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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *