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Trump admires a lot of authoritarians. Viktor Orbán is special

Trump endorsed the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán has more in common with the GOP than you might think

Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán was the first incumbent head of state to endorse Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Now Trump is returning the favor. 

“Viktor Orbán of Hungary truly loves his Country and wants safety for his people,” Trump wrote on January 3 in an endorsement of Orbán’s bid to be reelected in Hungary’s race for prime minister to take place in April or May of this year. “He is a strong leader and respected by all.” 

Early on in Trump’s political career, his praise of an authoritarian leader would have raised eyebrows. His admiration of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un at first vexed and infuriated Republicans. But after years of coming to the defense of despots around the world, Trump’s embrace of authoritarians has become a defining characteristic of his foreign policy. From Jair Bolsonaro to Orbán, Trump emerged as the leader of a group of wily, “soft” authoritarians who de-legitimize elections, demonize the press and take a xenophobic approach to immigration. 

I spoke to experts on authoritarianism to understand why Trump’s endorsement of Orbán isn’t just more flattery. 

Trump is known for publicly praising authoritarians from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to China’s Xi Jinping. Is it saying the quiet part aloud — authoritarians stick together? 

It’s no secret that Trump has a soft spot for authoritarians, and he has shown his support for autocrats facing reelection before. In 2020, Trump endorsed Polish President Andrzej Duda, who weaponized homophobia to fuel his campaign. He continued the practice even after he left office and endorsed Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in October 2021. “Brazil is lucky to have a man such as Jair Bolsonaro working for them,” Trump wrote

Trump has admitted that he sees himself in Orbán. According to David Cornstein, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary under the Trump administration, the former president compared Orbán to a twin brother when the two leaders met in 2019. 

“Trump correctly believes that Orbán is fighting the same forces as Trump fought in America: democratic institutions, a free press, an independent judiciary, ethics rules, and opponents who still try to insist on democracy and rule of law. Birds of a feather flock together,” said Brian Klaas, an associate professor of global politics at the University College London and author of “How to Rig an Election.” 

Have other former U.S. presidents endorsed foreign leaders? 

Yes. Former President Obama endorsed Emmanuel Macron in 2017 during the French presidential election which pitted Macron against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. But it’s not a common practice for a U.S. president to endorse a candidate in a foreign election once they’ve left office.

Are there elements of Hungary’s style of authoritarianism reflected in Trump’s way of governing? 

“Authoritarians learn from one another,” Klaas wrote in an email to me. “Their playbooks draw on similar tactics: attack the press, demonize opponents, particularly if they’re ethnic or religious minorities, engage in nepotism and cronyism, undermine rule of law, steal, blame your opponents for the things that you’re guilty of, and attempt to subvert free and fair elections.” 

All of this is characteristic of both Orbán and Trump.

What about the GOP more broadly? 

The embrace of Hungarian-style authoritarianism isn’t limited to Trump. It’s a facet of the GOP, argues David Pepper, the former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and author of “Laboratories of Authoritarianism.”

Hungary is a competitive authoritarian country where the facade of democracy hides an autocratic reality. Elections take place, but districts are heavily gerrymandered and mail-in voting rules favor Orbán’s supporters. The government controls the national election agency and packs the courts with conservative allies. 

Pepper sees similar patterns in the U.S. He points to Ohio, where Republicans in the state legislature pushed to change the election process for judges to require candidates’ party ID on the ballot. Or Wisconsin and Georgia where the Republicans have fought to take control of the states’ electoral commissions. 

Orbán’s brand of competitive authoritarianism is “a system where they cling to keeping an appearance of legitimacy while predetermining all the outcomes,” said Pepper. “And that’s, I think, the closest parallel to what we see in so many states, and if those states and people like Trump have their way, what we would see nationally.”

It’s not a coincidence that Hungary shares anti-democratic strategies like gerrymandering with the U.S. In fact, Hungarian autocrats have learned from the GOP, argues Szabolcs Panyi, a Hungarian investigative journalist with the independent newsroom Direct36.

“I think Orbán learned a lot from Republican policies and also mostly from Republican spin doctors. So it’s Orbán who has been importing and implementing Republican tactics into Hungarian politics, not the other way around,” said Panyi. 

Other people in Trump’s inner circle have been friendly towards Orbán recently. Tucker Carlson took a trip last summer to Hungary where his interview with Orbán made headlines. What does this say about the GOP and Trumpism right now? 

Trump’s support of Orbán ahead of Hungarian elections goes beyond his praise of Bolsonaro or Putin, argues Klaas. “The authoritarian Republican base has made Orbán into a sort of folk hero,” he said. “They have created a false caricature of Orbán as some sort of conservative who defends Western values, rather than as a racist, anti-Semitic authoritarian who is using state power to destroy dissent while steadily enriching himself.”

In August 2021, Tucker Carlson took his viewers to Hungary to show off what he claimed was an exemplar of conserviatve nationalism. In a full week of coverage and one-on-one interviews with Orbán himself, Carlson praised the crackdowns on immigration and the pro-family stance that has fostered blanently homophobic policies.

On a visit to the Hungarian capital in September 2021, Former Vice President Mike Pence praised Orbán’s restrictive abortion policies. 

“Hungary has become the GOP’s new model in terms of racist demographic politics and electoral autocracy,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University and author of Lucid, a newsletter on threats to democracy. 

It isn’t a coincidence, Ben-Ghiat argues, that the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual gathering of American conservatives, will be held in Budapest later this year. 

What’s the message Trump and his inner circle are sending?

In a way, Trump is endorsing his own brand of authoritarianism too, argues Pepper, the former former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

“I think it says that they’re all in on this form of governing,” he said. It legitimizes Orbán, but “it also legitimizes that brand of politics.”

Pepper is worried conservatives in the U.S. are taking notes on Orbán’s authoritarian strategy.  Tucker Carlson’s visit to Hungary, CPAC’s upcoming conference in Budapest and Trump’s endorsement are all signs that conservatives are “studying how they can build something here where they have a minority party and view of the world locked into power through an Orbán-style competitive autocracy.”

Hungarians aren’t going to be swayed to vote for Orbán because of Trump’s endorsement. So what does this mean for Hungary?

The Hungarian election between Orbán and the opposition is tight, but it’s hard to imagine that someone on the fence is going to be convinced by Trump’s endorsement. But that doesn’t mean the endorsement is unimportant. 

Orbán has few allies in the European Union, and prior to Trump’s administration, the Hungarian government was on the outs with the U.S. too. But because of Trump’s public support, Orbán can claim he has allies who share his autocratic worldview, according to Panyi, the Hungarian journalist. 

“This is material that Orbán and his people can use to fuel their propaganda, saying that ‘Oh, even Trump supports us,’” said Panyi. “He can still portray himself as having some kind of backing from influential people. But in reality, Trump’s out of power,” he added.  

Hungary is a small country with the population the size of Michigan. But a former U.S. president’s support allows Orbán to claim legitimacy and relevance on the international stage. “Think about it this way: do you think Trump knows the name of the president of Estonia? Absolutely not. The fact that Trump knows Orbán shows that Hungary is punching above its geopolitical weight, and Orbán and his followers will try to exploit that for their political gain,” said Klaas, the political scientist at University College London.

So will Trump’s endorsement add extra votes for Orbán? Probably not. But let’s say the election doesn’t go the way Orbán wants. By refusing to accept the results of the U.S. 2020 election, Trump created a roadmap for authoritarians to claim unfavorable elections were rigged. This cozy relationship between Orbán and Trump might set the stage for the Hungarian autocrat to make the same argument, said Orsolya Lehotai, a doctoral student in the Politics Department at The New School for Social Research. “It basically endorses aspects of what happens when a political leader accuses its opponents of cheating with elections,” said Lehotai. 

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