The warm White House welcome for Hungary’s autocrat
President Trump heaped praise on Hungarian Prime Viktor Orban during his visit to the White House this week, shrugging off concerns about the Central European leader’s increasing authoritarianism. Sitting alongside Orban in the Oval Office, Trump praised the Hungarian as “a tough man” who has “done the right thing” on immigration. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama chose not to give Orban an audience. During his three straight terms in office, the nationalist prime minister has called Syrian refugees in Europe “Muslim invaders” and erected razor-wire fences to keep migrants out. He has also advocated the idea of “illiberal democracy,” chipped away at the independence of the judiciary and media, and invoked anti-Semitic tropes to attack the Hungarian-American financier George Soros. At the end of the meeting, said U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein, Trump told Orban, “It’s like we’re twins.”
Trump administration officials said the visit was part of a strategy to counter Russian and Chinese influence in Central Europe. Pro-government media in Hungary hailed the visit as an endorsement of Orban ahead of European Parliament elections next week, in which his party and those of other European populists are expected to do well. Orban thanked Trump for his friendship, saying Hungary was “proud to stand” with the U.S. in the fight against “illegal migration” and terrorism and in defense of Christian communities.
What the columnists said
Sitting next to Orban must have “stoked a jealous rage in Trump,” said Rick Wilson in TheDailyBeast.com. In less than a decade, this “bijou strongman” has turned Hungary into a tightly controlled autocracy. He’s helped his cronies take over 400-plus news sites, newspapers, and TV and radio stations—which now pump out 24/7 pro-Orban propaganda. He’s cowed the courts, expelled troublesome NGOs, used his office to enrich himself, and built an actual border wall. Orban “is the authoritarian creep Trump wishes he could be.”
Actually, Orban “is a much more complex and interesting figure” than such one-sided portraits suggest, said Rod Dreher in TheAmericanConservative.com. He started out as a liberal, but in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other Muslim migrants began arriving at his country’s borders, wisely recognized that the European Union’s embrace of multiculturalism would be a death sentence for Hungary’s Christian national identity. As for his opposition to Soros, well, the Jewish billionaire really has worked behind the scenes to undermine Orban’s government and promote open borders.
At this point, nobody should be surprised when “Trump gets chummy with an authoritarian leader,” said Joshua Keating in Slate.com. After all, he’s repeatedly praised North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and China’s Xi Jinping. But what’s different about Orban is that he didn’t inherit an autocracy; he created one out of a thriving democracy. Critics of Trump often accuse him of using the presidency to boost tyrants and foes of America. “In this case, however, the bigger concern is that he’s taking notes.” ■