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Orbán to CPAC: You and Me Against the World

Put away your inhibitions, the Hungarian prime minister urged the right-wing crowd in Dallas. God wants conservatives to fight for the West.

Here is the leader of a European nation doing his best Trump impersonation.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Viktor Orbán at CPAC 2022 in Dallas, Texas

Pundits across the political spectrum have wondered about what American conservatives might take from the illiberal policies and practices of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. But Orbán’s appearance at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, where Orbán delivered an opening speech on Thursday, was a reminder that the relationship between the Orbán’s Hungary and the American Right isn’t instructive, it’s collaborative.

Between the lines, Orbán did try to teach his American audience something—the title of his speech was, in fact, “How We Fight”—but his lesson wasn’t anything new to his audience. He didn’t suggest any changes. His entreaty was to keep doing what they’re doing, just more so. How else to interpret his exhortation to “play by your own rules” than an endorsement of the Big Lie? When he admitted, “We cannot fight successfully by liberal means because our opponents use liberal institutions, concepts, and language,” did Mitch McConnell’s ears burn?

Some bits of his advice were literally cribbed from the American canon. He quoted Clint Eastwood and repeated that hoary bit of locker room wisdom, “I learned that a quitter never wins and the winner never quits.” Not American enough for you? Well, he reckoned, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s game.” He also claimed Hungary to be “the Lone Star State of Europe.”

Orbán even suggested that it’s the United States that first showed Hungary the way, sourcing his politics to Cold War anti-communism: “We know … we have Ronald Reagan to thank”—a reactionary version of “I learned it from you, dad!” It’s also true that Orbán’s frequent use of George Soros as a stand-in for nefarious international meddling was originally the innovation of American political consultant Arthur Finklestein. More recently, Hungary has imported CPAC itself, when Budapest hosted the group back in May.

The attendees I talked to were universally enthusiastic about Orbán (more than one called themselves “a fan”). What excited them wasn’t the prospect of edification; it was to hear their own views spoken back to them in the voice of a Bond villain. “He’s a nationalist, I’m a nationalist,” one woman told me. “He’s done a lot to protect Christianity,” I heard, and “he’s strong on immigration.” Most succinctly, “He’s Hungary first.”

Only one person was aware of the Hungarian prime minister’s recent denunciation of “race mixing,” and he told me he wanted to look at “the original video, the original text,” and was wary of American media twisting Orbán’s words. “I learned that from how they covered Trump,” he told me. No, he did not speak Hungarian, but perhaps the context was key?

Linguistics-as-escape-hatch was the spin put out by Balász Orbán, the prime minister’s political director earlier that morning. Lightly grilled by talk show host Glenn Beck before Orbán’s speech, Balász Orbán (no relation) asserted that “we have a very difficult and unique language,” and that regarding the spirit of what the prime minister was talking about, “It’s very obvious for a Hungarian audience that it’s not about, let’s say, blood. It’s about culture.”

This was plainly good enough for Beck, whose response, basically, was, “Samesies!“ (Or, “Okay, so that’s a debate we’re having here in America,” exactly.)

Indeed, if you still doubt American conservatives’ influence on Hungary’s authoritarian direction, look only to the litany of shared grievances that undergirded Orbán’s speech, given in heavily accented English but largely communicated in International Standard Dogwhistle, the only second language conservatives want taught in schools. He bashed “globalists” and the liberal media; he railed against immigration; he lauded law enforcement and urged the audience to take a side in “the clash of civilizations.” The longest and most sustained applause line, if you don’t count the crowd-pleasing asides about Texas, was when he summed up Hungarian family policy: “The mother is a woman, the father is a man, and leave our kids alone.”

I’ve been going to these gatherings for over a decade now so I can say with authority that Orbán would have earned a place on the agenda if his speech consisted solely of such familiar red meat. Donald Trump has been the featured speaker for six years now and the man hasn’t had an original idea since he came up with that hair.

Steve Bannon’s characterization of Orbán is that he was “Trump before Trump,” but that’s not exactly fair. It’s true that Trump, like Orbán, did not politically innovate so much as unveil. Both of them have succeeded via shamelessness, Orbán further aided by a defter (i.e., extant) understanding of actual governmental mechanics. But Trump cannot think outside his own microscopic worldview. When he urges his audiences toward bigotry, he’s speaking mostly from his own memory of petty hurts and perceived injustices.

Orbán reminded CPAC attendees that their revenge fantasies can operate on a much grander scale: The United States and Europe, according to Orbán, are “the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization.” This is the kind of language you sometimes hear on the right. It’s not shocking, and again, it’s not new—but if conservatives take anything from Orbán, my guess is that it will be Orbán’s consistent equating of the conservative project and the protection of “the West.”

Orbán made clear the fight for “the West”: It’s the Christians on one side, and everyone else on the other. “The most evil things in modern history were carried out by people who hated Christianity,” he said, which I suspect leaves out a lot. God wants conservatives to fight for the West, Orbán argued, in a passage whose directness might be a function of translation—or, maybe not:

If you believe in God, you also believe that we humans were created in God’s image. Therefore, we have to be brave enough to address even the most sensitive questions: migration, gender, and the clash of civilizations. Don’t worry, a Christian politician cannot be racist, so we should never hesitate to have challenge our opponents on these issues.

Appealing to “the West” is an embellishment of Standard Dogwhistle, taking it back to its etymological roots. Conservatives have fought for decades to get Americans to believe that we are “Christian nation,” and originalists in the courts would have us decide constitutional issues via a New England archeological dig. To harken back to “the West,” well, that’s invoking an even older set of morals, an even more primitive interpretation of what the laws should be and how they should be enforced, an even more rudimentary understanding of good and evil.

There was a Medieval Times restaurant across the street from CPAC, where at least you could get a meal along with your cartoon vision of Western Civilization greatness. (As it was, I had to walk to the other side of the hotel to pay $14 for my sandwich.) And at Medieval Times, the values of the past are something you can leave behind.