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Why American Conservatives Love Viktor Orban

In a closely-watched speech today to American conservatives in Texas, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called for nothing less than a remake of the global world order — comments that puzzled his longtime observers at his audacity.

“We need to take back the institutions in Washington and in Brussels,” Orban told the crowd in Dallas at the latest meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Play by your own rules,” he insisted, in what amounts to a succinct summary of his governance philosophy.

My colleague Neil Vigdor has covered the news of the event, but today’s newsletter aims to dig a little deeper into who Orban is and why his involvement with CPAC has drawn so much criticism – and not just on the left.

Over a decade in power, Orban and his ruling political party, Fidesz, dismantled many of the political reforms implemented after the fall of the Soviet Union, while aligning themselves with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader.

Those moves have led many analysts to see him as a sort of postmodern dictator — not completely autocratic, but far from democratic. And Russian hawks are alarmed by how Hungary has accommodated Russia’s geopolitical strategy, such as in Orban’s decision to distance Hungary from US and European support for Ukraine following Putin’s invasion this winter.

But recently, Orban has moved beyond his dictator-curious approach to openly embracing the kind of ethnonationalism Europe’s elites have been trying to eradicate since World War II. In July, in an incendiary speech in Romania, he denounced immigration from beyond Europe’s existing borders, saying it was an attempt to impose a “mixed” society on Hungary.

“This is why we fought at Nandorfehervar/Belgrade, this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and – if I’m not mistaken – this is why, in even older times, the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers,” said Orban, a reference to long forgotten historical battles between the Habsburg dynasty and the Ottoman Empire, and between the Franks and the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.

He also seemed to shed light on the use of gas chambers by the Nazis during the Holocaust, joking during a discussion of Germany’s plans to reduce natural gas imports from Russia: “The past shows us German know-how about that. “

One of his own advisers, the sociologist Zsuzsa Hegedus, resigned in protest. In a letter of resignation that has been made publicHegedus wrote: “After such a speech, which contradicts all my basic values, I had no other choice.”

So what’s the appeal here?

It’s a question many have written about, including on our news pages – but none with more clarity and scope than Elisabeth Zeofsky, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.

Last year, Zelofsky delved into some conservatives’ fascination with Orban for an article called “How the American Right Fell in Love With Hungary.”

Part of Orban’s appeal, she says, is for Catholic intellectuals, who see him as creating the ideal culturally conservative Catholic country at a time of social unrest and creeping secularization. (Orban himself is not particularly devout. According to Kim Lane Scheppelea Princeton professor who has known him since the early 1990s, “no one has ever seen him in a church.”)

But on a more gut level, for leaders like Donald Trump—who issued a press release this week featuring a photo of himself shaking hands with Orban at his golf club in Bedminster, NJ—Orban’s ability to outsmart or “own the libraries.” ‘, in a phrase often used on the right, is fundamental to its appeal.

“Spending great time with my friend, Viktor Orban,” Trump wrote. “We discussed many interesting topics – but few people know so much about what is happening in the world today. We also celebrated his big election victory in April.”

Orban had a warm response, posting a video on facebook with clips from the meeting. “We are both committed to fighting illegal migration, we are both committed to low taxes and, most importantly, we are both committed to peace,” he said.

Aside from Trump, one of the most prominent drivers of Orban and Orbanism is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, who has interviewed the Hungarian leader and given him laudatory coverage. Last summer, Carlson even left for Budapest to program for an entire week.

“A few years ago, his views would have been seen as moderate and conventional,” Carlson says Episcopalian which spans both the intellectual and entertainment wing of the Republican Party, said on the broadcast. “He thinks families are more important than banks. He believes that countries need borders. By saying these things out loud, Orban has been vilified.”

Zeoffsky’s piece is, in part, a profile of Rod Dreher, a conservative Catholic writer who moved to Hungary in admiration for his political shift; she also takes a look at Patrick Deneen, another conservative Catholic thinker and professor at the University of Notre Dame, whose most famous work is “Why Liberalism Failed,” a controversial 2018 book arguing that the post-war social order created by Western democracies has been created, has been good. , a failure.

As a dissertation, the book is provocative — it was written largely before Trump’s election, but it came to the market of ideas at the perfect time, as liberals in the United States and Europe struggled to counter the right-wing movements that were thriving on both continents. to understand.

As a public intellectual, Deneen is difficult to categorize; former President Barack Obama praised the book for “compelling insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues liberal democracies ignore at their peril.”

Deneen told Zerofksy that, like many American Catholics, he felt “politically homeless”: conservative on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but drawn to leftist ideas about economic policy.

It’s that kind of mix of left-wing and right-wing ideology that Trump supported among a certain class of thinkers in the United States; during his 2016 campaign and at the White House, Trump threw longstanding Republican nostrums about the need to cut rights spending, while fueling his criticism of “awake” political language and policies on race and immigration. The so-called Muslim ban he tried and failed to implement as president is a paradigmatic example that mixed both currents of his Orban-esque approach to politics.

Asked to comment on Orban’s speech in Romania and his performance at CPAC, Deneen wrote in an email that he believed “most American commentators have largely imported American concepts and experiences of how the Prime Minister’s comments should be interpreted.” interpreted,” referring to a letter from one of Orban’s advisers defending his views on race.

Hungary remains a member of the European Union, but morally and politically it is has become a kind of pariah state while Orban has curtailed press freedom and fueled anti-Semitic sentiment by attacking figures like George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist whose university was expelled from the country in 2019.

Even Zerofsky, who spent months tracing ties between Orban and the American right, found his performance at CPAC astonishing.

“I’m still surprised,” she said in an interview. “To have the leader of a foreign country speaking at a large gathering of a foreign country – that seems very important to me.”

Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist who also heads the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, has defended Orban’s hosting, arguing the criticism amounts to “cancelling culture.”

In a recent tweethe wrote: “When we silence people, we miss the opportunity to learn why we agree or disagree with their point of view. Cancel culture is the judge and jury of speech.”

Orban, however, is not an example of open-minded virtue. According to Freedom Housea non-profit organization that guards global freedom of expression, Orban’s party, Fidesz, “has proceeded to enact policies that would restrict the activities of opposition groups, journalists, universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) whose perspectives it deems unfavorable, hinders.”

When asked to explain the contradiction, Alex Pfeiffer, a spokesperson for CPAC, replied in an email: “Unlike so many American socialists, we support the open exchange of ideas. The press may despise Prime Minister Orban, but he is a popular leader in his fourth straight term in office.”

Let those words sink in: “fourth consecutive term.” Orban has been in power since 2010, partly because of his undisputed political knowledge and partly because of the misfortune of the opposition left and right – but also by tilting the rules of politics in his favor.

So why was Orban speaking in Dallas? What was in it for him?

An outcast among Western Europe’s political leaders, he craves the legitimacy that comes from such invitations, according to experts who have tracked his march for years.

But he also appeared to be putting his chips on Trump’s return in 2024.

Scheppele, the Princeton scholar, said Orban was, in effect, “presenting himself and his country as a Republican Party ally against the current administration, not as a US ally against common enemies.”

That, she said, was “breathtaking.”

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Something you want to see more of? We would love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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