At this point, it’s hard to be surprised when President Donald Trump gets chummy with an authoritarian leader. After he applauded Kim Jong-un’s leadership at various points last year, praising Viktor Orban’s doesn’t seem that shocking.
Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of the Hungarian prime minister’s visit Monday to the White House. (Trump said Orban is doing a “tremendous job” and that he’s “probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”) He’s the first Hungarian leader to step foot in the Oval Office since 2005. President George W. Bush declined to invite Orban—during his first stint as prime minister—after the 9/11 attacks because Orban had failed to denounce a far-right politician who said the U.S. had deserved them. Orban reportedly believed that the snub had something to do with his election defeat soon after.
This visit comes two weeks before European Parliament elections, in which Orban’s Fidesz party is expected to perform well, campaigning on opposition to migration. Fidesz, which has slid from the center to the far right under Orban, was recently suspended from the European Parliament’s center-right grouping, so the embrace from the leader of the free world is a major international vote of confidence, not only for the Hungarian but for the European far-right in general.
Orban clearly has more to gain from this meeting than Trump does, but in some ways he’s the senior partner in the relationship. Not only was he the first world leader to endorse Trump’s candidacy in 2016, he’s been at the vanguard of the global wave of right-wing populism years before Trump brought it to Washington. Not for nothing has noted admirer Steve Bannon described Orban as “Trump before Trump.” Orban pioneered many of the zero tolerance anti-immigration policies that Trump has been working to implement in the United States. Activists accused Hungary last month of systematically denying food to asylum-seekers. Trump praised him today for having “done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration.”
Orban has framed these efforts as an attempt to preserve Hungary’s Christian civilization. He’s vilified academia and done more than anyone to turn Hungarian-born financier George Soros into a global political boogeyman for the right. He’s a close ally of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and despite allegations of anti-Semitism over his anti-Soros fearmongering, he’s on good terms with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as well.
At the same time, Orban’s party has worked to consolidate its power by undermining the independence of the judiciary, cracking down on free media, and sidelining opposition parties. Orban has described his preferred political system as “illiberal democracy.” Ideology aside, has this made the Trump administration any more cautious about backing Orban? Not judging from U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein, a New York jeweler and longtime friend of Trump’s, who recently told Franklin Foer of the Atlantic, “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.”
Critics of Trump often accuse him of using the power of his office to boost tyrants and authoritarians in other countries. In this case, however, the bigger concern is that he’s taking notes.