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President Donald Trump greets Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office at the White House on May 13, 2019.
President Donald Trump greets Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office at the White House on May 13, 2019.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

Why it matters that Trump is backing Hungary’s Orban (again)

Donald Trump keeps endorsing authoritarians who chip away at their democracies. The latest is Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

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With just weeks remaining ahead of Election Day 2020, as much of the world kept an eye on political developments in the United States, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced his support for Donald Trump. Nearly two years later, the Republican seems eager to return the favor.

The former American president formally endorsed Orban in early January, hailing him as a “strong leader” who has, among other things, “stopped illegal immigration.” Yesterday, Trump endorsed him again in another written statement:

“Now with what’s going on with Russia and Ukraine, among many other things, the great and wonderful people of Hungary need the continued strong leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban more than ever. He is TOUGH, SMART, AND LOVES HIS COUNTRY. In the upcoming Election next month, he already has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

Oddly enough, the Republican has used nearly identical rhetoric to compliment Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

At face value, it’s not scandalous that Trump has taken an interest in foreign elections and endorsed foreign leaders’ re-election campaigns. Other former U.S. presidents have done the same thing: As we’ve discussed, Barack Obama, for example, carefully endorsed France’s Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Two years later, the Democrat voiced similar support for Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

Rather, what’s notable about Trump’s efforts are which foreign leaders he chooses to support.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was in 2020, for example, when Trump endorsed Polish President Andrzej Duda — four days before Election Day in Poland — despite the restrictions Duda had imposed on his country’s judiciary, media, and civil society. The then-American president specifically praised Duda’s “vigilant efforts to uphold the rule of law,” even as Poland faced fierce pushback from the European Commission over officials’ view that Duda was backsliding on adhering to the rule of law.

Last fall, Trump again took an interest in influencing international politics, endorsing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, despite the foreign leader’s authoritarian efforts.

Orban is cut from similar cloth. The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie explained last summer that Orban’s Hungary “is corrupt, repressive and authoritarian, a place where democracy is little more than window dressing.”

My MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem added:

Orban’s nativist record is well-known on the right. He has been a fierce critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to allowing immigrants into the European Union, and he built a wall on Hungary’s southern border (sound familiar?) to keep refugees out of the country. His ethno-nationalist goal of keeping “Hungary for the Hungarians” is laden with anti-Semitic theories that Jewish financiers are destroying the country.... Orban’s appeal to the right extends beyond his ultra-nativism. He is also a social traditionalist who has banned gender studies at universities and shot down the legal recognition of trans people.

Aleem’s report added that the Hungarian strongman has taken a series of steps in recent years to undermine democratic institutions, “through measures like consolidation of hundreds of media outlets under the control of political allies, gaming elections and using emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic to dramatically expand executive power.”

Vox published a related report in 2018 on “how democracy died in Hungary.” It noted a vote from the European Parliament, which labelled Orban’s government a “systemic threat to the rule of law.”

And yet, there’s Trump, gushing about how “tough” and “smart” Orban is. You don’t need a doctorate in political science to recognize the common thread tying together the former president’s international endorsements: Trump likes authoritarians who chip away at their democracies.

Yes, other former American presidents have expressed support for foreign candidates, but there’s never been any doubts about leaders such as Macron and Trudeau supporting democracy. Each of Trump’s international endorsements tell a different kind of story.

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