Monday, April 15, 2024

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Between Democracy and Dictatorship: Trump Meets with Orban

Biden condemns Trump's cozy ties with Hungarian autocrat Orban, warning of democracy's peril if Trump returns.

AFP/Getty Images

Former president Donald Trump continues his dangerous embrace of autocratic leaders, meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Friday in a disgraceful affront to American democracy. As Trump desperately grasps for political relevancy and plots his potential 2024 reelection campaign, he is actively undermining core American values by cozying up to authoritarian figures like Orban.

Orban’s visit to the US is an extraordinary and shameful move, with the Hungarian leader stopping in Washington D.C. without meeting current president Joe Biden. Instead, he met with the Heritage Foundation, a far-right wing think tank with close ties to Trump, and then traveled to Mar-a-Lago to meet the former president. This blatant snub of Biden highlights the disdain Trump and his allies have for the norms that have guided American politics for generations.

The symbolism of the visit is striking and alarming. Trump and Orban formally greeted each other with red carpets and flags, as if two sitting world leaders. Inside, they discussed “the paramount importance of strong and secure borders to protect the sovereignty of each nation” according to the Trump campaign. This perpetuates the dangerous nationalist rhetoric that has defined Trump’s political ideology and Orban’s assault on Hungarian democracy. 

Biden appropriately slammed Trump for meeting with Orban, saying “You know [who Trump is] meeting with today down at Mar-a-Lago? Orban of Hungary, who stated flatly he doesn’t think democracy works, he’s looking for dictatorship.” Biden pledged to “defend democracy, not diminish it,” but Trump continues undermining American leadership by embracing autocrats like Orban.

Who exactly is Viktor Orban, and why is Trump’s meeting with him so dangerous? Orban has steadily dismantled democratic institutions since becoming Prime Minister of Hungary in 2010. He openly calls himself a proponent of “illiberal” Christian democracy and has implemented restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, the judiciary, and press freedom. He has also developed close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the radical right in the United States loves him for those reasons.

In other words, Orban represents the exact opposite of American ideals of freedom, diversity, and democratic accountability. By embracing him, Trump is sending an obvious message that he supports Orban’s autocratic tactics and has no respect for our constitutional principles.

This meeting comes on the heels of Biden hosting the Swedish Prime Minister, who was visiting as Sweden joins NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Orban has resisted supporting Ukraine and maintains his alliance with Putin, further demonstrating his disrespect for Western democratic values.

Meanwhile, Trump continues fraternizing with dictators and autocrats around the world. He has praised Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-Un, while attacking institutions such as NATO and the European Union that have supported democracy for generations.

The American people must understand how dangerous Trump’s ongoing flirtations with figures like Orban truly are and that it is not an exaggeration to say our democracy is at stake in the next presidential election. We cannot allow an autocrat-in-waiting like Trump back in the Oval Office, where he will feel emboldened to undermine the foundations of our political system and will not have the restraints he had during his first term.

Trump’s meeting with Orban is not an isolated incident—it fits into a broader pattern of the former president embracing autocrats and dictators at the expense of American democratic leadership around the world. We cannot view this merely as one distasteful photo-op. It is the latest data point confirming experts’ most alarming warnings about Trump’s intentions if he were to regain power.

The playbook is clear because we’ve seen it successfully implemented by figures like Orban over the past decade and throughout history. First, they undermine democratic norms and institutions by slowly and steadily testing boundaries. They pack courts, exert control over the media, restrict free speech, and question election results. They use reasonable-sounding rhetoric about addressing immigration or crime, while subtly expanding executive powers and weakening rival centers of influence.

Before the public realizes what’s happening, democracy has been hollowed out from the inside with a thousand small cuts. The leader has amassed control and can effectively ignore the rule of law or checks on their power. It happened in Germany in the 1930s and it can happen here too if we are not careful.  

And yet Trump has already implemented parts of this strategy during his disastrous one term in office. He relentlessly attacked judicial independence, praised brutal authoritarians, tried overturning legitimate election results, and provoked a violent attack on the peaceful transfer of power. These are merely a preview of what another Trump term would bring.

Some may try to argue Trump is just an ineffective clown deserving of mockery, not serious opposition. This is dangerously naïve—his meeting with Orban confirms he actively studies the techniques of rising authoritarians and likely plans to replicate them if given another 4 years in power. We dismiss Trump’s authoritarian blueprint at all of our peril.

In the end, this comes down to a fundamental question of values. Will we reaffirm our commitment to the democratic ideals enshrined in the Constitution by Washington, Jefferson and so many other American patriots? Ideals of checks and balances, rule of law, and unalienable rights and freedoms? Or will we make excuses that erode the foundation of all that makes America unique and admired around the world?

There are no easy choices left when confronting creeping authoritarianism—only hard decisions between complicity or principled opposition. We must place country over party and reaffirm our shared belief that in our country, no one is above the law or should be allowed to undermine core components of our democratic system.

The 2024 election will determine so much more than the next president. It will decide if America remains a model for freedom or descends towards the authoritarian tactics of leaders like Orban and Putin. For the future of our country and the free world, we must make the right choice.