About two weeks ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gave a speech in which he stated:we don’t want to become a mixed race people.” On Thursday afternoon, he delivered the opening address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, a bookend for former President Donald Trump’s closing address this weekend at the influential right-wing rally.
That Orbán took pride of place at American conservatism’s most prominent jamboree, despite his recent mask-off moment — a moment that led to a longtime Orbán adviser resigning and calling his speech “Goebbels worthy” – is a testament to his country’s place in the imagination of the American right. Under Orbán, Hungary has become to them what the Scandinavian countries are to some progressives: an idealized model of what they hope America could become. The main difference is that the Scandinavian countries are firmly democratic, while Orbán’s Hungary is not.
Orbán carefully dismissed accusations of both racism and authoritarianism in his CPAC speech, mocking accusations as “fake news” produced by “idiots.” But if you listened closely to his speech, the dark heart of his project was clearly visible: a conspiratorial belief that “globalists” were pushing the West to the brink of cultural suicide, combined with an overt admission that conservatives “cannot fight successfully by liberal means.” The mask was back on, but it was gossamer.
The aim of the speech was simple enough: to strengthen the ties that link Orbánism to the Trumpism that dominates the American right. The Hungarian populist sees the potential in that regard. His closing lines called on conservatives across the Atlantic to “coordinate our forces” in the fight against liberalism, and urged them to line up to remove Joe Biden from office (“you have two years to prepare yourself”). According to him, the stakes are the future of our civilization.
“The West is at war with itself. We have seen the future of the globalist ruling class. But we have a different kind of future in mind,” Orbán told the crowd. “The globalists can all go to hell. I came to Texel.”
The Hungarian Prime Minister’s efforts to the right in the United States have been long-standing, deliberate and very well-informed. He has met prominent conservatives in academia and the media, and even offers state-funded scholarships in Budapest, and is well versed in the language and tropes of the American right. His speech deftly made references to their ideas, such as attacks on abolishing the police and support for a flat income tax, that at times made him sound less like a foreign dignitary and more like a GOP candidate for office. He repeatedly gave in to the Texan public, calling Hungary “the lone star-state of Europe” and saying, “we’ve decided we don’t need more genders, we need more Rangers; less drag queens and more Chuck Norris.”
If Orbán has been courting US law for years, his speech in Dallas was a marriage proposal — one that appears to have been accepted. The dangers of this ideological link should not be underestimated.
What Viktor Orbán Told CPAC
Typically, foreign leaders who travel to the United States try not to get involved in US partisan politics. Addressing CPAC, an overtly conservative organization, certainly doesn’t fit the mold.
While at first pretending to be diplomatic, Orbán said “we respect the United States government,” he also noted that “we are not the favorites of the American Democrats” — and that the feelings were very mutual. In the speech, he practically positioned his government as the European branch of the GOP — saying that “we must join forces” to “take back the institutions in Washington and in Brussels.”
“You have midterm elections this year, then presidential and congressional elections in ’24. And we will hold elections in the European Parliament [the] same year,” he continued. “These two locations will define the two fronts in the struggle for Western civilization. Today we have neither. Yet we need both.”
These distant elections are politically linked, Orbán argued, because both represent a struggle between traditionalist conservatives and globalist progressives. According to him, the latter camp is prominently represented by George Soros – a Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor and philanthropist turned transatlantic conservative ogre.
“He has an army at his service: money, NGOs, universities, research institutions and half of the bureaucrats in Brussels. He is using this army to force his will on his opponents like us Hungarians,” the prime minister said.
Soros and his “army” pose an existential threat to the survival of the West, according to Orbán. They are trying to eradicate “Christian” values - which he sometimes referred to as “Judeo-Christian values”, questionable prefix when discussing the Jewish Soros – and recreating the circumstances under which Nazis and Communists once rose to threaten Europe.
“The horrors of Nazism and Communism happened because some Western states in mainland Europe abandoned their Christian values. And today’s progressives intend to do the same,” he said. “They want to give up western values and create a new world, a post-western world. Who’s going to stop them if we don’t?”
Aside from the obvious absurdity of Orban’s history here – fascist forces received significant support from some churches, also in Hungaryand drew on an anti-Semitic tradition rooted in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism — the reference to Christian values spoke to a deeper purpose for his visit.
It does something Trump has been an expert at: elevating the stakes of the fight against liberals like Biden and Soros to an existential pinnacle.
So what needs to happen besides winning a handful of elections? Orbán suggested a few things, including building “a legal wall around our children to protect them from the gender ideology targeting them” and a literal wall to keep migrants out. But even more ominous was his suggestion that “we cannot fight successfully by liberal means because our adversaries use liberal institutions, concepts and language to disguise their Marxist and hegemonic plans.”
This rejection of philosophical liberalism – of the “institutions” and “concepts” that define politics in a liberal democracy – recalls Orbán’s infamous 2014 description of his view of Hungary as a “illiberal democracy.”
The term is a bit of a misnomer, as his regime has piled up the electoral deck so thoroughly in favor of his Fidesz party that it is no longer meaningfully described as a democracy either. And in the past eight years, the Prime Minister has acknowledged the nefarious implications of the phrase and moved away from it (preferring the term “Christian Democracy”).
But it nonetheless captures the ruthless politics Orbán has practiced — including seize media property, abuse asylum seekers, closing universities, restricting the freedom of speech of LGBTQ people, destroying the businesses of his political rivals – to get his grip on power. All the while, these steps have been justified by reference to the supposedly existential threat to Hungarian Christian identity: a politics without restrictions animated by warnings of impending national extinction from enemies both internal and external.
The vision Orbán presented at CPAC, and the one that the public applauded, is essentially the scaffolding for authoritarianism.
Why Orbán’s Speech Worked — And Why It Matters
The most striking thing about the Hungarian autocrat’s speech, when you first heard it, was how… American it was.
Listen to the rhetoric of any leading Republican or Conservative today, and you’re likely to hear nearly identical apocalyptic language about progressives, migrants, and gender. It is above all a staple of Trump rallies – his speech 2019 claiming that Democrats “want to destroy you and they want our country as we know it” is a representative example – but it’s far beyond him.
Take Tucker Carlson — the most influential pundit on the right and, not coincidentally, Viktor Orbán’s biggest American booster. Carlson, like Orbán, has fully embraced the idea that migration is a plot to “replace” the native population with people who are fundamentally incapable of maintaining its traditions.
“No country can resist what we are going through now and in our particular case it turns out that many of the people who are coming are not ready to participate in a democracy,” as he put it in a monologue in july. He partially blamed “a George Soros-affiliated organization” for escorting immigrants to the country — asking rhetorically, “Why is a foreign-born billionaire allowed to fundamentally change our country?”
Soros is in no way “fundamentally changing” America, let alone through mass migration. But Carlson, the top-rated host on cable news, know what his viewers are to long for.
When conservative intellectuals affirm Hungarian politics, they usually cite some of Orbán’s policies, such as his efforts to reduce migration rates and tax incentives for people to have more children. But the details of Hungarian family policy have not made him a leading attraction at CPAC; it is the fact that his hideous worldview matches the mood of the conservative base. They too see the left as an existential threat, and they are delighted to have a foreign leader who seems to have conquered it in his country.
Orbán’s victory came by anti-democratic means — a fact his American fans, like the Prime Minister himself, will vehemently deny. And yet there is no doubt that the specter of the existential cultural struggle has led to similar Republican attacks on democracy and petty liberalism.
Trump lacks Orbán’s talent for manipulating policy levers to tighten his grip on power; in this regard, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is the closest American parallel. But Trump rivals, even surpasses, Orbán in understanding how far you can go once you convince your followers that the very survival of their country is at stake.
In his now infamous January 6 speech, Trump told the crowd to “fight” for America: “If you don’t fight like that, you’re not going to have a country.” When you’re at war, when the very survival of the country is at stake, you take whatever steps you need to take to defend yourself – even drastic ones.
This is why more and more the conservative vision for Washington resembles Budapest-on-the-Potomac.