On August 4, 2022, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary gave a speech in Dallas, Texas—by his own admission “more than five thousand miles” from his homeland—and was met with cheers and applause. He spoke in front of a blue background while gripping a red lectern bearing a star and the initialism “CPAC”: “Conservative Political Action Conference.” CPAC is a political conference held—every year since 1975—by the American Conservative Union, a group of right-wing political activists that is, per its website, “deeply connected to American politics.” Though it is not officially affiliated with the Republican Party, each year its speakers include high-profile Republicans: in Dallas this year Republican governors, senators, congresspeople, and one former president all gave speeches. (Notably, former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, spoke at the CPAC event in Florida earlier in the year. This was exceptional and speaks far more to Gabbard’s idiosyncratic politics than to the politics of CPAC.)
Orbán is an interesting political figure and a good case-study for students of democratic erosion. Under his administration Hungary was named an “electoral autocracy” by the European Union and a “transitional or hybrid regime” by Freedom House—it is not strictly a dictatorship but not a democracy either. Orbán’s Hungary matches Larry Diamond’s description of countries on the borderline of democracy: it has “the form of electoral democracy” without the civil liberties and freedoms essential to it. Orbán as prime minister oversaw Hungary’s transition to what he himself calls an “illiberal democracy.” He has used his position to pass laws that benefit Fidesz, his party. His allies run the Central European Press and Media Foundation, which owns most of the country’s news media outlets. And as recently as this past July, less than two weeks before his speech at CPAC, he embraced ethnonationalist talking points, opining that Europeans should resist becoming “peoples of mixed race.”
Speaking to his audience of American conservatives, Orbán began by praising the state of Texas and the United States as a whole. He called himself and his fellow Hungarians champions of Christian democracy. This makes perfect sense: in the twenty-first century, authoritarians typically cast themselves as democratic heads of government. As Jan-Werner Müller wrote in 2016, the label of “democracy” is the “chief political prize” among all states, whether democratic, authoritarian, or something in between. He continued by proudly proclaiming himself to be “the only anti-migration political leader” in Europe, setting the tone for the remainder of his speech, which focused mostly on social conservatism. In touting Hungarian’s efforts to “protect [children] from the gender ideology that targets them,” he appealed to American conservatives’ anxieties over children being groomed by LGBTQ adults—the word “targets” makes it clear that he means that children are actively being harmed by malevolent forces. His only mention of economic issues came near the end, when he boasted of Hungary’s low tax rates (a flat 15% tax on income and 9% tax on corporations).
Of particular rhetorical interest is Orbán’s repeated use of the pronoun “we” in his speech: “We decided we don’t need more genders; we need more rangers,” “We believe that stopping illegal immigration is necessary to protect our nation.” “We,” as Orbán uses it, refers not to political conservatives or the Fidesz party, but Hungarians as a whole. Yet he also states that Hungary is “under the siege of progressive liberals day-by-day.” If Hungarians are so uniform of opinion, as Orbán says multiple times, then who are these “progressive liberals” who oppose them? Not Hungarians, clearly. This is a common tactic of populist leaders: the claim that their policies and practices are the result of the will of the people, and that those who oppose them are not to be considered legitimate voices. When Orbán says that “in Hungary you will only hear: “more funds to the Police!” he seems to pretend that opposition does not exist. In his following sentence—“Progressives always want your money: they love higher taxes”—he refers directly to his progressive opponents; when he says immediately after that “we believe that people should have their money in their own hands,” he suggests that they are not real Hungarians. It is not particularly noteworthy that he frames the debate over economic policy as “us vs them”: he is speaking to an audience of conservatives, most of whom can be assumed to agree with him. What is noteworthy is that his “us” is not conservatives, but the Hungarian people. The “them,” therefore—the people who oppose him—cannot be true Hungarians.
Orbán concluded his speech by remarking, “The world has several great nations, but none with the power and influence of the United States. For better or for worse, the world looks to you for the future.” If this is so, we should be wary of one of the U.S.’s two major political parties cozying up to a foreign head of government who employs the rhetoric of an authoritarian demagogue. It is not unlikely to be a warning sign that the democratic erosion that happened in Hungary under Orbán is beginning to happen here as well.
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Diamond, Larry. “Thinking About Hybrid Regimes.” Journal of Democracy 3, no. 2 (2002): 21–35.
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