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When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán arrived in the United States this week, he bypassed the White House and President Biden to visit a more admiring American president. He caught up with former President Donald Trump at his golf course in Bedminster, NJ
It was on the way to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference rally in Dallas, where Orbán will deliver the kick-off speech on Thursday afternoon — despite a speech last week widely decried as racist, even by one of his main collaborators. She resigned in protest.
Yet for many on the right wing of the Republican Party, Orbán offers a model of electoral success. His stamina – he won his fourth consecutive term as prime minister in April – rests on an unrepentant call for a white, Christian heritage for Hungary. He also has depended on rounds of repression of civil liberties and dissenting voices inside the country.
In the United States, Orbán was given intellectual credibility by American curator Rod Dreher and an extraordinary exhibit by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The primetime cable star played an outsized role in introduce Orbán to a wider audience in this country with interviews, a documentary series and a recurring argument that the United States would be better off with the approach of the Hungarian leader. Both brushed off the most problematic implications of Orbán’s rhetoric. Last night on his show Carlson even offered what he presented as an apology to one of Orbán’s advisers — on behalf of the American media.
“Just a few years ago his views would have been considered moderate and conventional,” Carlson said last summer, presenting a week of Fox shows from Hungary. “He thinks families are more important than banks. He thinks countries need borders. For saying these things out loud, Orbán was reviled.”
In May, Orbán returned the favor, saying that conservative media could not compete with what he called “mainstream media”.
“Only my friend Tucker Carlson steps in without hesitation,” Orbán said in May, at a CPAC branch rally in Budapest, according to a translation courtesy of CNN. “Programs like his should be running day and night. As you say, 24/7.”
Many Hungarian policies irritated the American right. Abortion is legal in Hungary, up to a point. The state significantly restricts private ownership of firearms. And the government proposes health care for all.
Such accolades make no difference to fans who seek inspiration from a strong leader. At that CPAC convention in May, Carlson intervened via video to offer his endorsement to Orbán’s Hungary.
Orbán is scheduled to kick off the CPAC conference in Dallas later today — same group, different location.
CPAC’s list of speakers includes senators, media stars and conspiracy theorists
The conference excites a group of donors and hardline conservative activists. Speakers announced for Dallas include Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Fox News’ Sean Hannity and conspiracy peddler Jack Posobiec. When Trump was in office, the two men often congratulated each other. Both gave a warm welcome to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Orbán echoed Trump’s attacks on awakening and canceling culture and other burning issues. He takes particular aim at the rhetoric of Hungarian-born billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros, a frequent target of Fox’s Carlson and others on the right. (Carlson gave Soros a full documentary treatment in January on Fox Nation, his streaming service.)
Vanderbilt University historian Nicole Hemmer argues that Orbán’s appeal to conservative media echoes the lionization of authoritarian figures of past decades, such as the leaders of South Africa’s apartheid regime and the dictator Chilean Augusto Pinochet.
“These leaders turned to right-wing media to gain access to the American public, hoping that this public would put pressure on American leaders and build American support for their regimes,” Hemmer wrote in a message to NPR. “For right-wing hosts, it was a chance both to help Cold War allies and to embrace a set of racial policies that had become increasingly less acceptable domestically. I think those same dynamics are at play today with Orbán.”
In Orbán, participants will hear about a European leader who explicitly promotes a Christian and a white vision of Hungary, one that built a hard border and tough policies to keep migrants out. Orbán’s ruling party has also crush political opponents, bought or starved independent voices in the press and universities and targeted human rights groups.
Last week, a senior adviser resigned after a speech by Orbán she called “pure Nazi talk”. In it, Orbán repeatedly denounced the idea of ”race mixing” in Hungary. Carlson, CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp, and a spokesperson for Orbán did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment. (Schlapp told Bloomberg News people should hear what Orbán has to say before deciding to criticize him.)
Orbán excels at portraying himself as “fighting for values”, says Aron Demeter, Amnesty International’s program director in Hungary. Amnesty is one of the independent groups targeted by Orbán’s populist right-wing Fidesz party.
“He’s fighting for an old white world or an old white Europe where, you know, men were men and women were women,” Demeter told NPR. “And there were no transgender or gay people. Or if there were gay people, they stayed home.”
US-based human rights group Freedom House has called Hungary a hybrid diet — in a transition between democracy and autocracy.
“There’s been democratic backsliding in Hungary for looking at press freedom, for looking at LGBTQ rights,” says Hungarian journalist Flora Garamvolgyi, who has written about Orbán’s ties to American conservatives. “And I don’t think that aligns with American values, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”