Who Is Viktor Orban, Steve King’s Favorite European Nationalist?

A closer look at the anti-migrant Hungarian autocrat Iowa's 4th District congressman has grown fond of citing

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Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons

Congressman Steve King, for many months, has made no secret of his admiration for the nationalist leaders of Europe’s far right. He’s posed with Frauke Petry of Germany and Geert Wilders, whose failed bid for prime minister of the Netherlands King endorsed in his notorious tweet, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He’s met with leaders of Austria’s Freedom Party, which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis. And he was the first US official to meet publicly with Marine Le Pen, who heads France’s National Front.

But King appears to have a special place in his heart for Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, whose words he’s begun to frequently cite. The most recent example came Christmas Eve on Twitter, when King shared a “Christmas message” quote attributed to Orban by the right-wing website Voice of Europe, which specializes in inflammatory posts about how Muslim migration is destroying the values of western Europe. “Our culture is the culture of life,” it read, highlighting “the importance of Christian identity, which determines everything in Europe,” according to the site. The quote continued: “Our starting point, the alpha and omega of our philosophy is the value of life, the dignity every person received from God — without this, we couldn’t value ‘human rights.’”

Subtext notwithstanding, the message paled in comparison to others from Orban that King has recently shared. On Dec. 8, the congressman tweeted a link to another Voice of Europe post that quoted the prime minister saying, “Mixing cultures will not lead to a higher quality of life but a lower one” — a comment Orban made in response to a European Union program establishing a quota meant to fairly distribute migrants across member nations, which Hungary challenged in court in 2015. King introduced the quote by writing, “Diversity is not our strength” — a common and word-for-word refrain of white nationalists and supremacists, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and current KKK national director Thomas Robb.

And before that, in late November, King retweeted an Orban quote posted by the Twitter account of Defend Europa, an anti-EU website founded by the Adolf Hitler-sympathizing white supremacist Jason Bergkamp, a writer based in the Netherlands. “A nation which expects its biological survival from immigrants won’t survive,” the quote read. King prefaced this by commenting that Orban “has uttered an axiom of history and of humanity.” He then dropped the name of a popular boogeyman the far right has invoked in conspiratorial and anti-Semitic attacks, adding, “Western Civilization is the target of George Soros and the Left.”

So, who is Orban?

Before he was known for his hardline stance against illegal immigration and becoming the first EU leader to endorse Donald Trump for president, Orban began his rise to power in Hungary in 1988 — the year before his country re-emerged as a democratic parliamentary republic after four decades of post-war Soviet rule — when he and a group of his college friends founded a radical anti-communist party called Fidesz, to which he still belongs. At the time, as the European affairs reporter Eszter Zalan wrote last year in Foreign Policy magazine, Fidesz “called for a parliamentary democracy and a market economy, but also championed a liberal message of inclusion,” and it “also saw Hungary as a natural part of Europe.”

In the summer of 1989, just months before the fall of communism in Hungary, Orban attended a memorial ceremony at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square for the victims of a failed 1956 uprising, where he demanded that Soviet troops leave the country. “Orban appeared to be a rebel with a liberal cause,” Zalan wrote, “fighting to turn Hungary into a multiparty democracy rooted in human rights and political freedoms.” The bold speech vaulted him into the political spotlight. But although Orban genuinely opposed communism, it eventually became strikingly clear that he was also not a supporter of liberal democracy.

Viktor Orban in 1989. Image: YouTube screenshot
Viktor Orban in 1989. Image: YouTube screenshot

Orban spent part of 1989 away from Hungary, having received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation — established by George Soros, who, like King, Orban would later portray as an existential threat to western civilization — to study English at Oxford. The following year, Orban returned to Hungary and was elected to parliament. In 1993, he became Fidesz’s first president, a position he used to slowly transform the party from a radical student group into a conservative populist party.

Five years later, Orban was elected prime minister at the age of 35, becoming one of the youngest heads of state in Hungary’s history. Under his leadership, Fidesz improved the economy and rolled back austerity measures of the previous government. But it also began to centralize power, increasing the government’s control over the economy, replacing civil servants with party loyalists, and attempting to undermine parliament’s ability to monitor the executive branch. This, coupled with a series of political scandals, led to Orban’s defeat to Hungary’s socialist party in 2002.

The loss, in the eyes of some observers, further cemented Orban’s illiberal turn. An opposition leader now, he set to work rebuilding Fidesz, forming “civic circles” — groups of right-wing supporters who coalesced around their conservative Christian beliefs. In 2006, Orban failed to regain his position as prime minister, but four years later, in the shadow of protests sparked by the socialist prime minister’s refusal to resign when he was caught on tape having lied about the economy in the interest of winning the 2006 election, Orban returned to power.

Since then, the Fidesz government has tightened its grip on Hungary in alarming fashion. In 2013, Orban skated a controversial series of constitutional amendments through parliament that severely diminished the power of the country’s constitutional court — and the independence of the judicial system as a whole — invalidating all of its decisions made prior to the establishment of the country’s new constitution in 2012. The amendments also limited the right to free speech determined to be at odds with the nebulously defined “dignity of the Hungarian nation” and re-established several laws previously found to be unconstitutional, including ones preventing the homeless from being prosecuted for loitering in public, officially narrowing the definition of a Hungarian family to one including a married opposite-sex couple, and banning private media outlets from publishing electoral campaign advertisements.

Although the amendments were overwhelmingly approved by parliament, the outcry was swift. The German newspaper Der Spiegel, citing legal experts, described the amendments as “an affront to democracy,” adding that leaders in Berlin and Washington had expressed concerns before the vote. Gabor Halmai, a Hungarian constitutional law expert, said the changes amounted to no less than a “systematic abolishment of the constitutional order.”

“The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state”

But Orban’s government was unphased. Laszlo Kover, the president of parliament and a Fidesz party member, dismissed international concerns by borrowing language from Hungary’s extreme right, claiming that the EU and United States had unfairly targeted the country as a “symbol of their Cold War” because its leaders did not support the “forced path of liberalism.”

The following year, Orban doubled down on Kover’s words in a controversial speech he delivered at a Transylvanian retreat with Hungarian leaders. “The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state,” Orban told them. “It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, freedom … but it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization.” Soon after, Hungary’s opposition media began referring to Orban’s remarks as his “end of liberal democracy” speech. In an article headlined “The Autocrat Inside the EU,” Foreign Policy writer Amy Brouillette described the speech as his “brashest anti-democratic salvo since his conservative Fidesz party swept to power in 2010.”

Orban gave his end of liberal democracy speech three and a half months after Fidesz won a re-election landslide, thanks in no small part to a new election law the party established to rig the outcome by suppressing opposition media coverage. That law, coupled with the constitutional reforms the previous year, led international observers to conclude that although the election had the appearance of being free and fair, Fidesz had provided itself an “undue advantage” through “restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage, and the blurring of the separation between a ruling political party and the state.” (Since the 2014 election, the party has continued to undermine Hungary’s free press — last year, for instance, it suspended the country’s largest independent daily after it revealed scandalous details about Fidesz; later, the newspaper’s parent company was sold to an Orban loyalist.)

“The ferocity [Orban] once deployed against the Soviet empire is now deployed — and with no less enthusiasm — against domestic political opposition, vulnerable migrants, and Brussels technocrats,” Zalan wrote in Foreign Policy (The EU is headquartered in Brussels, a city in Belgium). His Fidesz party, which in its infancy embraced the concept of liberal democracy and saw Hungary as a natural part of Europe, has long since morphed into a government that’s increasingly recognized as autocratic, an EU member state that now openly flouts the values of the alliance of nations by stifling political and press freedoms and closing its borders to migrants, including refugees fleeing civil war in Syria, with a recently constructed fence on the Hungary-Serbia border.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Orban, in July 2016, became the first European leader to endorse Donald Trump — an “upstanding American presidential candidate,” in Orban’s words — whose campaign portrayed Mexican immigrants as violent criminals, stoked unfounded fears about ISIS terrorists sneaking across the southern border, and launched constant assaults on the legitimacy of the press; and whose administration has sought to limit checks and balances on its authority and backed away from international alliances. Like Trump, who among other examples called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in April to congratulate him for consolidating power through an illegitimate and anti-democratic referendum, Orban appears to be more comfortable with authoritarian-minded heads of state than with his country’s western allies — in his end of liberal democracy speech, he cited China and Russia as models for Hungary’s new “illiberal state.”

Although Steve King’s unusual interest in the anti-migrant policies championed by European nationalists can seem perplexing — particularly for a congressman who represents Iowa, a state with little diversity and where Islamic extremism is essentially nonexistent — he and Orban also have some similarities beyond their shared interest in employing the rhetoric of extremists to denounce multiculturalism.

Both grew up in small rural communities. Orban, who has said he comes from a background that was “without culture,” spent his youth between two villages before moving to Budapest, where he developed an anti-elitist attitude that would help inform his budding political ideology after encountering urban intellectuals whom he viewed as being out of touch. King grew up in small towns around western Iowa with homogenous cultures, graduating from high school in Denison in a class with just two African Americans and before the initial wave of Southeast Asian and Latino immigrants arrived in that part of the state seeking refuge and meatpacking plant jobs.

King also shares Orban’s disdain for communism and willingness to dabble in conspiratorial thinking for partisan purposes. King is featured prominently in Curtis Bowers’ documentary Agenda: Grinding America Down, which purports to expose US liberals’ secret communist agenda to destroy the country. Orban, like King, has invoked George Soros as a political boogeyman, recently using the Hungarian billionaire’s image in an anti-immigration campaign with anti-Semitic overtones to attack EU migration policies.

And, like Orban, King has done nothing to suggest that he intends to step away from his controversial views as he enters the new year the heavy favorite to win re-election to a ninth term in Congress representing Iowa’s 4th Congressional District.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.