In 2014, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán gave what came to be known by some as the “illiberal democracy” speech. After lambasting liberal values and blaming them for, among other things, eroding American soft power, Orbán said, “The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc… But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organisation, but applies a specific, national, particular approach.”
I thought of this speech last week, when, on 19 and 20 May, the US Conservative Political Action Committee, or Cpac, held a special meeting in Budapest. Orbán encouraged attendees to establish their own media and broadcast shows like conservative pundit Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News “24/7”. Zsolt Bayer, a Hungarian talk show host and political personality with a history of anti-Semitic and racist remarks, addressed the crowd. The former US president Donald Trump appeared by video. The Cpac chair Matt Schlapp pushed back against the idea that it offered a platform to anti-Semitism, noting that a rabbi was present. Cpac also said that it was being smeared by globalists, a word taken by many to be an anti-Semitic dogwhistle.
Some have suggested that the American right wants to emulate Orbán. But it is more of a mutual admiration than unidirectional inspiration. Conspiracy theories about the (Hungarian-born) financier George Soros, vilification of immigrants, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, praise for the traditional family unit – all of this is American as well as Hungarian. Leaders in Washington and Budapest pass the two back and forth.
I thought of Orbán’s 2014 speech this week when the Hungarian prime minister declared a state of emergency, using as justification the war in neighbouring Ukraine. Critics immediately said that the state of emergency would just further tighten Orbán’s grip on power, making him more impervious to criticism and accountability. But I also thought of Orbán’s 2014 speech this week when I watched victorious Trump-backed Republican primary candidates who only managed to win his favour by agreeing to say that Trump won the 2020 presidential election, which he lost.
Do American conservatives want to turn the US into Hungary? Or do they want to develop the same pre-existing elements in their own country that Orbán has for years fostered in his?
Perhaps it’s a distinction without a difference. It’s worth highlighting that Trump shared the stage with Bayer. But so too is it true that Bayer shared the stage with a former US president who reportedly mused about shooting protesters in the leg, who launched his political campaign by lying about his predecessor’s citizenship, and who has made his own “illiberal democracy” speech time and again.
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[See also: The two genres of Trump book]