On January 3, former U.S. president Donald Trump offered, via his Save America political action committee, an endorsement of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán ahead of the 2022 parliamentary elections in Hungary, in which Orbán will be running for reelection on the Fidesz party ticket.
“Viktor Orbán of Hungary truly loves his Country and wants safety for his people. He has done a powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary, stopping illegal immigration, creating jobs, trade, and should be allowed to continue to do so in the upcoming Election. He is a strong leader and respected by all,” Trump’s message read.
Falsehoods about universal respect aside, Trump’s message reflects the place Orbán holds in global politics. Though his country may be small, Orbán’s influence, particularly on those practicing the far-right populism in the ascendancy worldwide, is large. It’s not unprecedented for international leaders of the same political proclivity to support one another, but this circle of power is different: Their support includes endorsing explicitly undemocratic actions and those that erode at the foundations of their countries’ democracies.
In “Stealth Authoritarianism,” political scientist Ozan Varol writes that Orbán “responds to criticisms against the laws and constitutional provisions adopted by his government by citing similar laws and provisions in democratic states.” If he strokes the egos of his fellow aspiring autocrats, then he also uses their actions to justify his own transgressions of democratic principles.
Back in 2016, Orbán was the first head of state to endorse Trump for the American presidency. Orbán admitted that though he hadn’t initially envisioned lending his support to Trump, he later said, “I myself could not have drawn up better what Europe needs.” Orbán’s belief in Trump stemmed from his policies on national security and antiterrorism. Trump’s desire to build a wall along United States’ border with Mexico mirrored Orbán’s construction of barbed-wire fences along Hungary’s southern border: both were designed to keep unwanted immigrants out of the target countries.
Trump was elected later that year, and in 2019, he invited Orbán to the Oval Office, a meeting that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had spurned during Orbán’s first and second terms in office respectively. The two leaders have since patted each other’s backs in public. Just a month after receiving Trump’s endorsement, Orbán extended him an invitation to visit Budapest, which, if he accepts, would mark the former president’s first trip outside the United States since his electoral defeat in 2020.
In “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism,” University of Chicago political scientists Ipek Çinar, Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe write that “[Trump’s] words are also a portal that connects him with politicians in other countries and other eras.”2 It can equally be argued that Trump’s words enable politicians like Orbán to do the very same thing—to connect with other far-right politicians and enhance their network of political maneuvering, which erodes at democracy.
Though this self-reinforcing echo chamber requires the participation of the far right, it is also enhanced by democratic leaders’ condemnation of what they see as departures from a superior political model. In November, U.S. president Joe Biden omitted Hungary from participating in a summit on democracy hosted by the State Department; Hungary was the only country in the European Union (EU) to be left off the list. In response, Orbán attempted to block all EU nations from participating in the summit, seeing Biden’s decision as unfairly exclusionary.
In some sense, Biden’s actions were also retaliatory: In October, on the 65th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution—in which Hungarian citizens attempted, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the Soviet-aligned government—Ferenc Dancs, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry’s deputy state secretary for North America, accused the Biden administration of meddling in the upcoming Hungarian elections—an entirely unfounded assertion. Mutual toleration is, as political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in How Democracies Die, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals.”3 In this context, however, the definition must be extended to include toleration of other countries’ rival parties, a standard that Orbán and his administration fail to meet.
Though an increasingly large number of politicians worship at Orbán’s altar, he does more than simply preach a populist, far-right, authoritarian ideology; he has also strengthened his relationships with politicians like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who are widely considered authoritarian. In 2018, Orbán expelled Central European University, funded by billionaire George Soros, from Hungary. Just a few years later, he laid down the groundwork for Fudan University, a Chinese institute of higher education, to establish a campus in Budapest on state-owned land once slated for local student housing. Despite two-thirds of the electorate’s and one-third of Orbán’s own voters’ disagreeing with the proposal, the National Assembly approved it in June 2021.
More recently, Orbán has allied himself with Putin, ostensibly to take advantage of Russia’s vast gas reserves. Some see it as a necessary step to gain access to cheaper energy, placate voters, and loosen the West’s grip on the national economy. Others see it as a troubling about-face from Orbán, who cut his teeth in Hungarian politics by vocally opposing the Soviet government and advocating a democratic Hungary.
But Orbán does have limits to his alliances with the autocrats of the world. On Monday, Russia recognized the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, separatist states in Ukraine; by Thursday morning, Russian troops had begun to invade Hungary’s northeastern neighbor. Despite his openly espousing Putin’s policies and past claims that Russia’s actions in Ukraine do not merit sanctions, Orbán changed his mind on this occasion, siding with the rest of the EU’s membership in imposing sanctions on Russia. Though its place in the democratic order is increasingly fragile, Hungary is not yet a lost cause. The following weeks and months—and the types of partnerships forged either by Orbán or by his opponent, Péter Márki-Zay—will determine the future of not only Hungary’s democracy but also the far-right populism that has shaken the country’s democratic core.
1 Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 1673 (2015): 1717.
2 Çinar, Ipek, Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe. “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 2020, 2.
3 Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown: Kindle Edition, 8.