Donald Trump likes to portray himself as strong man. A hard, tough man who stands up to the rest of the world, tweets it like it is and puts America first. The evidential facts tell a different story.  Trump is increasingly becoming the puppet of anti-democratic strongmen such as Turkish President Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin who use the American president’s craving for acceptance to manipulate him for their own ends. 

Trump grew up in the New York borough of Queens when it was the first stop for the latest generation of immigrants struggling to survive in the land of opportunity.  The denizens of Manhattan looked down on Queens and all who dwelt there. Trump was determined to show the descendants of the Vanderbilts and Astors.  He would make billions; marry super models; become a reality TV star; plaster his name in 40ft high letters across giant skyscrapers and, finally, become president of the United States.

He wasn’t a strong man. He was a failed businessman who suffered six bankruptcies and was shunned by the New York aristocracy he courted. His life has been one long struggle against a debilitating inferiority complex. And like so many second-raters who seek justification through the accumulation of power and money he has sought the advice, approval and company of those who are truly powerful and ruthless. Nowhere is this more evident than in Trump’s policy in Eastern Europe.  

On 13 May Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had a 45-minute meeting with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. A meeting at the White House is no small matter. It is a much sought after honour which implicitly bestows on the visitor the presidential seal of approval. His audience was opposed by Trump’s national security advisers but pushed by Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The security advisers made it clear that Orban should be blocked because he has politicised the Hungarian judiciary; taken control of the media; changed the electoral system to favour his party, adopted a strong pro-Russian stand; is rabidly anti-immigrant and euro-sceptic.

The State Department, National Security Council and others thought that Orban’s basic values and actions conflicted with American values  and could send the wrong message to America’s traditional allies and Congress. But Orban’s values did not conflict with Trump’s. He was keen to meet a strong personality who could get things done. As David Cornstein, Trump’s  Ambassador to Budapest said: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the power that Viktor Orban enjoys…..”

Orban took his meeting opportunity to attack corruption in Ukraine. Mind you, there is a lot to criticise. Transparency International ranks Ukraine 120 out of 180 on its country by country corruption scale. Some 67 percent of the population have said that they have had to pay bribes at some point or another to police, health workers or education officials. Volodmy Zelsnky, who was swept into office 17 days after Orban’s White House visit, came to power on a strong anti-corruption ticket.  Mind you, Orban’s administration has its own corruption problems.  Transparency International ranks it at 64th out of 180 countries,

But the Hungarian Prime Minister had a hidden agenda in Washington. His real aim was to create conditions which would lead to Ukraine to hiving off its southern Zakarpattia province which is dominated by ethnic Hungarians. Since the end of the 19th century Zakarpattia has bounced between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and finally, after World War II, the Ukraine, which was then promptly absorbed into the USSR until independence in 1991. Orban claims that the roughly 160,000 ethnic Hungarians are being oppressed by the Kiev government and would like to see Zakarpattia annexed by Hungary in the same way that Putin has annexed the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

There is no real evidence to support Orban’s claims of oppression. Hungarian language and culture is taught in Ukrainian schools in ethnic Hungarian areas and many ethnic Hungarians have dual Hungarian and Ukrainian nationality. But Orban needs to keep feeding the fires of populist nationalism to stay on top at home and so he stokes the flames wherever and whenever he can—including with President Trump at the White House.

Trump, was all ears. Partly because he admired strong man Orban and partly because he knew that Hunter Biden had been working for the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma. The sequential line of thinking could easily have gone like this: Orban convinces Trump that Ukraine is riddled with corruption; Trump knows (or learns) that Hunter Biden worked for a Ukrainian company; ergo the younger Biden must be corrupt;  Ukraine needs military assistance; Trump holds back  the assistance until Zelensky agrees to launch a public inquiry into corruption by the elder and younger Bidens; the whistle blower toots that the president is using government money; to extort personal political gain; Congress reacts; Trump doubles down; Ukraine and Zelensky is dragged into the mess and is further destabilised and Orban grabs the chance to protect Ukraine’s ethnic Hungarians.

Trump loves a strong man. Trump listens to strong men who get things done because they are unfettered by democratic chains. What he fails to understand isthat these ruthless populists have a slogan similar to his: Hungary first, Russia First, North Korea first, Turkey first… They care nothing about the American president or the American people.

Tom Arms is a regular contributor to the Whatandthewhy.com, broadcasts for American radio and is working on a major book about Anglo-American relations.

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