Viktor Orbán gets his day in Washington and displays his skill as a communicator

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán last sat next to an American president in the Oval Office 21 years ago, in 1998. At the time, the 35 year old Mr. Orbán, serving his first four year term at the helm of the Hungarian government, sat in the company of President Bill Clinton. Mr. Orbán had then just completed his transformation from an anti-establishment and anti-clerical liberal to a three-piece suit wearing moderate conservative and a faithful Protestant. As New York Times journalist Patrick Kingsley helpfully reminded us of that meeting two decades ago with Mr. Clinton: “How times change. Here’s a video of the last time Viktor Orban visited the White House — in 1998, when he praised President Clinton for supporting Hungary’s NATO membership, and for saving Hungary from the clutches of Russia.”

Viktor Orbán and Bill Clinton in 1998.

A few days ago, Mr. Orbán — in the lead up to his visit to the White House for his much awaited face-to-face with Donald Trump– spoke with prolific author Bernard-Henri Lévy. He last granted an interview to the writer three decades ago. Much has changed since then, of course, but this interview was entirely different than the servile pandering that Mr. Orbán is accustomed to in Hungary from the employees of public and Fidesz media organs. This does not, however, mean that Mr. Orbán is incapable of assuming a demeanor more appropriate to the occasion, and this demeanor tends to be polite and humble. He may be rusty when it comes to debating well-informed political opponents during election campaigns, and these debates he has avoided for 13 years, but the prime minister does have a keen sense of communication and can adjust his message appropriately. In The Atlantic interview, we read:

“You are the leader, however you may define it, of the illiberal trend in Europe. Is that an accurate description? Do you accept the role?”

“Yes and no.”

…the modest, almost fearful face, squares badly with the idea most of us have of the big bad Orbán.

“Because of the attacks to which you’re subjected?”

He smiles.

“I don’t give a damn about the attacks,” he says. “Hungary is a special country, you know. It is the only country in Europe whose language is absolutely incomprehensible to a foreigner. And, you know, that poorly understood side suits me fine.”

“Which means what?”

“Which means that I find the mantle of leader of the movement a little heavy. Because Hungary is also a small country, don’t forget. And it has neither the ambition nor the means to assume leadership.”…

Viktor Orbán with Donald Trump in May 2019.

In this interview, appearing the day of his meeting with Mr. Trump, the prime minister announced in unequivocal terms that he would have “nothing at all to do with Madame Le Pen, nothing!” as this was a “red line” for him. French friends in high places, reportedly, had cautioned Mr. Orbán about Madame Le Pen–these French friends apparently not partial to reading the news over the last nine years about Mr. Orbán and his brand of politics. Though Madame Le Pen is anathema, Mr. Orbán places his hope in Italian minister Matteo Salvini, because “he leads a large country. Europe can sanction a little country like Hungary. It wouldn’t dare go after a country like Italy, with 60 million people…” We also learn that while Mr. Orbán is unabashed in his praise for Regent Miklós Horthy for having brought an end to the 1919 Commune of Béla Kun, even though he later presided over the deportation of rural Hungary’s Jews, Mr. Orbán also has “the best relations in the world with Israel.”

The interview in The Atlantic is, in some ways, a win for Mr. Orbán. Yes, he was pressed on some issues and the journalist did not approach the Hungarian prime minister with reverence. But Mr. Orbán held his own and probably came across as reasonable and tame to the western reader.

The Oval Office photo opportunity was important to Mr. Orbán, as he and his supporters have been itching for this coveted and elusive meeting for some time, including under both presidents Bush and Obama. Prime Minister Orbán’s entire White House stay lasted for about 45 minutes, his private discussion with Mr. Trump took under 20 minutes. And it is worth noting that Mr. Orbán was one of several Central European leaders to be invited to the Oval Office recently. The American president issued some boilerplate praise for the Hungarian leader. “People have a lot of respect for this Prime Minister,” Mr. Trump said and then added: “He’s a respected man. And I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man. And he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration.”

Mr. Trump then praised Mr. Orbán for defending Christendom, noting: “You have been great with respect to Christian communities. You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much.” Mr. Orbán commented: “We are proud to stand together with the United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism, and to protect and help the Christian communities all around the world.”

The two leaders announced that the United States and Hungary will serve as partners in assisting persecuted Christians around the world (Hungary has developed a foreign aid programme to this end) and would resist migration together.

Fidesz propaganda news site Origo billed the visit a “huge success” and published the results of a survey by Fidesz pollster Nézőpont alongside its reports of the Oval Office meeting celebrating the allegedly pro-American nature of Hungarian society. Everyone should take any result from Nézőpont with a grand piece of salt, but for the record the pollster claims that 60 percent of Hungarians have a positive view of the United States and only one fifth of Hungarians hold a negative opinion. The Fidesz pollster adds that this makes Hungarian society much more pro-American than the average Central European country. It’s worth noting here that the further right one goes on the political spectrum in Hungary, the more viscerally anti-American people get. And today, there is no party except for László Toroczkai’s tiny Mi Hazánk movement that is more right-wing than Fidesz. It’s the Hungarian liberals and the mainstream left in Hungary that tends to be staunchly pro-American and it is the Hungarian socialist left that, going against western Europe, allied with President George Bush in the Coalition of the Willing, under the premiership of Péter Medgyessy. Anti-American feelings on the right, tied to the belief that the Americans betrayed and abandoned Hungary in 1956 and an amorphous sense of Hungarian cultural superiority to the United States, are still prevalent.

The opposition media downplayed the Oval Office meeting, focusing on the fact that it was very brief. The government media overemphasized its significance. In reality, Mr. Orbán–the masterful communicator that he is–will be able to spin this to maximum effect. He will reassert Hungary’s importance, and that of his government, to his western European conservative allies, who have grown impatient with him. And one thing is certain: while Mr. Trump is mostly a one-track communicator, recycling the same expressions and demeanor almost everywhere, Mr. Orbán knows that each audience is different and each requires a unique approach. He has proven quite capable of this flexible delivery.

8 Comments

  1. György Lázár says:

    Absolutely correct. Orbán knows that “each audience is different” and says what they want to hear with tailored “flexible delivery.” The questions is… How far can he go with this approach? Chris is right, so far so good… It is working for him in this moment…

  2. Mr. Orban voiced his beliefs,
    Hungary is for Hungarians
    Christianity over Islam
    Foreign countries should fix their problems instead of exporting their citizens.

    This has been part of FIDESZ’s platform.

    Well done Mr. Orban.

  3. Andras B. Gollner says:

    Anyone with a brain bigger than a walnut knows, that this 45 minute meeting in Washington was a formality: the backdoor has already been opened between the two crime syndicates years ago. Orbán has already fulfilled his tasks for Trump by putting his own two cents worth into the Russian’s anti-Hillary efforts during the 2016 American Presidential campaign. It was mutual concern over some light being shed on this during the Mueller investigation that kept Orbán out of the White House, and forced him to mysteriously jettison the Hungarian Ambassador, who got too cozy with some of Trump’s campaign team (Sessions, Gordon, Page, Gorka). Once the Mueller report was in, and it became clear that the two good old boys evaded the radar, the joy ride could resume.

    Those who would like their children to inherit a world based on social justice, the rule of law and sustainable economic development should get their act together. The hour is getting late. As so many times in the past, the “Common People” are once again under the increasing spell unscrupulous story tellers, affinity fraud artists and carpetbaggers. They bear a striking resemblance to the leaders of yester-years, who in the span of just over 30 years, managed to lead humanity into two world wars, that resulted in the deaths of close to 300 million people. How soon we forget. Let’s make Hungary Great Again? I don’t think this is the “New York, Budapest, Tel Aviv Axis” Elie Wiesel, Randolph Brabham fought for. This is manifestly NOT, the axis that will secure a safe, and just future for the children of Israel, Hungary or America. Once again, the pumps don’t work, cause the bandits took the handles.

    • WW1 was a necessity for economic and political reasons (from the elite standpoint). The elites then in power were fearing losing control to the rising socialist tide, so they got the workers into the trenches, so they can forget all about “workers of the world unite”. That is when the socialist movement began its transformation into “bankers of the world unite”, as a way to still achieve their globalist dream.

      WW2 was mostly a reflection of the failure of the rest of the victors of WW1 to temper the ambitions of the French, which led to much injustice dished out against the Germans, but also Hungarians.

      Back to the present, Trump is a symptom, not the cause of anything. Its the symptom of the failures of Western elites to provide large segments of society with betterment or at least hope for it. Its failure due to trade, migration, social, education and other policies. Large segments of society feel shafted, so they decided to at the very least give the elites the one finger salute.

      Orban is the result of the 2002-2010 economic fiasco. Given Hungary’s economic evolution since then, it turns out he is also the solution. He is also in part a reflection of East European rejection of the West European ethno-cultural suicide mentality. East Europeans do not share in the self-loathing of West Europeans, nor should they. They were not part of the colonial trend. While Africans were being shipped across the ocean into slavery, Hungarians and others were being dragged away in chains by the Ottomans, to be sold as well. East Europeans do not want to disappear as distinct ethno-cultural entities and West Europeans should not attempt to impose it on them.

      If you want to compare to the last century, it is your ideological camp that will most likely start conflicts, as it tries hard to cling to power in the face of popular revolts, just as the elites in power did before WW1. Just look at the Russia hysteria being whipped up. All dissenters are smeared with “Russia is behind them and their dissent”. Now that is dangerous!

  4. Csiszár István says:

    I would not call Orbán as Mr. Orbán. It sounds like you said Mr. Hitler.

    • You probably meant to say, Mr. Hitler-Stalin-Rasputin-Manson-Mao-………

      Too much time spent in the echo chamber, will do that to you!

  5. András B. Göllner says:

    Joe’s history lesson is partly right – Orbán is cashing in on the failure of 20th century liberals, the way Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin and Stalin cashed in on the failure of the liberals’ 19th century forefathers. The failure of liberalism does not make Fascist or Bolshevik affinity fraud right.
    The ability of the Orbánist affinity fraud, as all fraud is predicated on the availability of a largely ill informed audience. That is why, post-liberal neo-fascists autocrats begin to talk out of both sides of their mouths as soon as they are in office. They all turn to religious fundamentalism, to nationalism, to one or another type of love-story that never fails to sweep the critical masses (HA HA HA) off their feets, those deer “Common People” who Marx and Engels thought would become philosopher kings after the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production. It is the need to maintain a high level of public ignorance that compels the neo-Fascist wannabees like Orbán to underfund education, to attack the Academy of Sciences, to close down universities, to attack the media, intellectuals, higher learning, and free speech. This is why they create troll farms where the likes of Joe hang out, this is why they are so desperate to create their own, tightly controlled media-space. Let’s take a look at who became the richest man in Hungary since Viktor Orbán came to power. It’s time to take a pitchfork in hand and clean out the stables.
    The logic pursued in this underpass by Joe and his employers in Budapest, and in a growing number of places is a logic, that produced 300 million carcasses during the first half of the 20th century. Isn’t it time to go beyond that? Must we always bring in the butchers when the liberals make a mess in the kitchen? Can’t we do better ladies and gentlemen?

  6. Andras Jambor says:

    To Joe: Your asessment is absolute right on the spot, I can agree with it, as a professional living partially in Hungary, Germany and Canada, as well as sometimes in the USA. The left is going too far and cannot realize that the old monopoly over the media is lost, and people cannot be led by their nose so easily as before. There is hope for a more objective view of the world and events like the visit by a Hungarian prime minister. I am not an Orban fan, but I must admit, his performance is far better to all Hungarians than anything the left ever produced, albeit still lacking the progress needed for Hungary to catch up with the Austrians and make up for the lost years behind the iron curtain. There is hope that the restoration will continue and not only Budapest will enjoy a revival, but the entire country and its people. It may require however a third force to be developed, as neither left of right is capable to provide effective management, control of the wide spread corruption etc. To catch up with the west, Hugnary would need over 10% groth over decades, it has only managed 4-5 in some recent years only, too littel to make a significant change yet. But ther is hope..

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