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.
Trump to Hungary's far-right leader Viktor Orbán: "You're respected all over Europe. Probably like me a little bit controversial, but that's okay. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe." pic.twitter.com/F2J9gJgALZ
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 13, 2019
“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.
Orbán’s reputation as an enemy of liberalism is strong enough that his visit prompted a rare outbreak of bipartisanship in Congress. In a letter to Trump, Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) urged Trump to press Orbán about Hungary’s anti-democratic trajectory and its growing economic ties to China and Russia. Another set of House Democrats urged the president to cancel the meeting altogether.
It was no surprise that Trump ignored their advice. Trump has made a habit of snubbing allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel while cozying up to strongmen and autocrats like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Vladimir Putin of Russia. On the eve of Orbán’s visit, the Atlantic ran a lengthy story about yet another of Orbán’s autocratic initiatives: expelling from Hungary the Central European University, one of Europe’s finest higher-education institutions. Near the end of the story, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, an 80-year-old jeweler and friend of Trump’s named David Cornstein, said this of Trump: “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.”
At their Oval Office meeting, Trump praised Orbán’s leadership and strength and said they would be discussing NATO, trade policies and “lots of other subjects.” One of those other subjects was supposed to be a defense deal in which Hungary would purchase U.S.-made surface-to-air missiles. But there was no mention of Orbán’s plans to ratify that agreement during the press conference.
“It seems like Orbán played Trump,” Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the Hungarian city of Hódmezővásárhely and an opposition leader critical of Orbán, told me. “He got what he wanted without giving up his buddy Putin’s interests in favor of the U.S.”
Márki-Zay was sitting in a coffee shop less than a mile from the White House. A Catholic and social conservative, Márki-Zay defeated the Fidesz party candidate in a 2018 election to be mayor after convincing Hungary’s fractured opposition parties to unite behind his candidacy. He is now trying to build a legitimate anti-Orbán movement by persuading opposition groups in other towns and cities across Hungary to band together.
Márki-Zay and Zoltán Kész, a Hungarian activist and writer, had traveled to Washington on a counter-programming mission timed to coincide with Orbán’s official visit. When I spoke with them, they had come from a meeting at the State Department. “They were very interested in our views on these issues,” Kész told me, and “about whether there is an alternative to Orbán in the future.” Later, Márki-Zay and Kész planned to meet with human-rights groups and Hungarian ex-pats.
Márki-Zay described the constant intimidation he faced opposing Orbán and Fidesz. He took out a plastic bag from his briefcase and showed me dozens of mail pieces and fliers attacking him, his wife and people who worked for his campaign. Some said they were produced by Fidesz, others had no disclaimer. “In many smaller places, people are scared that they’ll lose their jobs, that their kids won’t get admission to state universities, stuff like that,” he said. “People are scared. They don’t dare to stand up.”
While he wrote off some of Trump’s praise as bluster typical of this president, Márki-Zay said that Orbán’s visit was a major propaganda victory that the prime minister would use back in Hungary to validate his agenda. “Orbán wants to project how respected he is, and these were exactly the words the president said,” Márki-Zay told me. “Now, he can claim he’s one of the significant leaders of the world.”
In a few weeks, the European parliament will hold its elections, pitting pro-EU lawmakers against a growing far-right, extremist wing pushing to destabilize the union. Orbán is part of that EU-critical faction, and his successful visit to the White House could further legitimize his campaign against the EU and his drift closer to Russia and China.
“At a time when relations between Washington and Brussels are strained and the relationship between Trump and Merkel is frosty, welcoming Orbán into the Oval Office carries a message that will reverberate throughout Europe,” says Scott Cullinane, a former Republican staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. “It is likely that Orbán will seek to use a successful meeting with Trump to position himself as a powerbroker between European capitals and the White House.”
As for Hungarians who don’t support Orbán — he last won reelection with just 48 percent of the vote — the message sent by Trump’s embrace of the Hungarian prime minister is “devastating,” says Heather Conley, a former State Department official under President George W. Bush who oversaw U.S. relations with northern and central Europe and now works at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
In five months, Hungarians will vote in municipal elections, which will be the first test of Mayor Peter Márki-Zay’s bottom-up opposition campaign. He’s calling it Hungary for All. Despite having little money and intense opposition, Márki-Zay and his allies hope to elect more local officials and show that there is a real opposition to Orbán and Fidesz. The alternative, he says, is a slide further into autocracy and one-party control of Hungary. “It’s not a state of law anymore,” he says. “It’s not a democracy. It’s definitely the most corrupt system in Hungary for the last 1,000 years.”