President Trump’s admiration for authoritarians is, at this point, well-established. But his habit of going out of his way to endorse world leaders inimical to Western democracy never stops being stunning.
On Saturday, Trump offered what sounded like hearty congratulations to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party won a a sweeping electoral victory in April.
Orbán is not quite a dictator, but he’s the closest thing to one in Europe.
Since he began his second stint as prime minister in 2010, Orbán has slowly but surely transformed his country from a model postcommunist democracy to a strongman’s paradise. He has stacked courts with his allies, muzzled the free press, and, in a campaign tinged with anti-Semitism, pledged to rid the country of George Soros’s influence. Along the way, he has made unrelenting hostility to immigration his signature issue, become a leading avatar for the nationalist forces that have swept Europe and the United States. (Steve Bannon is a big fan.) When he was formally asked to form a government by Hungary’s president last month, Orbán promised to “safeguard Hungary’s security and Christian culture.”
In other words, Orbán is overhauling his country in a fashion Trump would surely love to emulate, if those pesky American checks and balances — at least, what’s left of them — weren’t still around.
Once upon a time, like two years ago, an American president would have protested such naked illiberalism in Hungary (Yes, the U.S. has supported despots directly and indirectly throughout the country’s history, but it has historically also been opposed to European demagogues.) In the case of Orbán, George W. Bush wrote a letter ull of complaints about his rule during the Hungarian’s first term; when it was ignored, Bush declined to invite him to the White House. During Orbán’s second tenure in office, President Obama denied visas for six Hungarian officials over corruption issues.
But, as on so many other issues, President Trump is taking a radically different approach from his predecessors. Instead of issuing denunciations or even pretending to care about the preservation of democracy in an allied country, he is gazing across the Atlantic with nothing less than respect.