In Trump-Orbán Summit, Populism’s Critics Have a Chance to Grow Up
The Trump-Orbán summit is quite a moment for political commentary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s political ascent and his host’s own remarkable career have presented commentators with some irresistible parallels. Once a populist outlier, Orbán is now paying his respects to an American president who arguably copied his playbook. Both men claim to speak for their respective countries’ heartlands. Both are outspoken immigration skeptics. Both are dogged by accusations of corruption and authoritarian sympathies. Both embody the populist, conservative challenge to a liberal consensus that, until recently, has dominated Western politics.
Like President Donald Trump, Orbán attracts his fair share of invective. He recently achieved the rare feat of being compared to both Pol Pot and Stalin in The Atlantic. According to an op-ed in The Washington Post, Orbán’s mild rhetorical support for Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries risks inciting ethnic conflict. The authors never actually explain how this conflict would start, probably because it’s impossible to conceive of Hungary’s minuscule army defying NATO and the European Union to unilaterally invade Romania. Nevertheless, they assure us, Orbán is “playing with fire.”
The Hungarian leader’s foreign critics are often guilty of mixing legitimate criticism with hyperbole, but the Trump summit is a chance to clarify Orbán’s status. Although the meeting has inspired plenty of commentary about the two leaders’ similarities, we should pause to consider one fundamental difference: Trump is president of the United States and Orbán is prime minister of Hungary.
This point, which should be even more obvious than the two men’s political affinities, often gets lost when Orbán is criticized for his nationalist sympathies, outspoken Euroskepticism, and opposition to mass immigration. Trump could serve five consecutive terms and build a 21st-century version of Hadrian’s Wall on the southern border without changing the fact that the United States is and will remain a diverse, multicultural country. Hungary, on the other hand, has been culturally, linguistically, and ethnically homogeneous since the end of the First World War. Orbán and his allies are quite explicit about wanting to preserve that essential Hungarian-ness. Should they be allowed to do so while remaining members in good standing of the Western club?
The answer to this question has profound implications outside Hungary’s borders. Orbán’s message matters because it speaks to broader European anxieties about immigration and identity. Compared to most other countries, the United States is remarkably open to new arrivals. Our civic culture can, at least in theory, assimilate almost anyone. But it would be incredibly blinkered to assume that this model of citizenship is universally exportable. In Eastern Europe, national identity is intimately linked to language and culture. Long historical memories of foreign occupation have made Eastern Europeans particularly touchy about outside interference. Anyone who thinks that Poland or Hungary will suddenly adopt American ideas about citizenship and civic identity is kidding themselves.
Hungarians have long been conscious of their own national distinctiveness, so perhaps it is unsurprising that the issue of identity has vaulted a Hungarian leader to international prominence. Orbán’s opposition to immigration and his embrace of pro-natalist family policies reflect fairly widespread views within Hungary about the importance of preserving the country’s culture. Such sentiments resonate in many European countries with similarly long historical memories. Are these legitimate expressions of national pride and solidarity, or fundamentally illiberal tendencies that must be stamped out?
Answering this question would help clarify our understanding of Orbán, Hungary, and Eastern Europe more generally. Too often, the Hungarian prime minister’s views on immigration and identity are confused with his checkered record on civil liberties. To many on the Left, Orbán’s cultural conservatism and his refusal to accept migrants are sufficient proof of his authoritarianism, which has the effect of discrediting or obscuring much legitimate criticism. The Sargentini Report, presented to the European Parliament in September 2018, is a case study in how foreign critics mishandle these issues. Instead of narrowly focusing on the health of the country’s political institutions, the authors criticized Hungary on a range of unrelated issues, from pensions to gender discrimination to asylum and immigration rules. Meanwhile, many on the Right are willing to overlook some genuinely troubling developments within Hungary’s borders because Orbán is such an effective spokesman for conservative populism.
The summit offers Orbán critics a choice. They can acknowledge that the Hungarian prime minister has a point, that Hungary and other European countries are entitled to control their own borders, all while continuing to hold Orbán accountable on issues like corruption and civil liberties. Or they can insist that opposing mass immigration in a poor, homogeneous Eastern European country is tantamount to fascism. It is not difficult to guess which of these messages is more likely to get a hearing from Hungarians.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.