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Strongman Politics


 Strongman Politics    Gerry O’Shea

Viktor Orban’s recent visit to the United States was highly irregular. As a prime minister, he avoided the usual protocol of meeting with American government leaders in Washington to discuss issues of mutual importance.

Instead of talking to officials about issues like trade and tourism, Mr. Orban went to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, where former president Donald Trump greeted him in effusive terms: “There’s nobody that is a better and smarter leader than Viktor Orban. He is fantastic. He is the boss.”

Of course, Mr. Trump doesn’t utter such encomiums of praise without similar laudatory paeans flowing in his direction, and the Hungarian didn’t disappoint. He told a gathering of prominent conservatives meeting in Budapest, “If President Trump had been in the White House, there would be no war in Ukraine and Europe. Come back, Mr. President. Make America great again and bring us peace.”

President Biden slammed his opponent in the November presidential election for inviting Orban. “You know who he is meeting with in Mar-a-Lago? Orban of Hungary  has stated flatly that he doesn’t think that democracy works. He is looking for a dictatorship.”

Mr. Orban defines his governing philosophy as “Illiberal democracy,” puzzling words that some commentators feel contain a contradiction in terms. These critics contend that for a democracy to be meaningful, it must include freedom of speech and assembly – liberal constructs greatly minimized in  Orban’s Hungary.

In over a decade at the top in Hungary, Mr. Orban has not hesitated to use the levers of governmental power to erode democratic norms and effectively install one-party rule. He has weakened the independence of the courts, and, worst of all, he has blatantly used his power to take control of state-run and privately owned television stations.

So, the media propaganda points to Mr. Orban as the voice of reason in Hungary while his opponents are presented as unprincipled warmongers.

In the last election, Peter Marki-Zay, the leader of the opposition parties, gave his first and only interview on Hungary’s largest television station a few weeks before polling day.

Understandably angry at the huge imbalance in the coverage, he sardonically thanked the station for allowing the opposition five minutes to make its case. “That I could not come here until now is likely the same reason that Viktor Orban is unwilling to engage in a live debate. It is much easier to lie, defame, and conduct a smear campaign.”

The news organizations welcome stories that are critical of Mr. Orban’s favorite bete noire, the liberal billionaire George Soros, a generous donor to democratic and progressive causes all over Europe and beyond.  

Mr. Trump follows the same line in trashing Soros as a left-wing extremist, and of course, he holds forth regularly on refugees raping women and polluting the American bloodstream. After his election in 2016, he banned all Muslims from entering the country.

 Any stories deemed sympathetic to refugees are rarely carried in the Hungarian media lest they incite sympathy for immigrants.

Readers of 19th century history recognize that these were some of the calumnies used by bigots against the destitute Irish when they arrived in America for at least fifty years after the Great Famine. The descendants of those hungry people should keep this perspective in mind.

 Trump and Orban also share a hostility to the L.G.B.T.Q. community and have a strong preference for admitting only white Christians to their countries. According to the Swedish nonprofit group V-Dem, which rates countries on a host of democratic indicators, Orban’s Hungary scores very poorly.

Putin is often cited as the quintessential “strongman” leader, but Xi Jinping in China and Kim Jong Un in North Korea are equally deserving of this title. All three leaders have built a cult of personality around themselves. They claim to represent the people against the uncaring elites and espouse a disdain for liberalism and democracy.

Trump and Orban share an admiration for President Putin, and Trump speaks positively of the decisiveness of the other two dictators. Strongmen like these mock the messiness of decision-making in liberal democracies.

They despise losers. So, Trump refused to accept the fully authenticated election results in 2020. Recently, in response to multiple drone attacks throughout central Russia including the destruction of an oil refinery, Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons – anything rather than the appearance of weakness and vulnerability.

 Orban and Trump predict that Putin will emerge victorious in Ukraine, and the Hungarian leader avers that the Russian dictator was partially justified in invading his neighboring country. He predicts that after his friend, Mr. Trump, defeats President Biden in November not even a penny more of American money will go in support of the Kyiv government.

 Strongmen appoint loyalists to the country’s judiciary as Orban did and as Trump has declared he will do if he takes over after the November election.

General Kelly, who served in the Trump administration as Chief-of-Staff and former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, have written books about their experience working under Mr. Trump. They highlight their boss’s propensity for tough talk and audacious rhetoric. However, both assert that in their experience, this pompous approach faded every time he faced a real policy decision.

If elected again to the White House will Donald Trump set aside the constitution, pack the Justice Department with his own cronies and jeopardize freedom of the press? His statements on these core liberal democratic issues are not encouraging.

 People are scared that America faces the possibility of moving away from the kind of awkward and clumsy democracy that characterizes life in the United States. They are frightened that strongman governing principles will replace the old order and that dictatorial decisiveness will dislodge messy democracy.


Gerry O’Shea blogs at


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