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Stranger Things

Why the GOP Fell in Love with Hungary

The central European country isn’t exactly the right-wing paradise many Republicans portray it as.

Former President Donald Trump delivered a video address to CPAC in Budapest in the spring.

“Keep on fighting, Mr. President!” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told former U.S. President Donald Trump in a tweet in April. “Come back, Mr. President!” he said a month later, while urging Trump to “make America great again and bring us peace.” The Trump campaign was reportedly urged by David Cornstein, Trump’s former ambassador to Hungary, to take on Árpád Habony, an Orbán adviser. Meanwhile, Republicans like Arizona’s Representative Paul Gosar and former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake traveled to Budapest in the spring for a conference.

The story of Hungarian and Republican cooperation stretches back more than a decade, though it has deepened in recent years as the GOP holds up the Central European nation as a model of right-wing, anti-woke governance. But it does raise the question: Why is the leader of a Central European country so involved in U.S. Republican Party politics?

“I think, ultimately, it’s the product of good political instincts,” said Gergely Romsics, senior research fellow at the Research Center for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Orbán wanted to expand his international profile and connection to the international right—and the American right in particular. It took a while—several years, in fact—but he finally found a way to do it.

The early attempts were not successful.

Before Orbán assumed the prime ministership for the second time in 2010, he and his party, Fidesz, used what they could to attack the party in power—a left-of-center governing coalition. Ironically, given how friendly Fidesz would go on to be to Moscow, one line of attack was that the government was too friendly with the Kremlin. And so these early efforts to connect to U.S. Republicans, Romsics said, emphasized the importance of Atlantic alliances, presumably at least in part to distinguish Fidesz from the party in power at the time and to raise Orbán’s international reputation.

But these early Atlanticist efforts did not take hold, and Orbán and Fidesz quickly changed tack; by 2014, Orbán was talking about building an illiberal democracy and, joining with American strategists George Birnbaum and Arthur Finkelstein, made attacking the Budapest-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros—already a prominent target for the American right—a focal point of that effort. That same year, Hungary hired former Florida Representative Connie Mack IV as a lobbyist.

Then came the European migrant crisis of 2015, which was “really a turning point both for Orbán’s politics in Europe as well as for right-of-center American politicians,” said former Republican Hill staffer Scott Cullinane. Orbán seized the moment, pushing out conspiracies alleging that Soros was funding the influx of migrants in an effort to change Europe’s demographics. Presidential candidate Trump made attacking migrants a focal point of his first campaign, too. And when Trump truly emerged as a force in American politics, “Orbán’s political instincts say, ‘this is a fighting chance’” to gain influence, Romsics said. Beginning in 2016, Fidesz notables seemed to more frequently be in the United States.

The Trump era was at least as fruitful as Fidesz had hoped. The two leaders saw eye to eye on immigration. Both were happy to attack Soros and overstate the impact of his donations to liberal causes and his sinister—in their view—influence on global politics. Orbán even got a White House visit in 2019. He found fellow travelers in other like-minded U.S. politicians; legislation recently passed in Florida on LGBTQ rights and education on LGBTQ issues bears a striking resemblance to a law passed in Budapest in 2021. In 2022, Trump endorsed Orbán for reelection; earlier this year, Orbán repaid the favor, saying he hoped Trump would once again be elected to the White House.

Trump’s 2020 electoral loss has made things in Washington considerably worse for Orbán and his allies. “They really burned all the bridges with the [Biden] administration, Democratic lawmakers, more centrist or center-right Republicans,” said Dalibor Rohac, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “All they are left with are these sort of MAGA, culture war–driven folks.” Take Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, who in 2022 tweeted in defense of Orbán: “Yes, we support leaders who reject globalism, socialism, illegal migration and care about defending families, national sovereignty, and traditional values.” Or consider Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who has lauded Orbán’s border policies.

Rather than reverse course, though, the Hungarian government and its allies are doubling down. For example, Mathias Corvinus Collegium, or MCC, a private college overseen by Orbán’s political director, Balázs Orbán (no relation), has seen an influx of investment and is perceived as a place where American and Hungarian conservatives can convene. (Fidesz critics allege that this is being done via theft of public funds.)

Meanwhile, the American right increasingly sees Hungary as a model for their own efforts and hold it aloft as the ultimate achievement of their political project.

In 2022, Tucker Carlson—then still Fox News’ golden boy—put out a documentary praising Orbán’s Hungary. The film featured Rod Dreher, a writer and editor who lives in and regularly extols the virtues of Hungary. ​​The Conservative Political Action Conference has twice gone to Budapest (and has also hosted Orbán stateside). The self-described main organizer of Hungary’s CPAC conferences is the Budapest-based Center for Fundamental Rights, which “considers preserving national identity, sovereignty, and Judeo-Christian social traditions as its primary mission.”

Fidesz did, at one point, appear to be cultivating relationships with more people than Trump. Hungarian President Katalin Novák met with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in March—but, per Romsics, the Hungarian powers that be have since decided “Trump will have the [Republican] nomination. It’s either Trump or no one.”

“They really hope that Trump or a Trumpist president comes back,” said Zsuzsanna Szelényi, director of the Democracy Institute Leadership Academy for Central and Eastern Europe. “Then Fidesz would gain more importance at the international level.”

“It’s important for them,” Szelényi added. “They are preparing for the global radical right’s victory.”

For all the ways in which the American and Hungarian right insist they are like-minded, the truth is that there are significant differences on policy that boosters of the relationship consistently paper over.

While it is true that Fidesz speaks often of the importance of the Christian family, the Hungarian government encourages reproduction by effectively boosting welfare. In April, the government insisted that supermarkets should put promotions in place, offering sales on a different kind of product each week. In 2019, Orbán promised that women with more than four children would not have to pay income tax; his government said it would help families with more than three children purchase cars and offered parental leave for grandparents, more places in nursery schools, and repayments of up to 10 million forints (about $30,000) for loans taken out by families with two or more children. Though some on the American right have gestured at borrowing from Fidesz’s natalism, these efforts have practically no chance of being adopted by the GOP: The modern Republican Party is seeking to cut, not expand, support from the state.

And though Orbán has taken some steps to make it more difficult to get an abortion—last year announcing, for example, that pregnant people must prove they have listened to the fetus’s heartbeat before having one—peeling back abortion rights has not been a part of Fidesz’s program. Orbán “could not say abortion is not possible,” said Szelényi, herself a former Fidesz member. It isn’t even that Hungarians are especially pro-choice, but that access to abortion is understood as “a given right.”

Orbán “is very good at gauging audiences and crafting messages that resonate,” said Rohac. “I am pretty sure that when these people come here [from Hungary], they’ll tell a different story to American social conservatives that these people want to hear,” he said. And, indeed, in 2019, the Hungarian government hosted two separate events—one in the Library of Congress and one on the Hill—on family policy and the role of the family. The former was titled “Making Families Great Again.”

For Fidesz and its allies on the American right, symbolism, tone, and gestures all matter more than policy overlap, particularly on the domestic front.

“Even if details are a little vague or don’t quite map onto domestic U.S. politics, you still have a right-of-center politician vanquishing the left,” Cullinane said of Orbán and Fidesz.

On foreign policy, too, what might have once been assumed to be enough to rupture a partnership has been shrugged off. Orbán has repeatedly stalled Sweden’s NATO membership bid (to say nothing of Hungary’s opposition to EU plans to grant additional money to Ukraine). These are matters not only of domestic politics, but of international security.

“If that’s not the turning point, what would be the turning point?” Cullinane asked. “It’s really hard to imagine what more Orbán could do that would cause this relationship to break or to turn back in some way. It’s really hard to imagine.”

And, in truth, there are many in the Republican Party—including Trump and DeSantis—who have called U.S. support for NATO and Ukraine into question. What might once have been a point of deep divergence is now an area of overlap.

Granted, that this is the way things are now does not mean that it is the way they will always be. Hungarian and American right-wingers are not necessarily destined to be in an alliance with each other forever. In August, the United States limited Hungary’s participation in its visa waiver program. Though this decision was obviously made by a Democratic administration, it could ultimately have knock-on effects for Hungary-U.S. relations more generally and impact the next Republican administration, whenever it takes office.

There is also the fact that, at least in theory, the European Union should serve as something of a check on Hungary if it decides to descend completely into authoritarianism. R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of public policy at Georgetown, likened it to individual U.S. states from the late-nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century that received funding from the federal government even while functioning as one-party states, not competitive democracies. Orbán is also a subsidized strongman. But “the EU puts some outer limits on what he can do and how far he can go,” Kelemen said.

And while certain Republican politicians may not care that Orbán and company are making things more difficult for NATO and Ukraine, Fidesz is also taking a softer, more cooperative approach toward another country, one that its Republican allies see as a clear foe: China. While Trump consistently bashed China and DeSantis recently unveiled an economic plan apparently intended to take on Beijing, Hungary has talked up “opportunities rather than risks.” In May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described relations between the two countries as having entered their “best period in history.”

Despite their differences on policy, there is little reason to expect a crack-up between the Hungarian and American right in the near future.

For the American political right, Hungary offers a place to point to, an idea, an inspiration. In reality, however, it’s a relatively small country with a declining population and minimal global influence. But why should such details matter? “True ideologues of the new right want to be able to point to examples of how they want to structure society,” Rohac said.

And for the Hungarians?

Romsics pointed to those good political instincts. “Logic dictates there’s a polarized society that is a great power, a superpower. With one side, your relationships are so bad that there’s nothing much you can do. With the other, you have a fighting chance.”

There just isn’t that much to lose, he said. If Trump wins again, Hungarian fortunes with respect to U.S. foreign policy will improve.

And if Democrats win? “Will it really get that much worse?”