As a Houstonian, I have long shared my hometown’s kind of playful contempt for the city of Dallas. While the decision to hold CPAC 2022 (the Conservative Political Action Convention) cannot be blamed on the city, it certainly gives a smug satisfaction to a native son of the Bayou City that, at the very least, my hometown was not the site of an orgy of reactionary fervor. What is deserving of our collective contempt, though, is the open hostility that CPAC has for democratic institutions. Former US President Donald Trump’s speech stoked fears of a militant threat coming from within the United States, stating from the outset: “so as we gather tonight, our country is being destroyed more from the inside than out. America is on the edge of an abyss and our movement is the only force on earth that can save it.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile strategist and counselor, stated that there could be no “half measures” when dealing with the alleged enemies of the country. If the violence of Trump’s and Bannon’s rhetoric was aspirational, then the end goal of a populist reaction might look like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.
The inclusion of Orbán as a headliner should come as no surprise after the continued adulation that the American right has granted the Hungarian strongman prime minister. The American right’s eagerness to highlight a foreign speaker indicates the mainstreaming of a trend that began with internet forums: the transnational exchange of right-wing ideology. Orbán’s presence at CPAC in Dallas reveals the illiberal heart of the modern right. I seek to explore how the fixation of the international right on issues that at their core are antisemitic, misogynistic, and transphobic are at the heart of an ideological push for an illiberal West, despite the championing of Western liberalism as a symbol of superiority.
The appearance of Orbán at CPAC is fascinating for two reasons: (1) the ideological exchange between right-wing movements globally within a mainstream context; and (2) how Orbán presented himself, his policies, and his rule over Hungary, now the longest-tenured elected leadership in Europe. In his speech, Orbán praised Western democracy’s victory over the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. He praised democracy as being fundamental to the success in the ideological war that took place both with the Nazis and the Communists, but stated that the West is now in an ideological war with itself. He then proclaimed to the conservative audience that “We cannot fight successfully by liberal means.” In this single statement, he reveals the entire game.
Based on the rhetoric of contemporary right-wing activists and leaders, one would think that they represent an embattled and oppressed voice within the pantheon of political opinions. Assertions abound on the right covering issues from the belief that social media is biased against conservative voices to the belief among some conservative Christians that they represent a persecuted group in the United States. Despite the posturing that politicians and commentators like Orbán engage in, where they claim to inherit the small-l liberal international order that was created at Bretton Woods, they simultaneously engage in efforts both rhetorical and practical to bring down this order. They claim to be proponents of democracy, but often, as was the case in Orbán’s speech, they fail to produce more than lip service in the service of democratic institutions or practice.
The appearance of Orbán at CPAC in Dallas comes after a sustained period of admiration for illiberal leaders across the world by the American right. And indeed, the continued prominence of Donald Trump after his presidency signals that the Republican mainstream has been pulled to the right. The internal politics of any political organization are typically more uncompromising than the politics of the public, but the recent trip of Tucker Carlson to Brazil; and the May 2022 edition of CPAC, which was held in Hungary; has shown that the center has also shifted. While the idea that primary voters are more extreme than the electorate at large is hotly debated, recent effects of gerrymandering have allowed for the hardliners of a party’s extremities to become the rule of the day.
A Brief History of the International Radical Right
The far right, since its international coalescence in the tumultuous years following the First World War, has always found inspiration from an international cohort of like-minded thinkers. And after the defeat of German Nazism and Italian Fascism during the Second World War, radical right-wing positions had lost credibility globally, but that did not stop the fringes of the American right from expressing their affection for Spain’s military dictator Francisco Franco. Indeed, right-wing internationalism has its roots in the myriad fascist movements founded across Europe following the conclusion of the First World War. The ideas of social Darwinism and the anti-establishment philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche were in vogue and helped inspire fascist movements across Europe as a response to the collapse of the old order, as Phillip Morgan points out in the introduction to Fascism in Europe. But American support for Franco never existed beyond the fringe of conservative politics of the mid-20th Century.
For right-wing movements of the second half of the 20th Century, the idea of a pan-European identity was important in establishing a break from previous iterations of right-wing and fascist intellectual development. The notion that there is a unique and uniform European identity was born out of the Algerian War. While the earliest forms of fascism saw Europeans seeking to gain advantages and territory at the expense of their neighbors, in the postcolonial world these differences have been flattened out as liberalism and subsequent neoliberalism came into effect. The need for an outside enemy, however, remained, and what was left were the former colonies.
For CPAC, however, the opportunity to attract international right-wing stars has been a fixture of the conference’s recent activities. Recent speakers have included UK Independence Party leader and Brexit champion Nigel Farage as well as France’s Reconquête party leader Marion Maréchel-Le Pen, and in July the conference held its first Israeli iteration. This is not a fringe movement, and the antidemocratic stance that could be considered a throughline for these conferences is part of a trend within an intellectual movement in conservatism known as the New Right. Recent developments surrounding the European Parliament proclaiming that Hungary could no longer be considered a full democracy and the subsequent reaction by Italy’s likely next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, in which she defended Orbán illustrate the coalition developed by Europe’s New Right leaders.
An internationalized right-wing movement has a recent historical precedent with French neopagan philosopher Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite in France and the European New Right more broadly. In this sense, the far right has abandoned a solitary understanding of nationalism for a wider sense of racial community that seeks to embrace a limited pan-Europeanism based on a shared cultural heritage. (Western and, for the non-pagans of the New Right, Christian cultural heritage as well.)
Viktor Orbán’s Speech
Distancing himself from accusations of antisemitism in his speech to CPAC, Viktor Orbán spoke for half an hour about the ways Hungary had been successful in resisting the “globalism” of George Soros and his progressive politics. The framing of Hungarians as a traditional, Christian people recalls the völkisch ideology of the Nazis. According to Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg in their 2017 book, Far-Right Politics in Europe, völkisch politics are characterized by a belief in racist nostalgia that connects a people to a land through the construction of mythologized, heroic narratives. In his speech at CPAC, Orbán stated that he was present to “tell you that our values: the nation, Christian roots, and family can be successful in [sic] the political battlefield.” He referred to the documentary that Tucker Carlson made during his speech as well. In that documentary he said, “we would not like to leave this country to the migrants, we would like to leave it to our grandchildren.” Orbán’s policies can be described as völkisch because, alongside the grievance and hand-wringing over fears of less-than-subtle allusions to the Great Replacement Theory, he also believes that Hungarians are the proud descendants of Attila the Hun, and in previous speeches has used that relationship to praise the strength of the Hungarian people. It is the positioning of Soros as an outsider, an “other” against the Hungarian people, and more specifically the will and Christian values of the (modern) Hungarian people, that make this canard a deeply antisemitic one.
Before offering his advice to conservatives in the United States, Orbán laid his grievances towards the Democratic administrations of Barack Obama and Joe Biden bare for the crowd, saying, “The leading power of the Free World wanted to force [Hungary] to change our constitution according to globalist liberal concepts.” Here the politics of grievance are on full display as Orbán presents his cause as beleaguered, thus providing potential political cover for the policies already existing in Hungary. What he suggests is unity among conservative movements across international boundaries.
The ire directed towards the issues of migration and “gender ideology” is of particular interest, especially how Orbán, and indeed the American New Right, ties these issues together with the politics of grievance and assumed victimization. “If traditional families are gone there is nothing to save the West from going under,” stated Orbán as he belabored the idea that the culture of the West was under threat. By laying the blame for the alleged destruction of Western society at the feet of globalists and George Soros the demographic anxieties, founded in racism, homo- and transphobia, and antisemitism a nativist image of what Hungary is, and from Orbán’s perspective what America and the wider West could be.
Framing the policies of reaction as help for Hungarian families, the Orbán government can enact measures such as tax credits for families with four or more children that have correlated with consistently high approval ratings. At the heart of these policies, though, is a deep fear of outsiders, and the popular appeal with immediate benefits to citizens offers a logic for supporting those policies and the government that enacted them. For the citizens, the idea of relief from income tax has an obvious appeal, but the support of this family policy necessarily entails at least a tacit support of the program to encourage the creation of more Hungarians, which on the part of the government is done with racist intent: the seemingly left-leaning policies, such as the financial support to families found in tax credits or preferential loans offered to women under 40 when they get married. The reason for the existence of such policies is to support the völkisch ambitions of Orbán and his party, Fidesz.
Though the policies of Orbán’s regime are potentially able to draw populist support for the social programs that provide material support to families, the core of this material assistance is based on a deeply held sense of misogyny. As the late Italian writer Umberto Eco stated in his 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism,” the fifth point of fascism is fear of the other, and the thirteenth point is that fascism is based on selective populism. The “ur” in ur-fascism resonates here because the factors discussed by Eco, and which are present in contemporary cases such as Hungary. He also uses the term “eternal fascism,” because of the concept’s notable squishiness. Instances of right-wing ideology labeled “fascism” look different across space and time, but the qualities that link disparate iterations of what are commonly lumped together as fascism are labeled “ur-” or “eternal” for the ways that certain key similarities exist in iterations of the ideology. These qualities can be taken to represent either precedents to fascism outright or defining characteristics of extant fascism. By understanding the fear of the other and the desire to control women as a means of larger social control, it is possible to interpret these family programs that are so popular in this light. Because of a fixation on domesticity and wanting women to occupy a housebound role in society, Hungarian family policy has incentivized this role. It is unthinkable for this role to be compulsory, but for those on the right, it is possible to incentivize the desired outcomes though such programs as the tax breaks offered by the Orbán government.
The Voraciously Venerated Viktor Orbán
In his short documentary about Hungary’s efforts to resist the supposedly pernicious effects of George Soros’ influence on Western societies, Fox News host Tucker Carlson visited Orbán to discover how Hungary has created a successful model for resisting progressive advancements that other European states have enacted. Throughout the documentary, there is particular interest paid to the issue of demographics, a favorite topic among right-wing populists. The fixation on demographics is important because it undergirds potential racism and violence, both from the top and especially from the bottom. Radicalized individuals who are enacting a vicious practice that is inspired by both political and thought leaders. While radicalization is easy to find on the internet, the internationalization of right-wing radicalism and extremism presents a greater danger for attendant violence than before.
Vital to understanding the influence of contemporary right-wing internationalism is the budding world of the American New Right. In the documentary Hungary vs. Soros, conservative author Rod Dreher states, “They are willing to violate free-market dogmas for the sake of defending the country.” In so doing, he reveals a trend among the New Right. Abandoning traditional conservative small-government proclivities, intellectual leaders within the New Right advocate for a much more muscular approach to government and center their worldview around key culture war issues such as immigration and abortion. It is through these culture war positions that right-wing activists advocate for state interventions and assistance, but only where it concerns culturally relevant issues. For Dreher, this inspiration followed the success of Orbán’s government implementing such measures in Hungary, especially regarding family policy. Where state intervention to provide for the common good is seen as a positive development, it must be emphasized that the beneficiaries are defined along narrow (if not culturally, ethnically, and racially) heterogeneous lines.
The contemporary media landscape, in addition to the rise of the New Right, has lent more credence to the radical ideas of thought leaders like Dreher. The New Right, as it is conceived on both sides of the Atlantic, offers a new way to think about political issues that places emphasis on cultural matters as the most important. For members of the New Right’s intellectual vanguard like Dreher, hegemonic Christianity offers the solution for what thinkers like him and politicians like Orbán see as the decline of Western civilization. For this reason, Dreher has a prominent role in explaining the ideological motivations in Hungary vs. Soros. His 2017 book The Benedict Option expounds on how Christianity can react to what he sees as modern cultural preferences that he finds to be objectionable. These ideas are circulated by influential individuals like Carlson, and thus they seep into the mainstream. Hungary vs. Soros presents an idealized society for those on the radical right, and the enormous platform that Carlson has allows a subtle form of racism to be accepted by broad swaths of the population. The documentary cleverly paints an image of an aggressor (Soros) and a victim (interchangeably: Hungarians, Christians, or the West), and then provides the answers, which were expounded upon by Orbán during his trip to Dallas.
CPAC has gone from a once homegrown conference that has since gone international, and in so doing has captured the spirit of a new era of reaction. The ideas shared and discussed in Dallas, Budapest, and Tel Aviv indicate a disturbing shift in the international unity of reactionary politics. Though not without precedent, the phenomenon’s transnational inspiration has moved it from the fringe to the mainstream. This should cause concern for anyone who cares about democratic institutions and the safeguarding of human rights.
Viktor Orbán and his ilk cannot make policy anywhere but in their own countries, but the legitimacy offered by international spectacles such as CPAC heralds a worrying trend for the future of democratic institutions the world over. When anti-democrats in Brazil or the United States or Hungary or India or anywhere else in the world can take inspiration from one another, the world becomes less safe for democratic institutions, and importantly, the people who are harmed when democratic institutions fail.