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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 [1]. According to an op-ed in The Washington Post [2], 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.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "In Trump-Orbán Summit, Populism’s Critics Have a Chance to Grow Up"

#1 Comment By Brendan On May 13, 2019 @ 11:07 pm

I visited Hungary last fall. I enjoyed my stay there. One thing to point out-despite the cultural conservatism, sex work there is decriminalized. Brothels are illegal, but women can post their services on websites and incall and outcall are both legal . America, including Nevada, can learn much from this country.

#2 Comment By California On May 14, 2019 @ 12:28 am

Before blithely invoking Poland to bolster your argument you should do some research. Otherwise you run the risk of discrediting yourself entirely. Poland did have a very American civic culture. It was embodied in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

#3 Comment By Wezz On May 14, 2019 @ 1:08 am

Lets see …Trump really likes Putin, loves Kim Jong-un, thinks Duterte is great and now, Orban.

Trump while campaigning said “only I can fix it” as if he was some kind of savior/dictator.

And now he seems to believe he is completely above the law. Or is the law.

Is there a pattern here?

#4 Comment By Gene Tuttle On May 14, 2019 @ 3:41 am

This succinctly makes points covered in a lengthy 30 April essay by Christopher Caldwell in The Claremont Review:

On the Trump comparison Caldwell writes:
Orbán is more than the bohunk version of Donald Trump that he is often portrayed as. He is blessed with almost every political gift—brave, shrewd with his enemies and trustworthy with his friends, detail-oriented, hilarious. In the last years of the Cold War, he stuck his neck out further than any young dissident in assailing the Soviet Union.

#5 Comment By Petrus On May 14, 2019 @ 7:30 am

It’s a fairly balanced article, as far as the reporting on Hungary’s and the broader CE/V4 countries’ view on migration is concerned – maybe as Eger, where the author lives, has been a symbolic place of resistance against Ottoman invasion in Hungary since its siege in 1552. However, I am really intrigued what “troubling developments” or the “health of the political institutions” that should cause any worry the author could specify, which could be attributed uniquely to Hungary/Orbán (given that these debates with various EU institutions and bodies have regularly been solved through negotiations and mutual compromises).

#6 Comment By SteveM On May 14, 2019 @ 8:24 am

Re: “Instead of howling about fascism, why not acknowledge the Hungary PM’s points while criticizing his excesses?”

The more fundamental question is, why Americans should be sticking their noses in the internal business of other countries across the Atlantic?

Hungary had an open election, Orban’s party won. That should be it from the American side. The governance model of Hungary should be defined by the Hungarians not by the, sanctimoniously and tendentiously myopic hacks in the U.S. like the atrocious nag Anne Applebaum.

BTW, talk about the pot calling the kettle black. The U.S. itself is saturated with systemic social and economic pathologies. To say nothing about its warped Global Cop Gorilla foreign policy. In the spirit of reciprocity, other countries should be banging away non-stop at the dysfunction that saturates the exceptional “City on a Hill”.

#7 Comment By Joe Scotchie On May 14, 2019 @ 9:33 am

Mr. Collins should know that prior to the 1965 and 1980 immigration bills, the U.S. was NOT a diverse, multicultural nation. It was 90 percent white.

#8 Comment By Rossbach On May 14, 2019 @ 11:19 am

Unlike previous “isms” (fascism, communism, etc), immigrationism is a mortal threat to the survival of the nation-state. A nation can survive natural disasters, war, famine, and political upheaval. What it cannot survive is replacement of its core population. When the nation’s people are effaced and shouldered aside, their culture is also replaced, as is their economy, system of governance, etc.

That mass immigration is demographic warfare against the nation is self-evident, but it is more than that. It is a total assault on the culture. This was initiated in the US with enactment of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. By changing the way immigrants were selected, it guaranteed radical demographic changes, paving the way for replacement of “racist” European culture with cultures inimical to it and to the fundamental values of Western Civilization. This is the inner meaning of “multiculturalism (aka, “diversity”).

In nations undergoing massive third world immigration, diversity (formerly known as multiculturalism) characterizes the transitional period between the initial effacement of European culture and its eventual disappearance.

Hungary is right to resist the attempts to destroy it via mass immigration. For the US, it is probably too late.

#9 Comment By JohnT On May 14, 2019 @ 11:45 am

“…he stuck his neck out further than any young dissident in assailing the Soviet Union.” Clearly because such a thoughtful fellow loves freedom for all his fellow citizens so very much. Or, was it he wanted the power for himself? Gosh, that’s a really, really tough one.

#10 Comment By Emil Bogdan On May 14, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

“Hungary, on the other hand, has been culturally, linguistically, and ethnically homogeneous since the end of the First World War.”

What about the thousand years before World War I? I’ll tell you what every Hungarian schoolboy knows: Hungary was never ethnically or linguistically homogeneous, not until the great national tragedy occurred, when the Allies forced Hungary to be stripped of all of its lands that had any significant minorities
… which was two thirds of the country.

The Hungarian national tragedy is now being fascinatingly touted as the nationalist’s dream by absurd nationalists lacking the slightest bit of self-awareness. Funny, isn’t it? But when facts don’t matter, they just don’t matter, so why would they matter? Let’s ride waves of emotions and projected hurt instead. Hungarian nationalists all over the world longingly display maps of Greater Hungary and cry into their cups over the loss, and then they hate minorities whose lands they want back… with all the stolen Hungarians intact… but without the minorities… who should be forcibly Magyarized or ethnically cleansed? Who the hell knows.

I was raised as a nationalist Hungarian in Romania, the country which got the biggest chunk of territory from the Hungarian dismemberment. I love being Hungarian. However, the cognitive dissonance, the childish, willful ignorance, it’s just amazing. My small and valiant steppe people have lived alongside and ruled over large and diverse chunks of non-Hungarians since 895 AD. The whole thing is just so ridiculous. I cannot fathom how these people simultaneously celebrate the thing they whine about the most, the forced ethnic purification of Hungary. It didn’t happen exactly how they wanted… but hey, it’s better to just see the bright side, huh? Ethnic homogeneity WINS when Hungary LOSES and then Hungary WINS, yay!

So stupid. Hungary doesn’t win anything from hating minorities. In fact, they now get constant lessons in the school of protecting minority rights because _millions of Hungarians_ are living just outside their borders as ethnic minorities. Those borders will never change back. So the sooner the schooling is completed and the lessons absorbed, the better for everyone: hardcore blind nationalism is poison. It’s always a thin veneer of pride over oceans of self-pity and grievance, it’s proudly weak and aggressive, so it always gets cut down to size.

#11 Comment By Dave On May 14, 2019 @ 12:45 pm

Perfectly timed with the news that the Trump administration–led by Stephen Miller–wanted to stage mass arrests of (presumably illegal) immigrants. It pairs well with the message that Hungary (and the US) is “entitled to control their own borders.

As if anyone is making the argument that countries are not entitled to controlling their own borders.

There’s a wide gap between addressing immigration challenges while respecting humans, and demonizing immigrants by appealing to white nationalism. Conflating the two is yet another step toward normalizing Trump and Trumpism. As someone opposed to that, I guess I’ll never “grow up.”

#12 Comment By Dale On May 14, 2019 @ 8:52 pm

For that matter, why not point out actually “excesses” of Orban ?

#13 Comment By Jasper On May 15, 2019 @ 3:00 am

Among the lot of hysterical monodrama and propaganda is there a chance for some real dialogue?
I mean among the political parties and leaders of
1. the US
2. Hungary
3. EU
4. European People’s Party

In the past 5 years there was very little dialogue and overwhelming amount of hysteria on all levels.

#14 Comment By Dennis On May 15, 2019 @ 2:36 pm

Orban is the finest leader in Europe today.

It says a lot about the decline of conservative thought in the USA that so many alleged conservatives (who are mostly neo-cons hacks like, Jay Nordlinger et al. at NRO, who never lets a day go by without bashing Orban and Putin) takie the side of the Left vis-a-vis Orban and other Visegrad group leaders.

I’d take Orban (and others in Eastern Europe) over any US pol any day. Wish I had the means to relocate to Hungary and ditch this godforsaken country that just makes me sicker every day.

#15 Comment By M. Orban On May 15, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

“very little dialogue and overwhelming amount of hysteria…”

… called electoral politics. You have to scare people. Fear produces anger and angry people vote. It works every time, everywhere.

#16 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On May 15, 2019 @ 4:28 pm


Trump while campaigning said “only I can fix it” as if he was some kind of savior/dictator.

And now he seems to believe he is completely above the law. Or is the law.

This comment of yours is a perfect example of why the said populism’s critics won’t grow up until something else crumbles like the blue wall did in 2016 (and, perhaps, won’t grow up even after that). I suggest that you, sir, should inform thyself as to the presidential powers as defined in the law of any presidential republic of your liking and tell us what is the difference between that and an elected monarch. The president is de facto above the law, unless you’ve got both chambers (and, preferably, the SCOTUS) hostile to him. And every president since, perhaps, Bush I, perfectly exemplifies that (those who were before the 1990s seem to have had a sort of inner restraint). The number of executive orders skyrocketed since then. And, in case thou forgot, “since then” encompasses two Democratic and two Republican presidents who were going all-out Caligulas at everything they didn’t like (and one of them even at what (or, rather, whom) he liked, right in the oval office). But no, sir wishes to pick specifically at Trump. Curious as to why.

#17 Comment By TR On May 16, 2019 @ 8:22 am

Thanks to Emil Bogdan for pointing out how complicated eastern European history actually is.

#18 Comment By Jared Dao On May 16, 2019 @ 1:20 pm

Another shout out to Emil Bogdan for pointing out how recent eastern European nationalism is. I have a Polish friend who often talks about similar things (i.e. Poland only became ethnically and culturally homogenous after ww2, after all the Jews were killed by the Nazis, all the Russians and ukrainians moved to the ussr, and all the Germans forced out or deported into modern day Germany)

#19 Comment By Petrus On May 17, 2019 @ 12:25 pm

Emil Bogdan for pointing out how recent eastern European nationalism is. I

No, it’s been fomenting there since aftermath of Napoleonic wars in the early 1800’s (which is not recent, even by European standards, do not mention the time span of US history as an independent nation), had a strong upsurge during the 1848 revolutions, then again before WW1 (Balkan wars, anyone?), then again, following the post-WW1 treaties, for fear of spoils or the wish to regain lost lands. Now it seems to have cooled to a manageable level, although noone knows how badly the situation (particularly in Ukraine – language restrictions, etc.) may pivot.

#20 Comment By TL On May 17, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

Sure, let’s not focus on the fact that Orbán openly embraces and promotes illiberalism (i.e. restriction of freedom of thought or behavior), has expressed disdain for tolerance of minorities and checks and balances (and just about every other principle of the Enlightenment that the Founding Fathers held is necessary to avert tyranny), rewrote his country’s constitution to ensure he and his party would retain power and that his power would be close to absolute, and proudly touts his form of government illiberal democracy — otherwise known as empty democracy, a government that has the superficial appearance of democracy, in which although elections take place, they are often not fair and free and citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties, and thus it is not an “open society” — and let’s take a moment to highlight his “good points.” The author’s argument is not quite as ludicrous as Trump touting the “beautiful letters” from brutal, repressive dictators as proof that they’re decent, trustworthy people, but it is specious, gilding the lily.

And the author is mistaken that Hungary “has been culturally, linguistically, and ethnically homogeneous since the end of the First World War.” It should’ve been “since the end of WWII.” Apparently, he’s forgotten about the Hungarian Jews and Romani that were nearly wiped out due to Nazi Germany’s ethnonationalism, the lessons of which were clearly lost on Orbán. And he completely mischaracterized the criticism of Orbán, as if it’s all about “identity politics” (a jeer hurled by conservatives that ignores the fact that Orbán and Trump play their own version of identity politics, one that’s exclusionary, catering to white Christian men). Too bad he dedicated only one sentence to those on the right who ignore the corruption and repression of Orbán because they share his ethnonationalist views. Not to mention the willful blindness to, (or worse, actual praise of) the brutality and lawlessness of the other autocrats Trump has embraced, empowered, emboldened, upending the Western democratic alliance that has been responsible for 70 years of peace and prosperity, largely by constraining the type of autocrats and ethnonationalists Trump is now aligning with. I am confounded by people who claim to love freedom, and yet, also embrace repressive authoritarians who routinely demonstrate, or openly express, their disdain for it.

#21 Comment By Josep On May 19, 2019 @ 4:42 am

Hungary is right to resist the attempts to destroy it via mass immigration. For the US, it is probably too late.

Regarding cutting immigration levels, I am much more sympathetic to that for Hungary than I am for the USA.
Hungary is an Old World country whose majority population is the already-indigenous Hungarians who have been living in that same land even before 1492. Meanwhile the USA is a New World country whose white population (someone said it was around 90%) is not the same native population that lived there before 1492.
To make a long story short, Hungary and the USA are very different places. Just my two cents.

#22 Comment By Emil Bogdan On May 19, 2019 @ 12:03 pm

Thanks for the shout outs. I did forget about the Romani, that’s a good point. There are at least half a million of them in Hungary today. They are certainly the most ignored and despised minority people in all of Europe, forever stateless. Compared to them the Hungarians have it made, even in the Ukraine.