When heads of state visit the U.S., the top item on their itinerary is usually a White House visit. For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban next month, it will be addressing a conference of conservative activists in Dallas.
Orban's appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he'll be joined by former President Donald Trump and right-wing icons such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., is the most dramatic indication yet of how a leader criticized for pushing anti-democratic principles has become a hero to segments of the Republican Party.
Orban has curbed immigration and stymied those who envision a more middle-of-the-road European democracy for their country. He's done so by seizing control of Hungary's judiciary and media, leading many international analysts to label him as the face of a new wave of authoritarianism. He also is accused of enabling widespread corruption and nepotism, using state resources to enrich a tight circle of political allies.
The U.S. conservative movement's embrace of Orban comes as it echoes Trump's lies that he did not lose the 2020 presidential election, punishes Republicans who tried to hold him accountable for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and embrace new voting restrictions. Many experts on Hungarian politics fear the GOP might aspire to Orban's tactics.
“The Trumpist side of the Republican Party is coming for the rhetoric, but staying for the autocracy,” said Kim L. Schepple, a sociologist at Princeton University who has studied Orban. “I'm worried the attraction to Orban is only superficially the culture war stuff and more deeply about how to prevent power from ever rotating out of their hands.”
Conservatives dismiss that notion — or even the charge that Orban is an authoritarian.
“What we like about him is that he's actually standing up for the freedom of his people against the tyranny of the EU,” said Matt Schlapp, head of CPAC, which meets in Dallas starting Aug. 4. “He's captured the attention of a lot of people, including a lot of people in America who are worried about the decline of the family.”
CPAC's gatherings are something of a cross between Davos and Woodstock for the conservative movement, a meeting place for activists and luminaries to strategize, inspire and network. Earlier this year, CPAC held its first meeting in Europe, choosing Hungary. While there, Schlapp invited Orban to speak at the Texas gathering. Last year, Fox News star Tucker Carlson broadcast his show from Budapest.
Orban served as prime minister of Hungary between 1998 and 2002, but it's his record since taking office again in 2010 that has drawn controversy. A self-styled champion of what he describes as “illiberal democracy,” Orban has depicted himself as a defender of European Christendom against Muslim migrants, progressives and the “LGBTQ lobby.”
While Orban's party has backed technocratic initiatives that have captured the imagination of the U.S. right — Schlapp specifically cited a tax cut Hungarian women receive for every child as a way to counter a declining population — he's best known for his aggressive stance on hot-button cultural issues.
Orban’s government erected a razor-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border in 2015 in response to an influx of refugees fleeing violence and poverty in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Carlson visited the border barrier, praising it as a model for the U.S.
Last year, Orban's right-wing Fidesz party banned the depiction of homosexuality or sex reassignment in media targeting people under 18, a move critics said was an attack on LGBTQ people. Information on homosexuality also was forbidden in school sex education programs, or in films and advertisements accessible to minors.
Those policies have put him on a collision course with the European Union, which has sought to reign in some of his more antidemocratic tendencies. The bloc has launched numerous legal proceedings against Hungary for breaking EU rules, and is now withholding billions in recovery funds and credit over violations of rule-of-law standards and insufficient anti-corruption safeguards.
Those conflicts started early in Orban’s tenure. In 2011, the Fidesz party used the two-thirds constitutional majority it gained after a landslide election the previous year to unilaterally rewrite Hungary’s constitution. Soon after, it began undermining the country's institutions and took steps to consolidate power.
Orban's party implemented judicial reforms through constitutional amendment, enabling it to change the composition of the judiciary. It also passed a new law that created a nine-member council to oversee the media and appointed members to all those slots.
Reporters Without Borders declared Orban a “press freedom predator” last year. It said his Fidesz party had “seized de facto control of 80% of the country’s media through political-economic maneuvers and the purchase of news organizations by friendly oligarchs.”
The Associated Press and other international news organizations were barred from covering the CPAC conference in May, during which Orban called Hungary “the bastion of conservative Christian values in Europe.” He also urged conservatives in the U.S. to defeat “the dominance of progressive liberals in public life.”
The AP requested an interview with Orban when he visits Dallas next month, but was rebuffed. His communications office cited what it said was the prime minister's "extremely busy" schedule.
Analysts note that Hungary lacks the traditional trappings of autocracies. There are no tanks in the streets and no political dissidents locked up in prisons. Fidesz has continued to win elections — albeit in seats that have been redrawn to make it extremely difficult for their legislators to be defeated. That's similar to the political gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts in the U.S., a process that currently favors Republicans because they control more of the state legislatures that create those boundaries.
Still, experts say Orban’s near-total control of his country makes him a pioneer of a new approach to anti-democratic rule.
“I've never seen an autocrat consolidate authoritarian rule without spilling a drop of blood or locking someone up,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of the book “How Democracies Die.” He and other scholars said Orban qualifies as an authoritarian because of his use of government to control societal institutions.
Peter Kreko, a Budapest-based analyst for the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Orban's anti-democratic tendencies won't be a big issue in his quest to forge an alliance with U.S. conservatives. His closeness to Russia and China will be much thornier, Kreko argued.
Kreko said Orban's government is increasingly isolated diplomatically but has not even bothered to try to build ties to the Biden administration — instead hoping Trump or his allies will shortly return to power.
“This is his big hope for coming back to the international scene, since there are not so many allies that remain for him,” Kreko said of Orban. “It's a remarkable success of Hungarian soft power that Orban has become so popular among American conservatives when his image has declined so much in Europe.”
Schlapp scoffed at the notion that Hungary was undemocratic, noting that Orban's party continues to win elections and reminiscing fondly about his trip to Budapest. He recounted how his group got lost in some alleys in the ancient Hungarian capital.
“If we were in Chicago or Los Angeles, I'd have been scared to death,” he said.
But not in Hungary: “It's orderly, it works, it's practical, it's clean.”
Spike reported from Budapest, Hungary, and Riccardi from Denver.
Nicholas Riccardi And Justin Spike, The Associated Press