Long a safe space where conservatives could say what they really thought, this year the Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac) is hosting an event in Budapest, its first ever on the European continent. Attendees will be treated to panels about “western civilization under attack” and be addressed by American conservative luminaries including the former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows and media figures like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens. That Hungary has become an authoritarian state whose leader, Viktor Orbán, has deconstructed Hungarian democracy and become a close ally of Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to faze anyone involved. In werklikheid, it’s the whole point.
The embrace of Orbán as a role model by many on the right seems at first glance puzzling. Na alles, conservatives are not known for welcoming lessons from Europeans on how America ought to be run. But it becomes more explicable when you realize that for years, Orbán has been playing out the fantasies of Cpac’s attendees, unconstrained by the independent institutions, impartial media and racial diversity which American conservatives see as their foils at home. Where Orbán has gone, American conservatives want to follow. And increasingly, they are doing so.
Central to Orbán’s appeal is that he is a fighter who has turned his country into, Volgens the organizers of Cpac, “one of the engines of Conservative resistance to the woke revolution”. In some ways Orbán resembles Trump, but in the eyes of many conservatives he’s better understood as the man they wished Trump would be. Where Trump was a thrice-married playboy who boasted of sleeping with porn stars and managed to lose the 2020 verkiesing, Orbán seems both genuinely committed to upholding conservative cultural values and has grimly consolidated control over his country, excluding the left from power indefinitely.
Among the terrifying implications of the American right’s embrace of Orbán is that it shows that the right would be willing to dismantle American democracy in exchange for cultural and racial hegemony. Many of Orbán’s admirers come from the “post-liberal right”, a group of intellectuals and politicians who see “traditional American culture” as so far degenerated that it may be necessary to wrest power away from a corrupted people in order to make America great again. They count among Orbán’s victories his clampdown on gay and transgender rights and his refusal to allow Muslim refugees to enter Hongarye. Upholding a particular set of “Christian” (actually nationalistic and bigoted) values is seen as worth the damage to democracy – the latter might even be necessary for the former.
Things get even more sinister when we consider that America is a vast continent-sized country of enormous cultural and racial diversity. Imposing a conservative monoculture on such a country could only be achieved through one means – governmental coercion. The desirability of doing just that is now openly discussed on the right. Over the past several years, many have been advocating “common-good constitutionalism” – an idea put forward by the conservative legal thinker Adrian Vermeule which holds that America should embrace a new interpretation of the constitution focused on, among other things, a “respect for hierarchy” and a willingness to “legislate morality”. As surely as such ideas underpinned the Jim Crow south, such ideas mesh easily with, indeed are required by, any attempt to bring Orbánism to the United States as a whole.
Far from being limited to the trolls at Cpac or obscure writers, such an approach to governing is already being implemented by conservatives up and down the country. State laws which ban teaching about race or gender issues in schools have passed in many states, and Republicans have continued their aanranding on businesses which speak out on these issues. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has moved to use the power of the state to punish Disney for its stance on gay rights. In the face of cultural change which conservatives dislike, the principle of free speech has gone out of the window, and the heavy hand of the state is knocking at the door.
The recently leaked US supreme court decision overturning Roe v Wade is perhaps the clearest indication of the danger that this trend poses. By removing a fundamental individual right and once again enabling conservatives to impose their own moral views on women’s bodies, the decision – if passed as written – will be seen on the right as a landmark in how the power of the state can be used to discipline a degenerated culture and regulate morality. Further crackdowns are sure to follow. Locked out of power on the supreme court and facing steep challenges to winning power in America’s unbalanced electoral system, defenders of liberalism will struggle to fight back.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Orbánism, with its rejection of democracy and its willingness to use coercion to enforce a narrow cultural and religious agenda, defines the danger posed by modern American conservatism. The danger is greatest when the two elements come together. Unable to win the approval of the people on whom they wish to force their values, conservatives will be tempted to proceed further and further down an undemocratic path. That path has already taken them all the way to Budapest. The fear now is that they will ultimately bring Budapest back to America.