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The Autocrats

American Conservatism Just Threw a Party for Hungarian Fascism

That CPAC held an event in Budapest is just brain-melting. And yet our media barely paid attention. This is how democracy dies.

Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban delivers a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest.
Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images
Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán delivers a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest.

If you type “CPAC Budapest” into your search bar, Google autofills it to “CPAC Budapest tickets,” which somehow seems grimly appropriate, given that the Trump-era American right is such a relentless shakedown operation. But the ever-present grift isn’t the reason we should pay attention to what just unfolded in Hungary. This event was the American right wing stating as openly as it ever has that fascism is its goal for the United States of America.

Before we even get to the sick stuff that happened over the weekend, let’s ponder the choice of venue. To size up Viktor Orbán’s Hungary and decide that it was the perfect place to hold a political conference is brain-melting. Orbán has turned Hungary into one of the world’s leading anti-democratic states. We don’t need to pretend what the American far right is aspiring to by seeking an association with this regime—it sees Orbán as a re–Founding Father.

If you missed it, read the terrific piece we ran in our May special issue on “Democracy in Peril” by Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, who was once a member of Orbán’s Fidesz Party, back when it was reformist in nature and long before he corrupted it. Szelenyi explains how, step by step—and all of it legal—Orbán transformed Hungarian politics and society into a competitive authoritarian state, where free speech is officially permitted and other political parties exist but where, for all intents and purposes, the speech of dissenters is drowned out and the non-Fidesz parties can’t win an election.

Orbán was just reelected in early April to his fourth term. All the opposition parties united behind one candidate, a conservative small-town mayor, in the hope that they could peel off some Orbán supporters. Orbán buried the guy by 20 points, and Fidesz increased its parliamentary majority such that it now holds two-thirds of the seats. (Watch my interview with the excellent Kati Marton, the American journalist who grew up in Hungary, which we recorded right after the election.)

Hungary is a one-party, right-wing state where the ruling ideology encourages racial hatred of minorities (Jews and the Roma). And that is where American conservatives decided to have a party.

Imagine if some prominent liberal group decided to hold a confab in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua or Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. First of all, that would never happen in a jillion years, because American liberals have zero common cause with Ortega or Maduro. We revile them nearly as much as we revile autocrats of the right (maybe more so in Ortega’s case, given that he’s also an alleged child molester). The liberal equivalent of palling around with Orbán would never happen.

But if somehow it did, and the Center for American Progress, say, decided to hold a conference in Managua with Ortega as a speaker, can you imagine how the right would react to such a thing? They’d go absolutely insane. They’d make sure every American knew that it happened and was aware of the three or four most shocking things that went down there. The stink of it would hang over CAP, and Democrats and liberals generally, literally for years and years.

Yet I Google “CPAC Budapest,” and there’s hardly a story. Apart from the wire services, only The Guardian and Rolling Stone seem to have had a person there. Mostly, the media is shrugging this off as if there’s nothing to see here.

And The Guardian’s Flora Garamvolgyi, along with veteran Washington-based diplomatic correspondent Julian Borger, has been filing some ace stuff. Here for example is their report on the speech by a certain Zsolt Bayer, a television talk show host who took the stage on day two. Bayer has called Jews “stinking excrement” and referred to Romas as “animals” who are “not fit to live among people.” An equal-opportunity hater, Bayer has also weighed in on American minorities, writing on his blog during the Black Lives Matter protests: “Is this the future? Kissing the dirty boots of fucking [racist epithet] and smiling at them? Being happy about this? Because otherwise they’ll kill you or beat you up?”

Tucker Carlson spoke at this conference, of course, as did Mark Meadows, and via video, Donald Trump himself. Trump beamed that he and Orbán were “very close” and said: “He’s a great leader, a great gentleman, and he just had a very big election result. I was very honored to have endorsed him. A little unusual endorsement. Usually, I’m looking at the 50 states but here we went a little bit astray—and I did that only because he really is a good man and he has done a fantastic job for his country.”

Orbán cut right to the chase. He said that Hungary had been “completely healed” of anything smacking of liberalism, and he was crystal clear about how to do it: Control the media. In Hungary, as Szelenyi explained in her TNR essay, this was accomplished first through the takeover of the state media and second through generous loans from the state bank to allow Orbán’s cronies to buy up most of the private media. “Have your own media,” Orbán told the conference. “It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left.” Oh, and this: “We have to take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels. We must find allies in one another and coordinate the movements of our troops.”

The military metaphor is telling, and overall, they couldn’t have been more straightforward with us. The American right, from Trump to CPAC Jefe Matt Schlapp on down the line, celebrates and seeks to emulate a racist, neofascist anti-democracy. They want to turn the United States into Hungary.

And swing voters, that small percentage of people in the middle who decide elections, live in their bubble, committed to the notions that they’re all corrupt anyway and that the Democrats are just as extreme to the left as Republicans are to the right. They’re concerned about inflation and baby formula, as well they should be, but they need to wake up and think about all this before it’s too late.

By the time those formula-starved babies are playing Little League, they’ll be living in what’s effectively a one-party state where contraception is illegal. Where gay couples have to travel to certain states to marry—if they’re allowed to marry at all. Where the local library won’t stock books on slavery. Where the rich are paying taxes at a lower rate than middle-class people and the federal government has no money (and perhaps, given the Supreme Court we have, no legal authority) to enforce its laws. And where the right-wing, anti-democracy media has more power than the mainstream media (I think we already live in that country). And where election results can be overturned if they came out “wrong.”

After Budapest, we can’t say they didn’t tell us what they’re gunning for.