How to tell whether a government is authoritarian

There are a number of ways. Here’s one: If people living in the country want to be on a government’s enemies list, the government is not authoritarian.

No one within the jurisdiction of an authoritarian government wants to be on its enemies list. Being on such a list isn’t healthy. One can easily end up in jail, go missing, or even be assassinated.

Under non-authoritarian governments, being on an enemies list can be a source of status. It enables one to preen — to virtue-signal — without paying a price.

Richard Nixon had an enemies list. Washington liberals wanted to be on it. Prominent liberals not on the list were peeved.

Richard Nixon had his faults, but his administrative was not authoritarian.

The Washington Post reports that a pro-government newspaper in Hungary published an “enemies list.” Political opponents of prime minister Viktor Orban promptly expressed outrage at not being on the list.

One of them launched a petition demanding to be on the list. He invited others to join in that demand. Nearly 8,000 did.

This tells me that Orban’s government is not authoritarian. The Post eventually concedes as much. Deep into the story, it acknowledges that in Hungary “there is free expression, with opponents speaking out on television, newspapers, and on the streets.” Earlier this month, when the new, elected parliament was sworn in, thousands of opponents rallied against Orban just outside the building.

It turns out, moreover, that the list in question isn’t really an enemies list. The document lists 200 individuals who received money from an organization funded by George Soros. Change the name from Soros to, say, the Koch Brothers, and one can easily imagine such a list appearing in the Washington Post.

The Post is invested in portraying Viktor Orban as an authoritarian. Doing so serves its purposes.

Why? Because the Post wants to treat Trumpism as part of a dangerous populist wave that threatens democracy as we know it. Orban is typically cited as Exhibit A of the danger posed by this wave. The more authoritarian anti-Trumpers can make Orban out to be, the scarier the populist wave can be made to appears.

Orban is problematic in some ways. It’s not an accident that the left makes him the poster boy for dangerous populism. He’s not an authoritarian, though — not now.

In any event, it’s ridiculous to try to associate Trump with whatever sins Orban might commit. Yet, this attempt has a lot to do with the anti-Orban drumbeat in organs like the Washington Post.