The Prequel

Richard C. Gross
5 min readJul 7, 2022

BY RICHARD C. GROSS

“We were singing, bye-bye Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee

But the levee was dry

Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye.”

— Don McLean, 1971

Supreme Court conservatives, fresh from their unjust sniper killing of the legal right to abortion, have crippled federal authority to combat climate change by forbidding the EPA from enforcing its rules, the administrative state in their crosshairs.

The Environmental Protection Agency may as well drop its middle name.

The upshot: The ruling said the EPA overreached its authority given to it under the 1970 Clean Air Act by trying to control pollutants vomited skyward by electric power plants. Overreached is a favorite conservative pejorative for doing the right thing.

It not only impaired President Joe Biden’s plans to ameliorate the effects of a warming planet but it served to alert other agencies to tread carefully with their regulatory dictates. Biden described the ruling as “devastating.” Which it was. So, do something, Mr. President. Fight.

The conservative court’s rulings on abortion and in other cases, based on ideological preferences instead of the objective rule of law, coupled with the right-wing’s political crackdowns on freedoms like voting, have fractured the unity of America to such an extent that governing and elections may become handicapped.

I believe we’re living through a prequel, the inexorably growing embryo of an ugly, misdirected America that will mature more rapidly if Republicans regain power in the November midterm congressional elections. It could be a metastasized Trumpist tumor.

I fear something wicked this way comes, like imitating Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian autocrat.

Conservatives, a minority in this country, succeeded in getting rid of their most hated target: abortion, which Americans have relied on for half a century. Choice is a freedom, a way of defining freedom, and they took it away from the majority. Just like that.

On religion, they ruled in favor of a public school employee’s right to pray while supervising students, encroaching on the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Permitting prayer in public schools could be next.

Deleting the right to abortion cleared the way for them to go after other laws they didn’t like: New York’s strict gun regulations that forbade carrying a concealed weapon in public.

So, the conservatives did away with the cumbersome restriction while we’re in the middle of a national crime wave and gun control is a major controversial political topic following several mass shootings. The latest one, on July Fourth, of all days, in a Chicago suburb — six dead, 30 hurt.

Do the court’s conservatives care about that?

New York said, in essence, screw you. It immediately passed laws forbidding where concealed weapons may be wielded, including crowded Times Square.

“We’re not going backwards,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul told a news conference Friday. “They may think they can change our lives with the stroke of a pen, but we have pens, too.”

Other states should follow New York’s lead. They should ignore the court and pass their own laws, as the blue states are doing with the back to the future abortion ruling.

And then, like Hamlet’s gossamer wisp of an influential father, emerged onstage none other than despot Orbán, a onetime liberal backed by philanthropist George Soros who became a model of extremist right-wing leadership, a close encounter of the worst kind.

This is what he is, in the words of one of the few independent journalists left in Hungary, Gábor Miklósi, as quoted by Andrew Marantz in his profile of Orbán in the July 4 edition of The New Yorker:

“He controls most of the radio and TV stations, all the local papers in the countryside. He doesn’t do it in obvious ways –- he does it slowly, by putting his cronies in charge, or by suddenly making life difficult for his critics. But eventually he gets what he wants.”

Orbán recently won his fourth term as prime minister. “He has managed to preserve the appearance of a formal democracy, as long as you don’t look too closely,” Anna Grzymala-Busse, the director of the Europe Center at Stanford, told Marantz.

He paints a bleak picture of a country creeping inexorably toward a full-fledged dictatorship, with the courts, universities, the mechanisms for conducting elections “patiently debilitated, delegitimized, hollowed out.” He characterized Orbán’s 12 years in office as “Goulash Authoritarianism.”

Marantz asked Miklósi if Orbán’s next four years would be different from the previous four. “It always gets worse,” came the reply.

Autocracy or not, Hungary is adored by the American far-right, its idea of the model for what the United States should be.

Indeed, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) recently held its convention in Budapest, the glowing capital on the Danube. Fox “News’” Tucker Carlson spent a week there touting the wonders of how Orbán-style conservatism can set a country on the right path.

Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative, introduced Carlson to Orbán. He told Marantz that what Gov. Ron DeSantis “is actually doing in Florida, the concept of American Orbánism starts to make sense.”

What DeSantis is doing is restricting free speech, gerrymandering the disappearance of two Black districts, punishing Disney for criticizing him and curtailing what can be taught min schools about racism and LGBTQ+ issues. Right in the Orbán mold.

What the Republican Party needs, Marantz quoted Dreher, is “a leader with Orbán’s vision — someone who can build on what Trumpism accomplished, without the egomania and the inattention to policy, and who is not afraid to step on liberals’ toes.”

This, in the view of an element of American conservatism, is apparently what would make America great — a leader like Orbán who denigrates immigrants, LGBTQ+ folks, Jews, higher education, the courts, the legislature and anything that stands in his way, complete contradiction of democracy.

Stephen K. Bannon, a cartoonish onetime Trump guru, idolized Orbán publicly at the CPAC gathering as being “Trump before Trump.” How fortunate for Hungarians who appreciated their short-lived parliamentary republic.

It’s happening here. Biden should lead the way to short circuit this downhill run toward an autocratic America. The tools are there, including in the Constitution.

Dust them off, starting with killing the Senate’s filibuster rule so the Democrats can put their votes to good use, not be bound by requiring a 60-vote majority to get something passed.

What this world really needs is a sane sequel to Trump and his kind.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.

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Richard C. Gross

Correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor at home and abroad with United Press International. Retired as opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.