Over two days last week, May 19th and 20th, CPAC (the conservative political action conference) held its first ever event in Europe at the Balna Conference Center in Budapest, Hungary. The location was no accident; if one European leader is seen as a standard bearer for the ‘populist’ right, it’s that country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose reign, now entering its fourth consecutive term, has attracted the attention of reactionary voices like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who broadcast his show for a week from the country’s capital in August of 2021.
According to the page on CPAC’s website promoting the conference, the get together was organized to discuss issues of great importance to the future of the world’s richest countries, beginning, “We live in a pivotal age. The question CPAC Hungary will pose is if we can protect our Western civilization, our true Western values, and face down the onslaught of the Left. The guiding theme of the conference will be the triune principle of God, Nation and the Family. We firmly believe that this is what connects all conservatives around the world. The Right has come to the realization that our most basic values have come under sustained and coordinated attack from the global Left.”
Besides the writer’s use of capital letters, there’s a lot to unpack here but let’s start with a little background on Orban, the keynote speaker last Thursday, who used his speech to opine about these “basic values” and his plans to fight for them in Hungary and abroad.
Orban, 58, began his political career on the center right before moving to the far right after an election loss. He touts his country as an ‘illiberal democracy’ but has worked along with his Fidesz Party to undermine the democracy part in favor of the illiberal part, turning state media into little more than propaganda outlets and using his long stint in power to stack the courts with loyalists. Although he began making changes to his country’s constitution in 2010, he was able to use the coronavirus pandemic to award himself almost dictatorial powers.
As reported by Vox in 2020, a state of emergency declared due to the pandemic allowed the prime minister to, “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations and implement additional extraordinary measures by decree.”
As the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International Hungary wrote in a joint statement about the human rights implications of this at the time, “If the bills are adopted in their present form, that will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards.”
These powers were set to expire in June but just before he begins his new term in office, Orban scheduled a vote to change Hungary’s constitution to rule by similar decrees in the future. Just this week, the Hungarian PM, who has been one of the European leaders closest to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, announced a new state of emergency due to the war in Ukraine.
A coup doesn’t necessarily mean tanks and soldiers on the streets, it can be all the more effective when done from the shadows using an emergency as an excuse. Others on the populist right have surely learned from Orban’s example, which was much more effective in the short term than claims of election fraud made by the last president of the United States, who also appeared in a video message at CPAC Hungary.
One chilling aspect of Orban’s speech was his use of militaristic language to describe his opposition to institutions like the EU, saying, “We need to take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels, need to find friends, and we need to find allies. We need to coordinate the movement of our troops, because we have a big challenge ahead of us.”
Although the conference featured numerous controversial speakers, including one of the original ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theorists, Jack Posobiac, Zsolt Bayer, a Hungarian journalist and co-founder of Orban’s Fidesz party was arguably the one who most reveals the vile, fascistic underbelly of this exclusionary ‘populism’. He has a long record of public racism and anti-Semitism, once calling Jewish people “excrement” and using slurs to refer to people of African descent.
Speaking of perhaps the most persecuted group in Europe, who meet most of the requirements to be considered indigenous but are not recognized as such, the Roma, Bayer had this to say in 2013, “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals and they behave like animals.”
Other speakers at the conference included the aforementioned Tucker Carlson and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro via video messages, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who spent much of the last two years streaming himself watching the English coast in search of migrants, and conservative provocateur Candace Owens, who once claimed that it was “Ok” when Nazis were just trying to “make Germany great again” until they attacked neighboring countries.
I think the Jewish, Roma, disabled and LGBTQI+ people among many others who were targeted by the German fascists might have begged to differ, at least the small number who managed to survive or escape.
The theme of the part of the conference hosted by Owens was, “The father is a man, the mother is a woman”, clearly designed to attack not just the trans people who have become a favorite target of the right and, oddly, cynical millionaire comedians trying to generate outrage and attract viewers for their insipid Netflix specials, but LGBTQI+ communities generally.
The further people move to the reactionary part of the right the more culture wars are stoked around issues of equality like the right of people of the same sex to love each other. We should be under no illusions that these are anything less than attempts to turn back the clock on progress that allows marginalized groups to live fulfilling lives without fear.
The cleverest aspect of this new electoral fascism is the use of appeals to the white working class, with Marine Le Pen, who was also meant to speak at CPAC but didn’t, going so far as to promise new benefits and social programs to ‘French’ workers implying that some groups would be excluded from these benefits, which were to include subsidized housing.
It doesn’t matter if nothing materializes from promises like these as we saw with the former U.S. president’s promises on health care.
It would be funny that speakers at CPAC Hungary and its organizers insist that the broad left has such immense power and control if it didn’t put people in real danger. The progressive left is as weak in Western countries as it has been since the 19th but the reactionary right projects its own aspirations on to it to stir controversy over nonsense like ‘critical race theory’ being taught in elementary schools.
It is the wish of most of us to have even a small part of the power that’s routinely ascribed to progressive forces by the right who are much more powerful even though their policy ideas are unpopular and in countries like Canada and the United States their base is shrinking. This is possible in part because so-called moderates, who hate the left almost as much, are claimed to control the entire spectrum left of the center. When given the chance, the centrists will almost always side with the right to marginalize the left.
CPAC Hungary shows that a kind of far right international is forming. This challenge can only be met when the left reaches across borders to learn from others and organize on a global scale.