On Monday night, former President Donald Trump endorsed Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, for reelection.
Which, in and of itself, isn’t all that surprising. After all, Trump was an open admirer of Orban’s time in office – even going so far as to welcome the prime minister to the White House in 2019, an honor long denied Orban by past US presidents. And Orban will be up for a fourth term sometime this spring, which explains the Trump endorsement timing.
But, the words that Trump used to endorse Orban are worth spending some time on because they are so revealing about what the former president values in a leader. Here’s the Trump endorsement:
“Viktor Orbán of Hungary truly loves his Country and wants safety for his people. 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. He is a strong leader and respected by all. He has my Complete support and Endorsement for reelection as Prime Minister!”
Let me draw your attention to two adjectives in particular that Trump used in the endorsement: “powerful” and “strong.” And let me suggest that Trump is drawn to Orban not in spite of his authoritarian tendencies but because of them.
Consider what Orban has done in recent years to consolidate power and establish himself in the mold of a prototypical authoritarian:
1. Seized control of the university system in the country
2. Changed election laws
3. Altered textbooks to reflect his anti-immigration stance
4. Cracked down on independent media
There’s more – lots more – but you get the general gist: Orban, over the past decade, has sought to consolidate power and eliminate both his opposition and the country’s free media. And Trump admires him for it.
And it’s not just Orban. During Trump’s time as a candidate for president and then in office, he regularly praised authoritarian leaders for their strength and toughness. (Emphasis below is mine.)
On Russian President Vladimir Putin: “The man has very strong control over a country. Now, it’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly in that system, he’s been a leader. Far more than our president has been a leader.”
On Chinese President Xi Jinping: “And I like President Xi a lot. I consider him a friend, and – but I like him a lot. I’ve gotten to know him very well. He’s a strong gentleman, right? Anybody that – he’s a strong guy, tough guy.”
On Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “President Erdogan. He’s tough, but I get along with him. And maybe that’s a bad thing, but I think it’s a really good thing.”
The point here is pretty simple: Trump very much believes that might makes right. He admires authoritarians like Orban (and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whom he endorsed last year) because he is attracted to their ability to do whatever they want whenever they want. He is not concerned with the impacts on a free society of having a leader of the sort Orban is. His thought process never gets that far; it’s simply that these guys are tough, and Trump not only likes tough but aspires to be tough like them.
There is, of course, a big difference between being strong (or tough) and being just. Strength is not wisdom – and often strength undermines wisdom.
Trump seems to not grasp that difference – or just doesn’t care. In his mind, leaders take as much power as they can for as long as they can. Which explains not just his support for Orban but also his continued efforts to undermine the free and fair presidential election of 2020.