DALLAS (CN) — The Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off in Dallas on Thursday, and nestled between speakers like Fox News commentator Sean Hannity was an unusual guest: Viktor Orbán, the strongman leader of Hungary since 2010.
Orbán would have been an unusual guest just a year or two ago. In recent months, American conservatives have increasingly espoused admiration for the Hungarian leader, whom critics have accused of undermining independent courts, universities and the press. Fox News host Tucker Carlson visited Hungary last year, where he toured the country's border wall. CPAC, a kingmaker in conservative politics and media, met in May in Hungary's capital of Budapest.
Part inspirational speech, part conservative red meat, Orbán tried to convince CPAC attendees that they had "friends and allies" in Hungary. He repeatedly used the phrase "my friends" in speaking to the crowd.
"The west" is "at war," Orbán said, and conservatives in both Europe and the United States "must coordinate the movement of our troops because we face the same challenge." He urged attendees to look forward to the midterm elections in November and to the 2024 presidential elections.
"It won't be easy, but don't be afraid," Orbán added — one of many self-help-style remarks that he sprinkled throughout his 35-minute speech.
From the start, Orbán laid out what he said Hungary and American conservatives had in common and helped define what he said were common enemies.
Hungary is the "Lone Star State of Europe," he said to cheers, in the sense that "independence, freedom and sovereignty are the dearest values in this part of America." He railed against "leftist media" and "communists," who he said were "the same" as liberals.
"I can already see tomorrow's headlines," Orbán said. "Far-right European racist anti-semite strongman, the Trojan Horse of Putin, holds speech at conservative conference. But I don't want to give [journalists] any ideas. They know best how to write fake news."
Like former president Donald Trump and other Republicans in his mold, Orbán leaned into the idea that they were under siege from liberal elites. "They hate me and slander me and my country, as they hate you and slander you."
"Progressive liberals didn't want me to be here because they knew what I would tell you," Orbán added. "We should combine our forces." Hungary, he said, had won against communists before. "We know how to defeat the enemies of freedom."
When Orbán denounced liberal values, it was not always clear what exactly he was talking about. As The New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz noted in a recent article, the Central European leader appears to use the word "illiberal" in two distinct ways.
"At times, Orbán seems to mean 'illiberal' in the partisan sense, as in owning the libs," Marantz wrote. "Often, he seems to mean it more sweepingly, expressing skepticism about a wide range of individual liberties."
This same ambiguity was at play in Orbán's speech on Thursday. In a few surreal moments, Orbán blurred the lines between American partisanship and efforts to secure fundamental democratic rights in Hungary, which experts say is experiencing a "backsliding of the rule of law."
He derided, for example, former president Barack Obama's criticisms of a new Hungarian constitution in 2012, which weakened the independence of courts and put them largely under the control of Orbán's party, Fidesz.
"The leading power of the free world wanted to force us [to] change our constitution according to globalist liberal concepts," Orbán said. "How bizarre."
Still, it wasn't hard to see why some American conservatives now look to Hungary with admiration. After all, Orbán explained, he and American conservatives have many of the same goals.
In Hungary, he claimed, "we managed to reduce illegal immigration to zero." He alleged that "in Europe they say there is no such thing as a family." He outlined his pro-police stances and his efforts to "protect [children] from gender ideology." He called for "less drag queens and more Chuck Norris."
"The number of marriages has doubled and the number of abortions has halved in Hungary," Orbán said to an eruption of applause. “It’s not a bad start."
Orbán has achieved his policy objectives in large part by undermining his opponents' ability to defeat him at the ballot box. Voting districts are heavily gerrymandered. In the last election in April, Orbán's main challenger, Péter Márki-Zay, had only five minutes to address voters on the state-run television channel M1.
Critics have decried this consolidation of power — but speaking at CPAC, Orbán hoped he could conjure a scarier enemy for attendees.
"The future of the West is in grave doubt," he said, not because of eroding democratic norms, not because of strongmen who cheat their way through elections, but because of drag queens, undocumented migrants and gay marriage.
"The globalists can all go to hell," he concluded. "I have come to Texas."
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