“The globalists can all go to hell,” declared Viktor Orbán. “I have come to Texas!”
The crowd roared, whooped and gave a standing ovation as if at a campaign rally for former US president Donald Trump. It was evident they saw in Orbán a kindred spirit – a blunt weapon to wield against liberal foes.
The Hungarian prime minister was the opening speaker at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, and perhaps the most vivid demonstration yet of the mutual and rapidly growing affinity between the far right in America and Europe.
Orbán, who has been prime minister for 12 years, boasted about his hardline stance on illegal immigration, law and order and “gender ideology” in schools. He touted a rise in marriages and fall in abortions. He was unapologetic in his defence of blood-and-soil nationalism and contempt for “leftist media”.
And extraordinarily for a foreign leader, he overtly sided with an opposition party – the Republicans – rather than the incumbent Democrats, paying homage to Trump at his golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, while ignoring Joe Biden at the White House.
Calling for Christian nationalists to “unite forces”, Orbán told CPAC: “Victory will never be found by taking the path of least resistance. We must take back the institutions in Washington and in Brussels. We must find friends and allies in one another. We must coordinate the movements of our troops because we face the same challenge.”
He noted that US midterm elections will be later this year followed by the presidential contest and European parliamentary elections in 2024. “These two locations will define the two fronts in the battle being fought for western civilisation. Today, we hold neither of them. Yet we need both.”
Rarely has the alliance between nationalist parties across the Atlantic been so bold, overt and unshackled. CPAC was once the domain of cold warrior Ronald Reagan. But in recent years guest speakers have included the Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen.
On Friday the lineup included Steve Bannon, who has worked with openly racist far-right leaders across Europe and once leased a medieval monastery outside Rome to run a “populism bootcamp”.
Bannon is former executive chairman of Breitbart News, which he once described as “the platform of the ‘alt-right’”, a movement associated with efforts to preserve “white identity” and defend “western values”. He served as chief strategist in the Trump White House and is now facing prison after being convicted of contempt of Congress for failing to comply with the January 6 committee.
CPAC Texas also heard from the Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who railed against the media and told the audience: “When I said that I’m a Christian nationalist, I have nothing to be ashamed of because that’s what most Americans are.” The event will close on Saturday with Trump who, like Orbán, has faced scrutiny over his relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the non-profit group Right Wing Watch, said: “Rightwing leaders, and especially the religious right leaders in the US, love Viktor Orbán for the same reasons they love Vladimir Putin. This overt embrace of Christian nationalism, willingness to use strongman tactics and the power of the government to enforce so-called traditional values about family and sexuality.”
Montgomery added: “We’ve actually seen some signs of that illiberalism and authoritarianism on the Trumpist right in their efforts to ban the teaching of racism in schools, in their aggressive attacks against LGBTQ materials and information in schools and libraries, and even their encouragement of harassment and violence that we’ve seen against election officials and school board members.
“All those signs are signs of a disturbing embrace of authoritarianism on the US right and Orbán is a model and a hero for that to them.”
Orbán has few bigger fans than Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host who interviewed him during a week-long broadcast from Hungary last year. Carlson has promoted “great replacement theory” – the baseless claim of a plot to turn white people into a minority through immigration – in 400 of his shows, according to an analysis by the New York Times.
Orbán’s visit to the US came amid backlash over anti-migrant remarks in which he warned that Europeans must not “become peoples of mixed race” and cited The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 French novel by Jean Raspail that portrays a dystopia in which a flotilla of south Asian people invade France. The novel has also been promoted by Trump allies such as Bannon and Stephen Miller.
Rick Wilson, co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said: “Orbán represents a quiet part out loud element of today’s Republican party. That quiet part out loud is the overt appeal to racial politics, the not-bothering-to-hide-it white supremacy element of the global alt-right and authoritarian movement. Donald Trump was the thing that let it loose in the US.
“Orbán has struck a set of blows against the media in Hungary, which is one of their main targets here. He has overtly embraced the sort of white replacement politics that are so popular with the Tucker Carlson set and a lot of the other folks that are members of the American Maga [Make America great again] movement.”
Wilson, author of Everything Trump Touches Dies, added: “Those things have all added up to giving Orbán a kind of fanboy following in the US of people who were once conservative Republicans and who are now racially driven authoritarian wannabes. He’s the guy who’s pulling it off at a scale that Donald Trump didn’t achieve in the US.”
That appeal includes a stealth attack on democracy. Critics say that Hungary’s judiciary, media and other institutions are suffering death by a thousand cuts as Orbán slowly and surely consolidates power. His rightwing Fidesz party has drawn legislative districts in Hungary in a way that makes it very difficult for opposition parties to win seats – not dissimilar to partisan gerrymandering efforts for state legislative and congressional seats in America. The process currently favors Republicans because they control more of the state legislatures that create those boundaries.
And at CPAC, purveyors of Trump’s “big lie” – the false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him – held prominent slots. Mike Lindell, chief executive of MyPillow, pushed preposterous conspiracy theories about voting machines. Several speakers denounced the congressional investigation into the January 6 insurrection as a sham.
Kurt Bardella, an adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said of Orbán: “They see a blueprint for fascism. They see someone who embodies the Republican party’s values of obstructing free and fair elections, of undermining democratic institutions, of expanding government power and politicising the judicial branch, marginalising minority communities and corrupting the pillars of a free society.
“When you talk about an autocratic regime, that’s what Prime Minister Orbán is in Hungary and it’s exactly the blueprint that Republicans are hoping to follow here in the United States of America. It’s not surprising in the least that, especially in a place like CPAC Texas, these rightwing white nationalists are embracing someone like Orbán.”
Earlier this year, when CPAC held an event in Europe, it naturally chose Hungary. Orbán remains an outlier on the continent – for now. Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, though she gained the far right’s biggest share of the vote yet. In Italy Giorgia Meloni, leader of a party with neofascist origins, is strongly positioned to become prime minister after snap elections this autumn.
Robert P Jones, founder and chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute thinktank in Washington and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, said: “There is this identifiable movement. The difference in many of the European countries is it is represented in minority parties.
“In the US now, I think it’s safe to say that this ethno-religious vision of the country has taken over one of our two major political parties. Even demographically speaking, nearly seven in 10 Republicans are white and Christian today in a country that’s only 44% white and Christian. You can see that identity taking hold as the animating beating heart of the party. It’s a really dangerous situation.”