BUDAPEST — It’s springtime here for illiberal democracy. Once the country that opened its border with Austria in August 1989, a move that led directly to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Hungary has since made something of a U-turn.
“Come back, Mr. President,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared on Thursday. “Make America Great Again and bring us peace.”
I came to Hungary to witness the not new, yet still astonishing enmeshing of the populist-nationalist American right and its European counterpart, and I didn’t have to wait long. There was Orbán endorsing Donald Trump’s 2024 bid on the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference taking place here. Some in the audience wore T-shirts depicting Orbán and Trump as “saviors of the world.”
I was supposed to be watching all this from inside the conference, within the gleaming Bálna, or whale center, along the Danube. Instead, I was livestreaming it from my hotel room — barred from entry as a member of the media.
When I tried to attend the event earlier that day, I ran into a barrier that seemed almost as formidable as the old Berlin Wall. Two security guards loomed large before a gateway arch in front of the center entrance, which was festooned with the slogan “Woke Free Zone.” More guards and metal detectors were downstairs in the registration area.
I was surprised but not shocked by my travails. I knew that CPAC had banned many journalists, including the New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz the previous year, so last month I made sure to reach out to the Hungarian Center for Fundamental Rights, which was co-hosting the conference, to avoid precisely this scenario. I received a friendly email from Dora Gulyas, the center’s director for communication and public relations. She declared, “We are happy to provide you with a press pass consider it done.” A few days before the event, however, I received an email from the center indicating that I should watch it on the web, complete with the Kafkaesque instruction, “There is nothing further to do.” When I went to the Bálna center in a last-ditch attempt to cross the border, I was treated like an invader: “We are full.”
Once upon a time CPAC, which hosted its annual flagship event just outside Washington two months ago, was eager for media attention. But lately, CPAC officials have developed an aversion to the press, restricting many reporters and denouncing its critics as “fake journalists.” That seems particularly true as the MAGA movement has embraced Orbán and his agenda.
Hungary is now the global epicenter of the new right’s crusade against liberal democracy. It serves as an alluring model for many conservatives — a country that’s successfully neutered the media and the judiciary as well as passed an anti-LGBTQ law that’s supposed to protect the traditional family. And don’t forget Orbán’s reluctance to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s brutal invasion.
This is the second year in a row that CPAC came to Budapest, and Trump and his allies rejoiced in the blossoming relationship. In a Friday video address to the conference, Trump hailed the “freedom-loving patriots” at the conference and declared that it was imperative to “stand together to defend our borders, our Judeo-Christian values, our identity and our way of life.”
“Our ties have never been closer,” Balázs Orbán, the affable political director for Viktor Orbán (no relation), told me about Hungary’s relations with the Republican Party. It was Thursday afternoon, and we were meeting at an outdoor bistro next to the conference center. No sooner did Balázs Orbán finish that thought than an elegantly attired Michael Anton — the former Trump administration national security council official and author of the “Flight 93 Election” essay that famously made the apocalyptic case for Trump in 2016 — stopped by to introduce himself.
With his references to Renaissance paintings and classical architecture, the bespectacled Balázs Orbán can give off an academic air, but if anyone has been working to bolster the practical political links between American and Hungarian conservatives, it’s him. He had recently returned from a trip to America, where he spoke at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration, appeared on Fox News and addressed the hard-line New York Young Republican Club. As Balázs Orbán turned me into his own disciple by demonstrating how to make a Fröccs, the popular wine and soda-water drink, he explained, “It’s in Hungary’s interest to have a Republican president.”
The drink was nifty enough, but it didn’t mix entirely well with the conference itself.
As I livestreamed the event, it quickly became clear that the Bálna center was functioning as a kind of mega-church for the Trumpian right. There were sermons and homilies and exhortations. There were warnings about satanic forces. And there were promises of redemption and salvation. One speaker talked about being crucified for politically incorrect views; others worshipped at the altar of Orbánism, praising Hungary as an outpost of Christianity that was beating back the infidels and heretics.
“I stand in awe,” declared Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts. GOP Rep. Paul Gosar, who has appeared at white nationalist events in the past, agreed. “Hungary,” he said, “is a beacon.”
In fact, the MAGA faithful flocked to the event to profess their admiration for the Hungarian miracle. Former Arizona candidate for governor Kari Lake recently declared on Steve Bannon’s show that “Hungary is doing things right.” One thing Orbán is apparently doing right is cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Friday morning, Lake announced at the conference that there was a simple solution to ending the Ukraine conflict — sellout Kyiv to the Russians. “The only way to stop this war,” she said, “is to turn off the money spigot. I say we should invest in protecting our borders, not Ukraine’s.”
In a video message presumably taped before his abrupt ouster, former Fox News host Tucker Carlson told the Americans who were in Budapest that they were “very brave” as the State Department was “keeping track, you went to a forbidden country.” Later that day Orbán hosted Lake, Gosar and more than a dozen other American conservative activists and politicians for a photo-op at his office, including the Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec and former Sen. Rick Santorum. Hungary, Orbán said, has become an “incubator where the conservative policies of the future are being tested.”
Despite the democratic erosion in Hungary and on the American right, the theme of freedom was omnipresent as various speakers denounced the European Union, among other things, as a totalitarian organization intent on inflicting gender policies on Hungary that would endanger the traditional family. Croatian parliamentarian Stephen Bartulica decried the “anti-Christian” elites in Brussels, while Roger Köppel of the far-right Swiss People’s Party likened the ideology of “woke culture” to National Socialism. The Hungarian historian Maria Schmidt stated, “We want to preserve our own culture, we want to hold on to our language, our roots, our traditions, our identity. We don’t tolerate people crawling under our duvets and interfering in our private lives.”
Throughout, the idea was clear: Liberalism is synonymous with tyranny. Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga, who spoke on Thursday, congratulated the delegates for successfully completing a dangerous journey — flying over authoritarian countries to reach Hungary, the only truly free country in Europe.
The fealty that leading American politicians are paying to Orbán as they troop to Budapest allows him to fortify his image in Hungary as an international statesman. Fully embracing the Republican Party is a gamble that will likely antagonize President Joe Biden, but it’s also one that could elevate Orbán should Trump return to the White House — allowing him to bypass his European detractors and exercise outsized influence.
The Biden administration, by contrast, has taken a fairly hostile approach to Orban’s Hungary, including terminating a Hungarian-American tax agreement in retaliation for Budapest preventing the EU from adopting a global minimum tax. It’s also gone to war with Biden’s ambassador, David Pressman, who regularly trolls the regime.
CPAC has been good for Orbán. A return by Trump would be even better. “A Republican president,” Balázs Orbán said, “is in Hungary’s interest.”
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