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What can Viktor Orbán's rise as a conservative superstar teach Trump?


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban spent some of last week on American soil but not at the White House. Instead, he met with former President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. This is not a shock to many familiar with the populist prime minister. Orban has positioned himself as a strongman nationalist leader who criticizes liberal Europe and praises leaders like China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin. He considers both of them friends. So what's his connection to the GOP? For more insight, let's bring in Zsuzsanna Szelenyi. She's a former liberal Hungarian member of Parliament and director of the Democracy Institute Leadership Academy for Central and Eastern Europe. She joins us now from Budapest. Welcome.

ZSUZSANNA SZELENYI: Welcome, everybody. Welcome, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So Viktor Orban receives a lot of love from the GOP. Republicans have cheered him on at the Conservative Political Action Conference. And after he won Hungary's 2022 election, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene posted on social media, quote, "he's leading Hungary the right way, and we need this in America." How has Orban led in Hungary?

SZELENYI: Yeah, this is really very interesting. Orban won the Hungarian election in 2010 with a special moment after the crisis, and he received a constitutional majority in the Hungarian Parliament by one party. And ever since, he has been changing the rules of the game of Hungarian democracy. So over the years, he developed a system which he calls illiberal system, where there is more and more power gathered in the hand of the prime minister. So when he is talking to people abroad, Americans, he is selling his illiberal system as an example for form of governance where one strong leader has such a power than him.

SCHMITZ: So he met with Trump last week. What does Trump get out of a meeting with Orban, and on the other hand, vice versa, what is Orban looking for when he meets with Trump?

SZELENYI: So what Orban wants from Trump is very understandable. So Europe is going to the polls in early June this year. We will have the European elections, which is an important election in every EU member state. And Orban, with this visit, want to demonstrate, first of all to his home voters that he is a global leader. Also, he wants to provoke his European partners with this visit because obviously, European governments do not participate in the U.S. electoral campaign. He is an outlier in this regard. And he puts his support on Trump. And of course, he wants to sell the radical right's politicians, voters in the U.S. how big power they can get if they win.

SCHMITZ: And what do you think Trump gets out of a meeting with Orban?

SZELENYI: Well, I think this is - he is also campaigning, so I think both of them are campaigning in these months. And because of Orban seems to be a successful leader, at least in the sense that he could repeat his electoral victory several times in the last decade, this is a kind of proof that he is successful. Of course, we cannot necessarily say this for his governance, but I think that's something radical-right politicians really like and most probably Trump also wants to demonstrate to other Hungarian leaders that he is ready to do unusual things and unpredictable things.

SCHMITZ: So Zsuzsanna, at the beginning of March, Orban spoke at a diplomacy forum in Turkey, and he said that Trump winning back the White House is, quote, "the only serious chance for peace. Otherwise, the war between Ukraine and Russia will be long." He also suggested that Trump could end the war in Gaza. What's your reaction to that?

SZELENYI: Well, if there was such an easy solution for the Russia war and stopping it, we would already know this solution. I think that Russia is - and Ukraine especially is very important for Europe. So I think that the European countries, including Hungary, should find a solution. I would be very surprised if Trump would come up with a miracle idea about how to stop Vladimir Putin because actually, when this war will end will be when Russia, the aggressor of the war, will stop it. So I'm just curious, listening what Viktor Orban has behind this peace idea.

SCHMITZ: Zsuzsanna, I want to take this back to your home country. Orban has been in office, you know, for more than a decade, and his hold on Hungary seems to be getting stronger and stronger. With how things are going now, where do you think your country will be a decade from now?

SZELENYI: Well, a decade from now, I think Hungary's past towards this illiberalism is really serious, and I think it's a big problem for Hungary. It's not a very easy way out of this. But of course, I'm very positive that this is possible because majority of Hungarians never voted for Viktor Orban. He has a firm voting base - it's no question - but this is not a majority. And there is also a reasonable political elite in this country which would take over if the conditions would make it possible. So I'm actually, in a 10 years, rather positive, but of course, that's a long time from now. And obviously, we have to fight and figure out what to do now in the next future.

SCHMITZ: That was former Hungarian MP Zsuzsanna Szelenyi. Thanks for joining us.

SZELENYI: Thank you very much for having me.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.