Many Europeans watch American politics with bewilderment and a sense of superiority. We’re not only stunned that Americans elected someone unhinged – we’re also shocked to see prominent members of the Republican Party enabling Trump’s worst behavior, from his attacks on the free press to his contempt for the rule of law. And Europeans are right to worry about American democracy. It’s increasingly clear, though, that they have little cause to feel superior.
This Sunday, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban won another term in office as his Fidesz party secured a large majority. His victory is built on xenophobia, anti-Semitism and corruption. The election was a travesty of everything democrats hold dear. You would have thought that European conservatives, who pride themselves on defending liberty, would have stood up as one to condemn Orban’s dubious triumph. Instead, they applauded.
The Hungarian prime minister is a man who has said that tens of millions of immigrants want to come to Hungary, bringing terror, crime and rape in their wake. He has used taxpayer money to fund anti-Semitic government “information campaigns” that warn of the danger that Hungarian-born billionaire financier George Soros allegedly poses to the country. As part of his campaign against Soros, he has used language that is clearly anti-Semitic: “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.”
Like any aspiring autocrat, Orban needs enemies. He has chosen to fight immigrants, Brussels and a prominent Jew. In addition to his despicable rhetoric, Orban has overseen creeping authoritarianism in Hungary that includes corruption, the creation of fake parties to split the opposition, and the appointment of cronies to key government positions. The New York Times has quite rightly called this a “systemic assault” on Hungarian democracy.
In March, Orban warned that he would seek “moral, political and legal amends” against his enemies after the election. The election itself might have been free, but it certainly wasn’t fair. International observers said the election featured media bias and opaque campaign financing. The ruling party clearly used state resources to win.
European conservatives reacted swiftly to the news that the racist, anti-Semitic Orban had cemented his grip on power in another unfair election: They cheered. Manfred Weber, chair of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, congratulated Orban on his “clear victory.” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson joined the chorus of congratulations. German Interior Minister Seehofer said he was happy. The president of the EPP, Joseph Daul, had already endorsed the demagogue before the election. (Note: I’m a member of Germany’s conservative Christian Democrat party, which is one of the reasons why I feel so disgusted.)
Instead of standing up to Orban, European conservatives are enabling him. The EPP says they support democracy and an inclusive society. When it comes to Hungary, they can either uphold their values or support Orban – not both. Conservatives cannot claim to uphold European values while they shield a man who tramples them. It is sickening to see German politicians support a prime minister who uses the full force of the state to push an anti-Semitic agenda.
These politicians support Orban for the same reason that Republicans in the United States support Trump: It helps them advance their policies and keeps them in power. Conservatives in Europe know exactly what Orban is doing, but they back him because they value winning above doing the right thing. Orban’s Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party and they are backing one of their own. In exchange, they can mobilize their voters by telling them that they are close to someone who vehemently opposes immigration. On top of that, they think that Orban’s success will expand the power of conservatives in Europe more generally.
They could not be more wrong. Supporting Orban is not just short-sighted, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Strengthening Fidesz means strengthening authoritarian populists – not just in Hungary but also across Europe. By praising Orban, they are legitimizing a man who stands in opposition to everything European conservatives ought to stand for: liberal democracy, rule of law, a free press and basic human decency. Democracy doesn’t function when everybody simply backs their own. They may think that supporting Orban will make it easier to win back voters at home who have begun to support more extremist parties. The opposite will happen. Extremist parties are stronger when people like Orban win.
With Trump in the White House, European support for democracy is more important than ever. Europe is failing that test. European conservatives should hang their head in shame for the way they have enabled and emboldened an authoritarian in their midst. The European People’s Party should expel Orban’s Fidesz immediately. Instead of supporting the Hungarian strongman, they should push the EU to make full use of the powers it has to constrain Orban as he dismantles Hungarian democracy.
Marcel Dirsus is a political scientist at the University of Kiel in Germany.