CPAC Hungary is a recent example of how ultranationalist, radical-right politicians are gaining legitimacy through international cooperation

US television host and conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson delivers a speech via a videolink at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a prominent conference of American conservatives, in Budapest, Hungary, 19 May 2022.  Credit: Szilard Koszticsak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (12946499a)

By Frank

This past May, the American Conservative Union (ACU) held one of its Conservative Political Action Conferences (CPAC) in Budapest, Hungary. While it may appear to be somewhat ironic that the ACU – a traditionalist conservative, nationalist, and populist-leaning organization – hosted a conference in Hungary, it shows how radical-right Republicans in the US and populist, authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are willing to align themselves with the global far-right movement. Call it ultranationalist internationalism.

CPAC Hungary received a star-studded cast of new right figures. Donald Trump gave a speech virtually, and former UKIP leader and Brexiteer Nigel Farage made an appearance. Less famous figures to share the stage included Zsolt Bayer, a Hungarian television talk show host who has been repeatedly denounced for his racism and antisemitism.

Orbán delivered the keynote address at CPAC, but a controversial speech given a few days before the conference is what made international headlines. After taking the oath of his office for the fourth time, he endorsed the “Great Replacement Theory:” a xenophobic and racist conspiracy theory embraced by far-right figures.   

Viktor Orbán gives a speech at CPAC Dallas 2022 a few months after CPAC Hungary. In it, he refers to Hungary as the “Lone Start State of Europe” because of its shared values of Independence, freedom, sovereignty with Texas.

What do far-right nationalist figures gain from these types of events? How deep does their collaboration run? While it may seem to be merely a paradoxical feature of the globalized information age, ultranationalist internationalism has a historical legacy.

European Fascists leaders of the early-20th century actively sought out and solidified connections with likeminded governments, parties, and partisans globally. During the Second World War, Berlin became a hub of international Fascism, as the Nazi regime invited far right and ultranationalist leaders from across the globe, like Subhas Chandra Bose.

The contradictions of Fascist internationalism are evident, especially considering that Nazi Germany was exterminating peoples that it viewed to be “racially inferior” while they invited people from the Colonized world. However, this “reactionary cosmopolitanism” served larger goals for both parties. Nazi Germany garnered supported far-right militias and organizations : Fascist ‘fifth-columns’ had the potential undermine (or even overthrow) their European adversaries, thus enhancing Nazi power and prestige. For the leaders of these organizations, cooperation with the Nazis provided a power, likeminded ally who was fighting (and initially beating) their colonial rulers: a powerful Fascist model to be emulated.

Celebration of the foundation of the provisional Indian national government: soldier of Azad Hind Legion, Hotel Kaiserhof, Berlin, November 15, 1943. SZ Photo Archive, Image 00081540.

“Dressed in a black sherwani, [Subhas Chandra] Bose gave a passionate speech, denouncing “British imperialism” as “a cunning and diabolical enemy.” His address was replete with references to the global anticolonial struggle, to India, Burma, Palestine, and Iran: “The war offers not only India, but also all other enslaved nations of the British Empire a unique opportunity for throwing off the foreign yoke.””

– David Motadel, “The Global Authoritarian Moment and the Revolt against Empire.”

It is important to state the obvious here: our current moment differs vastly from the Second World War. Nevertheless, authoritarian, illiberal democratic states like Orbán’s Hungary acts as model ultranationalist state that American conservatives wish to emulate.

American conservative politicians are interested in Hungarian policies. For example, Hungary’s law banning the teaching of homosexuality and transgender issues in schools was enacted a year before Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill; laws which significantly curtail the rights of LGBTQ people in both states. Vox senior correspondent Zack Beauchamp suggests that the American law was “literally” inspired by Orbán’s law.

The policies and platforms of Viktor Orbán are not exclusively for a domestic Hungarian audience. In his speech at CPAC Dallas (which took place a few months after CPAC Hungary), Orbán provides a playbook for advancing ultranationalist, anti-pluralist agendas:

“I am here to tell you that our values: the nation, Christian roots, and family can be successful in the political battlefield. Even nowadays, when political life is ruled by liberal hegemony, I am here to tell you how we made these values successful and mainstream in Hungary. Perhaps our story can help you keep America Great.”

– Viktor Orban, CPAC Dallas Speech

Giving guidance to American conservatives also benefits Hungary. Strong ultranationalist governments in Western countries friendly to Hungary provide Orbán’s regime with legitimacy at home and aboard. As history shows, internationalism benefited Fascist states like Nazi Germany, as their allies provided the regime prestige, support and legitimacy.

Radical-right collaboration on policy is certainly significant, but it is only one of the heads of the ultranationalist internationalist hydra. The sharing of far-right, ultranationalist ideas – touted as “traditional” values – are also a key feature of their international cooperation. This too has a historical legacy.

For over half a century, new right figures have understood power of ideas and narratives to build long-term, durable power. In the late 1960s, the French Nouvelle Droite (New Right, or ND) saw the need to establish a right-winged “Cultural Hegemony” in civil society to combat perceived leftist influences over public discourse. As Political Scientist Tamir Bar-On highlights, ND leader Alain de Benoist saw that Gramscian-Marxist political theory could be used to further the far-right’s agenda, through the “control of dominant values, attitudes, and ways of seeing and being.” To achieve this goal, Bar-On argues, the ND and other European new-right organizations embraced “pan-Europeanism:” a transnational framework which promoted European traditional values in order to preserve the “authentic” regions of Europe against the “onslaught” of non-European immigrants. The ND countered this treat, as well as the alleged cultural hegemony of the liberal-left in Europe, by establishing journals, think-tanks, and conferences to link centre-right and extreme right-win political movements and parties throughout the continent.

Orbán speaks at CPAC Dallas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Like their new-right forefathers, today’s radical-right recognizes the value of these institutions to further their agendas. Conferences like CPAC become platforms for sharing ideas like “Replacement Theory.” The open discussion of these ideas; the cheers from the crowds in response to unapologetic racism and xenophobia; and the videos of important figures like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán talking about them on flashy stages provide legitimacy to these incredibly divisive and destructive ideas in the eyes of supporters, be they Hungarian, British, or American. This legitimacy helps far-right, authoritarian leaders like Orbán implement even more discriminatory policies and build walls to prevent refugees and migrants from entering Hungary.

Throughout his speech at CPAC Dallas, Orbán presented his political struggle as a “culture war:” a battle of the virtues Western Civilization, Christianity, and family values against the vices of “wokeness,” pluralism, and multiculturalism. He even framed it as a battle between “David-sized” Hungary and the Globalist “Goliath.” In his conclusion, he pointed to two elections in 2024 – the US Presidency and the EU Parliament – as the crux of this battle. In his mind, the far-right must fight to control these two institutions. Orbán reassured his audience: “There is no enemy that Christ has not yet defeated.”

For the sake of the pluralist and multicultural values that we hold dear, let us pray that Christ loses this one.   

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