Just days before the first anniversary of his attempt to overturn democracy in America, former President Donald Trump endorsed a man whom much of Europe considers a threat to democracy on their side of the Atlantic: Hungary’s Victor Orbán.
“He has done a powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary, stopping illegal immigration, creating jobs, trade, and should be allowed to continue to do so in the upcoming Election,” Trump wrote in a statement released Monday. “He is a strong leader and respected by all. He has my Complete support and Endorsement for reelection as Prime Minister!”
Human rights and democracy advocates have roundly condemned Orbán for his efforts to take over Hungary’s independent judiciary, stifle the free press, attack institutions like universities, and vilify immigrants and the LGBTQ community.
Human Rights Watch has written of Hungary: “The government has made access to asylum close to impossible, interferes with independent media and academic freedom, and undermines the rights of women and LGBT people, including blocking the implementation of the Istanbul Convention that aims to prevent violence against women.”
And the think tank Freedom House has given Hungary a “partly free” rating — making it the only member of the European Union in that category, a ranking it shares with nations including Pakistan and Albania.
The EU has punished Hungary for violating the bloc’s principles. It is currently delaying billions of euros in economic recovery assistance in an attempt to force Orbán to modify his policies.
“Trump’s endorsement of Viktor Orbán is no surprise, given that he felt such a kinship with him when they met in 2019,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor and author of the book “Strongmen,” which is about authoritarian leaders. “It’s also a way for Trump to keep himself in the news, and to please [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin ― Orbán is a Putin client.”
Trump’s endorsement follows years of open praise for Orbán, which included a visit from the quasi-authoritarian leader to the White House in 2019.
“It’s a great honor to have with us the prime minister of Hungary. And Viktor Orbán has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe,” Trump said at the time.
Trump routinely praised other autocratic leaders when he was president, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Putin, whose assistance Trump knowingly accepted during his successful 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump even praised North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, boasting of the “beautiful” letters Kim had written him and speaking admiringly of how Kim had his uncle murdered with an anti-aircraft gun.
It is not clear why Trump chose to endorse Orbán, or what possible weight an American president who lost both chambers of Congress and his own reelection might carry in Hungary this spring, when its national elections are to take place.
Trump’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s queries about whether Trump also plans to endorse other autocrats in their elections.
Meanwhile, the former president’s Orbán endorsement comes as pro-Trump groups and media outlets have become increasingly fond of the Hungarian leader.
In August, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, whose top-rated show routinely pushes white nationalist themes about immigration, spent a week broadcasting from Budapest, and aired a softball interview with Orbán.
The following month, former Vice President Mike Pence appeared at Orbán’s “Budapest Demographic Summit,” where he praised Hungary’s strict anti-abortion laws and Orbán’s efforts to increase the population growth rate of Hungary’s ethnic majority. A Pence aide said later that the former vice president, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, went to promote his own agenda, not Orbán’s.
At that same event, the American Conservative Union announced it would hold a Conservative Political Action Conference event in Hungary in 2022.
Orbán, in turn, lamented Trump’s reelection defeat as one of several setbacks that right-wing “nationalists” have taken of late. “We have suffered heavy political losses in recent years. The Tories have left the European Union, President Trump was not able to continue in office, and Prime Minister Netanyahu now leads the opposition in Israel,” Orbán said.
“It’s more evidence that the GOP has embraced Hungarian-style electoral autocracy as its model,” Ben-Ghiat said. “Which is bad news for American democracy.”
The Republican National Committee, which has yet to criticize Trump for inciting violence on January 6, 2020, did not respond to a HuffPost query.
A year ago, Trump became the first president to refuse to turn over power peacefully to his successor. He spent weeks attacking the legitimacy of the November 2020 contest that he lost. Hours after polls closed and it appeared that Democrat Joe Biden would be the winner, Trump stated that he had really won in a “landslide” and that his victory was being “stolen” from him. Those falsehoods continued with a string of failed lawsuits challenging the results in a handful of states.
After the Electoral College voted on Dec. 14, making Biden’s win official, Trump instead turned to a last-ditch scheme to pressure his own vice president into handing Trump the election during the pro forma congressional certification of the election results on Jan. 6.
Trump asked his followers to come to Washington that day and told the thousands who showed up that they should march to the Capitol to intimidate Pence into doing what Trump wanted. “When you catch somebody in a fraud, you’re allowed to go by very different rules,” Trump said.
The mob of supporters stormed the building and chanted “Hang Mike Pence” when the vice president did not do Trump’s bidding. The riot left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer, and four other officers took their own lives in the following weeks and months.
Though the House impeached Trump for inciting the attack, all but seven Senate Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, chose not to convict him ― thereby letting Trump continue his political career even as he is the subject of several investigations.