Last week, Trump welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the White House. Any other American president would not have extended the invitation in the first place. It could have been avoided. Hungary is a landlocked country with not even 10 million people. It represents no balance of power, no major trading partner. Its best days are behind it, its glorious heroism in standing up to the Russians in 1956 is not even a memory to the current generation of historically blank Americans — Trump, until recently, no doubt included.
Hungary’s fame is now infamy. Under Orban, it has lurched to the right — not into mere populism but into a sort of pre-fascism. Civil liberties and political rights have been curtailed. The judiciary is being brought to heel. The visage of philanthropist George Soros, made into the durable caricature of the Wandering Jew of old, was plastered around Hungary. “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh,” the posters said. The posters were of a single man. But the man, really, was a people.
“They do not fight directly, but by stealth,” Orban said in a speech last year. “They are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs. They are not generous, but vengeful, and always attack the heart — especially if it is red, white and green,” the colors of the Hungarian flag.
The “they” of this rancid speech is no mystery. It is the same Jews that informed the anti-Semitic speeches of Adolf Hitler and those of Hungary’s own fascist party, the Arrow Cross Party. That Orban could continue this foul heritage is something of a marvel. Hungary’s Jews were nearly obliterated in the Holocaust — more than 437,000 were sent to Auschwitz alone, an organizational feat pulled off by the diligent Adolf Eichmann. Orban’s scapegoats are ghostly memories.
Soros was a Hungarian Jew who survived the Nazi occupation and the pogroms organized by the homespun Arrow Cross, which filled the storied Danube with the bodies of its victims, shot at the river bank. And yet, Soros all but returned to Hungary, aiding its incipient democracy movement, funding a university and making grants to individual Hungarians of promise. One of them was the young Viktor Orban.
Trump took no notice of any of this in his photo-op remarks during Orban’s visit. “People have a lot of respect for this prime minister,” Trump said. “He’s a respected man. And I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man. And he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration.”
Actually, Orban has done the wrong thing on immigration. He’s called Syrian refugees “Muslim invaders,” which is an odd thing to call bedraggled and hapless refugees mostly just passing through. According to a CNN poll, Hungary is the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. If it is not also the most anti-Muslim, Orban must wonder where he went wrong.
Right-wing populism has reappeared in a Europe that has seen it before. Until very recently in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party had taken over the Interior Ministry, often the first stop on the way to a dictatorship. Other countries are being threatened. You would expect an American president to defend democracy. Not this one, though.
Even by the standards of photo-op blather and even by the standards of Trump’s own praise of strongmen such as Vladimir Putin of Russia or Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt, Trump’s welcome of Orban is in a class of its own. Orban is not merely a “tough man” — so were Hitler and Stalin — but a smotherer of democracy and a demagogic bigot. His anti-Semitism has had an effect.
Viktor Orban is offensive in the present tense, but he offends the past as well. He proceeds as if the Holocaust never happened — as if Jews were never murdered for being Jewish, as if the Arrow Cross never aided the Nazis in killing an additional 80,000 Jews. Orban is an heir to that Arrow Cross. Trump is an heir to everyone who looked away.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.