BUDAPEST, Hungary — In the middle of Budapest, there’s a statue of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It was erected to commemorate the role he played in ending the Cold War and Russia’s influence over Hungary.
Given that Reagan delivered the keynote speech at the first ever Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting, in 1974, it was perhaps fitting that the series’ first event in Europe took place last week just a few miles from that statue.
This time around, the keynote was delivered by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a strongman leader who’s been in power for 12 years and recently won another four-year term. During his time in office, Orbán has silenced the free press, seized control of the judiciary and other institutions within the country, and relentlessly pursued anti-immigrant, Hungary-first policies. But for all the concerns that CPAC would be all about the Orbanization of the U.S., in reality the people who traveled to Budapest last week were there for a very different reason: to hear the gospel of Trumpism.
During his speech on Thursday, Orbán unveiled what he called “the antidote for progressive dominance,” a 12-point plan that he said others around the world could use to recreate the anti-woke paradise he has created in Hungary.
This speech appeared to vindicate critics who said that CPAC was taking place in Hungary because American conservatives were eager to take Orbán’s most extreme policies and bring them to the U.S.
But many of the suggestions Orbán outlined to fight back against the “global elite”—such as anti-trans legislation and building border walls to keep out immigrants—are already part of the Republican Party’s orthodoxy. Others simply cannot practically be implemented in the U.S., such as remaining in power for more than a decade, which would require a rewriting of the Constitution.
And even if Orbán outlined policies that appealed to U.S. conservatives, the conference’s actual attendees were overwhelmingly Hungarian. Among the few Americans in attendance at the Balna Conference Center on the bank of the Danube last week were a smattering of CPAC employees, and some of the growing group of American conservatives who now call the city their home–many of them living in the Hungarian capital thanks to generous grants from Orbán’s government.
There were no Republican lawmakers, no American conservative thought leaders, and crucially, no former President Donald Trump—though he had been invited.
Matt Schlapp, the head of CPAC, said he was there to “listen and to learn” from those who spoke, but instead he spent several hours during the conference sitting outside a restaurant on the riverbank, drinking beer and eating pizza.
And who could blame him, when the few American speakers who did travel to Budapest included conspiracy theorist and right-wing media figure Candace Owens, and her husband, George Farmer, who’s the CEO of failing social network Parler.
Closing the conference, meanwhile, was right-wing troll and Pizzagate promoter Jack Posobiec, who, rather than listening to the speeches, spent his time in Budapest shouting at reporters while they interviewed Schlapp.
Posobiec, who has embraced Polish neo-Nazis and amplified their message, is a product of the Trump era. He rose to power on the back of hate speech, conspiracy theories, and disinformation. And in that sense, he was the perfect choice as the final speaker of CPAC Budapest.
In a side street behind the American embassy, just feet from Reagan’s statue and away from the prying eyes of tourists and embassy officials, a European lawmaker from a far-right party agreed to meet VICE News and discuss why they and many others had traveled to Budapest.
The far-right lawmaker, to whom VICE News granted anonymity so they could speak openly, said they and others were in Hungary to network, and in particular to meet one-on-one with Schlapp, a close Trump confidant.
“I wasn’t at the conference really,” they said, pointing out that they hadn’t listened to many of the speeches.
What this lawmaker really wants, they said, is for Schlapp to open a door to Trump, who could bestow his warm embrace on their far-right party, granting it credibility on the world stage.
When Trump came to power in 2016, Europe’s far right believed they had found common cause with Trump on issues ranging from restricting Muslim immigration and reviving economic nationalism, to accommodating Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To this lawmaker, a Trump endorsement would help ensure their party gains global respectability and help them break free of “the system” that has thus far kept them out of power.
The lawmaker, who made several casually racist remarks about former first lady Michele Obama, told VICE News this wasn’t the first time they’d attempted to get into Trump’s good graces.
“I met Bannon at the monastery in Italy,” they said, referring to the former White House aide who led several efforts to bring Trumpism to Europe between 2018 and 2020.
The 800-year-old monastery south of Rome was home to the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, which Bannon wanted to turn into a training academy for future European nationalists and populist politicians. The far-right lawmaker says they met Bannon to discuss “The Movement,” another of the former Breitbart editor’s attempts to create a network of far-right and anti-EU parties.
Those efforts failed, and the lawmaker said he viewed CPAC Hungary as a “more polished” version of Steve Bannon’s campaign.
CPAC Hungary may be the first CPAC event in Europe, but it is far from the first overseas event CPAC has held in recent years, including conferences in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Brazil. The conference series is already planning its next overseas events, in Mexico, Israel, and a return to Brazil, all designed to spread the gospel of Trump around the world.
The right-wing lawmaker who spoke to VICE News said they would more than welcome CPAC to their country next time it comes to Europe, and would be lobbying Schlapp during a private meeting they had scheduled the day after the conference ended.
Some of the lawmakers in Budapest were more willing to speak on the record about why they’d traveled to the conference. Simone Kerseboom, a Dutch politician from the conservative populist party Forum for Democracy (FvD), told VICE News that she was there not for Orban but “to build conservative alliances across Europe and the world.”
“It is about learning about experiences outside of the Netherlands, outside of Europe, so that we can see what the broader global issues are at play across the world,” Kerseboom said.
Kerseboom was joined in Budapest by politicians from far-right parties like Germany’s Alternative for Germany and Spain’s Vox Party, as well as Belgium’s populist right-wing party Vlaams Belang and the ultra-nationalistic United Poland party.
Trump has always found vocal support among Europe’s far-right, whether it was France’s Marine Le Pen, the U.K.’s Nigel Farage, or Holland’s Geert Wilders. And he, in turn, has spoken positively of them.
During a White House meeting with Orbán in 2019, Trump said that he and the Hungarian leader are alike, but even if Trump returns to the White House in 2024, he can only dream of having the power and control that the Hungarian leader has amassed over the course of the last 12 years.
And one moment in Orbán’s keynote highlights just how different the two leaders are. Point 8 in Orbán’s 12-point plan for “fixing” Western democracies is: “A book a day keeps defeat away.” Orbán told CPAC attendees he sets aside one day every week for nothing but reading, “because reading actually helps to understand the mindset of our opponents and to see where their logic fails.”
Trump, on the other hand, prefers not to read at all.
One sign of the level of control Orbán exerts over his people is the fact that there were no mass protests outside the conference last week.
In fact, there was just one protester, a man who told VICE News his name was Adam, who scrawled phrases like “CPAC you are human trash,” and “Hurting those in need is Christian?” in chalk on the pavement in front of the conference.
“This is a small thing that is more than nothing,” Adam told VICE News. “This bubble of alternative reality, the minimum I can do is to break it, to bring in some other point of view where there are some facts about the world, and let this whole, basically fascist group pretend they have a sort of moral right to have a conference and speak as if they weren’t making the world a worse place.”
Adam writes protest messages in chalk outside the conference center (David Gilbert for VICE News)
Within minutes of Adam beginning his chalk graffiti protests, an army of cleaners appeared to wipe his words away. Adam rewrote the words as soon as they were wiped away, but within an hour he gave up.
The next day, a new security cordon was set up outside the conference with several Agent Smith-type security guards present to prevent even this minor protest effort.
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