The ‘authoritarian’ lessons Trump and the Republicans want to learn from Orbán’s Hungary

Donald Trump’s relationship with Viktor Orbán could threaten American democracy if he is re-elected, experts on US-Hungary relations tell Katie Hawkinson

Friday 15 March 2024 19:07 GMT
Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán pictured together meeting in March 2024
Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán pictured together meeting in March 2024 (HUNGARIAN PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE)

As he gears up for the 2024 election, presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump met with an old ally: Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary who has triggered a democratic backslide in his country.

Mr Orbán met with Mr Trump last week, bypassing any meetings with President Joe Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris despite stopping in Washington, DC — where he visited with The Heritage Foundation, a powerful conservative think tank staffed by many former Trump administration officials.

Their meeting came just one week before National Hungary Day when Mr Orbán gave a speech condemning the “Western world.”

“They start wars, destroy worlds, redraw countries’ borders and graze on everything like locusts,” Mr Orbán told a crowd in Budapest, per the Associated Press. “We Hungarians live differently and want to live differently.”

The exact details of the discussion between Mr Trump and Mr Orbán are unclear. Mr Trump’s campaign released a statement describing their conversation as focused on “a wide range of issues affecting Hungary and the United States, including the paramount importance of strong and secure borders to protect the sovereignty of each nation.”

Regardless, the conversation clearly went well, with Mr Orbán calling the former president his “good friend” on Monday. The same day, the Hungarian Prime Minister also praised Mr Trump’s reported comment that he will not send any aid to Ukraine if elected. Meanwhile, Mr Trump has mentioned Mr Orbán in several remarks, including a 2023 speech in which he wrongly referred to him as the President of Turkey.

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Even beyond Mr Trump, the GOP has a fixation with Hungary and Mr Orbán’s government. In 2022, former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson focused on Hungary, releasing a documentary that appeared to portray the country as a model for conservatism. More recently Carlson has been singing the praises of Vladimir Putin’s Russia – both Mr Trump and Mr Orbán have a close relationship with the Russian dictator.

So, why do Mr Trump and Mr Orbán get along so well? Experts tell The Independent it’s because Mr Trump wants to learn from Mr Orbán if re-elected in 2024.

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The former President and Mr Orbán have similar goals for the future world order — making them eager allies, Robert Benson, a senior policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, told The Independent.

“It’s no coincidence that someone like Viktor Orbán is attempting to build a relationship with Stephen Miller, with Donald Trump, with the Maga Republicans on this side of the Atlantic,” Dr Benson said. “Because they see themselves in a civilizational battle for the future of what they call ‘Western Civilization.’ This is steeped in anti-immigrant xenophobia, in right-wing nationalism, and in tropes about the nation-state.”

Mr Trump, of course, has made his far-right, anti-immigration stance clear since day one of his 2016 presidential campaign. Similarly, Mr Orbán has expressed radical views on immigration since 2015 — and in 2022, he said he did not want Hungarians to become “peoples of mixed race.”

“I am the only politician in the EU who stands for an openly anti-immigration policy,” Mr Orbán said. “This is not a race issue for us, this is a cultural issue.”

Donald Trump to Hungary's far-right leader Viktor Orbán: 'You're respected all over Europe. Probably like me a little bit controversial, but that's okay'

Meanwhile, Kim Scheppele, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University, sees the Trump-Orbán relationship in a different light — rather than plotting a new future for civilization, she says the two leaders are “just opportunistic, transactionalists looking to cut a deal whenever it happens.”

“Both of them are just transactional politicians,” Dr Scheppele told The Independent. “One of the reasons why both of them love dictators — and don’t like organizations like Nato, the EU and so on — is because dictators are also transactional. They don’t expect you to be loyal forever; everything is just a deal in the moment.”

Both Mr Trump and Mr Orbán have expressed disdain for Nato and its processes. The former president has threatened to violate Nato by allowing Russia to attack member states; meanwhile, Mr Orbán delayed a vote on Sweden’s membership for 18 months. As a result, the country was not admitted until this year.

Mr Trump would not have to entirely pull out of Nato to reject their principles during a potential second presidency. As journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic, Mr Trump could simply reject Article 5, which states an attack against one Nato nation “shall be considered an attack against them all”. Though, as former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said, a second Trump presidency could certainly mean the end of US Nato membership. Though he did not outright reject it, Mr Trump did not specifically endorse Article 5 at the 2017 Nato summit.

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“Trump admires lots of dictators, but I think he admires them because they stay in power forever, because they look all powerful, but that mostly because their foreign policy doesn’t tie them up in strings,” Dr Scheppele said.

Mr Trump has formerly expressed that he would be a dictator on day one of his potential second presidency.

“Orbán becomes a model for this kind of foreign policy,” Dr Scheppele continued.

Now, Hungary is in a democratic backslide. Mr Orbán has sought to undermine education, even targeting his former ally-turned-enemy George Soros, who founded Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Mr Orbán forced Mr Soros – who has become a hate figure to the hard right across the world over his support for civil society projects – to relocate the university to Vienna in 2018.

In 2022, the EU Parliament declared that Hungary could no longer be called a full democracy, labelling it an “electoral autocracy.” Lawmakers raised several concerns about the Hungarian government, including the lack of media pluralism, religious freedom and independence of the judiciary.

“Academic freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of association, the right to equal treatment, including LGBTIQ rights, the rights of minorities, as well as those of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, are also problematic,” Parliament said in a statement.

Then, in 2023, Hungary passed Mr Orbán’s Defence of National Sovereignty Act, which authorized the creation of a new government authority that can gather information on any organizations or individuals that benefit from foreign funds or that can influence public debate.

Dr Scheppele called the law an “authoritarian monster.” Meanwhile, the European Commission said last month the law violated European Union law.

What could this alliance mean if Mr Trump is re-elected?

Practically, Dr Benson said a second Trump administration could bring withdrawals from international institutions.

“So, in the event that Trump were to win the presidency in 2024, he would probably withdraw from international institutions,” Dr Benson told The Independent. “He’s mentioned his disdain for NATO. This plays neatly into a playbook for Vladimir Putin, who is banking exactly on our domestic politics to be able to succeed in Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Dr Scheppele pointed to Project 2025, a conservative playbook for the next presidential administration that calls for a series of actions to bolster a potential conservative presidency come the 2024 election. Its purpose is to avoid the mistakes of 2017 when Mr Trump first took office and the GOP was woefully underprepared. Along with replacing supposedly impartial federal officials with fellow conservatives, Project 2025 also calls for several policy revisions, such as re-adding the citizenship question to the US Census and reversing the FDA approval of abortion pills.

Trump says he will be a dictator and abuse power ‘on day one’ if elected president again

Wes Coopersmith, the Chief of Staff for the Heritage Foundation who oversees Project 2025, told The Independent that replacing employees with GOP allies if Mr Trump is elected would be “democratic.”

“We think the most democratic way to run the administration is with folks who agree with the President, who voted for the president, who agree with his policies and want to implement that,” Mr Coopersmith said.

Mr Orbán’s success leading an “authoritarian” government relied on “decapitating” the civil service and replacing it with his extremist allies, which mirrors the Project 2025 strategy, Dr Scheppele said.

“In 2010, [Orbán] came in and decapitated the civil service, replacing with all his own loyalists, reinstated Civil Service protection for them and captured the state bureaucracy — that was a big part of how he went about locking himself into power,” Dr Scheppele told The Independent. “You see this as the blueprint for Trump.”

“There is an ideological battle at play between liberal democracy and those who espouse a kind of perverted autocracy,” Dr Benson said.

“It’s clear that this is very much part of the stakes going into 2024 here at home,” he continued.

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