Viktor Orban Visits The White House
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will be visiting the White House tomorrow. On the surface, it's a visit by the leader of an ally state and a member of the European Union. Orban, though, is a controversial figure - an early adopter of the right-wing populism that has swept across Europe. Since assuming power in 2010, he has tightened his grip on the country, overhauling the country's constitution, curbing the independence of the judiciary and even rewriting history textbooks to include his view that refugees are a threat to Hungary. Prime Minister Orban has been shunned by most Western leaders. But tomorrow, he will be welcomed by President Donald Trump. For more on that meeting and what it means, Anne Applebaum joins us from Poland. She's a Washington Post columnist, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who focuses on Europe and Russia.
ANNE APPLEBAUM: Thank you - glad to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first of all, in your view, what does it mean for Mr. Trump to welcome Prime Minister Orban into the Oval Office?
APPLEBAUM: Well, first of all, it's a break with American policy of the last several years, which was to put - to press back against even allies who had - who were breaking the rules of democracy and breaking the rules of the various clubs that we - that America has formed over the years. The main - most important point about Orban is not that he uses anti-immigration rhetoric or that he's part of the so-called far right. The most important part about him is that he has really brought an end to democracy in Hungary. I mean, this is a country that was part of the Soviet bloc until 1989, then had a democracy for a couple of decades. He brought it to an end. He ended - there is no independent media in Hungary. As you said, the judicial system is restricted. Opposition parties have all kinds of different pressure put on them. They're barely able to exist. He cheats at elections in order to stay in power. He's following a kind of Putin playbook in order to bring democracy to an end and make sure that he stays in power.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is Orban's agenda here? I note it's two weeks ahead of elections to the European Parliament. So why is he coming to the United States now?
APPLEBAUM: Because this absolutely is extremely important for him back home because one of the biggest arguments against Orban was that he had isolated himself inside the Western community. He'd angered European leaders. He'd angered the United States. He hasn't - there hasn't been - there have not been any high-level contacts between the United States and Hungary for a number of years. This will now vindicate him. He'll go home and say, look. See. I'm an approved member of the Western club. I'm friends with the United States. It's all fine.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does a meeting with this American president, though, rehabilitate him, to some extent, in the eyes of Europe?
APPLEBAUM: Not so much in the eyes of Europe but in the eyes of his own people, yes. I mean, as I say, the argument against him inside his country was that he was forcing Hungary into a kind of diplomatic isolation. And now he can claim otherwise. An interesting other point is that Orban also has very close relations with the Russian government. He's been flirting with the Chinese government. He's defied the United States in a number of ways, pushing back against, for example, American policy in Ukraine and so on. So this is also proof that you can ignore the United States. You can laugh at the United States. And yet, you will be embraced by the United States if you use language that Donald Trump likes.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We talk about the far-right populism sweeping Europe. Is this an inflection point for liberal democracies, in your view?
APPLEBAUM: Well, far-right populism takes different forms. And I'm not sure sweeping Europe is correct. I mean, they've won some elections in some countries and so on. I also think it's - you know, separating Europe from the United States is a mistake. I mean, Trumpism (ph) is very, very similar to what we call the far right in Europe or the populist right in Europe. So this is really a Western, you know, problem - in all democracies, actually, not even in Western democracies because it applies to the Philippines and other places as well. I think the turning point that we're seeing is - you know, when you had these kinds of movements - these anti-democratic movements arising before, you had pushback from the United States, which was considered to be a beacon of democracy, a country that spoke for a certain set of values. And we now have the United States embracing those anti-democratic forces across Europe. And yes, that is a big change.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of "Red Famine," thank you so much.
APPLEBAUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.