Last month, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán traveled to Romania to deliver a fiery speech denouncing the “mixing” of European and non-European peoples. “We [Hungarians] are not a mixed race . . . and we do not want to become a mixed race,” Orbán told his audience. Countries that accepted race-mixing, he said, were “no longer nations; they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples.” The next day, one of Orbán’s longest-serving advisers resigned, calling the address a “pure Nazi speech” that was “worthy of Goebbels.”
On Thursday, in Dallas, Orbán received a standing ovation at the semiannual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), America’s most important right-wing political event. He spent much of his speech defending his vision of a “zero-migration” country defined by ethnic homogeneity and Judeo-Christian values. “The globalists can all go to hell,” he declared to an audience of several thousand activists. “I have come to Texas.”
He had come to the right place. Speaking at CPAC on the same day as Orbán, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick echoed the Hungarian leader’s Christian nationalist rhetoric. “The framers did not write the Constitution,” Patrick asserted, “God wrote the Constitution. We are a Christian nation.” Abbott used his brief talk to burnish his anti-immigrant bona fides. He touted efforts to build a border wall, along with his policy of busing undocumented migrants (more than 6,500 so far) to Washington, D.C.—a way, he said, of bringing what he calls the “border crisis” to President Biden’s doorstep. Abbott even directed CPAC attendees to a state government website where they could help pay for the bus trips.
For years, America’s far right has looked to Orbán’s Hungary as a model for the kind of authoritarian nationalism it hopes to implement here. Former president Donald Trump invited Orbán to the White House and hosted him at his New Jersey estate this week. Last August, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson traveled to Budapest for a fawning interview with the prime minister. This May, CPAC held a spinoff event in Hungary for the first time—with Orbán as the featured speaker. After last month’s incendiary “mixed race” speech, CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp appeared to defend Orbán on Twitter. “When we silence people we skip the chance to learn why [we] agree or disagree w their POV.” (In the past CPAC has banned or disinvited numerous speakers, and has made clear that never-Trumpers such as Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney are not welcome.)
Indeed, Orbán’s brand of “illiberal democracy,” as the prime minister has called it, will be on full display in Dallas this week. Several of the speakers have been accused of helping organize the January 6 insurrection, including Trump political strategist Steve Bannon (recently found guilty of contempt of Congress) and U.S. representatives Jim Jordan and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Others, such as pillow impresario Mike Lindell, have promoted conspiracy theories about a stolen election. Nearly every speaker on Thursday stressed the importance of election integrity—a right-wing code word for voter suppression. “If we cannot trust free and fair elections, that’s when our country crumbles,” former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told listeners.
Trump himself will give the keynote address on Saturday evening. There’s widespread speculation on social media that he will use the occasion to launch his 2024 presidential bid. If he does, he’ll have plenty of support from the CPAC crowd. Vendors hawking Trump merch thronged the exhibition hall at the Hilton Anatole hotel, selling everything from children’s books (The Plot Against the King) to T-shirts depicting Trump as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. A life-size stand-up of Trump posed as Rambo leaned against the booth for Patriot Mobile, “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider.”
If the Trump movement is a traveling carnival, these were the barkers. CPAC conventiongoers could watch Bannon host an episode of his War Room podcast, take a selfie with former housing secretary Ben Carson, or listen to Palin reminisce about her 2008 debate with “sleepy Joe Biden.” They could purchase rare metals, “authentic” historical documents, or bejeweled, pistol-shaped clutches. By scanning a QR code, they could even enter the CPAC “metaverse” and attend a virtual political rally.
Not everyone at CPAC was in a celebratory mood, though. During a Thursday afternoon session on abortion, Carol Tobias, president of the anti-abortion group National Right to Life, noted that this was the first post–Roe v. Wade CPAC. But she was far from triumphant. “These are difficult times,” Tobias warned the audience, referencing this week’s referendum in Kansas that overwhelmingly affirmed reproductive rights. “This is a fifty-state battle,” Tobias said. “Our opponents are well organized, well funded. We all saw what happened in Kansas. They’re going to go after other states.”
The anti-abortion campaign had just achieved its long-cherished goal of overturning Roe, yet Tobias and her co-panelists sounded surprisingly pessimistic—and defensive. “There’s all this misinformation coming from the left,” Tobias lamented. “People truly believe that women will die if they can’t get an abortion.” She seemed to acknowledge that anti-abortion activists were losing the battle for public opinion. “We have a lot of countering to do to the lies that are out there,” she said. Sandy Rios, the director of governmental affairs for the anti-abortion American Family Association, agreed. “Birth is a redemption,” she insisted. “Even in the case of rape.”
Meanwhile, most of the CPAC audience seemed remarkably disengaged, raising only a half-hearted cheer at the mention of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. The abortion panel was among the day’s worst attended. Tobias and Rios implored the crowd not to let their representatives bend to public pressure to preserve abortion access. “They need to hear from you,” Tobias said. “Keep that encouragement coming.”
Even Orbán, for all his nationalist chest-beating, sounded at times like he was fighting a losing battle. He described Hungary as a “David-sized nation standing up against a globalist Goliath,” and warned darkly of the consequences if America should succumb to “progressive liberalism.” “[Liberals] want to give up on Western values and create a new world, a post-Western world,” Orbán proclaimed. “Who is going to stop them if we don’t?”