Hungary's autocratic leader tells U.S. conservatives to join his culture war
Updated August 4, 2022 at 5:55 PM ET
When Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán, arrived in the U.S. this week, he bypassed the White House and President Biden to pay a visit to a more admiring U.S. president. He caught up with former President Donald Trump at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J.
That was on the way to the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual gathering in Dallas, where Orbán gave the kickoff address on Thursday afternoon — despite a speech last week widely decried as racist, even by one of his top aides. She resigned in protest.
Orbán sloughed off such criticism on Thursday.
"Don't worry, a Christian politician cannot be racist, so we should never hesitate to heavily challenge our opponents on these issues," Orbán told his Texas audience. "Be sure: Christian values protect us from going too far."
To many in the right wing of the Republican party, Orbán offers a model for electoral success. His endurance — he won his fourth straight term as prime minister in April — relies on an unrepentant appeal to a white and Christian heritage for Hungary. It has also depended on rounds of crackdowns on civil liberties and dissenting voices inside the country.
In his speech on Thursday, Orbán portrayed the political fight both in Europe and the U.S. as a stark cultural battle over issues including migration, same-sex marriage and policing.
"They hate me and slander me and my country as they hate you and slander you," he said, identifying Democrats and liberals as the enemy.
His rhetoric recalled that of Pat Buchanan in his unsuccessful Republican presidential bid in 1992, when he famously declared, "There is a religious war going on in this country" and that the "soul of America" was at stake.
Orbán has been given intellectual credence in the U.S. by the American Conservative's Rod Dreher and extraordinary exposure by Fox News's Tucker Carlson, whom Orbán invoked once more today. The primetime cable star has played an outsized role in presenting Orbán to a broader public in this country with interviews, a documentary series and a recurrent argument that the U.S. would be better off with the Hungarian leader's approach. Both have waved away the more problematic implications of Orbán's rhetoric. On Wednesday night, on his show, Carlson even offered what he presented as an apology to one of Orbán's advisers — on behalf of the American media.
"Just a few years ago, his views would have been seen as moderate and conventional," Carlson said last summer, in introducing a week's worth of Fox shows from Hungary. "He thinks families are more important than banks. He believes countries need borders. For saying these things out loud, Orbán has been vilified."
In May, Orbán returned the favor, saying the conservative media cannot compete with what he called "the dominant media."
"Only my friend Tucker Carlson places himself on the line without wavering," Orbán said in May, to a gathering of an arm of CPAC in Budapest, according to a translation offered by CNN. "Programs like his should run day and night. As you say, 24-7."
Many Hungarian policies would rankle the American right. Abortion is legal in Hungary, to a point. The state greatly restricts private gun ownership. And the government offers health care to all.
Such distinctions make no difference to fans seeking inspiration from a strong leader. At that CPAC convention in May, Carlson popped in by videotape, to offer his endorsement of Orbán's Hungary.
CPAC speaker list includes senators, media stars and conspiracy theorists
CPAC's conferences excite a cadre of hardline conservative donors and activists. Announced speakers in Dallas include Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Fox News's Sean Hannity and conspiracy peddler Jack Posobiec, as well as Trump. When Trump was in office, the two men praised each other often. Both offered Russian President Vladimir Putin a warm reception. And Orbán has echoed Trump's attacks on wokeness and cancel culture and other hot-button issues seized on by Republican politicians. He particularly takes rhetorical aim at Hungarian-born billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros, a frequent target of Fox's Carlson and others on the right. (Carlson gave Soros a full documentary treatment in January on Fox Nation, its streaming service.)
The Vanderbilt University historian Nicole Hemmer argues that Orbán's appeal to conservative media echoes the lionization of authoritarian figures in past decades, such as the leaders of the South African apartheid regime and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
"Those leaders turned to right-wing media to gain access to American audiences, hoping those audiences would pressure US leaders and shore up American support for their regimes," Hemmer writes in a message to NPR. "For right-wing hosts, it was a chance both to help Cold War allies and embrace a set of racial politics that had become increasingly less palatable domestically. I think those same dynamics are at play today with Orbán."
Orbán has promoted an explicitly Christian and white vision of Hungary, protected by a hard border and severe policies to keep migrants out. His ruling party has also ground down political opponents, bought off or starved independent voices in the press and universities and targeted human rights groups.
Last week, a senior adviser resigned after an Orbán address she characterized as a "pure Nazi speech." In it, Orbán repeatedly denounced the idea of "mixing races" in Hungary. CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp declined comment today, while Carlson and a spokesman for Orbán did not reply to NPR's requests for comment.
Orbán excels at presenting himself as though he is "fighting for values" says Aron Demeter, program director for Amnesty International in Hungary. Amnesty is among the independent groups that have been targeted by Orbán's right-wing populist Fidesz party.
"He's fighting for an old white world or old white Europe where, you know, men were men and women were women," Demeter tells NPR. "And there were no transgender people or gay people. Or if there were gay people they stayed at home."
The U.S.-based human rights group Freedom House has called Hungary a hybrid regime — in a transition between democracy and autocracy.
"There has been a democratic backsliding in Hungary for looking at press freedom, for looking at LGBTQ rights," says the Hungarian journalist Flora Garamvolgyi, who has written about Orbán's ties to U.S. conservatives. "And I don't think that aligns with American values, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat."
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