Here’s why America’s conservatives are heading to Hungary for a big conference

Updated May 19, 2022 8:42 a.m. ET

It may seem odd that a nationalist conservative group identified with Donald Trump and America First would hold its annual meeting this week in Hungary.

CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, is one of the largest gatherings of conservatives in the world, and Budapest makes sense when you consider that this year’s keynote speaker – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – is a hero for some.

“Right now, the political leader of the conservative resistance in the West is the prime minister of a small country in central Europe. [country] that most Americans don’t even think about,” Rod Dreher of The American Conservative said at a conference on conservatism last year.

Orban has been criticized as an authoritarian white ethno-nationalist. He restricted Muslim immigration and LGBTQ rights while establishing a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many American conservatives, however, see Orban’s Hungary as some sort of anti-revival paradise.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, one of the most prominent proponents of the idea of ​​minorities replacing white Western civilization, broadcast his show from Budapest last summer.

“If you care about Western civilization, democracy and families and the ferocious assaults on those three things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what’s going on here right now,” Carlson said, then that he was in Hungary.

Matt Schlapp, the president of CPAC, says there’s a lot about Orban and Hungary for American conservatives to admire.

“He embraced their Christian heritage, and if Christian societies want to see their values ​​reflected in government, that’s a good thing,” Schlapp said.

Orban is one of Donald Trump’s favorite foreign leaders

In 2019, Trump invited Orban to the Oval Office, a move both previous US presidents had avoided.

“Viktor Orban has done a wonderful job in so many different ways – highly respected, respected all over Europe – probably, like me, a bit controversial, but that’s okay,” Trump said at the time.

Princeton sociologist Kim Scheppele, an expert on Hungarian politics, says Trump’s relationship with Orban is different from the typical good relationship a US president might have with a foreign leader.

“All international democracy rating agencies agree that Hungary is no longer a democracy. And the United States has never had a president who is a dictator’s best friend before,” he said. Scheppele said.

Currently, American conservatism and Hungarian politics are driven by cultural issues – such as immigration, gender identity and abortion. And Scheppele says that in Hungary the culture wars are on the surface while the push towards autocracy is just below.

“All culture war campaigns have been used to cover up the fact that by law Orban has limited democratic space. tell him no,” she said.

Orban has filled the courts – and the press in Hungary is also controlled by Orban loyalists. This is something Schlapp rejects in attacking the American mainstream media.

“There have been some criticisms of press freedom in Hungary, as there are in many countries we visit. But I think we are grappling with these issues right here in America,” Schlapp said. “and we really have no right to look down on what other people are doing with the press.”

So what does this tell us about American politics?

Scheppele says Hungary has become MAGA’s flagship model.

“What he tells us about the American Republican Party is that he realizes that he is not alone, that there are international models, that they can learn from them,” says -she.

And right now, says Scheppele, Orban is leading the way.

“What Orban has really perfected is how to keep re-electing leaders whose aspirations are absolutely not to maintain a democracy, but rather the opposite: to confine power forever to a small group of people. When you lift this issue now in the United States, people don’t automatically say it’s a bad idea.”

What Orban does is not only not a bad idea for conservative thought leaders like Dreher, it’s an existential necessity.

“We are living, at this moment, with an ongoing societal catastrophe with gender confusion and transgender. Viktor Orban wants to save his nation from this ideological toxin and does not hesitate to use the power of the state to do so, even if that might violate the spirit of liberalism,” Dreher said.

Liberalism, in this sense, means democracy with checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and tolerance for diversity of background and opinion. When CPAC comes to Hungary, Dreher and others say he will be able to see what a nationalist conservative government can accomplish. So whether it comes from Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson or CPAC, the message from the summit is clear: Conservative activists have a lot to learn from a self-proclaimed illiberal leader like Viktor Orban.

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