the national interest

Trump, Orbán, and Putin Are Forming an Authoritarian Alliance

Viktor Orbán with Donald Trump. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Hungarian president Viktor Orbán announced yesterday that he was endorsing President Trump’s reelection campaign. It is fairly uncommon for sitting American presidents to receive election endorsements from foreign leaders, and yet the endorsement fits into a pattern of sorts. Trump has already been endorsed by Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has worked openly with Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine, who represent the corrupt, Russophile wing that was deposed, despite the efforts of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort. And perhaps even more unusually, Trump has given his own endorsement, to Polish president Andrzej Duda.

This odd network of international support has no geopolitical logic. Russia’s support for Trump is rooted primarily in the — shall we say, special — relationship between the two leaders. But the links with Hungary and Poland reveal a deeper ideological alliance. What draws these leaders and their regimes to Trump is a shared contempt for liberal democracy. Putin, Orbán, Duda, and Trump all rose to power in democratic systems and have turned them toward authoritarianism. They are joined in a common project to discredit liberal democracy.

Mainstream conservatives have steadfastly ignored mounting evidence of Trump’s authoritarianism. If they acknowledge any flaws, they reduce them to manners or style. Even portions of the left persist in mocking the notion that the administration poses a novel threat to democracy. “I don’t believe Donald Trump is a fascist or a dictator in the making,” argues Shadi Hamid. Glenn Greenwald likewise points out that Trump is competing in an open, regularly scheduled election.

Since the terminology has created some confusion, a bit of clarification is helpful. Contrary to the popular imagination, democracy and dictatorship are not a simple binary. They are splayed along a continuum, with some systems more or less democratic. Fascism is an especially severe form of authoritarianism, involving a one-party state that exerts control over most facets of daily life.

Trump is not a fascist. Nor, for that matter, are his Eastern European allies. But that hardly dispels the concern. Experts in the field express serious concern that Trump has moved the United States along the continuum toward authoritarianism, and that a prospective second Trump term could very well do enough additional damage that the government would no longer be characterized as democratic at all. Democratic governments do not usually perish in a sudden march of jackboots, but instead see their democratic norms slowly disintegrate.

One of the most notorious setpieces of the Putin era in Russia took place a decade ago, when the Russian president confronted aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska in a televised spectacle, in which he demanded reinstatement of its striking workers. Here was Putin bringing to bear the power of the state against its chastened oligarchs, supposedly for the benefit of the people.

Over just the past few days, reporters have found several cases of Trump’s interactions with the business community that have a creepy Putinesque echo. First, Trump negotiated, and nearly finalized, a deal with pharmaceutical companies that would reduce prices by $150 billion. The agreement foundered on Trump’s audacious demand to issue what the industry called “Trump cards,” crediting the president with lowering costs. (Trump already used a coronavirus relief act to send out checks bearing his name.)

Second, Ben Smith reports that when Trump was dangling federal approval for AT&T’s acquisition of TimeWarner, he brought up his enmity for CNN president Jeff Zucker, leaving the impression that firing his antagonist was a condition for approving the deal.

Third, Bloomberg News reports that Trump has leveraged government approval of a forced sale of TikTok both to reward Oracle, whose owner has placated him, and to try to pry loose $5 billion to fund the “patriotic” education he has has touted as a rebuke to the 1619 Project. By giving a cloud-computing contract to Oracle, the deal strikes a blow against Amazon, whose owner has faced a series of threats and adverse policies as retribution for owning the Washington Post.

There is an important difference between these maneuvers and what Putin accomplished: Trump’s strong-arm plays have failed more than they have succeeded. Bezos has refused to sell off or crack down on the Post, the Trump cards did not materialize, and the $5 billion patriotic education fund seems unlikely. But his poor record of success should provide only modest comfort. Trump’s approval ratings have hovered in the low 40s throughout his entire term, and his corporate counterparties have operated under the assumption that he is likely to leave after a single term. Their cold business incentive leans toward resisting his pressure and not implicating themselves in a widely detested criminal regime that is likely to leave in disgrace.

But if Trump wins a second term, those incentives will change. Maybe Big Pharma will go along with the Trump cards, and have less fear of what retribution a Democratic administration would enact. Maybe Jeff Bezos will conclude that financing the Post does not justify the tens of billions of dollars in lost federal contracts. And perhaps all the other business tycoons will come to see that the Deripaska bargain — accepting Trump’s protection in return for allowing him to exploit whatever political leverage he can gain from their market power — is now the smart move. When you’re a tsar, they let you do it.

The most chilling aspect is how Trump and his supporters have embraced authoritarianism as a kind of kitsch. Just as they picked up on Trump’s threats to prosecute Hillary Clinton in 2016, they have begun echoing his unprecedented talk of holding office beyond the constitutional limits:

At a recent rally, Trump gloated about an attack on a journalist who was injured covering a peaceful demonstration:

It is easy to dismiss this all as a kind of shtick. But the distance between Trump’s violent rhetoric against journalists (“enemies of the people”) and the reality of his administration has shrunk. The rubber bullet that struck Velshi was very real.

And a vanguard of Trumpist intellectuals has embraced the rhetorical mode of the Putinshpere. Conservatives like Michael Anton, Tucker Carlson, and Michael Brendan Dougherty have likened Democratic plans to organize rallies in response to Trump as a “color revolution.” The reason Democrats are making contingency plans to take to the streets is that Trump has made authoritarian threats since the outset of his presidency, and has repeatedly signaled his intention to discredit the (presumably Democratic) mail ballots that are counted later to declare himself the victor before all the votes are tabulated. Indeed, in June he directed troops to violently clear a completely peaceful demonstration from Lafayette Square, in a frightening preview of the sort of abuse he will likely try in a disputed election scenario when opponents take to the streets.

It’s natural and expected for Trump’s allies to ignore Trump’s provocations and treat the planned response thereto as if it is the provocation itself. What’s amazing is that, by depicting Democrats as a “color revolution,” they are implicitly likening Trump to an autocrat. The color revolutions were a series of popular demonstrations in response to Putin-backed autocrats in Eastern Europe. Putin decried these uprisings as foreign plots directed by the West in general and George Soros, an international pro-democracy philanthropist, in particular. Putin is not merely engaged in a propaganda campaign to protect his regime and those controlled by his client states, but also ideologically motivated to discredit democracy. In his narrative, local autocrats are authentic leaders, and democracy activists are the puppets of George Soros and the American deep state, seeking a pretext to extend American power.

Here is how Anton, a former State Department speechwriter for Trump, described Democratic plans: It’s “what’s come to be known as a ‘color revolution,’ the exact same playbook the American deep state runs in other countries whose leadership they don’t like and is currently running in Belarus.” Belarus, in case you hadn’t heard, is a kleptocracy run by a corrupt Putin crony, who has clung to power after having grotesquely rigged his election. Anton is taking the Putin view of the world, in which the Putin-backed autocrat who steals the election deserves to hold office, and the democratic uprising against him is a nefarious plot by the American deep state.

Hopefully, this is all just wish fulfillment, and the reality of the election will dash the fantasies of bloodshed. But it is telling that the fantasy takes the form of Trump as authoritarian, beating down peaceful demonstrators (and apparently entitled to engage in even the most grotesque fraud to prevail). They have stopped objecting to the comparison with Putin and begun coveting it.

Last year, the American ambassador in Budapest bluntly confessed to Franklin Foer that Trump admires the illiberal regime Orbán has constructed in Hungary: “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.” Not yet, anyway.

In his endorsement of Trump, Orbán writes, “We root for Donald Trump’s victory, because we know well American Democratic governments’ diplomacy, built on moral imperialism.” By this, Orbán means that he resents Democrats (of both the large-D and small-d variety) and their international promotion of democracy as a form of government. He does not merely oppose U.S. imperialism but American “moral imperialism.” Now the moral imperialism is running the other way: from the East to the West. Putin and his autocratic allies are not only interfering in our elections, but exporting their illiberal ideal to an eager ally in Washington.

Unlike under the last Republican administration, the United States is no longer declaring a crusade against an “axis of evil.” That is the good news. The bad news is that we’ve joined one.

Trump, Orbán and Putin Are Forming an Authoritarian Alliance