Why the Hell Is CPAC in Hungary This Year?

The conference’s star attraction will be authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—the type of leader former President Trump aspires to be.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to media after casting his ballot during the general parliamentary elections on April 3, 2022 in Budapest, Hungary. (Janos Kummer/Getty Images)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to media after casting his ballot during the general parliamentary elections on April 3, 2022 in Budapest, Hungary. (Janos Kummer/Getty Images)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union and organizer of its influential conference series CPAC, told NPR this week that he was bringing his event to Hungary because it “represents Christian conservative values” and American conservatives want to replicate this in the U.S. by learning from the country’s ultra-right-wing authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

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So what exactly will attendees be learning in Budapest this week? The conference’s program shows exactly what topics are important to the Trump wing of the Republican Party, with sessions entitled: “Western civilization under attack,” “In God we trust,” “The father is a man, the mother is a woman,” and “Culture wars in the media.”

Flying in from the U.S. will be Schlapp, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and the husband-and-wife team of right-wing personality Candace Owen and Parler CEO George Farmer. There will be video messages from some bigger names, notably Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows.

There will also be appearances by a host of European populist leaders, including representatives from Spain’s far-right Vox party, France’s pro-Kremlin National Rally party, and Austria’s anti-immigration Freedom Party. 

But the star attraction is Orbán.

Orbán is the type of leader Trump aspires to be. Trump even told him so, repeatedly praising the strongman leader during a White House visit in 2019. Trump said the pair had a lot in common, but the truth is that Trump can only dream about having the power and control over his country that Orbán, who recently won a fourth term in office, has carved out since taking power in 2010.

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Within months of becoming prime minister, Orbán had taken control of the judiciary, attacked the few financial institutions not under the control of his far-right Fidesz Party, and clamped down on negative press coverage. He also rewrote election laws to allow him to stay in power for as long as he wants.

In the years since, he has continued to erode democratic values within the country, including a recent attack on LGBTQ and gender rights—with some measures related to the teaching of gender and sexuality in schools that closely echo the “Don’t Say Gay” bill recently passed in Florida.

Central to everything Orbán does is the promotion of traditional family and Christian values. 

In a bid to stave off immigration and increase Hungary’s non-immigrant population, he introduced huge tax incentives and a grant of $30,000–twice the average Hungarian salary–for families with three children to purchase a home. Those willing to have four children never have to pay income tax again. 

But despite these efforts, Hungary’s population is still falling, partly due to mass emigration by hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who left as a result of Orbán’s undemocratic rule.

Orbán’s promotion of family values goes hand-in-hand with his attacks on migrants, and unlike some European leaders, he has not attempted to couch his racist views.

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“We do not want our own color, traditions, and national culture to be mixed with those of others,” he said in 2018. 

There is also an antisemitic streak to his immigration policy that is symbolized by Orbán’s demonization of Hungarian philanthropist billionaire George Soros. Back in 2015, Orbán made Soros the face of the immigration crisis in the country, a campaign that mirrors the antisemitic white nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory that Jewish people are working to replace white people through migration.

This is the third time CPAC has been held overseas: In recent years, as ACU has tried to create a global network of like-minded conservatives, it’s also been held in Japan and Brazil.

The two-day event in Hungary was initially due to take place in 2020 but was postponed twice, first due to COVID-19 and then to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The decision by Schlapp and the ACU to sponsor an event in the home of one of the most draconian regimes in the Western world may seem shocking, but for anyone paying any attention to how the Republican Party has lurched to the right in recent years, it almost seems logical at this point.

Schlapp says U.S. conservatives want to replicate what Orbán is doing in Hungary, but there are signs the Hungarian leader is already influencing U.S. politics in general—and Trump in particular.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump ran on anti-immigrant platform promising to ban Muslims from the country and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump also demonized Soros during his campaign, going so far as releasing an anti-Soros campaign ad that was criticized as antisemitic.

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More recently, the “great replacement” conspiracy Orbán espoused in 2019 has taken hold among U.S. conservatives, and this week the gunman who allegedly killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket claims the “great replacement” conspiracy was one of his inspirations for conducting the attack.

CPAC’s decision to bring its conference to Hungary is seen as an ordination of sorts for Orbán within the conservative community, but the path to this moment has been paved by a laundry list of American right-wing figures including former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, professional troll Milo Yiannopolous, and talk radio host Dennis Prager, all of whom have spoken in Hungary in recent years.

In 2020, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Budapest for a panel discussion on immigration. In 2021, former Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a meeting on family and demographic decline, with Orbán in the audience.

But it has been Carlson, the host of Fox News’ highest-rated show, who has done more than anyone to lionize Orban’s leadership style and raise Hungary’s profile among his 3.2 million viewers.

Carlson, whose father, Richard Carlson, is listed as a director of a Washington-based firm that has lobbied on behalf of Orbán in the U.S., has twice flown to Hungary to present his show, including fawning interviews with Orbán. During the shows, Carlson spoke about Hungary, Orbán, and the policies of Fidesz in an entirely positive light, calling it “a small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us,” while glossing over the anti-democratic steps the authoritarian leader has taken.

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Orbán’s “current narratives and messages practically coincide with those of the European new right movement and the American alt-right,” Bulcsú Hunyadi, head of the Radicalization and Extremism Program at Hungarian think tank Political Capital, recently told Hatewatch.

The ACU’s decision to hold CPAC in Budapest will allow that alignment to continue, and allow American conservatives to learn from Orbán, who has created an anti-woke paradise that they see as a model for the American right.

But perhaps that model is already being recreated in the U.S. 

Conservative commentator Rod Dreher, who admired Orbán so much he moved to Budapest last year, wrote last month about the idea that GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis was creating a sort of conservative utopia along the lines of Orbán’s Hungary in the Sunshine State.

“Maybe Florida is becoming our American Hungary,” Dreher said.

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