In a closely watched speech on Thursday before American conservatives in Texas, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, called for nothing less than a remaking of the global world order — remarks that left his longtime observers agape at his audacity.
“We must take back the institutions in Washington and in Brussels,” Orban told the crowd in Dallas at the latest gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Play by your own rules,” he urged, in what amounts to a succinct summary of his governing philosophy.
My colleague Neil Vigdor has been covering the news from the event, but today’s newsletter aims to go a little deeper on who Orban is and why his entanglement with CPAC has attracted so much criticism — and not just on the left.
Over more than a decade in power, Orban and his ruling political party, Fidesz, have dismantled many of the political reforms put in place after the fall of the Soviet Union, while cozying up to Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader.
Those moves have led many analysts to see him as a kind of postmodern dictator — not fully autocratic, but far from democratic. And Russia hawks have been alarmed by the way Hungary has accommodated Russian geopolitical strategy, as in Orban’s decision to distance Hungary from American and European support for Ukraine after Putin’s invasion this winter.
But recently, Orban has gone beyond his dictator-curious approach to openly embrace the kind of ethnonationalism that European elites have tried to snuff out since World War II. In July, in an inflammatory speech in Romania, he denounced immigration from outside the existing boundaries of Europe, saying it was an effort to impose a “mixed-race” society on Hungary.
“This is why we fought at Nandorfehervar/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and — if I am not mistaken — this is why, in still older times, the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers,” Orban said, a reference to long-forgotten historical battles between the Hapsburg dynasty and Ottoman empires, and between the Franks and the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.
He also appeared to make light of the Nazis’ use of gas chambers during the Holocaust, joking during a discussion of Germany’s plans to reduce natural gas imports from Russia: “The past shows us German know-how on that.”
One of his own advisers, the sociologist Zsuzsa Hegedus, quit in protest. In a resignation letter that was made public, Hegedus wrote, “After such a speech, which contradicts all my basic values, I was left with no other choice.”
Why they love him
So what is the attraction here?
It’s a question many have written about, including in our news pages — but none with more clarity and sweep than Elisabeth Zerofsky, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.
Last year, Zerofsky delved into the fascination among some conservatives with Orban for an article called “How the American Right Fell in Love With Hungary.”
Part of Orban’s appeal, she says, is to Catholic intellectuals, who see him as creating the ideal culturally conservative Catholic country at a time of social upheaval and creeping secularization. (Orban himself isn’t especially pious. According to Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton professor who has known him since the early 1990s, “no one has ever seen him in a church.”)
But on a more gut level, for leaders like Donald Trump — who this week sent out a news release with a picture of himself shaking hands with Orban at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. — Orban’s ability to outmaneuver or “own the libs,” in an expression oft used on the right, is fundamental to his appeal.
“Great spending time with my friend, Viktor Orban,” Trump wrote. “We discussed many interesting topics — few people know as much about what is going on in the world today. We were also celebrating his great electoral victory in April.”
Orban had a warm response, posting a video on Facebook with clips of the encounter. “We are both committed to fighting illegal migration, we are both committed to low taxes, and most importantly, we are both committed to peace,” he said.
Aside from Trump, one of the most prominent boosters of Orban and Orbanism is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, who has interviewed the Hungarian leader and given him laudatory coverage. Last summer, Carlson even decamped to Budapest to host an entire week of programming.
“Just a few years ago, his views would have been seen as moderate and conventional,” Carlson, an Episcopalian who straddles both the intellectual and entertainment wings of the Republican Party, said on the air. “He thinks families are more important than banks. He believes countries need borders. For saying these things out loud, Orban has been vilified.”
Zerofsky’s piece is partly a profile of Rod Dreher, a conservative Catholic writer who actually moved to Hungary out of admiration for its political shift; she also takes a look at Patrick Deneen, another conservative Catholic thinker and professor at the University of Notre Dame whose most famous work is “Why Liberalism Failed,” a controversial 2018 book arguing that the postwar social order created by Western democracies has been, well, a failure.
As a thesis, the book is provocative — it was largely written before Trump’s election, but it hit the marketplace of ideas at the perfect time, as liberals in the United States and Europe struggled to understand the right-wing movements flourishing on both continents.
As a public intellectual, Deneen is hard to categorize; former President Barack Obama praised the book for “cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril.”
Deneen told Zerofksy that like many American Catholics, he felt “politically homeless”: conservative on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but drawn to leftward ideas on economic policy.
It’s that kind of mash-up of left- and right-wing ideology that bolstered Trump among a certain class of thinker in the United States; during his 2016 campaign and in the White House, Trump jettisoned longstanding Republican nostrums about the need to cut entitlement spending, while torquing up his critiques of “woke” political language and policies on race and immigration. The so-called Muslim ban he tried and failed to enact as president is a paradigmatic example that blended both strains of his Orban-like approach to politics.
Asked to comment on Orban’s speech in Romania and his appearance at CPAC, Deneen wrote in an email that he believed “most American commentators have largely imported American concepts and experience about how to interpret the prime minister’s remarks,” referring me to a letter by one of Orban’s advisers defending his views on race.
Hungary remains a member of the European Union, but morally and politically, it has become something of a pariah state as Orban has clamped down on freedom of the press and stoked antisemitic sentiments by attacking figures like George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist whose university was hounded out of the country in 2019.
Even Zerofsky, who spent months tracing the links between Orban and the American right, found his appearance at CPAC stunning.
“I’m still surprised,” she said in an interview. “To have the leader of a foreign country speaking at a major gathering of a foreign country — that seems like a big deal to me.”
Who is canceling whom?
Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist who also runs the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, has defended hosting Orban, arguing that the criticism amounts to “cancel culture.”
In a recent tweet, he wrote: “When we silence people we skip the chance to learn why w agree or disagree w their POV. Cancel culture is the judge and jury of speech.”
Orban, however, is no paragon of open-minded virtue. According to Freedom House, a nonprofit that monitors worldwide freedom of speech, Orban’s party, Fidesz, has “moved to institute policies that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities and nongovernmental organizations (N.G.O.s) whose perspectives it finds unfavorable.”
Asked to explain the contradiction, Alex Pfeiffer, a spokesman for CPAC, replied in an email: “We support the open exchange of ideas unlike so many American socialists. The press might despise Prime Minister Orban, but he is a popular leader in his fourth successive term.”
Let those words sink in: “fourth successive term.” Orban has held power since 2010, in part through his unquestionable political savvy and in part through the haplessness of the opposition on left and right — but also through tilting the rules of politics in his favor.
So why was Orban speaking in Dallas? What was in it for him?
An outcast among the political leaders of Western Europe, he craves the legitimacy that comes from such invitations, according to experts who have followed his ascent for years.
But he also seemed to be putting his chips on Trump’s return in 2024.
Scheppele, the Princeton scholar, said Orban was effectively “offering himself and his country as an ally of the Republican Party against the current administration, not as an ally of the U.S. against common enemies.”
That, she said, was “breathtaking.”
What to read
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