Viktor Orbán won election as Hungary’s prime minister in 1998, lost reelection but later returned to office and is now the longest-serving head of government in the European Community. He won each time through the democratic process. But then there is democracy and there is democracy.

Orbán, after losing his first re-election bid, “resolved to return to power and change the rules of the game so that he could win and never lose again,” biographer József Debreczeni told the New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz. He began on a now familiar refrain, that the election had been stolen, declaring, “The homeland cannot be in opposition.” He attacked “globalists” but changed his strategy after Brooklyn political consultant Arthur Finkelstein became involved. Finkelstein had worked on campaigns of the late racist arch-conservatives Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, as well as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. His modus operandi, outlined in a 1970 memo to the Nixon White House: “Try to polarize the election around that issue which cuts best in your direction; i.e., drugs, crime, race.” Orbán replaced globalism with billionaire financier George Soros – who had paid for his Oxford University education – as the bogeyman.

He embraced nationalism and nativism and cultural warfare and demonized the opposition and the independent press. He won a parliamentary super-majority, giving him a mandate to amend the constitution, which he did a dozen times in just the first year. That was not enough so he rewrote it, creating an anocracy – part democracy, part dictatorship – to become “the ultimate 21st -century dictator,” as Princeton professor Kim Lane Scheppele described him to Marantz.

“There was no single moment when the democratic backsliding began in Hungary. There were no shots fired, no tanks in the streets,” Marantz wrote. Tibor Dessewffy, a sociology professor at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University, added, “Orbán doesn’t need to kill us, he doesn’t need to jail us. He just keeps narrowing the space of public life.” He does this, Scheppele said, not by breaking laws but by manipulating them, in what she called a “constitutional coup. … First, he changes the laws to give himself permission to do what he wants, and then he does it.”

Why is this important to Americans? “It’s what’s happening in your country, too — the frog isn’t boiling yet, but the water is getting hotter,” Dessewffy said. He is correct. The Republican Party, dominated by former president Donald Trump, has top operatives who are so enamored of Orbán that they held a session of the influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Hungary – the first time in Europe.

Dessewffy acknowledged that the U.S. has safeguards which Hungary did not, including a constitution that is difficult to amend and an entrenched twopart political system. But there is no lack of trying. The Republican Party is following the Orbán playbook faithfully, at federal and state levels, including stacking the courts and rigging electoral systems, then using the resulting judicial and political power to entrench itself in office so it can create a Judeo-Christian state defending itself against “replacement” by non-Europeans.

Some of the tactics are, of course, homegrown but many are imports. Marantz noted that Orbán passed a law last year banning LGBTQ education in schools and added, “Nine months later, in Florida, [Gov. Ron] DeSantis signed a similar law, known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. DeSantis’ press secretary, talking about the inspiration for the law, reportedly said, ‘We were watching the Hungarians.’”

There is more. Orbán lost his initial bid for re-election and subsequently won on highly divisive far-right issues. DeSantis prevailed in the 2018 gubernatorial race by 0.4 percent of the votes and has boosted his popularity through a similar tactic to the point where he is now considered a prime prospect for the 2024 presidential race.

It has become obvious, though, that while the Trump-dominated party will settle for the Orbán model of “soft autocracy,” its extreme wing will stop at nothing to grab and hold on to power. Republicans are projected to win the 2022 mid-term elections and even the 2024 presidential vote. That would position them to implement the Orban playbook fully. So the country which has been a beacon of democracy could become a pale imitation of an autocratic state with Michigan’s population and Arkansas’ GDP. And if the high court’s abolishing the right to an abortion keeps Democrats in power, Trump and his militants will inevitably see it as a stolen election and this time a civil war could ensue, as some of them are increasingly signaling, especially Trump’s former adviser Stephen Bannon.

Political scientist Barbara F. Walter said she has seen the signs. The University of California at San Diego professor and author of “How Civil Wars Start And How to Stop Them” told KK Ottesen of The Washington Post that the Republican Party is “doubling down on this almost white supremacist strategy” which worked in the ’60s and ’70s but “you can’t turn back demographics.” It can be a winning strategy today “if you begin to weaken the institutions” – which, of course has been the trend ever since Trump entered the political arena.

Walter is concerned that Americans are not aware of the looming danger to their democracy or simply ignoring it as unrealistic because they think of civil war in the sense of the one which started in 1861. The storming of the Capitol was, therefore, a “gift” because people “can’t deny or ignore that we have a problem. Because it’s right there before us.” She was surprised therefore at “how hard the Republican Party has worked to continue to deny it and to create this smokescreen — and in many respects, how effective that’s been, at least among their supporters.” She added, “Even the most public act of insurrection, probably a treasonous act that 10, 20 years ago would have just cut to the heart of every American — there are still real attempts to deny it.”

Walter likened the drift away from democracy this way: “If I started smoking today, my risk of dying of lung cancer or some smoking-related disease is very small. If I continue to smoke for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, my risk eventually of dying of something related to smoking is going to be very high if I don’t change my behavior.” She was hopeful, though, that the danger to the health of the democracy would be realized before it was too late. “We know the warning signs. And we know that if we strengthen our democracy, and if the Republican Party decides it’s no longer going to be an ethnic faction that’s trying to exclude everybody else, then our risk of civil war will disappear. … And we have time to do it. But you have to know those warning signs in order to feel an impetus to change them.”

The House of Representatives January 6th Select Committee’s televised hearings have been pointing to the signs but whether the urgency of the moment is understood and whether the political smoking will stop and the proverbial frog will jump out of the increasingly hot water before it is too late remains to be seen.

Those who remain indifferent would do well to heed the words, in a different context, of the late astronomer Carl Sagan: “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”