For the past four years two Western political figures have loomed particularly large in the imaginations of anxious liberals. The first is President Donald Trump, notionally the West’s most powerful populist simply by virtue of the office that he occupies. The second is Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, probably the West’s most effective populist in terms of the powers he’s consolidated, the opponents he’s routed and the influence he’s claimed over his nation’s political life.
There are good reasons to consider Trump and Orban as parallel figures. They have similar political bases, similar enemies and similar support from the “nationalist international” that has rallied online support for populists the world over. Both are sharp critics of international institutions and liberal politesse, both have cronyist tendencies and insalubrious associations and both have benefited immensely from the failures of the genteel center, the respectable elite.
But there has always been an essential difference between the two men, palpable from the first days of Trump’s administration but thrown into sharp relief by the crisis of the last few months.
Orban is not exactly the autocrat of liberal caricature, but he is a politician profoundly interested in political power and its uses, and he has consolidated enough power for his circle and his party that the liberal alarm around his rule is understandable.
Whereas real political authority, the power to rule and not just to survive, is something that Donald Trump conspicuously does not seem to want.
Consider their differing responses to the coronavirus. In Hungary, its arrival prompted a swift push for a declaration of emergency, passed by a supermajority in Hungary’s parliament, that gave the prime minister extraordinary powers for the duration of the crisis — and left that duration open-ended, a state of exception without a formal end.
What this meant was instantly disputed: Orban’s critics charged that Hungary had crossed the Rubicon into dictatorship; the European Union hemmed and hedged; Orban himself has let be known that he may return the powers to the legislature this month and give “everyone a chance to apologize to Hungary for the unfair charges.” (Hungary, like most of Eastern Europe, has successfully contained the coronavirus for now.)
But one need not resolve this argument and decide whether Orban is closer to a Vladimir Putin or a Charles de Gaulle to recognize that he was behaving the way aggressive leaders generally behave in times of crisis — seeking more authority, more space to act against the danger — and then to note the stark contrast with the Trump White House’s response to the same challenge.
The appearance of COVID-19 afforded roughly the same opportunity to Trump that it did to Hungary’s leader: Here was a foreign threat, an invisible enemy that required a robust government response, a danger that arguably vindicated certain nationalist and populist ideas, a situation in which the normal rules of politics could be suspended for public safety’s sake.
For good or ill, in the past such crises have generally led to surges of presidential popularity and consolidations of presidential power, under Democrats and Republicans alike. And the idea that such an emergency would come along during Trump’s administration was exactly the scenario that people alarmed by his ascent most feared — a case of History granting a president temperamentally inclined to authoritarianism a genuine state of exception in which to enact his fantasies of one-man rule.
But Trump didn’t want the gift. It’s not just that our president was too ineffective to consolidate power, that any potential authoritarianism was undermined by his administration’s incompetence. Incompetent he surely is, but in areas that involve his self-preservation (like the firing of inconvenient inspectors general) he still finds a way to wield his powers even when norms stand in his way.
But once you leave the sphere of petty corruption for the sphere of policymaking, Trump clearly lacks both the facility and the interest level required to find opportunity in crisis. In this case, confronted with the same basic facts as Orban, he showed no sense of the pandemic as anything save an inconvenience to be ignored, a problem to be wished away, an impediment to his lifestyle of golf and tweets and occasional stream-of-consciousness stemwinders. And when reality made ignoring it impossible, his only genuinely political impulse — the only impulse that related to real power and its uses — was to push the crucial forms of responsibility down a level, to the nation’s governors, and wash his presidential hands.
In this the coronavirus has clarified, once and for all, the distinctiveness of Trump’s demagoguery. Great men and bad men alike seek attention as a means of getting power, but our president is interested in power only as a means of getting attention. Which is why, tellingly, his most important virus-related power grab to date has been the airtime grab of his daily news conferences — a temporary coup against the cable television schedule, a ruthless imposition (at least until the reviews turned bad) of presidential reality TV.
In the arguments over the true nature of Trump’s presidency, this column has long emphasized the fundamentally ridiculous elements of Trumpism — against my fervently anti-Trump friends, who have cast the president as a Mussolini in the making, and my cautiously pro-Trump friends, who have portrayed him as a man who understands something about hardball politics that more decent Mitt Romney-style Republicans did not.
There is obviously some truth to both their emphases: Trump does have authoritarian instincts, and he does have an intuitive grasp of certain crucial dynamics of American politics that his party’s establishment long lacked. And in a different leader these qualities could lead to dangerous ambition, ruthless effectiveness or both — with Viktor Orban as a case study however you ultimately judge him.
But in Trump both qualities are swamped by the far more important aspects of his character — a chancer’s fear of claiming any power that might lead to responsibility and someday blame, a showman’s preference for performance over rule, a media addict’s preference for bluster over deeds.
So while both his critics and his allies imagined him, in different ways, as an American Orban — a subverter of democracy or a tough guy for tough times — the great crisis of his presidency has revealed the vast gulf that separates him not only from Hungary’s leader but also from almost every statesman ever considered uniquely dangerous or uniquely skilled.
In the fourth year of this presidency, the black comedy has finally given way to tragedy. But not because Trump suddenly discovered how to use his authority for dictatorial or democracy-defying purpose. Rather, because in this dark spring America needed a president capable of exercising power and found that it had only a television star, a shirker and a clown.