Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2019

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Sun editorial:

President’s praise for Hungarian strongman unnerving for Americans

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Evan Vucci / AP

President Donald Trump meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, May 13, 2019, in Washington.

In light of President Donald Trump calling Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a “highly respected” leader who has done a “tremendous job in so many different ways,” it’s well worth revisiting Orbán’s record.

Here are some key things to know about this man who Trump holds in such high esteem:

• After his party gained supermajority control of parliament last year, Orbán instigated sweeping constitutional changes that included restrictions on peaceful protest, criminal penalties for homelessness, a requirement for local authorities to protect Hungary’s “Christian culture” and the criminalization of a number of activities in support of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants.

• The changes further limited the power of Hungary’s constitutional court, which had deemed a number of the other provisions unconstitutional. Orbán also instigated a provision forcing judges to retire at 62, which allowed he and his party to stack the courts.

• As part of a war on intellect, Orbán reduced the age at which compulsory education ends from 18 to 16, causing a sharp increase in dropouts. His government also took over decision-making authority on textbooks and curricula from municipalities, leading to propagandistic materials entering classrooms.

• Orbán’s government also has waged war against higher education, most notably by forcing Central European University, the nation’s most prestigious graduate institution, out of the country. And since Orbán’s election in 2010, Hungary’s remaining universities went from being free to charging tuition at a rate beyond the reach of most Hungarians. The nation now has one of the lowest levels of university employment in postcommunist Europe after once having the highest. “Like Pol Pot or Josef Stalin, Orbán dreams of liquidating the intelligentsia, draining the public of education and molding a more pliant nation,” The Atlantic reported. “But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he need not resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock at the door. His assault on civil society arrives in the guise of legalisms subverting the institutions that might challenge his authority.”

• Orbán has vilified immigrants, particularly Muslims, in the name of white nationalism. “We do not want a multicultural society,” he told a German newspaper in 2015. Days earlier, he’d told a Hungarian television reporter that “We do not want to see among us significant minorities that possess different cultural characteristics and background than us. We would like to preserve Hungary as Hungary.” In a 2016 joint appearance with Austrian chancellor Christian Kern, he said, “For us, migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it.”

• The Orbán government has engaged in a number of anti-Semitic activities, such as slashing funding for a historically accurate Holocaust memorial center and developing one that mischaracterizes Hungary’s complicity in the Nazi campaign of genocide. “Rather than Pava Street’s nuanced, historical narrative, the ahistorical story it prefers is about Hungary’s attempt to protect its Jews from a tragedy that was fully the fault of Nazi Germany and a few Hungarian thugs.This narrative avoids historically uncomfortable facts,” Human Rights First reports. The government’s campaign against Central European University also is seen as anti-Semitic, as the institution was founded by George Soros.

• Orbán and his party, along with a group of government-connected oligarchs, all but dismantled Hungary’s independent media by using the power of the state to pressure private media corporations to sell to the state or the group. As of 2017, 90% of all media were under control of the government and its allies.

• Government corruption has exploded under Orbán, prompting many experts to classify his regime as a kleptocracy.

• The government has engaged in rampant gerrymandering and essentially done away with free elections. Although polls are still accessible and ballots are counted, the near-elimination of independent media has crippled opposition candidates’ chances of getting their messages to voters. As Vox reported about the 2018 election, “international monitors concluded that the opposition never really had a fair chance.”

• At a time when Europe has shunned Russian President Vladimir Putin, Orbán has welcomed Putin to Hungary a number of times for friendly visits. And although Hungary formally supports European Union sanctions against Russia, Orbán has criticized them and frequently called for them to be dropped. “There is tremendous concern that Russia is basically using Hungary as an intel forward operating base in NATO and the EU,” a former official at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest told Politico in 2017.

That’s Viktor Orbán, who Trump said it was a “great honor” to welcome to the White House.

Orbán isn’t the only authoritarian who Trump clearly admires, of course. Putin, Rodrigo Duterte and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are a few on whom he’s heaped praise.

But while Trump supporters may characterize all of this as mere hyperbole or a negotiating tactic, consider this comment about Trump from his own ambassador to Hungary.

“I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t,” the ambassador, David Cornstein, told The Atlantic.

At the very least, Trump’s praise of Orbán sends a damaging message about U.S. support for personal liberties, civil rights and democratic principles. At worst, it’s an indication that Trump would like to do the same “tremendous job” in dismantling our democracy that Orbán did to Hungary’s.