The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why President Trump and Hungary’s authoritarian leader are soulmates

President Trump with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the White House on Monday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

President Trump’s meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Monday at the White House had the kind of good vibes that Trump only displays when seeing dictators such as the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Korea and Russia. The U.S. ambassador to Budapest, David Cornstein, quoted the president telling the prime minister “it’s like we’re twins.” Earlier, Cornstein, a New York jeweler and friend of Trump (what other qualification does an ambassador need?), told the Atlantic: “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.”

It’s bad enough that Trump is fawning over a leader who has destroyed democracy in his country. What’s more alarming is that, as Cornstein’s overly honest comments suggest, Trump is trying to emulate Orban’s sinister example. Orbanism is authoritarianism for the media age: Instead of sending jackbooted thugs to haul away his opponents to concentration camps, the Hungarian prime minister uses more subtle measures — he has demonized immigrants, catered to anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim prejudices, corrupted the judiciary, bought off the media, co-opted civil society, harassed and intimidated critics, and rewarded his cronies by allowing them to feed at the government trough. Trump’s actions in the few days since Orban’s visit show how he is attempting to apply Orbanism to the United States.

Exhibit A was the argument that the president’s private lawyer, William Consovoy, made in federal court on Tuesday to try to block a House subpoena for records from Trump’s accountant. Consovoy claimed that Congress has no power to investigate the president even if he was involved in corruption. That’s law enforcement, not legislation — and, therefore, out of bounds. Consovoy would not even admit that the Watergate and Whitewater investigations were justified.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone reinforced that message on Wednesday, telling the House Judiciary Committee that it has no right to look into special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, even though Mueller explicitly encouraged congressional action. My colleague Dana Milbank quipped that the president isn’t arguing for executive power but for the divine right of kings. Put another way, he is arguing for the kind of impunity in the United States that Orban enjoys in Hungary. (That impunity extends to the president’s supporters — hence Trump’s pardon of disgraced media mogul Conrad Black.)

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Another tactic that Orban has perfected is “investigating the investigators” — i.e., make life miserable for anyone who tries to uncover unpleasant facts about the supreme leader. Attorney General William P. Barr took another step in that direction on Monday by directing the U.S. attorney in Connecticut to look into the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign. This is the third such investigation, all in response to the complaints of Trump — and echoed by Barr — that the FBI was “spying” on him rather than (as was actually the case) trying to stop a Russian attack on the U.S. election.

After Trump’s own FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, told Congress that the bureau had not been guilty of “spying,” Trump called his remarks “ridiculous.” Trump’s attacks, and Barr’s investigations, send a clear message to the Justice Department: investigate the president at your peril. Wray surely remembers what happened to his predecessor, James B. Comey, who was fired by the president for exhibiting insufficient loyalty. FBI agents would have to be suicidally brave to diligently pursue their counterintelligence investigation of the president under these circumstances.

Orban justifies his abuse of power by claiming he is protecting Hungarians from Muslim refugees — who, in Hungary, are almost nonexistent. Trump plays the same game, trying to scare Americans about Latino and Muslim immigrants. The Post revealed on Monday that the White House had pressed then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to launch a “shock and awe” blitz to round up thousands of undocumented parents and children in cities across the country. Her refusal contributed to her ouster.

Orban is out for himself, but he postures as a defender of traditional Christian values. So does Trump. Orban hasn’t gone so far as his fellow populists in Poland, who had to pull back from an attempt to outlaw all abortions after massive protests by women. (Poland now allows abortion only when the health of the mother or child is threatened.) Orban is essentially paying hospitals not to offer abortions and paying women to have more children — all so that Hungary won’t have to admit immigrants. Trump’s supporters in the Alabama legislature went even further this week by passing a law that virtually bans all abortions. Their hope is that the Supreme Court, which now has a conservative majority of justices appointed by either Trump or previous Republican presidents, will seize this opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade, thereby denying women throughout the country control of their own bodies.

It won’t be as easy to undermine democracy in the United States, where it has existed for 230 years, as in Hungary, where it has stood for fewer than 30 years. We have checks and balances in our system — as Trump is likely to find out soon if a federal judge rules against his attempt to block a subpoena to his accountants. But even in the U.S. system, the president enjoys vast power — and Trump is marshaling all of it to try to follow in Orban’s ignoble footsteps.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump favors democracy’s enemies. An Oval Office meeting Monday makes the point.

Anne Applebaum: It’s clear why Trump likes autocrats. But why are American conservatives following him?

Rob Berschinski and Hal Brands: Hungary’s prime minister does not belong in the Oval Office

Robert Kagan: The strongmen strike back