Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already made it clear that he supports President Donald Trump in the November elections, unlike many other European leaders. He wants to avoid returning to the age of Democrats’ “moral imperialism,” wishing to continue his “extremely good relationship” with the President with whom he appears to have so much in common. Summary and analysis.
Diplomatic disputes with Democrats
In an essay a couple of weeks ago, Orbán wrote:
[The Hungarian government roots] for Donald Trump’s victory, because we are well-acquainted with American Democratic governments’ foreign policy built on moral imperialism. We have sampled it before, even if involuntarily. We did not like it, we do not want seconds.”
Orbán’s relationship with the Democrats was, and still is, rather strained indeed. The Obama administration avoided bi-lateral contact with the Orbán-led Hungarian government for years as retribution for what they saw as efforts to establish authoritarian rule. American disapproval was expressed over the adoption of the new constitution in 2011 in no uncertain terms, and Obama himself later criticized the Prime Minister’s crackdown on civil society. High-ranking officials of the American embassy were also constant fixtures of demonstrations organized by the opposition.
The situation does not appear to have changed. Just last week, former Vice President Joe Biden and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó exchanged fairly antagonistic messages with one another. On Thursday, Biden expressed his disapproval of what he believes is the rise of totalitarianism in Hungary at his town hall meeting in Philadelphia, broadcast across the US on ABC. Szijjártó responded on his Facebook, writing that Biden’s words had nothing to do with reality. He later uploaded a video message saying that Biden should first shed light on issues surrounding his and his son Hunter’s involvement in potential corruption with Ukrainian energy company Burisma before criticizing Hungary. The Foreign Minister was referring to a popular conspiracy theory already refuted by two Republican-led Senate committees but peddled continually by Donald Trump himself.
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All this is in stark contrast to the “exceptionally good relationship” that has developed between Orbán and Trump, to use the Prime Minister’s own words. A recent anecdote serves to illustrate this quite well. According to David Cornstein, Ambassador to Hungary about to leave his post, when he went to visit Trump in the Oval Office to hand in his resignation, the President spontaneously decided they should “call Viktor.” To hear the Prime Minister tell it, he was heating up his wife’s “European Champion Ratatouille” in the kitchen when the call came in the evening. They apparently proceeded to discuss the American elections, politics in general, and the pandemic. Trump assured Orbán that while the elections were going to be close, he was going to win, and that Hungary could count on America’s help when and if a vaccine is developed.
Although a friendly frat chat without prior agreement seems a little far-fetched between two world leaders, one cannot deny it has been love at first sight between Trump and Orbán. Breaking with Obama’s attitude towards Hungary early in his presidency, last year Trump even invited Orbán for a meeting at the White House, which passed in unusually good spirits. Cornstein, present at the event, quoted the President telling the Prime Minister:
It’s like we’re twins.”
Earlier, the Ambassador had told the Atlantic that “[…] knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, […] he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.” This indeed appears to be the case.
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Birds of a feather?
It is not hard to imagine why Trump might look at Orbán’s Hungary as a model to emulate. Thanks to his influence over all branches of government, Orbán has little fear of impeachment proceedings, financial investigations, or indeed any of the trials and tribulations Trump has been put through by the democratic institutions of the United States. He has gained control over a significant part of the media, so dissenting voices reach the ears of fewer people. No “fake news,” no investigative reporting, no credible whistleblowers, no hassle. Given his last four years, no doubt Trump would like to be in a similar position.
The leaders are of a like mind on other issues as well. They peddle anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. They appeal to national pride and focus on national sovereignty and perceived threats to it. They also emphasize the importance of Christian values publicly and purport to support families.
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They both want to appear as men of the people despite their status and power. While the ritual eating of festival food has become a staple of presidential campaigns in the US, Trump displays particular fervor in devouring artery-clogging burgers left and right, and revels in pretending to be a trucker or a coal miner for half a minute once in a while. We need look no further than Orbán’s account of the phone call he received from Trump, heating up a hearty traditional meal prepared by his wife in the kitchen as he picks up the phone, to understand the message loud and clear. The Prime Minister also prides himself on being a village boy, looking forward to traditional pig slaughters each winter. He also reinstated people’s right to home-distill pálinka, the national eau de vie, and will soon introduce a tax exemption for it.
Given their political records, it is hardly surprising that not only do they seem to share some of their ideology, but also some of the men who helped formulate them.
Certainly from 2008 on, but maybe even before then, Hungarian governing party Fidesz was working with right-wing political consultant Arthur J. Finkelstein until his death in 2017. Finkelstein was a long time associate of the Trump Organization, which was one of his company’s few non-political clients, and was in regular contact with the Trump campaign in 2016. He can also be considered one of its ideological fathers, given that several of the campaign advisers, including Roger Stone, had been mentored by Finkelstein. He was one of the architects of modern populism, and consulted for Nixon, Reagan, and Netanyahu, among others.
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Another figure with close connections to both Trump and Orbán is Sebastian Gorka. He served as a main advisor to Orbán during his first term in 1998, although has since criticized Orbán on multiple occasions. He became Deputy Assistant to the President and White House Strategist in 2017, a position from which he was fired later that year.
Finally, after helping Trump’s campaign to victory as a chief advisor, and a brief and turbulent spell as white house chief strategist, Steve Bannon was reportedly going to work with Viktor Orbán before the 2018 EP elections. He even came to Hungary several times to meet the Prime Minister and some of his allies. There is no indication that a partnership materialized, but Bannon has since called Orbán the most important politician in Europe along with Salvini.
Orbán told Reuters at the end of September that if Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins the U.S. election, “Probably the level of openness and kindness and helping each other will be lower […]. But my calculation is OK. [Trump] will win.” Before Trump’s illness, Orbán trusted that he will win the election, saying:
The only reason why I’m sitting here after spending more than 30 years in politics is that I always believe in my plan A.”
Whether friendly relations between Hungary and the US seen during the Trump presidency continue ultimately depends on the outcome of the elections, something on a long list of things American voters will decide in November.
Featured photo illustration by Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI