Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration positions help define him politically. Indeed, the authoritarian leader has spent years extoling the virtues of racial “purity.”
But two weeks ago, Orbán was unusually brazen on the subject, publicly denouncing race-mixing. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank summarized in a recent column:
“Migration has split Europe in two — or I could say that it has split the West in two,” he said, after commending to his listeners a 50-year-old racist treatise. “One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. These countries are no longer nations. They are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples.” He went on to contrast that with “our world,” in which “we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.”
The backlash was fierce. Zsuzsanna Hegedus, a longtime Orbán ally and an adviser in his government, not only condemned the rhetoric, she also quickly resigned.
“I don’t know how you didn’t notice that your speech you delivered is a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels,” Hegedus wrote. She added that the prime minister’s remarks would’ve appealed to the “most vile racists.”
This, of course, also offered an opportunity for Orbán’s far-right admirers in the United States to distance themselves from the Hungarian strongman.
It is an opportunity Republicans apparently aren’t interested in.
Donald Trump welcomed Orbán to his golf venue in Bedminster this week. “Great spending time with my friend,” the former president said in a written statement. The Republican said the two “celebrated his great electoral victory in April,” but made no reference to the Hungarian’s overt racism.
And then, of course, there’s the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — by most measures, the nation’s largest conservative gathering — which is kicking off today in Dallas, and which is welcoming Orbán as a speaker. NBC News reported:
The American Conservative Union, the organizers of CPAC, defended their invitation to Orbán, regardless of his comments. “CPAC is looking forward to hosting leaders from across the country and the world. We support the open exchange of ideas unlike so many American socialists. The press might despise Prime Minister Orbán, but he is a popular leader,” spokesman Alex Pfeiffer told NBC News.
It was a curious defense. Pointing to Orbán’s “popularity” has nothing to do with merit or propriety: After all, popular leaders can be monsters, regardless of their domestic support.
The question, rather, is about the American right’s embrace of an authoritarian bigot. CPAC and Trump know what Orbán said. They know he’s been the recipient of international condemnations. They know one of the prime minister’s own aides recently compared him to a literal Nazi.
And they don’t seem to care.
Making matters worse is the degree to which this is part of a larger pattern — which includes CPAC hosting an event earlier this year in Hungary’s capital.
As we discussed soon after, much of the American right sees Orbán as more than just an effective leader: He also offers a model conservatives see 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.”
After the prime minister’s condemnation of race-mixing, it would’ve been easy for the right to reconsider its affection for Orbán. Instead, conservatives appear to have done the opposite — and the most charitable interpretation is that Republicans don’t consider the Hungarian’s racism a deal breaker.
The less charitable interpretation is that too many on the right see the authoritarian's racism and hostility toward democracy, and they're embracing him accordingly.