BUDAPEST — A divided country, where urbanites vote for progressive candidates and rural areas turn to extremism. Two separate societies, each living in their own media bubble. Cultural elites detached from the everyday realities of the countryside. The result? A crushing victory for a hard-line conservative strongman. Thats what happened in Hungary this weekend, where Viktor Orbán won a third consecutive term as prime minister in a landslide win. And its what could happen in the U.S. in 2020.
In the increasingly polarized U.S. landscape, Orbáns success offers a useful blueprint in facing down your critics that President Donald Trump could heed as he gears up for the likely fight for a second term.
1. Anti-immigration campaigns work
The success of Orbáns racist, fear-mongering campaign shows that you dont need a large number of immigrants for an anti-immigration campaign to be effective.
Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party ran a super-focused, extremely disciplined campaign with one simple, yet overwhelmingly effective message: A vote for Orbán is a vote for Hungary remaining Hungarian, Christian and true to its traditional values. A vote for an opposition candidate, meanwhile, would open the floodgates to uncontrolled migration from the Middle East and Africa.
At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, most migrants didnt want to stay in Hungary — they were trying to reach Western Europe. The actual number of migrants and refugees seeking asylum in Hungary can be counted in dozens. And paradoxically, the two big cities — Budapest and Szeged, next to the southern border — that experienced the largest number of arrivals voted overwhelmingly for the opposition.
Trump, too, received much of his edge in areas where the share of the immigrant population was low and can play on that fear of the unknown again going into the next election.
2. Distract voters from tough policy issues
Orbáns anti-immigration campaign was buttressed by the states almost total control of public and private media. All local newspapers, most online media organizations and all but one national TV station are run by the government. This media arsenal allowed Orbán to influence the collective psyche of the Hungarian countryside and focus their attention on his narrow message and control the narrative.
In countless villages and towns around the country, the fear that imagined hordes of foreigners would take over their homes eclipsed every other issue, when the abysmal state of public services — the disrepair of hospitals and schools and the rising level of child poverty, for example — in these regions should have fueled anger at the government.
One man, quoted by independent online portal 444, lost his grandson because an ambulance did not arrive in time to save his life. But he would vote for Orbán, he said, because keeping the country safe from migrants is the only issue that matters.
An overwhelming number of people in the Hungarian countryside agreed, with a staggering 70 percent of voters in the poorest villages voting for Orbán.
The upshot is that Trump can get into as many policy blunders as he likes, as long as he hammers home a simple message come election time that appeals to voters pride and inclination to protect their country from potentially dangerous outside influence.
3. Media bubbles are your friend
The fact that Budapest — the countrys economic and cultural hub — voted overwhelmingly for the opposition, while Fidesz scored big in the countryside, is telling. Like in the U.S., there is a deep divide between urban elites and rural populations, who diverge in their media consumption habits, cultural norms and perceptions of facts.
But the two sides are far from equal in size and strength. With its strong control over the media and deep pockets — not to mention its ability to manipulate with simple messages — Fidesz eliminated almost all liberal, progressive grassroots organizations from the Hungarian countryside. These organizations are now only active in Budapest and a few big city strongholds — and their work is only visible in liberal online media bubbles, not to the wider population.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the supporters after the announcement of the partial results of parliamentary election on April 8,2018 in Budapest | Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images
Trump enjoys the same advantage: Trump-bashing may entertain the coastal, liberal, progressive elites, but liberal media outlets have no real impact in rural America, where Fox News and conservative talk shows dominate. As in Hungary, the cultural, economic and psychological division between these parallel societies is deepening.
And while in Orbáns case this division is reinforced by a tailor-made election system, Trump and the Republican Party are supported by the special status of the Electoral College and decades of conscious gerrymandering efforts.
Trump doesnt have to win over the elites — he just has to keep talking to his supporters, while the liberal elites talk to themselves.
4. The Russian connection matters
Orbáns victory proved the point that fake news and bots work to your advantage if youre campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform. Over the past four years, state-funded and Fidesz-friendly media became the mouthpiece of Russian-generated fake news about the decline of the West and the dangers of immigration. Its also becoming clear that Orbáns inner circle is closely intertwined with the Kremlin on some issues, especially when it comes to economic ties. The strong Russian connection provides financial, political and strategic support for Orbán, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin sees as an investment — a potential Trojan horse inside the EU that could destabilize the bloc.
Trumps presidential campaign got a boost from various forms of Russian interference and propaganda in 2016. And if Putin pursues his ambition to knock the West off balance, we can expect Russia could lend him a helping hand again.
5. Dont let up
Political bullies only understand the language of force. And when it works — as it did for Orbán in Hungary — the best strategy is to double down on the power grab, not back away.
When Orbán won his first supermajority in 2010, he set out to build his illiberal democracy and turned Hungary upside down in the process. When he secured his second big win in 2014, some analysts predicted that, given his strong position, he would take a moderate turn. The opposite happened: Between 2014 and 2018, Orbáns regime became more right wing, more corrupt and more Russia-friendly. Crackdowns on civil society, legislation against NGOs, yearly meetings with Putin, and the massive wealth accumulation of Orbáns inner circle are all testament to that. Two weeks before voters went to the polls, Orbán already promised “retaliation” against the opposition once he secured another term.
Autocratic leaders like Orbán and Trump dont mellow over time. Complacency about Trumps reelection in 2020 is entirely misplaced. He won once and can win again — and if he does, his infamously unstable ego is likely to lead the party and the country down an even more dangerous road.
Dávid Dorosz is a former member of the Hungarian parliaments committee on foreign affairs, and COO and co-founder at Webabstract.