The Hungarian leader emphatically drew the battle lines. "Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal," he said. "Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal."
Unlike Trump, though, Orban has had more concrete success in advancing his illiberal agenda. There has been a steady erosion of checks on his rule since he took office in 2010 (he also served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002 in his former guise as a liberal). After his April reelection, his government pushed through a law criminalizing any individual or organization that aided undocumented migrants — with cruel irony, it passed on World Refugee Day. There are now growing questions about the autonomy of Hungary's judiciary, while the country's media is disproportionately in Orban's camp.
For Europe, Orban is setting a new precedent. "Although Orban governs a small country, the movement he represents is of global importance," wrote Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev earlier this year. "In the West, where the will of the people remains the main source of political legitimacy, his style of illiberal democracy is likely to be the major alternative to liberalism in the coming decades."
Unlike populists further to the west, Orban does not seek the European Union's dissolution. Indeed, the Hungarian economy has grown under his watch thanks in part to funds and assistance from Brussels. But he imagines co-opting the bloc and moving it closer in line with his and Trump's right-wing nationalism.
"He has successfully positioned himself within the European center-right," wrote Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky, referring to the continued membership of Fidesz, Orban's party, in the prominent European People's Party faction in the European Parliament. That bloc includes the parties of prominent conservative leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
While some moderates have called on the EPP to expel Fidesz, Orban remains in a comfortable position. "Better to keep them in so we can talk to them directly," said German conservative politician Manfred Weber, head of the EPP, to Politico last month. "He always listens at a certain point. He runs off and has to be told to stop, but he usually does."
But that condescending view belies Orban's growing clout, especially among the continent's mainstream right-wing parties. "When Orban rails against the liberal EU elite," wrote Bershidsky, "he does that on behalf of the right-wingers in traditional parties ... To see if Europe goes in this direction, it’s worth listening for echoes of Orban in the speeches of mainstream conservatives and watching the party platforms for the 2019 European Parliament election. The shift to the right, if it continues, will not be as one-dimensional as a shift in support to the protest parties. It’ll happen from the inside of the conservative flank."
It's alarming to contemplate what such a shift represents. "If the liberals who dominated in the 1990s were preoccupied with the rights of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, this new consensus is about the rights of the majority," wrote Krastev. Orban, meanwhile, is among a number of outspoken right-wing nationalists in Europe who support easing tensions with the Kremlin and dropping E.U. sanctions on Russia.
And while Trump may be the source of widespread derision among the European establishment, Orban expresses his admiration for the U.S. president. In his speech, Orban celebrated how Trump has "made good on his promises." He praised Trump's attacks on the multilateral international order, largely built through decades of U.S. cooperation with blocs like the European Union and the Group of Seven. While Trump's critics cast his actions as those of an impetuous and impatient demagogue, Orban said Trump was "making systematic progress with the precision of an engineer."
The truth, though, may be closer to home: As Orban marshals the resurgent nationalist right, it's his project that is steadily coming into focus.