Opinion

Trump's disturbingly warm welcome for Hungary's Viktor Orban

Does the Hungarian leader's White House visit signal the further decline of liberal values?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will visit President Trump at the White House on Monday. The meeting seems a bit more portentous than the usual summit between world leaders, like a victory lap for the forces of nationalism and illiberalism embodied by both men.

It doesn't seem like a happy day for advocates of the old, disappearing liberal order. But there may be reasons for hope.

Trump loves authoritarian strongmen, so this meeting has been a long time coming: Orban, who advocates "illiberal democracy," visits Washington, D.C., not as the leader of an American client state, but as a fellow traveler and even inspiration to the president — playing the role of Margaret Thatcher to Trump's Ronald Reagan. Stephen Bannon, the president's former adviser, even once called Orban "Trump before Trump."

That makes sense. Even before Trump took office, Orban was referring to immigrants as an "invasion," building fences to keep migrants out of his country, blaming setbacks on billionaire George Soros, chipping away at Hungary's system of checks and balances, and winning his own personal war with the country's media. The similarities between the two men are too numerous to list.

"We have enthusiastically applauded the president of the United States for thinking precisely as we do when he says 'America First,'" Orban said in a 2017 speech. "We say the same: 'Hungary first, and then everyone else.'"

The success of this kind of thinking — also apparent to various degrees in the Brexit effort, as well as the rise of far-right and autocratic governments in nations like Poland and Turkey — can be discouraging to fans of, well, liberal democracy. But they shouldn't despair.

For one thing, the success of the nationalist project is on shaky legs in the United States. Trump was elected with a minority of the popular vote, and his approval rating as president has never risen above 50 percent. He apparently hopes he can divide opponents and conquer them with his unified Republican base — in the GOP, at least, the president's approval rating often hovers around 90 percent. But the overwhelming victory of Democrats in the 2018 midterms — including the dramatic loss by Trump acolyte Kris Kobach in the Kansas governor's race — suggests Americans have limited appetite for what Trump and his cronies are selling.

There are also signs, internationally, that nationalism has its limits, and that international institutions like the European Union may be more resilient than they seemed a year or two ago. British voters may have given unexpected approval to the Brexit referendum in 2016, but the failure of the country's conservative leaders to find a satisfactory way out suggests the country's partnership with Europe might be more beneficial than those voters anticipated. Nigel Farage's new "Brexit" party may lead recent polls, but that's in a fractured political landscape — it musters just 34 percent support overall. Just as important: A clear majority of voting-age Brits say the original referendum was a mistake. Until Brexit actually happens, there's always a chance it might not. Increasingly, it appears there are good reasons for the country's leaders to back down and reconsider.

There's a darker reason to believe that this moment, too, shall pass: Nationalism tends to destroy itself spectacularly. Despite the smiles and handshakes you'll see today at the White House, Orban and Trump's shared worldview does not truck with coexistence: Eventually "America First" bumps up against "Hungary First" and all the other firsts. World War I was such a violent example of this phenomenon that it was, briefly, called "The War to End All Wars." World War II made it clear that another resurgence could actually destroy civilization. That realization gave impetus to the rise of institutions that today's nationalists sniff at, like the United Nations and European Union. Liberal democracy will have to reassert itself, if only because history suggests it must.

For now, though, the illiberal nationalists are too often driving the agenda of events, both in the United States and abroad. Defeating and containing them will take work and time — far beyond a single presidential election. Orban and Trump may be taking a shared victory lap, but fans of the liberal order shouldn't be discouraged: The race is just beginning.

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