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John McCain insults Hungarian leader, causes international incident

John McCain.
John McCain.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Sen. John McCain isn't a man given to understatement. During a Tuesday Senate speech, McCain called Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban "a neo-fascist dictator" and accused him of "getting in bed with Vladimir Putin." The Hungarian government, which is a NATO ally of the US, noticed — and got really mad.

Wednesday morning, Hungary called in the Chargé d'Affaires of the US embassy there, André Goodfriend, to complain about the senator's comments. Levente Magyar, Hungary's Foreign Ministry State Secretary, issued a statement condemning McCain's comments. According to Reuters, the Hungarian embassy in Washington is going to get in touch with McCain's people to "inquire about the Senator's words and their background."

This is a pretty showy display of anger. But the hard truth is that McCain was not entirely wrong. Orban really is a kind of neo-fascist: in June, he gave a speech calling for Hungary to give up liberal democracy in favor of "an illiberal new state based on national foundations." He pointed to China and Russia as examples.

viktor orban

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This is Viktor Orban, whose smirk just screams Bond villain. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Orban's tenure since taking office in 2010 has been marked by increasing restrictions on the independent press and elections structured to make it almost impossible for Orban's party to lose. During Orban's tenure, a far-right anti-Semitic party, Jobbik, has grown in power. While Hungary's democracy isn't dead — an anti-Orban protest movement has shot up since mid-October — it's at serious risk.

So McCain's right that Orban really is a troubling figure. But why did he decide to talk about the Orban situation yesterday?

Because of President Obama, as it turns out. Tuesday, the Senate voted to confirm Colleen Bell, the president's nominee to be ambassador to Hungary. Bell isn't exactly a Hungary expert: she's a former soap opera producer who just happened to be a big Obama bundler. McCain has been blasting her as unqualified since at least February, so Tuesday's comments were of a culmination of a long, failed campaign to keep her out of the Budapest office.

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