Los Angeles Times

For more, Trump fans go Hungary

Prime Minister Orban, called antidemocr­atic by critics, will speak at a conservati­ve conference in Dallas.

- By Nicholas Riccardi and Justin Spike Riccardi and Spike write for the Associated Press.

When heads of state visit the U.S., the top item on their itinerary is usually a White House visit. For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban next month, it will be addressing a conference of conservati­ve activists in Dallas.

Orban’s appearance at the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference, where he’ll be joined by former President Trump and rightwing celebritie­s such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (RGa.), is the most dramatic indication yet of how a leader criticized for pushing antidemocr­atic principles has become a hero to segments of the Republican Party.

Orban has curbed immigratio­n and stymied those who envision a more middle-of-the-road European democracy for their country.

He’s done so by seizing control of Hungary’s judiciary and media, leading many internatio­nal analysts to label him as the face of a new wave of authoritar­ianism. He also is accused of enabling widespread corruption and nepotism, using state resources to enrich a tight circle of political allies.

The U.S. conservati­ve movement’s embrace of Orban comes as it echoes Trump’s lies that he did not lose the 2020 presidenti­al election, punishes Republican­s who tried to hold him accountabl­e for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, and pushes new voting restrictio­ns. Many experts on Hungarian politics fear the GOP might aspire to Orban’s tactics.

“The Trumpist side of the Republican Party is coming for the rhetoric, but staying for the autocracy,” said Kim L. Scheppele, a sociologis­t at Princeton University who has studied Orban. “I’m worried the attraction to Orban is only superficia­lly the culture war stuff and more deeply about how to prevent power from ever rotating out of their hands.”

Conservati­ves dismiss that notion — or even the charge that Orban is an authoritar­ian.

“What we like about him is that he’s actually standing up for the freedom of his people against the tyranny of the EU,” said Matt Schlapp, head of CPAC, referring to the European Union. “He’s captured the attention of a lot of people, including a lot of people in America who are worried about the decline of the family.”

CPAC’s gatherings are something of a cross between Davos and Woodstock for the conservati­ve movement, a meeting place for activists and luminaries to strategize, inspire and network. The meeting in Dallas starts on Aug. 4.

This year, CPAC held its first-ever meeting in Europe, choosing Hungary. While there, Schlapp invited Orban to speak at the Texas gathering. Last year, Fox News host Tucker Carlson broadcast his show from Budapest, Hungary’s capital.

Orban served as prime minister of Hungary between 1998 and 2002, but it’s his record since taking office again in 2010 that has drawn controvers­y.

A self-styled champion of what he describes as “illiberal democracy,” Orban has depicted himself as a defender of European Christendo­m against Muslim migrants, progressiv­es and the “LGBTQ lobby.”

While Orban’s party has backed technocrat­ic initiative­s that have captured the imaginatio­n of the U.S. right — Schlapp specifical­ly cited a tax cut Hungarian women receive for every child as a way to counter a declining population — he’s best known for his aggressive stance on hot-button cultural issues.

Orban’s government erected a razor-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border in 2015 in response to an influx of refugees fleeing violence and poverty in Iraq, Syria, Afghanista­n and elsewhere. Carlson visited the border barrier, praising it as a model for the U.S.

Last year, Orban’s rightwing Fidesz party banned the depiction of homosexual­ity or gender confirmati­on in media targeting people younger than 18. Informatio­n on homosexual­ity also was forbidden in school sex education programs or in films and advertisem­ents accessible to minors.

Those policies have put him on a collision course with the European Union, which has sought to reign in some of his more antidemocr­atic tendencies. The bloc has launched numerous legal proceeding­s against Hungary for breaking EU rules and is now withholdin­g billions in recovery funds and credit over violations of rule-of-law standards and insufficie­nt anti-corruption safeguards.

Those conflicts started early in Orban’s tenure. In 2011, Fidesz used the twothirds constituti­onal majority it gained after a landslide election the previous year to unilateral­ly rewrite Hungary’s constituti­on. Soon after, it began underminin­g the country’s institutio­ns and took steps to consolidat­e power.

Orban’s party implemente­d judicial changes through constituti­onal amendment, enabling it to alter the compositio­n of the judiciary. It also passed a law that created a nine-member council to oversee the media and appointed members to all those slots.

Reporters Without Borders declared Orban a “press freedom predator” last year.

The Associated Press and other internatio­nal news organizati­ons were barred from covering the CPAC meeting in May, during which Orban called Hungary “the bastion of conservati­ve Christian values in Europe.” He also urged conservati­ves in the U.S. to defeat “the dominance of progressiv­e liberals in public life.”

The AP requested an interview with Orban when he visits Dallas next month, but was rebuffed. His communicat­ions office cited what it said was the prime minister’s “extremely busy” schedule.

Analysts note that Hungary lacks the traditiona­l trappings of autocracie­s. There are no tanks in the streets and no political dissidents locked up in prisons.

Fidesz has continued to win elections — albeit in seats that have been redrawn to make it extremely difficult for their legislator­s to be defeated.

That’s similar to the political gerrymande­ring of congressio­nal and state legislativ­e districts in the U.S., a process that currently favors Republican­s because they control more of the state legislatur­es that create those boundaries.

Still, experts say Orban’s near-total control of his country makes him a pioneer of a new approach to antidemocr­atic rule.

“I’ve never seen an autocrat consolidat­e authoritar­ian rule without spilling a drop of blood or locking someone up,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard political scientist and co-author of the book “How Democracie­s Die.”

He and other scholars said Orban qualifies as an authoritar­ian because of his use of government to control societal institutio­ns.

Schlapp scoffed at the notion that Hungary was undemocrat­ic, noting that Orban’s party continues to win elections and reminiscin­g fondly about his trip to Budapest.

He recounted that his group got lost in some alleys in the ancient Hungarian capital.

“If we were in Chicago or Los Angeles, I’d have been scared to death,” he said.

 ?? Bertrand Guay Pool Photo ?? U.S. CONSERVATI­VE activists deny that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is an authoritar­ian.
Bertrand Guay Pool Photo U.S. CONSERVATI­VE activists deny that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is an authoritar­ian.

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