Q&A: Why is the MAGA right huddling up in Hungary? – Grid News

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Q&A: Why is the MAGA right huddling up in Hungary?

The biggest pro-Donald Trump political group in the United States held a major conference this week in Hungary, a central European autocracy ruled by right-wing strongman Viktor Orban, who recently began his fourth term as prime minister.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), started in 1974, was once a bastion of Reaganite conservatism. Today, it’s the largest political event for the MAGA wing of the Republican Party to organize, network and chart its priorities.

Orban kicked off CPAC’s two-day event in Budapest Thursday with talking points celebrating a populist and isolationist approach to governance. The program’s agenda featured discussions about preserving “Western civilization,” fighting culture wars, promoting traditional gender norms and strictly regulating immigration.

“Progressive liberals, neo-Marxists dazed by the woke dream, people financed by George Soros and promoters of open societies … want to annihilate the Western way of life that you and us love so much,” Orban said in his remarks on Thursday.

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CPAC’s choice of Hungary as a conference site — and its right-populist leader as a key speaker — signals an alignment of the Trump wing of American conservatism with a politics helmed by an autocrat who has doubled down on an identity as an “illiberal” leader, said Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University and expert on Hungarian politics and law.

And Hungarian politics more broadly offers right-wing populist movements worldwide, including in the United States, a playbook for winning elections when their base is passionate but in the minority, she added.

“How the Hungarians have managed to turn one-third of the public into super majorities in the legislative process is, I think, what CPAC is there to learn,” she said.

Scheppele spoke with Grid’s misinformation reporter, Anya van Wagtendonk, about Orban’s mixture of conservative cultural values with an economic repudiation of global capitalism, and the manipulation of churches in Orban’s self-styled “Christian democracy.”

She also illustrated the tangled web woven among right-wing figures in the United States and Hungary over the last decade — well before Trump endorsed Orban’s recent reelection campaign.

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“This is not just a weekend outing,” she said. “There’s a much deeper and more permanent infrastructure of communications between American conservatives and the Orban government.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: How would you characterize Viktor Orban’s politics?

Kim Lane Scheppele: An odd mashup between conservative populism in the culture war sense — which is protection of families and Christianity and anti-wokeness — with a sort of anti-neoliberal capitalism. Orban has actually nationalized several sectors of the economy, like energy and telecommunications. He’s doing a lot of stuff to rein in what the left calls predatory capitalism. And of course, the scary part is you say, “Aha, so you combine nationalism with socialism, and what do you get?” National socialism, right?

The official speeches [at CPAC] are doubling down on both of those things. The traditionalist culture war stuff that you often hear from the American right [is] combined with this sense of incredible hostility to the mainstream media … in part because of the anti-conservative messages that they often broadcast (in the view of this group), but also because so much of it is controlled by “rapacious capitalists.”

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So, both the CPAC people and the Orban folks will talk about the importance of limiting the power of what they call the globalists, and the globalists are people with universal values like gay rights, or feminism … or the idea that secularism and religious identity ought to be on a kind of equal footing, or that secularism wins, as in France.

G: Does it seem logical to you for an American conservative movement to hold a foreign conference in this country and to highlight Orban, given that mix of politics?

KS: Absolutely. The thing about traditional American conservatism is that it matched up traditional values with small government. That’s the Reagan brand, right? The end result is that the government should leave people alone to preserve their small communities [and] ways of life, free of government intrusion and regulation. That was the old American conservatism. Its new version, which is the kind of Trump version, really doesn’t believe in a small state.

Part of it is this aggressive state intervention in defense of religious values, as in legislation based on religion, to prioritize religion over other kinds of values. There’s also this kind of war on international interdependencies. Like Trump’s isolationist foreign policy, Trump’s sense that NATO was not necessary, because the U.S. doesn’t really have interests abroad that it needs to defend that way. Also, Trump’s anti-trade moves: his idea that a lot of these trade agreements were disadvantageous to the U.S. because, after all, we should rely on “America First.”

All of that doesn’t say small state. All of that says, cut international ties and aggressively regulate [domestically] in such a way so that the environment, consumer health and safety, public health — all those values are out the window, and you regulate so that those values cannot prevail, even when local voters want them.


That’s why Orban is such a great model. Orban’s base is about the same size as Trump’s base: About a third of the Hungarian population will defend him no matter what. The rest of Orban’s victory is a combination of lying about the opposition, coming up with hot button issues that get the electorate riled up before the election, coming out with all of these social welfare benefits to essentially buy off parts of constituency and then rigged election rules.

So Orban has perfected the art of taking one-third of your public as a base and constantly locking in super-majoritarian power by rigging all the other rules.

That’s the uphill battle [CPAC faces] to win Trumpism for the United States. They’ve got this guy who basically has one-third of the public as his rock-solid base, but you need more than that to win elections. So this is why they’re rewriting the election laws in all the states to try to tilt the playing field against majoritarianism.

G: We’ve talked about parallels within the United States. Are these Hungarian politics influential in other conservative movements or governments elsewhere in Europe or the world?

KS: One thing that right-wing populists tend to have in common is this defense of Christian religious values and harking back to a better time before “wokeness” undermined the dominance of patriarchal ethnic groups. That kind of appeal that Orban has created is like the appeals that you see in [Matteo] Salvini’s movement in Italy or Marine Le Pen in France, or what’s happened in Poland with the Law and Justice Party, which has been in power since 2015 there. Its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, talked about creating Warsaw as a parallel to Budapest. So they’re really copying this kind of stuff.

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But Orban has also been extremely friendly with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, who has also kind of brought back the Russian Orthodox Church to the center of Russian public life [and] has campaigned against liberals and Soros.

There is a kind of network of these guys, and they all learn from each other. CPAC, by being in Hungary, is providing a base for all these guys to get together. They’re trying to build these international networks, because they do in fact learn from each other about how to make these types of appeals.

G: Donald Trump endorsed Viktor Orban, and other prominent conservatives have explicitly expressed admiration for him. How long has he been a recognizable name in the American conservative imagination?

KS: Orban has always benefited from the Republican Party’s network of electoral campaign consultants. So for example, Orban’s election in 2010 was engineered by this guy called Arthur Finkelstein, who is a longtime Republican operative, who was brought in by Orban to think about how to deal with messaging, to reach his base and to use all of these American electoral tactics to win, and Finkelstein was the one who engineered Orban’s overwhelming electoral victory in 2010.

And then there’s this whole other cast of characters who have tied the Trump people straight to Orban. One was Sebastian Gorka, who briefly held a position in the White House. Gorka was born and raised in the U.K. as a Hungarian national. After the [Berlin] Wall came down, Gorka went to Hungary and worked in the defense and intelligence services. And then he [moved to] America shortly before Trump was elected and wound up getting American citizenship and suddenly being in Trump’s inner circle. Gorka got outed because he wore a Hungarian Nazi medal to Trump’s inaugural ball. When people saw the pictures of this, it was obviously not a good look for Trump.

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Orban is of course extremely close to Putin. One of the reasons why many have speculated that Orban was eager to visit these sanctions on Ukraine was precisely because Putin wanted these sanctions on Ukraine.

Orban won reelection with a campaign slogan of “peace and security,” promising Hungarians, “I will not drag you into war, but the opposition will.” Which was a lie about the opposition, but Orban controls all the media, so how was the opposition going to get their views out? That was one reason why he just won this overwhelming victory. He’s refused to allow weapons to transit Hungary on the way into Ukraine. He’s now just vetoed energy sanctions against Russia on the part of the EU. Orban’s been widely regarded as Putin’s nose under the tent, so to speak, in the EU, because he’s blocked, repeatedly, sanctions against Russia — and also sanctions against China.

Orban endorsed Trump in 2016. He was repaid with a White House visit, which the Obama administration had refused to give him. Trump then endorsed Orban for this election. There’s a lot of ties between the Trump people and Orban people.

G: How does Orban’s model of “Christian Democracy” compare to the Christian conservative movement as it is represented at CPAC?

KS: Orban is the master of the gap between appearance and reality. Orban has this public line where he’s defending Christian Europe. In the constitution, it says the fetus is protected from the moment of conception; in the constitution, it says that marriage is between a man and a woman; in the constitution, it says that the mother is a woman and the father is a man. So there’s all this Christian conservative ideology written straight into the constitution.

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His ideology and his quotes sound exactly like they would fit the evangelical conservative wing of the Republican Party, and, of course, as we know, that wing has gone all in for Trump.

The reality on the ground though, is really different. Almost as soon as he came to power, [Orban] got his parliament to pass a law that cut the tax benefits of all but 32 of the 350 registered religious organizations — basically throwing them out of the country, because once you lose your tax breaks … suddenly everything becomes taxable. Most of these little churches — many of them are small, evangelical American churches that were trying to get a toehold in Eastern Europe, and they were essentially forced out of the country.

I’m just sort of amazed that the Christian conservative movement hasn’t spread the word on that more because you’d think that Orban’s hostility to American-style evangelical religion would be abundantly clear from that. But there are 32 religious organizations that have this tax-exempt status, and Orban constantly leans on them to do him favors. Is that consistent with what evangelicals want? That essentially, the state has these groups wrapped around their fingers?

I think that if the CPAC people understood that, they wouldn’t be so thrilled about this, but they don’t speak Hungarian, so how do they know? All they know is the rhetoric that translates into English, and they don’t see what’s happened to all of these churches.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anya van Wagtendonk
    Anya van Wagtendonk

    Misinformation Reporter

    Anya van Wagtendonk is the misinformation reporter at Grid, focusing on the impact of false information on policy, elections and social behavior.