September in Central Europe: is Viktor Orban the new Margaret Thatcher for Republicans in the Trump-era?6 min read

 In Central Europe, Editorial, Politics
There are few foreign leaders that command as much respect and intellectual admiration from conservative politicians in the US as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Remembered as the “Iron Lady”, Thatcher’s strong stance against Soviet communism won her unqualified esteem among American conservatives, while her close bond with President Ronald Reagan became an enduring symbol of the “special relationship” between the US and UK. 

Fast forward thirty years and the ideological affinity shared by Reagan’s Republicans and Thatcher’s Conservatives has frayed considerably after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In his wake, Trump’s “America First” adherents have been looking for an international counterpart who can demonstrate that their nativist, inward-looking brand of governance is succeeding beyond American shores. Enter Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 

Since Trump’s defeat last year, several of his intellectual heirs have found themselves at home in Orban’s Hungary. Tucker Carlson, the US’ most watched and most vitriolic television host was only the latest arrival. For a whole week at the start of August, Carlson broadcast from Budapest where he gushed over Orban’s Hungary and held it as a model for his homeland. Carlson extolled Hungary as a country that was in fact freer than his own while dismissing those who highlight the democratic backsliding that has accompanied Orban’s decade in power. For the avowedly pro-American talk show host, Carlson even said he was “embarrassed to be an American” after visiting the steel border fence that Orban ordered to be built during the 2015 migration crisis. 

Carlson is not alone among American conservatives who find in Orban an intellectual model for leadership and governance. Rod Dreher, a writer for The American Conservative magazine and a fellow at the Hungarian government-funded Danube Institute, lamented that Trump did not have even “half the intelligence or focus” of Orban, and expressed hope that 2024 would provide the conservative movement with the necessary alternative. 

Members of Congress, including the scions of Reagan’s brand of politics, and by extension Thatcher’s, have also found themselves praising Orban. The National Review and the Heritage Foundation think tank (which has a center named after Thatcher and was a recipient of her post-premiership patronage) pen pieces defending the Hungarian leader while encouraging Washington to ignore his critics and embrace him. Heritage in particular has encouraged the US to tone down criticism of the Hungarian leader in a bid to dissuade him from further democratic backsliding. It even tacitly endorsed some of his views, including his campaign against billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundation. 

Differences in historical and ideological contexts aside, like Thatcher’s, Orban’s appeal to Trump-era republicans reflects a similar moment where two complementary political movements look to one another for inspiration or validation. Where Thatcher advocated a vigorous rejection of totalitarianism that dovetailed with Reaganite policies, Orban’s Hungary offers its own complements to Trumpian initiatives. Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has built a system where his party Fidesz can maintain political power through an aggressive process of gerrymandered political districts that disproportionately favours his allies. Meanwhile, he has also squeezed the space for critical media outlets, and constitutional changes that reduced the power of the judicial system in Hungary. Wrapped in a legalistic veneer, this system is protected by courts stacked with Orban appointees. To top it all off, Orban provides ready justification for these measures as defending Hungarians’ way of life from seen and unseen enemies that seek to destroy it, be they Muslim migrants, Brussels bureaucrats, LGBTQ propaganda, or Jewish financiers. 

Following Trump’s loss in November, his Republican allies went on their own legal blitz to enact new laws that would curtail the level of participation for their political opponents, especially minority voters.  Like Orban, Trump and his supporters present a range of enemies that these changes are designed to defend against. This includes some shared foes like George Soros, but also unfounded claims about illegal immigrants casting votes that sway elections and equally unfound claims of support from communist governments in Venezuela and China. Many of these measures predate Trump’s presidency, but they bear all the hallmarks of what Orban once called a “central political forcefield” to protect their desired form of ideological governance. 

In spite of the Trumpian right’s embrace of Orban, the Fidesz leader is not exactly the perfect complement for it the way Thatcher was for Reagan. For one, Orban is capable of being a pragmatic if still undemocratic administrator, a point often conceded by pro-Trump Americans as a strength their leader lacked. This is on clear display in their contrasting approach in the ongoing campaign in both countries to encourage citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Orban has pushed vaccines to the public, ignoring the anti-vaccination ramblings that are rife within US conservative circles,  due in part to Trump’s ongoing undermining of trust in vaccinations.

In the foreign policy arena, Orban also fails to be a perfect fit for the Trump movement. Because of his country’s reliance on development funds from the European Union and his coziness with Russia, Orban has not openly embraced an exit from either the EU or NATO because of the value Hungary still gains from each. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy in contrast has been less shy about advocating the abandonment of multilateralism, believing the US would be better off on its own. Finally, Orban is an important ally of China and has butted heads with Brussels as well as Washington under Trump for his close embrace of Beijing. At a time when confronting China is the only cross-ideological point of consensus in US politics, Orban’s affinity for China is at distinct odds, enough so that his office edited out any reference to it from his interview with Carlson.      

By Orban’s own account, the Iron Lady’s first words to him were “I totally disagree with you”. While the context was a foreign policy dispute during Orban’s first stint as prime minister in 1999, after NATO began its bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, this was an early sign that Orban would have no place within the Thatcher-Reagan family of politics. Today, proud Reaganite Republicans have rejected Orban and dismissed him as well as his form of governance in a further sign of his distance from the Anglo-American leaders who resisted the anti-democratic forces he embraces today.

However, given the Republican support base’s own rejection of this older brand of US politics at home and abroad, that paradoxically may be just more reason to embrace Orban as a Trumpian Thatcher of sorts. During his trip to Budapest, Carlson captured this feeling perfectly with a sharp compliment extended to his host. 

“Congratulations on infuriating the worst people in the world.” 

Featured image: American hero / Amanda Sonesson
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