Cosmopolitics by Elise Labott
Cosmopolitics by Elise Labott
The Troubling Trump-Orbán Playdate

The Troubling Trump-Orbán Playdate

Their mutual admiration isn't just about policy alignment but a shared vision of governance where power is centralized, and dissent is marginalized.
credit: Viktor Orbán’s Twitter

When former President Donald Trump lavishly praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Mar-a-Lago, he wasn’t just admiring what he considered a “great leader, respected all over the world;” he was endorsing a playbook that has eroded democracy in Hungary.

“He’s a non-controversial figure because he says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be,’ and that’s the end of it, right?” Trump said of Orbán. “He’s the boss.”

Orbán, on his part, didn't miss a beat, praising Trump for his leadership and urging him to "come back and bring us peace." It's a curious appeal, considering Orbán's own track record of fostering anything but peace within the European Union, with his relentless crackdown on immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, the judiciary, and the free press.

The notion that Trump is "learning" from Orbán is perhaps most apparent in their mutual disdain for democratic norms. Orbán’s Hungary is a masterclass in consolidating party with government, judiciary, and business into a monolithic power structure, undermining democratic checks and balances. His coinciding with President Joe Biden's State of the Union address was no mere coincidence but a statement – democracy, as we know it, is up for renegotiation.

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Orbán’s first term laid the groundwork for his autocratic attempt; his subsequent terms cemented it into a breakthrough. Since reclaiming power in 2010, Orbán has systematically dismantled Hungary’s democratic framework, redefining 'strong leadership' as an iron grip on the nation's judiciary, media, and economy. By retooling the constitution, enforcing retirement for hundreds of judges, and establishing a media regulator packed with loyalists, Orbán has turned Hungary into a democracy in name only.

It's this erosion of democratic checks and balances that seems to have caught Trump's eye, hinting at a kindred spirit in Orbán and a longing for the kind of power he wields in Budapest. Trump's presidency, marked by attacks on the judiciary, attempts to co-opt the media, and relentless pursuit of loyalty over competence, mirrors Orbán's tactics. The mutual admiration isn't just about policy alignment but a shared vision of governance where power is centralized, and dissent is marginalized.

Orbán’s strategy of state control over private entities and media is a blueprint Trump has shown a willingness to follow. Trump’s threats against CNN, the Washington Post, and other media were not idle; they were a clear indication of his desire to use state power to control and manipulate the press.

Economic collapse under Orbán's regime serves as a cautionary tale for free markets, where vitality exists only within the bounds set by a strongman’s whims. The silence of big business in Hungary underscores a dangerous acquiescence to autocratic capture, where the government uses regulatory powers to punish dissent and reward loyalty. We would be naive to think it can’t happen here in the U.S.

When Orbán addressed the conservative Heritage Foundation this week, which oversees the 2025 Project—an effort to create a governing blueprint for Trump’s next term—he spoke of “supporting families, fighting illegal migration, and standing up for the sovereignty of our nations.” These words might as well have been Trump’s. Their bromance is not just a meeting of minds but a convergence of autocratic ambitions, setting a dangerous precedent for the global order.

Yet, amidst the gravity of such a gathering, there's an ironic twist that can't be ignored. Here we have two leaders, seemingly at odds with the tide of global democracy, yet desperately seeking validation from each other and their base. Orbán's admiration for Trump's brand of politics, and vice versa, isn't just a mutual appreciation club; it's a mirror reflecting the growing chasm between populist rhetoric and democratic reality.

In a world where 'strongman' is often mistaken for 'strong leadership,' the Trump-Orbán playdate serves as a stark reminder of the slippery slope from elected office to autocratic rule. But as history has shown, strongmen may rise, but they also fall – often under the weight of their own hubris.


round gold-colored and silver-colored coin lot
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash1.

It’s worth noting that Orbán was introduced at Heritage Foundation by failed GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who has been a fixture at the Hungarian embassy in DC over the past year and whose campaign pledges to shut down “the administrative state” and eliminate government such as the FBI, IRS and the Department of Education suggest some authoritarian leanings as well. If Trump is re-elected, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.

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