This year, the American Conservative Union decided to hold one of its Conservative Political Action Conferencein Hungary. The group met last week in Budapest, guests of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who — since winning back office in 2010 — has led the country away from liberal democracy toward a system he proudly calls “ .”
Of course, with its endemic corruption,of sexual minorities, , constitutional manipulation and an electoral system to give supermajorities to the ruling party whether the votes are there or not, there is little that is democratic about Orban’s democracy.
For American conservatives, however, the degradation of Hungarian democracy is a feature, not a bug, of Orban’s rule.
Hungary isn’t a particularly large country (by population it’s about the size of Michigan) or a particularly rich one (its gross domestic product puts it somewhere between Nebraska and Kansas), but it is a showcase for how a reactionary movement in an ostensibly free society might seize control of the state to reshape society in its own image. And the goal, for both Orban and his American admirers, is the suppression of “wokeness,” a pejorative term for a broad range of progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality. This includes, for some, the mere existence of L.G.B.T. people on an equal basis.
That shared goal of suppressing wokeness is why Tucker Carlson, one of the most prominent conservatives in the United States, hosted his show from Hungary for a week last year. “If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions,”, “you should know what is happening here right now.” It’s also why Rod Dreher, a popular conservative blogger and author, that his readers “ought to be beating a path to Hungary.” And it’s why Donald Trump re-election campaign not once, but .
Which is to say that this CPAC session may have been held in Hungary so that conservatives can learn a little more about how they might unravel American democracy in order to impose their cultural and ideological vision on the country. They even got a little encouragement from Orban himself. “We need to take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels,”in opening remarks on Thursday. “We need to find friends, and we need to find allies. We need to coordinate the movement of our troops, because we have a big challenge ahead of us.” Attendees heard from Trump, his former chief of staff Mark Meadows and Carlson himself, whom Orban singled out for praise: “His program is the most watched. What does it mean? It means programs like his should be broadcast day and night. Or as you say, 24/7.”
What’s striking about this display of longing and affection for Orban’s regime — beyond the obvious spectacle of people who are ostensibly American nationalists working in concert with a foreign autocrat — is how it underscores a defining trait of conservative populists, if not conservative populism itself. For all the talk of “America First,” there is a deep disdain among members of this group for both Americans and the American political tradition.
This disdain is evident in how they talk about their political opponents. They routinely place entire groups of citizens outside of the political community. Carlson, for example, said on a recent episode of his show that pro-choice Democrats are “” who hope to destroy religious belief in the United States.
As president, Trump routinely held out his opposition as a threat to the very integrity of the United States. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,”in a speech on July 4, 2020. The culprits? “Angry mobs” and “radicals” he identified with “liberal Democrats.” Less high-profile but still telling was from a writer at the Claremont Institute, an influential pro-Trump think tank in Southern California, that “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.”
To all of this add the fact that so many populist and Trump-aligned conservatives have embraced the “” conspiracy theory, which treats American pluralism and diversity as an existential challenge to the nation itself.
As for conservative populist disdain for the American political tradition? That’s evident in the way conservatives have turned to Hungary for guidance in the first place, praising a minor strongman as if he were a figure of world historical significance.
That said, you can almost forgive conservatives for looking to Europe for intellectual inspiration. As the historian Barbara Fields observed infor New Left Review, the “only historical ground that might have nourished” a tradition of “thorough, consistent, and honest political conservatism” in the United States was “the slave society of the South.” But that society, she wrote, was “contaminated by the need to humor the democratic aspirations of a propertied, enfranchised, and armed white majority.” This contradiction has left us with a world in which only a few conservatives are willing to argue on principle that “hereditary inequality and subordination should be the lot of the majority,” even if that’s where their politics ultimately lead.
It makes sense, then, that authoritarian-minded conservatives would try to import or imitate a politics and ideology like this one rather than root it in the soil from which it actually grew. As explicitly autocratic as Orbanism is, aping it still affords a level of plausible deniability that a more homegrown politics of reaction might lack.