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Wed May 15, 2019, 05:34 PM

Springtime for Autocrats

WASHINGTON — Viktor Orbán couldn’t have scripted it any better if he’d tried.

Seated next to President Trump in a gold-colored chair in the Oval Office, the Hungarian prime minister listened intently as the leader of the free world sang his praises to a throng of journalists, photographers and TV cameramen. “Highly respected. Respected all over Europe,” Trump said of Orbán. “Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”

Orbán broke into a smile, and the two heads of state traded admiring glances, each looking perfectly chummy, like a reunion between old friends. “You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe,” Trump said.


“Grand Slam for #TeamOrban,” a former U.S.-based lobbyist for the Hungarian government texted me soon afterward.

The last time Viktor Orbán visited the White House, it was 2001 and the world looked a lot different. The tide of far-right, nationalist politics that fueled Brexit and Trump’s election had yet to appear, and Orbán was serving his first stint as prime minister. In the intervening years, he lost his seat and then regained it after remaking himself into an early leader of that nationalist wave. Before Steve Bannon, Breitbart News and Donald Trump came on the scene, Orbán and his Fidesz party were demonizing immigrants, attacking the media and stoking xenophobia to take power. He was Trump before Trump. (He was also the first European leader to back Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.)

Today, Orbán is a driving force behind the slide toward authoritarianism in parts of Europe. He said in an infamous 2014 speech that the successful societies of the future were “not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies and perhaps not even democracies,” and that the models for Hungary should be China, Russia, Turkey and India. He and Fidesz have taken control of more than 90 percent of all media outlets in Hungary in the past decade. His party created a parallel court system to consolidate control over the judiciary. Critics of Orbán and Fidesz are met with intimidation, lawsuits, fines and loss of their livelihoods. Last year, for the first time, Freedom House downgraded Hungary from “Free” to “Partly Free,” the first-ever EU member state to receive the designation.


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