Dallas, Texas, is the perfect host city for the latest Conservative Political Action Conference, where Republican election deniers and democracy saboteurs of domestic and foreign provenance have gathered this week. Indeed in July, the Texas Republican Party, one of the most extreme in the nation, adopted a platform that rejects the certified results of the 2020 election, claims that President Joe Biden “was not legitimately elected” and refers to him as an “acting” president — an astonishingly subversive action that should have been front page news.
There is nothing democratic about Orban’s methods, which makes sense for such a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
No wonder two autocrats have star billing at this year’s conference: former election fraud architect President Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose system of “illiberal democracy” doesn’t even require free and fair elections.
In truth, there is nothing democratic about Orban’s methods, which makes sense for such a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like the Republican Party, he rigs elections in technical ways, using gerrymandering to good effect. But he has also domesticated the media in ways the GOP can only dream about. In 2018, more than 470 Hungarian media outlets transferred their ownership rights to the mostly government-allied Central European Press and Media Foundation, giving Orban’s Fidesz party enviable influence over 80% of the press.
Orban is also a fan of the so-called culture wars now sweeping across America. He has been able to enact repressive laws against LGBTQ individuals on a national scale, from a 2020 measure that decreed the end of legal recognition of transgender and intersex people to a 2021 law that outlawed any depiction or discussion of LGBTQ identities and sexual orientations in schools, television, and advertising. The GOP has to be satisfied with state-level actions, like the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that autocrat-in-training Ron DeSantis pushed through as governor of Florida.
All of this gives Orban cult status among some Republicans, who thirst to achieve his degree of control over the political system and make periodic pilgrimages to Budapest to see his autocracy in action. CPAC held a conference there in May.
The playbook is not incredibly difficult to follow. Orban knows that propaganda works through repetition. And his speech in Dallas echoed his CPAC Hungary message about the need for Hungary and America to be allies in the fight against liberal democracy. “Washington and Brussels will decide the battle for Western civilization. Today we hold neither of them,” he had asserted in May, placing the Biden White House and the E.U. in his sights. It’s time to take back institutions in Washington D.C. and Brussels, he said in Dallas, urging attendees to “coordinate the movement of our troops.”
The military analogies, and references to collaboration, likely pleased other CPAC Dallas speakers who wish to galvanize a far-right international movement. They include Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage and Eduardo Bolsonaro (whose father, President Jair Bolsonaro, has threatened a Brazilian version of Jan. 6, saying that “only God can remove me from power”).
And Orban’s pugnacious way of dealing with the controversy sparked by his recent comments about the danger posed to Western civilization by “mixed-race” peoples is also instructive stateside. “They did not want me to be here,” he asserted, the “they” standing in for a supposed cabal of communists, liberals, George Soros acolytes who label him a “far-right, European racist, antisemitic strongman, Trojan horse of Putin,” as he sarcastically put it.
Of course, it’s those exact qualities that make Orban so appealing to many on the far right, as Orban’s longtime adviser Zsuzsa Hegedus recognized. She briefly resigned last month, calling his remarks on race “a Nazi diatribe” “worthy of Goebbels,” and prompting Orban to claim in a public response to her that he had “zero tolerance” for racism and antisemitism. This, of course, is a bald-faced lie, considering his stances on immigration, his ceaseless attacks on Soros, and more. As for Hegedus, she reconsidered her bold action and withdrew her resignation, apologizing to Orban publicly. Critics don’t fare well in Orban’s “Illiberal democracy.”
“Only strong leaders are able to make peace,” Orban told his adoring audience in Dallas, speaking of the need to make new agreements with Russia, China and conservative America. Tellingly, he did not mention Trump in his speech, although he had privately visited the former president at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on his way to Texas. As Orban knows, Trump is currently under criminal investigation by the Department of Justice for conspiring to overturn the 2020 election. So the Hungarian leader is clearly leaving his options open, signaling that he will deal with whomever may emerge as Republican kingpin. In the meantime, he is all too happy to assist the GOP in wrecking American democracy.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a historian and commentator on authoritarianism and propaganda. She is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright and other fellowships and an adviser to Protect Democracy. She is a regular contributor to MSNBC, CNN and other media outlets. She publishes Lucid, a newsletter about threats to democracy. Her latest book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” (2020), looks at how illiberal leaders use propaganda, corruption, violence and machismo and how they can be defeated.