And then, at a rally on Wednesday, Trump laughed along with thousands of cheering supporters about shooting migrants who arrive at the U.S. border. That it fostered only muted outrage and discussion on cable news networks the following day pointed to how inured the American public has become to Trump’s routine demagoguery.
In part for that reason, the White House visit next week of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is worth watching. Shunned during the Obama presidency, Orban, an illiberal nationalist, has appeared to find common cause with Trump. While numerous E.U. officials and European statesmen have decried Orban’s majoritarian rule — which they say is actively eroding Hungary’s democracy — the Trump administration has cultivated Hungary and other nationalist governments in Central Europe as like-minded partners.
Orban’s bitter opposition to immigration won him the affection of ethnonationalists and right-wing populists to the West. His vehement rejection of E.U. efforts to collectively reckon with a 2015 influx of Syrian refugees and other economic migrants precipitated the far-right backlash that still inflames politics across Europe.
“Facing the prospect of a massive influx of population from other continents in the coming decades, the E.U. was, like the United States in the 1850s, a house divided,” wrote Christopher Caldwell, in a fawning profile of Orban for the Claremont Review of Books, a rare highbrow journal of what could be described as Trumpist thought. “The high-immigration states of the west could not tolerate the low-immigration states of the east. Orbán hinted that the immigrantlessness of the eastern countries was going to give them a great competitive advantage over the western ones, threatened by terrorism, burdened by welfare, stultified by an official multiculturalism.”
Whatever the debatable merits of that argument, Orban remains on the warpath against liberalism four years later. Ahead of this month’s European Parliament elections, Orban declared he wants to defeat the “elite of 1968” — a jab at the leftist, cosmopolitan values he seeks to jettison from Brussels. But his rhetoric and actions have earned him enemies throughout Europe, and his party’s traditional center-right allies in European Parliament are contemplating breaking ties outright with Orban’s faction. (Orban, for his part, is now flirting with Europe’s far-right, anti-migrant parties.)
Yet the Trump administration appears to look far more favorably upon Orban. When the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer confronted David Cornstein, Trump’s ambassador in Budapest, about Orban’s explicit embrace of “illiberal democracy” as a description of his own government, Cornstein offered a chilling response.
“It’s a question of a personal view, or what the American people, or the president of the United States, think of illiberal democracy, and what its definition is,” Cornstein said. He then added: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orban has, but he doesn’t.”
What exactly is that situation? “Over the past nine years, the Hungarian leader has accomplished many of the anti-democratic actions Trump can only tweet about,” wrote Rob Berschinski and Hal Brands in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “He has rewritten Hungary’s constitution and dismantled judicial checks on power, stifled a once vibrant media, forced a top university out of the country, and criminalized the activities of some human rights organizations. Meanwhile, he has won deeply flawed elections by vilifying migrants, Muslim ‘invaders’ and the Jewish ‘financiers’ that supposedly support them.”
A lot has already been said about Trump’s conspicuous propensity for autocrats. From the Saudi crown prince to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the American president has made no secret of his admiration for supposedly strong rulers unbowed by democratic niceties and pressures. At home, Trump can’t even command the majority of the vote, something that Orban has effectively corralled in his favor in his country’s parliamentary elections.
But Trump can still gin up far-right sentiment over migrants and Muslims and grouse about the “treason” committed by his opponents. He spent part of the weekend retweeting the outrage of his allies, including one prominent religious conservative who declared that Trump should be given two extra years in power to compensate for the debilitating intrigues of the past two. It has already kicked off a feverish debate in Washington over whether Trump may be unable to accept an electoral defeat in 2020.
This week, we saw a clear example of what it looks like when an entrenched demagogue refuses to concede power. On Monday, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited supposed irregularities and annulled the results of the March mayoral election in Istanbul, which had been sensationally won by a candidate from Turkey’s main opposition party. A controversial revote is scheduled for June.
The decision has outraged the Turkish opposition and even some prominent members of Erdogan’s party. Western officials — including the State Department, but not the White House — issued critical notes of concern. “Never before has a Turkish government refused to accept the results of an election,” noted a Post editorial. “They must hope that Erdogan’s strong-arm move backfires and that he again loses Istanbul when the new vote is held next month.”
That may not be likely. “In light of the voided March election results, [Erdogan] has apparently decided that the financial and political cost of losing Istanbul far outweighs the loss of legitimacy he will suffer domestically and internationally by forcing a revote,” wrote Soner Cagaptay, a Washington-based expert on Turkey, in a piece arguing that the Turkish president would do whatever it takes to ensure a victory for his party’s candidate.
There was a time when Erdogan’s maneuvers and Orban’s majoritarian bullying felt a world away from the politics of Washington. But in the Trump era, it no longer seems so distant.
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