The Orbán government, as we know, was initially delighted over Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. Viktor Orbán expected a favorable change in U.S.-Hungarian relations, especially since the Hungarian prime minister was the only European leader to express a preference for Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton during the election campaign. A reciprocal sign of goodwill on the part of Trump was presumed, not just by the Hungarian administration but by the public as well. The prime minister undoubtedly expected an early invitation to the White House in addition to friendlier gestures from the U.S. State Department. None of these expectations has materialized. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán’s attack on Central European University was sharply denounced by the State Department. At the same time U.S.-Russian relations, instead of getting better, have soured. By now there’s a Cold-War-like chill in the relationship between the two countries.
In the last few weeks we have seen signs that the Orbán government is in the process of reassessing its opinion of the American president, who lost his first rounds against the Washington establishment and might already have been mortally wounded under the barrage of revelations about his and his family’s questionable conduct. Thus, I assume, the journalists of the government media received permission to use stronger language against the American president which, given their pro-Russian views, comes naturally to them.
Leading the way is István Lovas, who used to be Magyar Nemzet’s Brussels correspondent at the time the paper was the main mouthpiece of Fidesz. Lovas, after 20 years of living in Canada, the United States, and Germany where he worked for Radio Free Europe, returned to Hungary. He began writing for right-wing papers, like the now defunct Pesti Hírlap, Magyar Demokrata, Magyar Hírlap, and Magyar Idők. He is also a regular participant in a political roundtable program alongside Zsolt Bayer on the far-right Echo TV, now owned by Lőrinc Mészáros. His expertise is foreign policy. In addition, he maintains a blog.
Lovas published two articles on Trump today, one in Magyar Hírlap and the other in Magyar Idők. The first deals with “The collapse of Trump” and the other with the forthcoming economic sanctions against “dishonest” China. In addition, Magyar Idők added an editorial on the “economic saber rattling” of the United States. So, the honeymoon, if there ever was one, is over.
In Lovas’s assessment, the last remnants of Trump’s “pretense of power” evaporated when he signed the sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It was a cowardly and unconstitutional act, in Lovas’s opinion. His performance as president has been disgraceful, and all those who believed his campaign promises about his plans for good relations with Russia are greatly disappointed. Trump is universally despised—at one point Lovas calls him a cockchafer’s grub—and therefore, in Lovas’s opinion, “it is not worth meeting this man.” I guess this is a message to Viktor Orbán: “Don’t be too disappointed that you haven’t been invited to Washington to meet the failed president. It’s not worth the bother.”
Lovas’s other article, on America’s possible trade war with China, is not an original piece but a summary of an article originally published in Deutsche Wirtschafts Nachrichten. Lovas, who spent more than a week in China recently, is impressed with the super-modern world the Chinese created in the last few decades and therefore is worried about American plans that might result in a full-fledged trade war between the two countries.
The third article, “Trumps attacks on many fronts,” by Attila Mártonffy, deals with U.S. sanctions against Russia, China, and Iran which in turn hurt the economic interests of the European Union. The author calls the American moves “saber rattling.”
All in all, after relative media silence, the open criticism of Donald Trump has begun. Knowing the practices of the Hungarian government media, the articles that appear in Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap will a few days later be followed by pieces on all the lesser right-wing internet sites. We can expect article after article reassessing the role of Donald Trump as “the leader of the free world.”
Meanwhile, it might be educational to take a look at a by-now admittedly dated study (the material was collected from February 16 to May 8 and the report published in late June) by the Pew Research Center. It focuses on the opinions of people living in 37 countries about Donald Trump and the United States. We are lucky because Hungary was one of the 10 European countries included in the survey.
Overall, confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs dropped sharply (from 64% to 22%) after Trump became president. This is true in Hungary as well. Hungarian trust in the presidency in the closing years of Obama’s second term was 58%, but by the time of the survey it was only 29%. I should add that there are only two countries of the 37 included in the survey where confidence in Trump was greater than it was in Obama: Israel (from 49% to 56%) and Russia (from 11% to 56%). Disappointment among Russians must be great nowadays.
When the researchers wanted to pinpoint the effect of the change in U.S. administration on public opinion in the countries studied some interesting results surfaced. Ten European countries were included in the survey: Hungary, Poland, Greece, Italy, France, United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden. In most of these countries there was a sizable drop in people’s favorable views of the United States after Trump moved into the White House. For example, this drop was 28 percentage points in Spain and 26 percentage points in the Netherlands. Hungary and Greece were the only two exceptions. In Hungary’s case there was a +1 move (62% to 63%) and in Greece a +5 change after Trump was elected.
Confidence in Trump as president is low everywhere in Europe. For example, 92% of Spaniards have no confidence in him, but even other European countries, including Greece and Italy, expressed very strong anti-Trump sentiments. Poland and Hungary are the last two countries on the list, each with only a 57% disapproval rate. In its opinion of the U.S.-Mexican wall, Hungary is at the bottom of the list, with a 49% disapproval rate, which may not sound like much of an endorsement until we compare it to the other European countries. The European median is 86%. Another telling figure is Hungarians’ strong approval of restrictions on entry to the United States from majority-Muslim countries. Hungary heads the list with 70% as opposed to the European median of 36%.
At the time Hungarians were also a great deal less critical of Donald Trump’s qualifications for the presidency. The European figures are devastating, but in Hungary more people believe he is qualified for the job (39%) than in any other European country. This is also true when it comes to questions about his personal traits, like his alleged arrogance and intolerance. Hungary is always at the end of the list, often together with Poland, in being the least critical. It is also telling that while overwhelming majority of Spaniards, French, Swedes, Dutch, and Germans consider Trump to be very dangerous as far as the world is concerned (76%-69%), only 42% of Hungarians do.
An intriguing situation. Within the European context Hungarians are less inclined to be harsh in their assessment of Donald Trump’s presidency. At least this was the case a few months ago. It will be fascinating to watch what happens in the coming months, especially if government media criticism of Trump’s policies becomes more widespread.