Given how Maryland’s Democratic leadership drew the congressional district map in 2011, pretty much guaranteeing that the state’s delegation would consist of seven Democrats and just one Republican, you could argue that the one Republican should be as extremely conservative as possible. How else to achieve ideological balance across this heavily gerrymandered landscape?
Andy Harris has been Maryland’s only Republican in the House of Representatives since January 2013. He’s a member of the Freedom Caucus, the House’s most conservative group, consisting of representatives who went to Washington as part of the tea party movement. His positions on major issues — abortion, climate change, regulation of firearms, etc. — are solidly on the right. Harris is a doctor who voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act dozens of times.
And lots of voters residing in the Big Red One, Maryland’s 1st District, like him that way, or at least recognize that this blue state needs to send at least one hard-right Republican to Capitol Hill. Voters have given Harris the thumbs-up five times now, the last time in Blue Wave November, when he defeated his Democratic challenger, Army veteran Jesse Colvin, by 67,031 votes.
But even people who see the need to go to extremes for ideological balance might pause, or even shudder, at Harris’ support of Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary and kindred spirit of Vladimir Putin. Whatever your party affiliation, if you’re an American who believes that the United States stands for freedom — and I think that’s still most of us, right? — you should be appalled at Harris’ adoration of an authoritarian ruler who appears to be one shoeshine away from full dictator status.
Since taking office in the former Soviet bloc nation, Orban has established an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary with one-party rule and increasingly centralized power. He asserted control over the judiciary, took control of most media, cracked down on migrants and changed the electoral system to the benefit of his Fidesz party. In recent days, people have taken to the streets to protest some of the Orban government’s draconian policies.
Hungary’s slow march toward authoritarianism and nationalism has not gone unnoticed.
In September, in an unprecedented move, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to censure Orban’s government for violating democratic norms, citing concerns about freedom of the press, academic freedom, the nation’s judicial system, and the rights of refugees.
The parliament is the representative body of the European Union. It supports democracy as a core value, and its 448-197 vote served as a warning to Hungary that it has slipped too far from democratic ideals.
Back here in the states, in Maryland’s 1st District, Andy Harris basically says pooh on that. On Nov. 27, a few weeks after winning re-election, he co-signed a love letter to Orban on congressional letterhead: “Following the decision by the European Parliament to punish Hungary for exercising its rights to sovereignty and the promotion of its national identity, we would like to reiterate our strong support to you and your democratically elected government.”
The letter went on to applaud the fiercely anti-migrant Orban for protecting Hungary’s borders and for seeking to preserve what it listed as the “fundamental values” of Europe: “Civilization based on principles of a Judeo-Christian heritage, a free market economy and strong nations that value sovereignty.”
The letter, signed by Harris and 11 other Republicans, expressed affinity with Orban’s Hungary: “Given the substantial common ground our two countries share on several issues, we are eager to strengthen the considerable bonds between the United States and Hungary. Our strong economic ties, our cooperation in fighting international and Islamic terrorism, the joint support of persecuted Christians, as well as our mutual belief in robust border security and a strong national defense, provide a strong foundation on which to continue to build our alliance.”
Last January, Harris claimed the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor tried to influence Hungary’s spring elections by providing funds in support of an independent news media. The grants were aimed at helping media outlets outside of Budapest “produce fact-based reporting and ... increase citizens’ access to objective information about domestic and global issues of public importance.”
Harris criticized the State Department grants and described Hungary as “a vibrant democratic state.”
There are thousands of people in the streets of Budapest this week who disagree with that assessment.
As I’ve noted before, Andy Harris’ support of Orban is pretty weird, but more so when you consider that Harris’ father spent two years in a Soviet gulag for his anti-communist views. Once upon a time, particularly during the Cold War, Republicans decried dictators, promoted democracy and freedom, and supported American attempts at regime change around the world. Now, in the Trump era, the Republican position, here and abroad, seems to be acceptance of the strong man, and a disregard of democratic ideals, in the cause of nationalism. Few things in this world are more upside down.