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Orbán and Us: America First

Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on September 18, 2018 (Alexander Zemlianichenko / Reuters)

Viktor Orbán is a darling and hero of many on the American right — and the British right and other rights. For them, the Hungarian leader is a bulwark of Western civilization and a scourge of liberal democracy.

Last year, Steve King, the Iowa Republican, tweeted, “History will record PM Orban the Winston Churchill of Western Civilization.” (Personally, I would accord that honor to Churchill.)

What about “scourge of liberal democracy”? Here, Orbán’s fans are certainly right. In May, Orbán declared, “The era of liberal democracy is over.” That reminded me of President Clinton’s statement in his 1996 State of the Union address: “The era of big government is over.” Unfortunately, Clinton was wrong. Whether Orbán is right, we will see.

In April, Patrick J. Buchanan had a column — characteristically frank, characteristically interesting. PJB is not one to obfuscate. That is one of his best qualities. He wrote, “The democracy worshippers of the West cannot compete with the authoritarians in meeting the crisis of our time because they do not see what is happening to the West as a crisis.”

The Hungarian people, he further said, “have used democratic means to elect autocratic men who will put the Hungarian nation first.”

Linger on those phrases — “democratic means,” “autocratic men.” That has been the story in Russia, Venezuela, and many another country. Hugo Chávez’s first election in 1998 was fair and square.

Writing for The Weekly Standard last August, Arch Puddington said, “Hungary has become a model for the dismantling of a European democracy by a democratically elected government.” Like Putin, said Puddington, Orbán “started with the media” — and then moved on to other aspects of life.

Here is a headline from this morning: “Hungary to Set Up Courts Overseen Directly by Government.” (Article here.) The Helsinki Committee called this latest development “a serious threat to the rule of law in Hungary.”

Orbán is a canny politician — he studied at Oxford on a Soros scholarship. He is no fool. He knows his history, he knows his politics. Rallying the folks earlier this year, he said, “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

That kind of talk has sparked people for generations.

Orbán and Steve Bannon are now working together. In the words of this Reuters report, “Orban has welcomed the idea of Bannon’s group, called The Movement, saying it was time that someone from the United States came to Europe to spread conservative thinking instead of liberal values.”

The word “conservative” is now up for grabs, isn’t it? Does it mean Bannon, Orbán, the Le Pens, and the rest of them? If so, a lot of people will have to go without “conservative,” their longtime designation. What would Reagan be called?

Before getting to a big news story — or what ought to be one — I would like to mention a smaller story. Nikola Gruevski, the former prime minister of Macedonia, was due to begin a prison term, following his conviction on corruption. He was spirited out of his country by Hungarian intelligence — and granted asylum by Orbán. (For a report on this, go here.)

Let it not be said that Orbán does not welcome refugees.

Less easy to joke about — for me, at least — is Orbán’s partnership with Putin. Meeting with Putin last year, Orbán said, “We all sense — it’s in the air — that the world is in the process of a substantial realignment.” Yes, indeed. For his part, Putin hailed Hungary as an “important and reliable partner for Russia in Europe.” That is certainly true.

The United States, with the cooperation of Hungarian agents, busted a pair of Russian arms dealers, working in Hungary. The dealers are father and son: Vladimir Lyubishin Sr. and Vladimir Jr. They were set to sell weapons to a Mexican drug cartel. The cartel wanted the weapons for its ongoing war against American law enforcement. They were especially interested in shooting down our helicopters.

So the Lyubishins were offering air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, and much more.

The most detailed report of this case, so far as I know, comes from Direkt36, here. The case is fascinating and infuriating. Absolutely infuriating (and, again, fascinating).

Anyway, we stung them. American agents, along with their Hungarian counterparts, executed a sting against the Lyubishins. Then we requested their extradition from Hungary, so that they could face justice. Instead, Orbán sent them back home to Putin.

The State Department used language relatively (I stress relatively) strong: “The United States is disappointed in the Hungarian government’s decision to extradite the Lyubishins to Russia. … This decision is not consistent with our law enforcement partnership, undercuts the work that our agencies had done together to build this case, and will make citizens in the United States, Hungary, and the world less safe.”

It seems to me that American fans of Orbán have a choice to make: Orbán or America First. What would we say if May, Macron, or Merkel did to us what Orbán did to us? (I have named three bêtes noires of the American Right.) Has Orbán truly earned an exemption?

These are among the many questions to be thought of, as we move forward in this “substantial realignment.”

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