The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has long been a gathering for some of the fringiest characters in the Republican party. The group established its anti-LGBTQ credentials more than a decade ago when it banned GOProud, a group for gay conservatives, from attending. Since then, the meeting has been a festival of conspiracy theories, hate mongering and spittle-flecked rage.
Unfortunately, CPAC has also become part of the Republican party mainstream. Party leaders trek to the meetings to pay homage to those in attendance and fire up the crowd in hopes of their votes and dollars. This year’s meeting featured Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
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So it’s especially telling that the next CPAC conference will be held not in middle America but in Budapest. And the keynote speaker will be Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
What does Hungary have to do with American conservatives? The answer: it’s the model they want to import to the U.S.
Orban has taken a country once committed to democracy and set it firmly on the road to authoritarianism. He’s done so by using the very machinery of democracy.
When Orbán was elected in 2010, he set about consolidating his power. First, he targeted journalists, putting party hacks in charge of state-run media. (Imagine Tucker Carlson running NPR.) He created a special judicial office, again packed with his cronies, to make sure the courts were run by judges loyal to him.
Orbán made sure that the electoral system was gerrymandered in his favor. He imposed all kinds of regulations that appeared reasonable on the surface but are actively used to stymie freedoms. At the same time, corruption grew and Orbán’s associates profited handsomely from the new system.
At the same time, Orbán played to populist far-right themes, with a special emphasis on attacking LGBTQ rights. (It’s no surprise that Orbán is a close ally of Vladimir Putin.)
The attacks are codified in law. It began in 2012, when the Constitution was amended to ban marriage equality. The constitution was also changed to define a family as a married man and woman. Same-sex couples cannot adopt. Parliament passed a law banning trans people from changing their birth gender. Then there was Hungary’s “anti-pedophilia” law, which banned mention of gay people in schools or in TV.
All the while Orbán has insisted that he’s not attacking LGBTQ people. “It’s not about homosexuality, it’s about the kids and the parents,” Orbán has said.
This is straight out of the playbook for today’s GOP, right down to the talk about protecting parental rights. Indeed, the “anti-pedophilia” law is a kind of blueprint for Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law.
“Hungary has become, for the Trumpist Republicans, what Sweden used to be for the social democrats – it’s proof of concept,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton University professor of sociology and international affairs who studies Hungarian politics, told Reuters.
Of course, that raises the question as to whether there are any other kind of Republicans these days. Certainly, Orbán’s admirers can’t help enthusing about the strongman as the future they want for America.
Rod Dreher, a columnist at The American Conservative, holds Orbán up as the kind of politician the Republican party needs.
“Orbán, unlike so many of our own conservative politicians, understands that we are in a battle to defend our civilization – and he fights like it,” Dreher told Reuters. He said that the CPAC conference will show American conservatives “what nationalist, populist conservative governance can be.”
What it won’t show attendees is what democracy can be. In fact, that may be the whole point. The right-wing can’t win if democracy prevails because too many people disagree with its extreme views. The only way it can win if it erodes democracy.
Trump tried, but was too incompetent to succeed. Orbán has succeeded. That’s why he’s CPAC’s ideal.