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Why Trump's endorsement of Hungary's Viktor Orban matters

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

There's been a fair amount of attention over the last year to Donald Trump's political endorsements, largely because they've sent signals about the direction of the Republican Party. But let's not forget that the former president has made notable international endorsements, too.

Before exiting the White House, for example, 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 Republican 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 also endorsed Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, despite the foreign leader's authoritarian efforts.

This morning, the Republican announced his formal support for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a written statement that read:

"Viktor Orban 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. He has my Complete support and Endorsement for reelection as Prime Minister!"

To be sure, it's not unheard of to see former American presidents express public support for foreign allies. 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.

But there's never been any doubts about Macron and Trudeau supporting democracy. Each of Trump's international endorsements tell a different kind of story.

For those who may need a refresher, the right's affection for Orban's Hungarian government has unfolded slowly over the course of last year. It was this past summer when Fox News' Tucker Carlson sang Orban's praises, for example, prompting The New York Times' Jamelle Bouie to note, "To critics, Orban's Hungary is corrupt, repressive and authoritarian, a place where democracy is little more than window dressing.... To Carlson, it's a model for the United States."

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin soon after praised Orban's tactics. Now, Trump's on board.

Even by the standards of the contemporary GOP, this is indefensible. My MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem explained several months ago:

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 antisemitic 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 the "powerful" job Orban has done in Hungary.

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.

When Republicans tell you who they are, believe them.