To kick off the new year, the former US president Donald Trump has endorsed the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary’s spring election.
“Viktor Orbán,” the 3 January endorsement read, “truly loves his Country and wants safety for his people.” Trump went on to hail Orban for a number of purported achievements, including “stopping illegal immigration”, before concluding: “He is a strong leader and respected by all. He has my Complete support and Endorsement for reelection as Prime Minister!”
The endorsement was, in a certain sense, ironic, given that Orbán and other Hungarian government officials have warned that the US would try to interfere in their upcoming elections to disadvantage Fidesz, Orbán’s party, but it was not particularly surprising. (There is no evidence that Joe Biden’s administration has tried or will try to undermine Orbán and Fidesz in the elections.)
Trump and his Republican Party have had an increasingly cosy relationship with Hungary’s leader. Orbán endorsed Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Orbán visited the White House in 2019 and was warmly received. Right-wing figures such as Fox News personality Tucker Carlson have made recent tour stops in Budapest. The American Conservative Union is reportedly planning on hosting a conference there later this year. Several Republican senators have spoken admiringly of Orbán, despite (or perhaps because of) his illiberal tendencies. There are certain commonalities between Trump and Orbán. Both have been accused of corruption. Both frequently attack immigrants and asylum seekers and multilateral organisations, stressing instead the importance of national sovereignty.
But most importantly, Trump and the modern Republican Party and Orbán and Fidesz both know the value of rewriting history to change the terms of present-day politics.
Rewriting history has been a staple of Orbán’s time in office. Perhaps most famously, there is the Treaty of Trianon, the agreement that concluded Hungary’s role in the First World War and prompted a traumatic loss of Hungarian territory, which current government officials have used to justify the country’s anti-Semitic positions in the run-up to the Second World War. The House of Terror Museum in Budapest, which shares the Hungarian experience of the Second World War and subsequent Eastern Bloc rule, was curated by Orbán’s on-off ally Maria Schmidt. Critics have said it perpetuates political propaganda, and was originally intended to denigrate Orbán’s opponents in the Socialist Party. Last year, Orbán’s government passed a law to establish more government oversight of universities and cultural institutions.
Trump, too, attempted to reframe history during in his time in office. Trump attacked the New York Times’s “1619 Project”, a journalistic examination of the effects of slavery on and contributions of black Americans in American history. He staunchly defended statues of Confederate soldiers – who seceded from the US to fight for their states’ right to own slaves – as representing American heritage. In his 1776 Commission, he called for a restoration of “patriotic education”, insisting that “our youth will be taught to love America”. Several GOP-led states have recently passed legislation with similar intentions, banning critical race theory in their curriculums.
This matters not for the sake of the history books themselves, but because these men use history to justify their present policies.
They manipulate history to deny wrongdoing abroad or at home. Future policy can then be pursued from the position of redressing past grievances.
Republican officials justify new election laws by saying that the measures will help their voters – predominantly white, and so historically the more secure electorate in the US – feel more confident in the electoral system, even if those laws disadvantage minority voters. The US – the richest and most powerful country in the world – can argue it is at a disadvantage in the current international system and, therefore, justify trade wars and withdrawal from multilateral agreements.
Meanwhile, Hungary demonises immigrants as foreign trespassers, pointing to its long history of invasion. The government says that the European Union is threatening its sovereignty, though it is Hungary that joined the EU and is now flouting, for example, its standards on rule of law. The powerful can tell themselves – and more importantly, everyone else – that they are powerless, and that what they’re doing is only levelling the playing field. After all, they argue, they’re only addressing historical grievances.
One hesitates to psychoanalyse world leaders, but the politics of grievance works on a personal, as well as a national, level.
Back in 2019, while reporting for my book, The Influence of Soros – a look at George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire-philanthropist villainised by both Trump and Orbán – I interviewed a professor by the name of Charles Gati. Originally from Hungary, Gati had been friends with Orbán for a number of years.
I asked him if he thought, as some do, that Orbán’s illiberalism is a cover for alleged corruption. Gati told me that he thought that, deep down, what the Hungarian prime minister really wanted was to show his entrepreneur father, with whom Orbán had a fraught relationship as a child, that he was a big deal, bigger than “slick city boys” with their culture and knowledge of foreign languages. The way to do that, Gati said, was to remain prime minister by “defeating the liberals”. That way, Gati told me, “he and his Fidesz will live forever”.
I thought of this when I read Trump’s endorsement. Trump, who has said “my whole life really has been a ‘no’ and I fought through it” (despite a head start from his father in the form of millions of dollars); Trump, who has repeatedly described how unfair everyone was to him and how nobody ever gave him credit. I thought that perhaps Trump, too, wants to prove all of his detractors, real and imagined, wrong. That he, too, wants his legacy and power to live forever.
Endorsing an increasingly authoritarian Hungarian prime minister – and legitimising his own tactics in the process – is one way to do that.