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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives his first international press conference after his FIDESZ party won the parliamentary election in the Karmelita monastery housing the prime minister's office in Budapest on April 6.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gives his first international press conference after his FIDESZ party won the parliamentary election on April 6.Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images

Why CPAC, a key conservative gathering, was held in Orbán’s Hungary

The more Viktor Orbán undermines Hungary’s democracy, the more Republicans celebrate his rule. Holding CPAC in Budapest takes this to the next level.


Ordinarily, the location of a political conference is one of the least notable things about a gathering. Organizers tend to focus on choosing a suitable venue in a city with plenty of hotel and dining options, and attendees either show up or they don’t.

But when it comes to CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Conference — location is more than just an afterthought; it’s an opportunity to send a larger message.

Last year, for example, CPAC, the preeminent gathering in Republican politics, was held in Florida for a reason: Conservatives behind the conference were eager to celebrate Gov. Ron DeSantis and his efforts to move the Sunshine State sharply to the right. This year, as NPR reported, CPAC headed 5,000 miles to the east.

It might seem strange that a nationalist conservative group identified with Donald Trump and America First is holding its annual meeting this week in Hungary. CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, is one of the biggest gatherings of conservatives in the world, and Budapest makes sense when you consider that this year’s keynote speaker — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — is a hero to some.

By any fair measure, much of the American right sees Orbán as more than just an effective leader. He also offers a model the right sees as worthy of emulation.

My MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem explained last year that Orbán’s right-wing agenda has included a series of steps to undermine democratic institutions, “through measures like consolidation of hundreds of media outlets under the control of political allies, gaming elections and using emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic to dramatically expand executive power.”

Vox published a related report in 2018 on “how democracy died in Hungary.” It noted a vote from the European Parliament, which labelled Orbán’s government a “systemic threat to the rule of law.” The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie added that Orbán’s Hungary “is corrupt, repressive and authoritarian, a place where democracy is little more than window dressing.”

It was against this backdrop that Republicans and their allies in the United States started characterizing Orbán as a champion of conservative values. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, for example, has publicly touted Orbán’s approach to governing. After Fox News’ Tucker Carlson cozied up to the Hungarian leader, New York magazine’s Jon Chait noted that the host “is laying down a marker in the highest profile way he can that Orbán’s iron fist is the future the Republican Party should want.”

Donald Trump, of course, endorsed Orbán’s re-election campaign — twice.

CPAC’s imprimatur takes the relationship to the next level: The more Hungary’s prime minister undermines his democracy, the more he opposes immigration, the more he bans gender studies in higher education, the more his ethno-nationalist rhetoric relies on rhetoric about Jewish financiers, the more he takes aim at the very idea of a free press, the more it became a good idea for CPAC organizers to honor Orbán directly.

As for what attendees heard at the event, The Guardian reported that Orbán “told a conference of US conservatives that the path to power required having their own media outlets, calling for shows like Tucker Carlson’s to be broadcast ‘24/7.’” In a separate report, The Guardian added:

A notorious Hungarian racist who has called Jews “stinking excrement”, referred to Roma as “animals” and used racial epithets to describe Black people, was a featured speaker at a major gathering of US Republicans in Budapest.... The last featured speaker of the conference was Jack Posobiec, a far-right US blogger who has used antisemitic symbols and promoted the fabricated “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory smearing prominent Democrats as pedophiles.

CPAC attendees also heard from Carlson, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and Trump himself, who appeared via prerecorded video to celebrate Orbán as “a great leader” with whom the former American president is “very close.”

At one point during his remarks, Orbán declared, “We have to take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels. We must find allies in one another and coordinate the movements of our troops.”

It led The New Republic’s Michael Tomasky to conclude, “The military metaphor is telling, and overall, they couldn’t have been more straightforward with us. The American right ... celebrates and seeks to emulate a racist, neo-fascist anti-democracy. They want to turn the United States into Hungary.”