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US conservative conference starring Hungary’s Viktor Orban shines light on Republican divide

Budapest gathering of CPAC will feature Putin-support autocrat as keynote speaker

Alexandra Ulmer
Wednesday 06 April 2022 15:17 BST
The event’s keynote speaker is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin
The event’s keynote speaker is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

America’s most prominent conservative gathering, founded on ideals of personal liberty and limited government, convenes in Budapest next month to celebrate a European leader accused of undermining democracy and individual rights.

The May meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is seen by some Republicans as a test of how closely American conservatives are willing align themselves with a global movement of far-right, Russia-friendly strongmen embraced by former US president Donald Trump.

The event’s keynote speaker is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, a longtime supporter of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The European Union has accused Orban, who won re-election by a large margin on Sunday, of curbing media and judicial independence, enriching associates with public funds and recasting election laws to entrench his power.

Hungary joined in the EU sanctions imposed on Moscow in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Orban has stopped short of criticising Putin directly, barred weapons shipments through Hungary to neighbouring Ukraine and opposed proposals for EU sanctions on Russian natural gas.

The Hungary meeting reflects a years-long push by CPAC’s organizers, the American Conservative Union (ACU), to promote Trump’s divisive brand of nationalist populism to foreign audiences. Last fall, a similar CPAC-branded meeting was held in Brazil, spotlighting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader and Putin admirer.

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. An Orban spokesperson called the EU’s criticism of him “politically-ideologically based” and part of a long-running “provocation campaign and witch hunt” by liberal elites.

The Hungary gathering spotlights an emerging split among Republicans. While some have grown more tolerant of Putin and other foreign leaders with authoritarian tendencies, others are alarmed at the association.

Al Cardenas, who served as ACU’s chairman from 2011 to 2014, called CPAC’s embrace of Orban troubling, noting the Hungarian leader’s close ties to Putin, “the most dangerous adversary of the free world.”

“Orban is no friend of democratic nations, and any gestures or cooperation with USA nonprofits sends the wrong signal to the rest of the world, especially in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war,” said Cardenas, who was also once head of Florida’s Republican Party.

On one side of the Republican split are traditional anti-authoritarian conservatives, who value personal freedoms, limited government and free markets, says Gregg Keller, who was ACU’s executive director from 2011 to 2014, working alongside Cardenas, and now heads the Atlas Strategy Group, a political consulting firm. Keller describes this typically older group as “Reagan internationalist-type folks.”

Their ideology increasingly clashes with Trump’s strongest supporters, who Keller describes as “more populist, younger, isolationist folks,” who view Putin’s attack on Ukraine as “none of our concern.” Many Trump backers admire Orban for using his political dominance to push a conservative cultural agenda, from immigration crackdowns to restrictions on LGBTQ rights.

With CPAC Hungary, Keller said, “you’re seeing those two opposing views very much go head-to-head.”

The ACU, which has condemned Putin’s war, has received requests to host similar CPAC gatherings in dozens of other countries where like-minded groups have offered to co-sponsor events, said ACU Executive Director Daniel Schneider. He said the organization has heard from potential sponsors in Slovakia, Kenya, Mongolia, Guatemala and other locales.

The foreign co-hosts of CPAC events cover the cost of the offshore meetings, Schneider said. The Budapest conference is co-hosted by a Hungarian think tank that receives funding from Orban’s government; the Brazil meeting was co-hosted by a Brazilian think tank owned by Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and a far-right Brazilian lawmaker.

CPAC Hungary, scheduled for 18 to 20 May, marks its first meeting in Europe and its fifth foreign gathering since the ACU first took the conference abroad to Japan in 2017.

Some US conservatives are concerned about CPAC’s reliance on foreign sponsors and the exposure those groups get to influential conservative officials and leaders.

In February, a Republican strategist filed an anonymous complaint to the US Justice Department, alleging that the ACU and its leaders have violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by failing to report money they accept from foreign organizations while promoting those groups’ interests to US audiences. The written complaint, reviewed by Reuters, essentially serves as a formal request for a federal investigation. The Justice Department declined to confirm or deny whether it was investigating.

The complaint charges that foreign hosts of at least three overseas CPAC meetings, including CPAC Hungary, provided more than $150,000 (£115,000) in sponsorships for CPAC’s marquee US meeting in February in Orlando, Florida. The complainant, a longtime CPAC attendee, expressed disappointment in an interview with Reuters over “how ACU has monetized CPAC to foreign actors” and given them a platform in the United States.

The ACU’s Schneider called the allegations “ludicrous.” CPAC’s international outreach, he said, aims to forge bonds with fellow conservatives around its “freedom and liberty” philosophy and has nothing to do with promoting foreign interests.

Right-wing ‘realignment’

Launched in 1974, the annual CPAC conference has grown from a confab of conservative thinkers and politicians to a jamboree of right-wing celebrities and activists. With Trump’s rise to power, the conferences morphed from a bastion of traditional conservatism into a promotional vehicle for the populist president. The ACU has continued touting Trumpism since he lost the 2020 election and launched his campaign to overturn the results based on false voting-fraud claims.

“We’re almost seeing a political realignment in real time” on the American right, said Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative commentator, “and so much of it is in Donald Trump’s shadow.”

While old-school conservatives are deeply sceptical of government power, Erickson said, Trump has inspired national populists “who want a strong central government that can impose their will on the country.” Many of them believe traditional conservatism has failed to stop the advancement of left-wing culture, Erickson said, and “they want to move on to something new.”

Orban was the first European leader to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. He is among an array of hardline leaders, including Putin, whom Trump has publicly admired. Trump recently endorsed Orban in the April 3 Hungarian election, which Orban won with 53 per cent of the vote against a six-party coalition.

The Ukraine war initially was seen to have harmed Orban’s campaign because of his cozy relationship with Putin. Orban prevailed after arguing that the opposition’s promises to mend ties with the EU could lead Hungary into war with Russia.

Orban’s politics and policies appear to clash with CPAC’s principles, detailed in a founding charter that celebrates the “inherent rights of the individual through strictly limiting the power of government.” The Hungarian leader has pushed to replace independent news outlets with state-aligned media and installed loyalists to oversee institutions such as the judiciary and chief prosecutor’s office.

Orban’s opponents depict him as an authoritarian who exploits power to weaken democracy and reward cronies, accusations Orban denies. The European Union recently froze 7.2 billion euros ($7.9 billion) in subsidies to Hungary and has threatened to halt billions more unless it institutes reforms such as strengthening judicial independence.

Orban’s spokesperson called the withholding of EU funds “outrageous and unjustifiable,” particularly as Hungary confronts the effects of a war just over its border.

Many US conservatives have come to envy Orban’s use of government power to impose a conservative cultural agenda, said Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton University professor of sociology and international affairs who studies Hungarian politics. “Hungary has become, for the Trumpist Republicans, what Sweden used to be for the social democrats – it’s proof of concept,” Scheppele said.

Orban touts what he calls “illiberal democracy” and depicts himself as a Christian defender of European heritage. He uses anti-immigration policies to repel Muslim migrants and rejects liberal European positions on social issues, such as adoption by gay couples.

Rod Dreher, a columnist at The American Conservative, sees Orban’s Hungary as a model for post-Trump conservatism. Dreher, whose latest book, Live Not By Lies, was translated into Hungarian, took a selfie with Orban on a recent visit to Budapest and tweeted it with the message, “Hey haters!”

“Orban, unlike so many of our own conservative politicians, understands that we are in a battle to defend our civilization – and he fights like it,” Dreher said, adding that CPAC Hungary will show American conservatives “what nationalist, populist conservative governance can be.”

Funding from Orban’s office

Miklos Szantho heads the Center for Fundamental Rights, the Orban-backed think tank hosting the conference. In an interview with Reuters, Szantho ticked off shared interests of conservatives internationally: “our Judeo-Christian heritage, national identity, state sovereignty, the family, the created nature of Man and Woman.”

The Budapest-based centre said it first approached the ACU about three years ago to discuss hosting CPAC. The centre, which describes itself as a research institute, focuses largely on promoting Orban’s policies. Its website decries “overgrown human rights-fundamentalism and political correctness,” and its director, Szantho, appears regularly on Hungarian TV as a pro-Orban pundit.

The centre received large donations from Orban’s government, according to public records reviewed by Reuters. It is run by a company called Jogallam es Igazsag Nonprofit Kft (JIN Kft). JIN Kft is owned by Szantho, who set it up in 2013 with the help of funding from a foundation linked to Orban’s ruling party, Fidesz. In 2020, the Prime Minister’s Office gave the company 2.3 billion forints ($7.2 million), according to the office’s annual report. The same year, JIN Kft received 720 million forints ($2.3 million) from a foundation also funded by Orban’s government, according to the documents.

Neither the centre nor the Prime Minister’s Office responded to requests for comment on the organization’s funding or its relationship to Orban’s government.

Some US conservatives are wary of CPAC’s association with foreign groups underwriting its conferences.

“There are downsides to going international,’’ David Keene, the ACU’s chair from 1984 to 2011, said in an interview. Citing controversies surrounding Orban’s policies and his ties to Putin, Keene said such partnerships risk aligning CPAC with groups and agendas that run counter to its principles.

Schneider, the current ACU executive director, said foreign co-hosts are assessed for “philosophical alignment.”

Szantho said CPAC Hungary will attract “preeminent conservative politicians and intellectuals” worldwide. The centre has revealed only a few speakers, including Orban, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president’s son, and Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s far-right Vox party. Reuters could not confirm whether the announced speakers would attend or whether they would be joined by any prominent US conservatives.

Orban remains the biggest draw. “In my eyes,” said Szantho, “if a prime minister attends a conference, that shows conference is important.”


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