Trump and Orban Are Both Weaker Than They Seem

Trump and Orban Are Both Weaker Than They Seem

The outsized influence each politician has had on his respective nation’s politics is not the same as political strength, let alone invulnerability.

Donald Trump and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who met at the former American president’s Mar-a-Lago headquarters last week, make for an odd pairing. Leave aside the obvious biographical and temperamental differences (a quick scan of Orban’s Wikipedia entry illuminates the profound gulf between the anti-communist rebel turned conservative populist and the former real estate mogul, tabloid celebrity, and reality TV star). Orban’s recent visit to Mar-a-Lago highlights the oddity of a former American president courting the leader of a small and relatively insignificant Eastern European country. The only precedent that comes to mind is American liberals’ abiding fascination with the Swedish welfare state. Yet no Swedish politician has attained anything like Orban’s level of celebrity on the American right. 

Left-wingers would surely respond that Orban and Trump are natural partners because of their shared authoritarian sympathies. This misreads both figures’ circumstances. Like Trump, Orban is weaker than he appears to his most excitable critics. 

Trump’s flaws are familiar to anyone who lived through his first administration. His poll numbers rise when he is out of the news and decline every time he re-emerges to say something outrageous or offensive. He never misses an opportunity to bring up old grievances, even when they remind voters of the worst features of his previous stint in office. His share of Republican primary voters compares unfavorably to every previous incumbent. 

Orban is a more practiced political operator. He is adept at fencing with journalists in both English and Hungarian. Trump is only called a dictator by his most unhinged opponents, but Orban is routinely described in the mainstream Western press as an “autocrat” or a “strongman,” terms meant to suggest equivalency with the likes of Vladimir Putin. Left-wingers call Hungary a one-party state.

The truth is more complicated. Orban’s government has just been rocked by a scandal that forced a political ally, the former Hungarian President Katalin Novák, to resign from office. Novák was pushed out over a pardon she issued to a man jailed for covering up child sex abuse at a state orphanage. The pardon scandal implicated several other high-ranking members of Fidesz, Hungary’s populist conservative ruling party, and has prompted widespread street protests.

The street protests neatly highlight Orban’s political strengths and weaknesses. The demonstrations took place in Budapest, an opposition stronghold that dominates Hungarian economic, political, and cultural life. They were mostly attended by younger Hungarians, often educated and upwardly mobile, who tend to dislike Orban and vote for the opposition. One reason international press coverage of Orban is unfavorable is because reporters spend a lot of time in Budapest, where the youthful, English-speaking voters they talk to dislike Fidesz’s conservative policies or have tired of Orban’s decade-plus tenure in office. An underrated challenge facing Orban and Fidesz is voter fatigue—many young Hungarians are simply tired of seeing the same faces in the news.  

On the other hand, the nature of these demonstrations reflect the weak and fragmented state of the Hungarian opposition. The protests attracted young people because they were organized by ostensibly apolitical social media personalities, and not a left-wing politician or party apparatus. One major rally was headlined by a famous Hungarian rapper. These demonstrations were partly inspired by an ambient sense of discontent with the direction of Hungarian society, but that hasn’t translated into a cohesive political coalition capable of unseating a sitting prime minister.

The protests also serve as a useful reminder that Hungary is not actually a police state. Orban is no civil libertarian, and he has a history of pushing the envelope to win elections and consolidate control over key academic, media, and cultural institutions. However, Fidesz opponents are still able to organize marches and contest elections. The mayoralty of Budapest, arguably the second most important office in a country dominated by its capital, is held by the opposition. 

Trump and Orban have something else in common beyond their political vulnerabilities. Both belong to the rare category of politicians who have changed the debate around key issues. Many politicians are more popular than Trump or Orban. Few have had a comparable impact on the political landscape.  

If Trump wins again in November, his second administration will probably face the same problems that hamstrung his first term: staffing issues, internal squabbling, a lack of policy focus, and Trump’s own well-documented foibles.  

Yet Trump has already reshaped the conversation on several key political issues. The pro-open borders wing of the Republican Party has been effectively vanquished. Both parties are increasingly hawkish on China policy. At least rhetorically, Trump has pushed the GOP to adapt its economic message to an increasingly downscale voting base 

Orban has accomplished something similar in Europe. In 2014, he was a lonely voice against mass immigration, a spokesman for cranks, hard-right provocateurs, and others on the political fringe. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s optimistic rallying cry of “Wir schaffen das!”—“We can do this!”—became the default response among policymakers and the EU intelligentsia to an unprecedented wave of migration from North Africa and the Middle East. 

A decade later, Orban’s arguments have carried the day. France’s President Emmanuel Macron, a reliable weathervane for centrist technocrats, recently shepherded restrictive new immigration measures into law. Alternative für Deutschland, now the second most popular party in Germany, has risen to prominence thanks in part to its hard line on immigration. The newly elected Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a hero to Europhiles and Atlanticists for defeating the Orban-friendly Law and Justice Party, has called mass migration a “civilizational threat.

Pro-immigrant sentiment persists in the corridors of European power, and restrictionists still have to contend with falling native birthrates, policy difficulties posed by border enforcement, and the fecklessness of their own political leaders. But the conversation around the issue has fundamentally changed since 2014. This is at least partly thanks to Orban, who became an international conservative celebrity because of his uncompromising position on immigration.   

Orban is not invincible. His dovish stance on Ukraine, while understandable for the leader of a small Eastern European country that depends on imported Russian fossil fuels, has made him even more of a pariah within NATO and the EU. The pedophile pardon scandal may not resonate outside of Budapest, but the wobbly state of the Hungarian economy surely does. Last fall, Eurostat reported that Hungary’s GDP per capita had been exceeded by Romania’s. The reaction in many quarters was what you might expect from Americans if the World Bank suddenly announced that our economy had been overtaken by Canada’s. 

As the next round of parliamentary elections looms in 2026, Orban faces economic headwinds and a vague but persistent sense among younger Hungarians that he has overstayed his welcome. This is an ironic predicament for a politician who made his reputation as a youthful anti-Soviet firebrand; Fidesz began as a party for people only under the age of 30. But when Orban eventually departs office, he will leave knowing that he helped shift European opinion on one of the most consequential issues of the 21st century. 

The post Trump and Orban Are Both Weaker Than They Seem appeared first on The American Conservative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *