On the 4th and 5th of May 2023, Budapest played host for the second time to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The conference itself was colored largely by its emphasis on culture-war topics. Issues such as an aversion to their idea of wokeness, so-called transgender ideology, and opposition to globalists, who were especially reviled because of the implications that it is liberalism and globalism/globalists that are causing the first two made up a large degree of the speeches heard at the conference. These negatively-framed issues stood in opposition to the positives that the speakers in Hungary were all too eager to praise: God, family, country (in that order).
How has Hungary, a small country of 10 million become the European epicenter of a network of reactionary figures? Different CPAC events take on different characteristics depending on the local situation, and in Hungary, the rule of the day was an almost spiritual inspiration for those on the right, that the rest of the world, given leadership patterned after that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, could also look like Hungary. Additionally, the series of speaking events in Hungary featured little to no explicit disagreement (though there were contradictory statements). At the international level this could be especially because, in Europe, the various right-wing parties are trying to assemble a “united front” in the face of the upcoming 2024 elections for the European Parliament.
Notably, members of the European Parliament such as Hermann Tertsch (Vox, Spain), Vincenzo Sofo (Fratelli d’Italia, Italy), Harald Vilimsky (Freiheitliche Partei Österreich, Austria), and Jordan Bardella (Rassemblement National; France), among others, were in attendance and gave speeches and panel talks. Many of them stressed the importance of conservative unity against the tide of wokeness, an issue that took center stage. Vilimsky stated that it was important for there to be a strong center-right at the heart of European leadership. The contradictions were made apparent, however, when other speakers decried the political center as being ineffectual. One speaker, Roger Köppel (Schweizerische Volkspartei, Switzerland), even made mention of the “woke right” being a primary adversary of the members in attendance.
Historical Context: Why the Inspiration?
Hungary has long been the darling of a specific cadre of reactionary thinkers and leaders. A search online for Viktor Orbán reveals several articles and think pieces about how international leaders on the political right (ranging from the mainstream to the ultra-right) admire not just the personal style of Orbán, but indeed the entire program of Hungary’s far-right Fidesz party, which has led Hungary since 2010. Hungary today is a far cry from the kingdom that preceded it until the end of the First World War, but that does not hamper its ability to be influential on the world stage, especially in right-wing and reactionary circles.
But history is not something we can discard here. The historical calamities that befell Hungary in the 20th century have provided reactionaries with a unique historical context in which to launch their program of pseudo-revanchist political grievance. The two significant events that continue to influence the tenor of right-wing politics in Hungary today (and by extension the reason that international actors look to Hungary for inspiration) are the June 4, 1920 Treaty of Trianon following World War I and the failed 1956 revolt against Communist rule in Hungary.
Nostalgia was an important cultural touchstone for attendees of the conference. The European Conservative’s spring 2023 issue, which was given away to conference attendees for free, prominently features articles by and about the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s last Crown Prince, Otto von Habsburg. In a similar vein, the Hungarian Ambassador to the Vatican and Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Eduard Habsburg, published a book in April of this year titled The Habsburg Way: 7 Rules for Turbulent Times. The sense of loss at the end of World War I, after which the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was dissolved in the treaties of Saint-Germaine-en-Laye (1919) and Trianon (1920), whether spoken aloud or not, fuels Hungarian senses of both grievance and nostalgia.
In the case of Trianon, it is possible that Hungary’s modern view of demography is shaped by the loss of more than one-third of its territory and 3.3 million Hungarian-speakers after the defeat of the Habsburg Empire by the Allies in the First World War. It speaks volumes that the very first piece of legislation drafted and passed by the Hungarian Parliament under Fidesz’s leadership in 2010 was one regarding the citizenship of ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary. This law fast-tracked a path to Hungarian citizenship for Hungarian-speakers living mostly in the surrounding countries. This reckoning with what it means to be Hungarian, and the deep national trauma caused by Austria-Hungary’s loss in the First World War form the opening salvo of the book published by CPAC’s co-sponsor, the Center for Fundamental Rights (Alapjogokért Központ): Making Hungary Great Again (paying an obvious tribute to Trumpism), by Miklós Szántho et al.
Fear of demographic decline drives many reactionaries across the world to offer admiration for Hungary. Fidesz’s attempts at bringing in new Hungarians who fit the model of what is narrowly considered properly Hungarian can serve as a practical example of racialized nationalism. The reality is made apparent when there is more concern over maintenance of Hungary as an ethno-state is given more value than truly solving issues caused by a shrinking population. Hungary, under Fidesz leadership, has constructed a heavily militarized southern border that is designed to keep people from the Middle East, and elsewhere, out regardless of whether or not there is any appreciable number of illegal border crossings between Hungary and Serbia.
For further inspiration, the memory of Cold War-era anti-Communism is an important throughline for the right that connects the contemporary moment to a long struggle against an ideological foe. The historical resistance to Communism forms an important shibboleth within the present conception of reactionary politics. This notion was made clear with Polish Solidarity movement leader and former Prime Minister Lech Wałęsa’s participation in CPAC Mexico. Given the anti-Communist nature of right-wing politics, another crucial aspect of the decision to hold CPAC in Budapest is the memory of the 1956 revolt. For many Americans who hold right-wing views today, 1956 was a moment when the conservative movement broke from the traditional GOP establishment over the failure of the Eisenhower Administration to intervene in any meaningful way when Soviet troops moved to crush the revolt. Budapest in this light takes on a strong symbolic reference to the cause of anti-Communism for the way it stands out in conservative minds for the lack of action in supporting an anti-Communist uprising abroad, as William Rusher pointed out in The Rise of the Right, that many American conservatives saw inaction regarding Hungary as a reason to move away from Republican Party orthodoxy. Tacitly, therefore, it becomes a way to affirm both an anti-Communist politics as such, as well as a chance to say “we will not forget” on behalf of the Americans involved in organizing and attending CPAC.
According to the book Making Hungary Great Again, by István Kovács, Balázs Molnár and Miklos Szánthó, 1956 is significant for the changes it wrought in Hungarian civic and political life. In it, they describe a socio-political arrangement where after the 1956 revolt, the Hungarian government allowed some reforms such that individuals could have a higher standard of living or general prosperity than before, but in exchange they had to retreat from political engagement. Regardless of the veracity of this claim (for which they offer no source), the modern ideology of Fidesz, which seeks to incorporate a traditional sense of Hungarianness into everyday life, complements the more authoritarian antecedent.
CPAC Hungary: Two Days of Culture War
It ought to come as no surprise that, given Hungary’s unique symbolic position, the speeches heard at CPAC on May 4 and 5 were largely focused on so-called social issues. Notably, Orbán opened the conference with a keynote that referenced the Iberian Reconquista. Other speakers, notably Hermann Tertsch, an MEP for Spain’s Vox party in the European Parliament, praised the use of such language. The invocation of a new Reconquista is significant because it indicates the viewpoint through which the international reactionary right views all the other issues present at the conference.
As is common in reactionary politics, grievance played an important role. The negative issues that were at centerstage during the conference, woke-ism, anti-LGBT (especially anti-trans) politics, and the struggle against globalism were framed against and stood in support of the values lauded by the speakers: religion, family, and nationalism.
The event itself was a closed-door affair. And the media that was present was allowed only a limited environment to report on the event. Where interviews took place, it was under heavy scrutiny, with one reporter from The Guardian being ejected from the event in the middle of an interview with former US Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA). Notably, it was not only journalists who received frosty treatment at the event. The general public was even barred from buying tickets. Others, despite being promised a ticket, were left to watch the livestream of the event from afar.
For those who could make it into the conference, treatment was lavish. Free books from leading right-wing publishing houses and think tanks were available at various stalls on the convention floor. Lunch and coffee were also provided without cost to conference attendees so that they might not have to stray far from the speeches and panels that progressed through the day at an impressive clip. Herein lies the larger lesson from the event: with the approach of the 2024 elections, European and American rights are unifying their voices and platforms using grievance politics that stand in opposition to liberal progress. Rhetoric regarding “globalism” was used as a cudgel (even against alleged “woke conservatives”) to make clear that it is an evil force hell-bent on enforcing a uniform sameness. To this end, it smacks of the anti-Communism of the Red Scare.
Tremendous organizing power went into making the conference not only free but extravagant. This indicates that despite any existing tensions between different groups present, the most important goal for the international right is presenting a united front to prepare the way for a Europe (and indeed a West) that could be painted in Fidesz’s image. The result is the construction of a kind of nationalist international, whereby various nationalist factions have created a forum for the exchange of ideas and inspiration without the feeling that there is a broader project of unification. In this way the small, atomized nationalisms, in all their virulent hatred of progressive causes deemed “woke,” stands in opposition to “globalism.”
 István Kovács, Balázs Molnár, Miklós Szánthó, Making Hungary Great Again (Budapest: Center for Fundamental Rights, 2022), p. 16.
It should be noted that in this case Making Hungary Great Again refers to a publication that describes and lauds Fidesz leadership of Hungary from 2010 to 2022. It should not be confused with a Routledge book of the same title.
 Kovács, Molnár, Szánthó, Making Hungary Great Again, p. 28.
Photo: Made using photos taken by author