What CPAC’s embrace of Viktor Orban says about the state of US politics
A previous version of this rerun originally aired on June 23, 2021.
CPAC, the largest and most influential assembly of American conservatives, holds its annual conference in Budapest, Hungary. And why?
The conference will celebrate the far-right authoritarianism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He will be the main speaker.
So what parts of the Orban playbook is America’s right wing already following?
“His alliance with the evangelical movement, his alliance with the militia movement. And all those Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and whatnot.”
“All of this means that in addition to the Republican Party organization, you have an entire civilian sector that is being mobilized to bring back autocracy.”
Today in an archive edition of To the point: As American conservatives gather for their conference in Budapest, we’ll learn more about why they’re coming together to hear Viktor Orban.
Kim Scheppele, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University. Author of the forthcoming book Der Frankenstaat.
Martha PardaviCo-Chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a leading human rights organization based in Budapest.
About Viktor Orban’s rise to power
Kim Scheppele: “Orban was just behind the university when the wall fell. And he kind of became famous in Hungary because he was one of the speakers at that huge rally when it was kind of clear that politics was changing in Hungary. And he went to the microphone and demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, which looked incredibly brave at the time. And it kind of catapulted him onto the national scene. He had already founded this political party called Fidesz, in which he was really the only leader.
“And at the time of the transition, Orban and his colleagues all presented themselves as libertarians. You know, it was a young party. It was a party calling for everything communist to be thrown out. And they went into the first free and fair elections with that kind of branding. And they did pretty well in 1990. The problem is that by 1994 the luster of that particular brand had faded and Orban’s party was not doing so well. So when he was in opposition, he rebuilt the party. He purged it of all libertarians and took that sharp, hard turn to the right.
“When another national election was held in 1998, his party actually came first. So he was prime minister in 2000, but he actually became prime minister from 1998 to 2002. But he had to govern in coalition. So there were many signs in those four years that he could become dangerous if he ruled alone, but because he ruled in coalition he didn’t do anything as radical as he probably would have liked. He was defeated in 2002 and defeated again in 2006 .
“And while he was in opposition, he created a whole network of so-called ‘civic circles’ to increase his popularity across the country and support his political party. By the way, Hungary was going through the financial crisis, it was under an interim government, it was under an IMF austerity program, and in the 2000 elections Orban looked like the only sane and sane candidate who ran in this election.
“And he won. And he won by a narrow majority of the votes. But he got 67% of the seats in Parliament. In a system where a single two-thirds parliamentary majority could change everything about the constitution, it was this lineup that gave him the legal power to do what he did: shut down Hungarian democracy and also prevent him ever lose an election again.”
Orban’s political ideology
Kim Scheppele: “The public platform of his party could not be more different. Freedom for everyone, [to] freedom for no one. But there’s that kind of connection, which is that Orban still believes in freedom for himself. And so he refuses to be restricted by any law. It’s like a libertarian fantasy. That everything about the state can be changed according to your personal will.
“So in that sense, I don’t think Orban has really changed. You know, it’s a bit like after the Russian Revolution, when Lenin realized the world wasn’t going to be fully communist. So Lenin developed this theory of communism in one country, which led to everything we saw in the Soviet Union. Orban developed this theory of libertarianism in one person, namely that he is the only one who can act completely without constraints.”
On the parallels between Orban’s actions when he lost power and the GOP now
Kim Scheppele: “This is where I think we have the scariest parallels. So, when Orban was out of power, he pursued a two-pronged strategy. One was that he purged his party of anyone who was not personally loyal to him. So he built a party that only waited for an election when the main left parties would be weak. And that happened in 2010. And of course we have a two-party system in the US. So one cannot wish for one party to stay in power forever. One day the Republicans will come back.
“And the question is what the party looks like. And if it looks like Orban’s Fidesz party, where it’s really designed to support one person or support some kind of strongman at the top, then you’re in danger. But the other thing Orban did with these citizen circles was that he got involved in a kind of mass mobilization of civil society, and he often did that through the Hungarian churches, he mobilized their members, he attracted all of them they had already a pre-existing structure, he mobilized a kind of religious Hungarian bourgeoisie.
“And in doing so he developed a very reliable basis for his own party by feeding it many lines. As I mentioned, rewriting Hungarian history, developing a certain version of bourgeois patriotism, developing a kind of intolerance towards multiculturalism, and laying the groundwork for what became a sort of Fidesz platform when Orban came back the power came. So you see that’s what’s happening now with the Republican Party, their alliance with the evangelical movement, their alliance with other groups that are fomenting this kind of thing, and the militia movement. And all those Oath Keepers and proud boys etc. So all of this means that in addition to organizing the Republican Party you have an entire civilian sector mobilizing to bring back autocracy. ”
About lessons for the future of US democracy
Kim Scheppele: “It’s kind of a trademark of these autocrats that they try to distract the press. And unfortunately the press gets distracted. I mean… what is clickbait? The latest Trump tweet or the latest outrageous statement from Orban? But I think it’s important that we all stay tuned into what’s happening with the democratic institutions that are supposed to protect us. So we have to look below the surface and ask: Do we have functioning institutions that can stop an autocratic drive for power?
“And I worry that what I’ve seen in the US in Hungary is that all these institutions that I knew and loved and even worked in were conquered so easily when the public was distracted from other things. And culture wars, important as they are, and however hateful the rhetoric, and everyone must respond. But the culture wars very often distract from the kinds of checks and balances and important guard rails of democratic processes that we must keep intact for democracies to survive.”