debate: The GOP Mimics Putin and Orbán

Refusing to participate in presidential debates is a symptom of the Republicans’ embrace of authoritarianism

“This is insane. Why.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) tweeted about the news that the Republican National Committee will require candidates for America’s highest office to pledge to not participate in debates run by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The nonprofit commission, which has organized the debates for 30 years, is bipartisan. That’s a big problem for the GOP, which is now an authoritarian party that has withdrawn its support for bipartisan rule and democratic institutions. In vacating the debate stage, the Republicans are mimicking autocratic heads of state like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Debates between presidential candidates enact the democratic principle of mutual tolerance: the notion that those who don’t share your political views have a right to free expression. The public hears an exchange of views by two individuals who are on equal footing and bound by the same rules, which are enforced by an impartial arbiter.

This is anathema to the authoritarian mindset. Personality cults posit the leader as a man above all others, and the egalitarian staging and format of debates make them dangerous to his brand. Since authoritarians sustain their power through disinformation, threat, and corruption (including fixing elections) who knows what might be exposed if they submit to spontaneous questioning by a rival or a third party?

Putin, who came from an intelligence background into politics, understands this well. He set the tone for 21st century illiberal rulers when he refused to debate his opponents during a 1999-2000 presidential race marked by the resumption of Russia’s war with Chechnya and a series of apartment building explosions that were devastating for Russians but conveniently timed for the emergence of his strongman persona.

Avoiding debates became a feature of Putin’s rule over the next 20 years as he built a kleptocracy founded on secrecy and the silencing of rivals. In 2012, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that taking time for debate would “impede his ability to carry out his duties”– which is true given that the main goal of Putinism is not governance but thievery.

Russian opposition parties have unsuccessfully lobbied for years to change election laws to require all candidates for parliament or the presidency to participate in debates. Instead, Putin offers the public yearly live call-in shows in which he answers scripted questions.

Putin gets ready for his annual call-in show, Moscow, 2016. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.

Orbán, who is a Putin client, has followed Moscow’s lead. Sixteen years have passed since the Hungarian leader last agreed to debate a competitor. A poor performance in 2006, which contributed to his defeat to the incumbent Hungarian Socialist Party, soured him on the experience. A 2018 attempt by opposition politicians to amend election law to require presidential debates did not succeed.

Four years later, Orbán’s under more pressure. He may be the darling of the American far right, but he faces a challenge in the April presidential elections from a newly unified opposition. Six parties have come together to defeat what coalition leader Peter Márki-Zay calls a “corrupt dictatorship.”

Still, Orbán rejected the proposal by Márki-Zay, the opposition’s presidential candidate, to hold a debate. “To his followers, Orbán must always appear invincible,” autocracy expert Kim Scheppele Lane says, and the Hungarian leader feels he can rely on his system of electoral autocracy, where substantial control of the voting apparatus and the judiciary by the incumbent and his cronies helps to produce the outcome needed to stay in office.

These autocratic actions offer context for evaluating the GOP’s rejection of presidential debates. Trump signaled his break with American presidential debate customs early on: after Megyn Kelly grilled him during an August 2015 debate among contenders for the GOP nomination, he boycotted the next one, so as not to show weakness. And who can forget him shadowing Hillary Clinton in a menacing way during their October 2016 debate? “My skin crawled,” Clinton later wrote of that occasion.

Trump and Clinton at their October 2016 debate, St. Louis, MO. Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images..

By 2020, with four years’ experience in autocratic leadership, Trump was ready to use the debate experience to try to take down his adversary in a different way: He attended the Sept. 29 debate with Joe Biden knowing that he had recently tested positive for Covid-19, making his health status public only several days later. Putin, who silences critics with poison, likely approved of Trump turning a democratic ritual into an experiment in biological warfare.

With Trump as their cult leader, a coup attempt in their recent past (57 GOP officials participated in the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 takeover effort), and a mission to create an Orbán-like election subversion system, it’s no surprise that Republicans are abandoning the debate stage. When a party decides to rely on lies, corruption, and violence, it has too many secrets to face public questioning.

Autocrats see debates as risky, which is why they refuse to participate in them. It’s another sign of the GOP’s authoritarian turn that it’s decided to follow suit.

When American conservatism becomes un-American

From Harvard Law School comes the latest conservative flirtation with authoritarianism. Professor Adrian Vermeule, a 2016 Catholic convert, is an “integralist” who regrets his academic specialty, the Constitution, and rejects the separation of church and state. His much-discussed recent Atlantic essay advocating a government that judges “the quality and moral worth of public speech” is unimportant as a practical political manifesto, but it is symptomatic of some conservatives’ fevers, despairs and temptations.

Common-good capitalism,” a recent proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is capitalism minus the essence of capitalism — limited government respectful of society’s cumulative intelligence and preferences collaboratively revealed through market transactions. Vermeule’s “common-good constitutionalism” is Christian authoritarianismmuscular paternalism, with government enforcing social solidarity for religious reasons. This is the Constitution minus the Framers’ purpose: a regime respectful of individuals’ diverse notions of the life worth living. Such respect is, he says, “abominable.”

Vermeule would jettison “libertarian assumptions central to free-speech law and free-speech ideology.” And: “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights will also have to go, insofar as they bar the state from enforcing duties of community and solidarity in the use and distribution of resources.” Who will define these duties? Integralists will, because they have an answer to this perennial puzzle: If the people are corrupt, how do you persuade them to accept the yoke of virtue-enforcers? The answer: Forget persuasion. Hierarchies must employ coercion.

Common-good constitutionalism’s “main aim,” Vermeule says, is not to “minimize the abuse of power” but “to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.” Such constitutionalism “does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy” because the “law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits,” wielded “if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them.” Besides, those perceptions are not really the subjects’, because under Vermeule’s regime the law will impose perceptions.

He thinks the Constitution, read imaginatively, will permit the transformation of the nation into a confessional state that punishes blasphemy and other departures from state-defined and state-enforced solidarity. His medieval aspiration rests on a non sequitur: All legal systems affirm certain value, therefore it is permissible to enforce orthodoxies.

Vermeule is not the only American conservative feeling the allure of tyranny. Like the American leftists who made pilgrimages to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, some self-styled conservatives today turn their lonely eyes to Viktor Orban, destroyer of Hungary’s democracy. The prime minister’s American enthusiasts probably are unfazed by his seizing upon covid-19 as an excuse for taking the short step from the ethno-nationalist authoritarianism to which he gives the oxymoronic title “illiberal democracy,” to dictatorship.

In 2009, Orban said, “We have only to win once, but then properly.” And in 2013, he said: “In a crisis, you don’t need governance by institutions.” Elected to a third term in 2018, he has extended direct or indirect control over courts (the Constitutional Court has been enlarged and packed) and the media, replacing a semblance of intragovernmental checks and balances with what he calls the “system of national cooperation.” During the covid-19 crisis he will govern by decree, elections will be suspended and he will decide when the crisis ends — supposedly June 20.

Explaining his hostility to immigration, Orban says Hungarians “do not want to be mixed. . . . We want to be how we became eleven hundred years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, authors of “The Light that Failed,” dryly marvel that Orban “remembers so vividly what it was like to be Hungarian eleven centuries ago.” Nostalgia functioning as political philosophy — Vermeule’s nostalgia seems to be for the 14th century — is usually romanticism untethered from information.

In November, Patrick Deneen, the University of Notre Dame professor whose 2018 book “Why Liberalism Failed” explained his hope for a post-liberal American future, had a cordial meeting with Orban in Budapest. The Hungarian surely sympathizes with Deneen’s root-and-branch rejection of classical liberalism, which Deneen disdains because it portrays “humans as rights-bearing individuals” who can “fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” One name for what Deneen denounces is: the American project. He, Vermeule and some others on the Orban-admiring American right believe that political individualism — the enabling, protection and celebration of individual autonomy — is a misery-making mistake: Autonomous individuals are deracinated, unhappy and without virtue.

The moral of this story is not that there is theocracy in our future. Rather, it is that American conservatism, when severed from the Enlightenment and its finest result, the American Founding, becomes spectacularly unreasonable and literally un-American.

American Jews and Israeli Jews Are Headed for a Messy Breakup

Is the world ready for the Great Schism?

The events of the past year brought American and Israeli Jews ever closer to a breaking point. President Trump, beloved in Israel and decidedly unloved by a majority of American Jews, moved the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, with the fiery evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress consecrating the ceremony.

In October, after the murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, President Trump went to that city to pay his respects. Members of the Jewish community there, in near silent mourning, came out to protest Mr. Trump’s arrival, declaring that he was not welcome until he gave a national address to renounce the rise of white nationalism and its attendant bigotry.

The only public official to greet the president at the Tree of Life was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.

At a Hanukkah celebration at the White House last month, the president raised eyebrows and age-old insinuations of dual loyalties when he told American Jews at the gathering that his vice president had great affection for “your country,” Israel.

Yossi Klein Halevi, the American-born Israeli author, has framed this moment starkly: Israeli Jews believe deeply that President Trump recognizes their existential threats. In scuttling the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which many Israelis saw as imperiling their security, in moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in basically doing whatever the government of Benjamin Netanyahu asks, they see a president of the United States acting to save their lives.

American Jews, in contrast, see President Trump as their existential threat, a leader who they believe has stoked nationalist bigotry, stirred anti-Semitism and, time and time again, failed to renounce the violent hatred swirling around his political movement. The F.B.I. reports that hate crimes in the United States jumped 17 percent in 2017, with a 37 percent spike in crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions.

When neither side sees the other as caring for its basic well-being, “that is a gulf that cannot be bridged,” Michael Siegel, the head rabbi at Chicago’s conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue, told me recently. He is an ardent Zionist.

To be sure, a vocal minority of Jews in Israel remain queasy about the American president, just as a vocal minority of Jews in the United States strongly support him. But more than 75 percent of American Jews voted for the Democrats in the midterm elections; 69 percent of Israelis have a positive view of the United States under Mr. Trump, up from 49 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. Israel is one of the few developed countries where opinion about the United States has improved since Mr. Trump took office.

Part of the distance between Jews in the United States and Israeli Jews may come from the stance that Israel’s leader is taking on the world stage. Mr. Netanyahu has

  1. embraced the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian leader Victor Orban, who ran a blatantly anti-Semitic re-election campaign. He has
  2. aligned himself with ultranationalists like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines,
  3. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and a
  4. Polish government that passed a law making it a crime to suggest the Poles had any responsibility for the Holocaust.  The Israeli prime minister was one of the very few world leaders who reportedly
  5. ran interference for the Trump administration after the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and urged President Trump to maintain his alliance with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.  Mr. Netanyahu’s
  6. son Yair was temporarily kicked off Facebook for writing that he would “prefer” that “all the Muslims leave the land of Israel.”  Last month,
  7. with multiple corruption investigations closing in on him and his conservative coalition fracturing, Mr. Netanyahu called for a snap election in April, hoping to fortify his political standing. If past is prologue, his election campaign will again challenge American Jewry’s values. As his 2015 campaign came to a close, Mr. Netanyahu
  8. darkly warned his supporters that “the right-wing government is in danger — Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” adding with a Trumpian flourish that left-wing organizations “are bringing them in buses.”

The Website That Shows How a Free Press Can Die

The story of Origo’s transformation from independent news source to government cheerleader offers a blueprint of how Mr. Orban and his allies pulled this off. Rather than a sudden and blatant power grab, the effort was subtle but determined, using a quiet pressure campaign.

Origo’s editors were never imprisoned and its reporters were never beaten up. But in secret meetings — including a pivotal one in Vienna — the website’s original owner, a German-owned telecommunications company, relented. The company, Magyar Telekom, first tried self-censorship. Then it sought a nonpartisan buyer.

But, ultimately, Origo went to the family of Mr. Orban’s former finance minister.

“When Orban came to power in 2010, his aim was to eliminate the media’s role as a check on government,” said Attila Mong, a former public radio anchor and a critic of Mr. Orban. “Orban wanted to introduce a regime which keeps the facade of democratic institutions but is not operated in a democratic manner — and a free press doesn’t fit into that picture.”