• Ryan O'Connell

Trump Is Following Viktor Orban’s Playbook

Updated: Nov 5, 2018

November 4, 2018

Viktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister

As he whips up an anti-immigrant frenzy among Americans, Donald Trump has found a powerful role model in Viktor Orban, the increasingly dictatorial Hungarian Prime Minister. Trump is employing several themes that Orban has used with great success in Hungary:

· Fear of an immigrant “wave” that will overwhelm the country’s Judeo-Christian, white identity

· As a corollary, hatred of Muslims

· Building a wall to keep “them” out

· Constantly undermining a free press

· Attacking George Soros as a political enemy, for funding liberal causes

Casting Aside “Shipwrecked Liberal Democracy” Trump has thundered about immigrants for years, but his increasing embrace of Orban’s motifs should worry all Americans. Trump’s recent attacks on George Soros are particularly bizarre in the American context, but Orban has shown in Hungary that Soros-bashing is a very effective way to get votes.

After all, Trump knows a good marketing theme when he sees one. Racism and bigotry are good selling points, especially when you want to distract voters from corruption in government. Orban and Trump share a fondness for employing the levers of government to personal economic advantage and helping cronies. We should be troubled by Trump’s admiration for Orban’s techniques and his political philosophy. Orban is undermining Hungary’s young democracy and gradually creating a one-party state. The prime minister has essentially eliminated what used to be a thriving free press. The Hungarian leader has openly mocked traditional Western democracy and promoted his vision of “illiberal democracy”. In October the prime minister said,

“We have replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy, which guarantees people's freedom, security. It supports the traditional family model of one man and one woman, keeps anti-Semitism at bay, and gives a chance for growth.”

In some respects, Orban is a more insidious threat to Western democracy than Vladimir Putin; he is more subtle. The prime minister doesn’t jail or kill journalists. Orban just makes sure that independent news organizations don’t receive government advertising (a major source of revenue in Hungary) and his henchmen have discouraged private companies from running ads using “difficult” papers or TV stations. His cronies have bought up struggling media firms at low prices, so Orban’s party and his allies now control almost all major news outlets.

Similarly, Orban doesn’t openly prevent opposition candidates from running for election. The last elections were contested, unlike the one-sided shows in Russia. Orban cleverly jiggers the election rules to favor his party and tilt the playing field against opposition.

The “Trump Before Trump

Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump regime has warm ties with Orban’s government. Donald Trump quickly called the prime minister to congratulate him on his party's electoral victory in April.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor, is an enthusiastic fan of Orban, his scorn for Western democratic values and his anti-immigrant crusade. Orban was “the Trump before Trump”, Bannon crowed at a conference in May, and he added:

“Look how viciously they came after [Orban], for what? Building a border? Defending his country? Saving his people? Are these high crimes and misdemeanors?”

Bannon was referring to Orban’s decision to build a tall fence between Hungary, Croatia and Serbia in 2015, during the height of the European refugee crisis. The prime minister conjured up images of waves of dark-skinned Muslims pouring into Hungary and destroying the nation’s identity. Orban violated the European Union’s rules on free movement of people and international law on accepting applicants for asylum…and he got away with it.

As in the United States, the threat of an immigrant “invasion” was vastly overhyped. In fact, Hungary only took in a few thousand refugees. But Orban’s stance was wildly popular in Hungary and helped his party crush the opposition in national elections last Spring.

Sebastian Gorka, a Hungarian-American, was another Orban enthusiast in the White House. Gorka served as deputy assistant to the president for seven months, until August 2017. Gorka was a highly controversial figure, even in the context of the Trump administration. Gorka harbors stridently anti-Muslim and alt-right views, and while serving in the government he sported a lapel pin from a Hungarian fascist group. Nonetheless, he managed to survive until Bannon left the White House, and then departed a week later.

Bashing George Soros…. Abroad and at Home

As part of his campaign strategy in 2017-18, Orban frequently attacked George Soros, the wealthy investor and backer of pro-democracy groups. Soros, who is Jewish, survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary and emigrated to England at age 17. He moved to the U.S. in 1956, when he was 26 years old.

Orban ostensibly criticized Soros because he supported the right of refugees to seek asylum in Hungary and other European countries. However, there was a subtext: the anti-Soros ads were widely perceived within Hungary as anti-Semitic.

The prime minister had other motives, too. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Soros has generously supported pro-democracy groups and institutes in Hungary and other European countries. In 1991, Soros founded the Central European University in Budapest. The University, which has a good reputation, is a center for critical, liberal thinkers, particularly in social sciences. That did not sit well with Orban, who attacked the University for years and harassed it by enacting increasingly burdensome regulations.

Soros finally gave up. He recently closed his foundation in Budapest, and the University announced in October that it would move to Vienna. Ironically, a young, and leftist, Viktor Orban studied at Oxford University in the 1990s on a grant from the Soros Foundation.

Given this background, Trump’s recent attacks on Soros are particularly disturbing. Trump has claimed that activists protesting the Brett Kavanaugh nomination were “paid by Soros”. Trump has also alleged that Soros is financing the caravan of Latin American immigrants heading toward the U.S. border. Trump hasn’t produced any evidence to support these claims.

Trump has not made any explicitly anti-Semitic comments about Soros. However, several alt-right groups have, as they echo Trump’s slurs about Soros. Trump has not criticized them for doing so.

But Hungary’s Different, Isn’t It?

Before we hit the panic button, we have to recognize that there are huge differences between Hungary and the United States. Hungary became a democracy only in 1990. It’s a poor country on the eastern fringes of Europe, not a prosperous nation like its neighbor, Austria.

It is not surprising that anti-Muslim sentiment runs strong in Hungary, for historical reasons. Medieval Hungarians viewed themselves as the defenders of Christianity against the Ottoman Empire, which they fought for 130 years, from 1396 to 1526. After the Ottomans finally conquered much of Hungary, the country suffered terribly. By some estimates, the population fell by about one-third.

So, Hungary’s not the U.S, and it can’t happen here, right?

Let’s hope so, but….like Hungary, the United States does not face an immigrant crisis. Immigrants are a key factor in our economic growth and our favorable demographics. If immigration to the U.S. were to fall drastically, we would start to resemble Japan and some Western European countries, which have much older populations.

Nonetheless, immigration is the number one issue in many midterm races. Millions of Americans agree with Trump that an immigrant caravan of a few thousand people is a grave “threat” to our national security and culture.

“Build the wall!” remains a rallying cry, even though the U.S economy is humming along…and even though the Latin Americans fleeing gangs are Christians, not Muslims. By the way, although Hungary is poor, it has enjoyed solid economic growth for several years.

Many Trump supporters despise the free press. About 44% of Republicans think that Trump should be able to close down news outlets for “bad behavior”. That’s 12% of the electorate, or about one out of very eight voters.

And, sadly, recent events have shown that anti-Semitism remains a potent force in our country.

We have the advantages of our 240-year old democratic traditions and well-established institutions. Let’s hope they can withstand the assault…and let’s pray that moderate Republicans repudiate Trump’s tactics.

The Wall Street Democrat www.wallstreetdemocrat.com

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