Trump Rolling Out Red Carpet for Authoritarian Hungarian Strongman Viktor Orbán

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at a January 2019 news conference (Image from euronews coverage)

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a champion of “illiberal” democracy who has aggressively moved to consolidate his power by dismantling checks and balances, is scheduled to visit the White House on Monday. While Orbán is widely viewed in Europe as a destroyer of democratic values and institutions—some leaders call him “The Viktator”—he is praised by Trump and the U.S. Religious Right for his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim posturing and his embrace of Christian nationalism. In a speech in Budapest last year, Steve Bannon called Orbán the “Trump before Trump.”

Freedom House’s 2018 report on freedom around the world warned that Hungary under Orbán was “sliding into authoritarian rule” as its leaders “continued to consolidate power by uprooting democratic institutions and intimidating critics in civil society.” The group’s 2019 report downgraded Hungary’s status from “Free” to “Partly Free” due to “sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010.”

Trump is not only an admirer of Orbán, but he may also be a bit jealous. Writing in the June 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Franklin Foer reports that David B. Cornstein, the current U.S. ambassador to Hungary and an old friend of Trump’s, said in an interview, “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”

Orbán is not shy about what he’s doing. In 2014 he declared, “‘Checks and balances’ is a U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics.” That same year, a Bloomberg report noted that he had “amassed more power than any of his predecessors since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, replacing the heads of independent institutions including the courts with allies, tightening control over media and changing election rules to help him retain a constitutional majority in Parliament.”

Nevertheless, the Religious Right loves him. Leaders of the World Congress of Families, which held its 2017 global summit in Budapest, have called him a pro-family “hero” and described his re-election last year as a victory for “true liberty” and for “friends of the Natural Family around the globe.” Anti-LGBTQ activist Austin Ruse gushed over Orbán’s declaration that “every country has the right to defend the traditional family model and is entitled to assert that every child has the right to a mother and a father.” Last year the Heritage Foundation promoted Orbán’s project to “replace the shipwreck of liberal democracy by building 21st Century Christian democracy.”

As we noted in the fall, when the Christian Broadcasting Network ran a softball interview with Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó:

Like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Orbán has been showered with praise by U.S. Religious Right leaders and the World Congress of Families for his defense of “traditional” values in spite of—or in some cases because of—his power-consolidating attacks on media, civil society, and constitutional checks and balances.

When CBN’s Dale Hurd said to Szijjártó, “You must feel like to have an ally in President Trump,” he agreed. “I think democracy has won when President Trump turned out to be the winner,” the foreign minister said, adding that now the two countries are in clear agreement on issues like border protection, immigration, and “preserving the Christian values.”

A key part of Orbán’s campaign to consolidate his political power has been a war on civil society. Foer’s article in The Atlantic documents the way that Orbán built power by exploiting and inflaming anti-Semitic tropes in a relentless campaign to demonize philanthropist George Soros, who was born in Budapest and had once been Orbán’s benefactor. In 2017, a spokesperson for a European arm of Soros’ Open Society Foundations noted “clear antisemitic overtones” in the attacks on Soros as “both the insider and the outsider, the meddling foreigner and the Hungarian Jew.” Nonprofit organizations affiliated with Soros were forced to leave the country last year.

In addition, reports Foer, Orbán’s government has “systematically crushed” what had been “some of the best universities in postcommunist Europe.” Orbán’s “quest for eternal political life,” writes Foer, has included a campaign to destroy Central European University, “Hungary’s finest institution of higher education,” which had been founded by Soros in 1991. In the face of attacks by the Orbán government, the university is in the process of moving its operations to Vienna.

Foer reports that Cornstein, Trump’s Ambassador to Hungary, could barely be bothered to feign regret at the attacks on CEU. Orbán’s attacks on CEU were actually praised in 2017 by Larry Jacobs, the late World Congress of Families official.

Writing in the Washington Post this week, human rights activist Rob Berschinski and Johns Hopkins Professor Hal Brands declared that Orbán is a dangerous ethno-nationalist who is a threat to international security and “has no business in the Oval Office.” They call his welcome to Washington a “grievous mistake.”

Over the past nine years, the Hungarian leader has accomplished many of the anti-democratic actions Trump can only tweet about. He has rewritten Hungary’s constitution and dismantled judicial checks on power, stifled a once vibrant media, forced a top university out of the country, and criminalized the activities of some human rights organizations. Meanwhile, he has won deeply flawed elections by vilifying migrants, Muslim “invaders” and the Jewish “financiers” that supposedly support them.

Unfortunately, Orbán is likely to be given a hero’s welcome by Trump and his conservative supporters. Orbán dreams of “molding a more pliant nation,” writes Foer. “But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he need not resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock at the door. His assault on civil society arrives in the guise of legalisms subverting the institutions that might challenge his authority.” Perhaps Trump will be asking for some pointers.