American Conservatives Are Smitten With Hungary's Increasingly Autocratic Leader : The NPR Politics Podcast A prominent conference of American conservatives — the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — will take place in Hungary this week. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has curtailed institutional checks on his power and railed against immigration and LGBTQ rights, will be the keynote speaker.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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American Conservatives Are Smitten With Hungary's Increasingly Autocratic Leader

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DANA BRAY: Hi. This is Dana Bray (ph) on I-65, heading north out of Nashville. My husband and I are moving from Tennessee to Connecticut, which will be the fifth state we've lived in in our first 10 years of marriage. And our cat is not happy about another move.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

I was going to ask, is there a cat?

BRAY: Also along for the ride are the two adorable pit bull mixes we adopted here in Tennessee and our beloved street dog from Syria. This podcast was recorded at...

KEITH: 2:08 p.m. on Tuesday, May 17.

BRAY: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, and hopefully we'll all be settling into our new house in Connecticut. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: Oh, my God - so many cats, so many creatures.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: That's too many pets for me.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Too many pets.

DAVIS: I'm going to agree with you. That is too many pets for me.

KEITH: I think, actually, my airways are closing just listening to it.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: This week, CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the largest gatherings of conservatives in the U.S., will hold one of its signature conferences in another country - in Budapest, Hungary. And before we get into why an American conservative organization is gathering in Hungary, let's just start with the basics. Mara, you've been working on a story about this. Obviously, you followed CPAC for years, but tell us what it is and what this conference is all about.

LIASSON: Well, CPAC is the Conservative Political Action Conference. Sometimes they call themselves Conservative Political Action Coalition. They're sponsored by the American Conservative Union, and they're a gathering of conservative, grassroots activists over the years. Sometimes they've been on the fringe of the Republican Party, on the far-right fringe. But I think more and more, they are coming to represent what you could call the base of the Republican Party, the Trumpist America first base of the party. This is not the first time they've held a meeting overseas. They've been to Japan. They've been to Brazil. Wherever there's like-minded conservatives or right-wing parties, they want to make common cause with them, not unlike how left-wing parties would go around the world and maybe have a meeting in Scandinavia or something. But this time they're going to Hungary.

KEITH: And I guess, though, it makes some sense because American conservative thought leaders, at least some of them lately, have really become smitten with Hungary's hard-line leader.

LIASSON: Absolutely. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a hero to conservative intellectuals. And at a (ph) Edmund Burke Foundation National Conservatism Conference last year, Rod Dreher, who spent a lot of time in Hungary - he's a conservative thought leader - he said that right now the political leader of the conservative resistance in the West is the prime minister of a small Central European country that Americans never think about. That's Hungary, 10 million people. But Viktor Orban is the prime minister of Hungary. Critics say he's a white, ethno-nationalist authoritarian. He has restricted Muslim immigration and LGBT rights. He's built a close relationship with Vladimir Putin. He's pushed back against all sorts of global institutions like the EU. So he is somebody that is seen by the right, by the conservative base, as presiding over a kind of anti-woke paradise. And Tucker Carlson has taken his show to Budapest and broadcast from there.

KEITH: If you haven't heard of Rod Dreher, you've definitely heard of Tucker Carlson from Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assaults on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here right now.

DAVIS: When I think about Viktor Orban, I think about former President Donald Trump. I mean, he gave him a platform. He invited him to the Oval Office. He praised his leadership style. Is this sort of embraced by CPAC, an extension of that? I mean, with the right, it tends to be like, if it's OK with Trump, it's OK with everybody else.

LIASSON: Absolutely. I mean, CPAC is Trump's, you know, home turf. And in 2019 - you're right - Trump invited Orban to the Oval Office. That's something that the previous two U.S. presidents had decided not to do. He compared himself to Viktor Orban.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways, highly respected - respected all over Europe - probably, like me, a little bit controversial. But that's OK. That's OK.

LIASSON: He's endorsed Orban for reelection. Orban has returned the favor, and yeah, they're quite close. And Orban is supposed to be the keynote speaker for the CPAC conference this week.

KEITH: Well, and the thing about Trump is he made no secret of liking, admiring, having a soft spot for, wishing he could be any number of world leaders who weren't bothered by the constraints of democracy.

LIASSON: Absolutely. And that certainly is what Orban has succeeded in doing. Orban's Hungary and modern American conservatism are all about cultural issues - immigration, gender issues, abortion. But the difference is that Orban has used the culture war - kind of the culture war has been on the surface, the move to autocracy has been right beneath. And he has limited democratic rights in Hungary. He's rigged the election laws so that one party can stay in power. He's captured independent agencies like the judiciary and the press.

KEITH: And yet Viktor Orban was just reelected handily. I mean, I guess maybe that goes hand in hand with some of these things. He's seemingly popular in Hungary. I guess I'm a little confused about what the purpose of this conference is.

LIASSON: The purpose is so that American conservatives can learn from Hungary. In many ways, Hungary is the leading model for MAGA. They want to learn what has Viktor Orban done to enact the kinds of laws that American conservatives would like to see here. The chairman of CPAC, Matt Schlapp, told me that he represents Christian conservative values. That's something that many American conservatives would like to see replicated here. So Orban is a model.

DAVIS: Mara, when I look at this speaking list, it still seems to be maybe fair to characterize it as still a little bit of a fringe conversation in that there isn't a lot of establishment Republican leaders attending this.

LIASSON: No, not on the list. Although we know Donald Trump has been invited, we just don't know if he's going to come.

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, you have people like Candace Owens, who's a conservative commentator, former Senator Rick Santorum, but not necessarily people who are playing leadership roles in the Republican Party as it stands today. Even though this sort of ideological movement is under that tent, it seems like it's in the back of the tent and not the people leading the tent right now.

LIASSON: You know, that certainly is true when you look at the makeup of the Republican Party in Congress. But once you've had a former president of the United States, someone who very well might run again and has an excellent chance of being president again, I think that the fringe takes on a different kind of meaning. And especially when you see the kind of candidates running for Senate, running for governor and the Republican Party all over the country, I don't think CPAC is so fringy anymore.

KEITH: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, what CPAC's visit to Hungary says about the American Republican Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: And we're back. Mara, you spoke with Matt Schlapp, who is the head of CPAC. What did he have to say about Orban's authoritarian tendencies or why they are, you know, highlighting them?

LIASSON: Well, I did ask him about that, especially the criticism that there's very little freedom of the press in Hungary. And he said, look, you know, there's been some criticisms of freedom of the press in Hungary, as there are in many of the other countries that CPAC visits. But he went on to say that he thinks the U.S. is struggling with the same problems, that we don't have the right to look down our nose at what other people are doing with the press. But there are other conservatives who don't just dismiss the criticisms of Orban. They almost embrace them as an existential necessity. Rod Dreher said, quote, "we're living now through an ongoing societal catastrophe with gender confusion and transgenderism. Viktor Orban wants to save his nation from this ideological toxin and doesn't hesitate to use the power of the state to do so, even if it might violate the spirit of liberalism."

So there are more and more conservatives who say, as Peter Thiel, one of the biggest donors now in the Republican Party, who said, democracy and freedom are not compatible. There are people who are questioning small L liberalism on the right, small L liberalism meaning democracy with checks and balances, free press, independent judiciary, tolerance for diversity of backgrounds and opinions. So I think that the things that Orban has done to many people look undemocratic, but to a lot of conservatives, they look like the only way to save their way of life.

DAVIS: Part of what I think is interesting about this movement and why we should be paying attention to it is if I apply it to the 2022 midterms, you certainly see more candidates running who are open to these ideas and ideals. I mean, I would say in the Senate, in particular - and the Senate has more of a role in sort of foreign policy and worldview - this hasn't really taken hold. I mean, you look at the Senate - Mitch McConnell-led Senate Republican conference, and it's still a very traditional conservative standpoint, certainly in terms of like democracy abroad. You know, McConnell and several Senate Republicans were just in Ukraine getting their pictures taken with the Ukrainian president there, very traditional model.

But you look at some Senate candidates who could win and be in the Senate next year - J.D. Vance in Ohio, Blake Masters, who's running in the primary in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Cathy Barnett in Pennsylvania - all candidates very loyal to Donald Trump, very skeptical of the Republicanism of Mitch McConnell, and some of them who have sort of flirted and embraced some of these ideas that Mark is talking about. So I don't think that this movement has really gotten a strong foothold in the places in actual elected government quite yet. But you can see it. I mean, it's on the horizon. And a lot of - there are more candidates sort of embracing this ideology than we have seen in the past.

KEITH: Well, I mean, if you look at what happened at the Capitol on January 6, you look at election denial, you look at the very widespread view that something has to be done because things have been stolen from Republicans or stolen from Trump - fact-check, they haven't been - if you look at that in terms of elected officials in the Republican Party, it's not an overwhelming majority of them who believe that. But if you look at the base of the Republican Party, I think that those sorts of ideas are widely held.

LIASSON: Look. The measure of a democracy and the responsibilities of a political party in a democracy is to accept the results of elections, even if they lose, and to reject violence. And you can make the argument that in many instances, the modern the current Trump-led Republican Party has done neither of those things.

DAVIS: Yeah. And, I mean, you look back to January 6, and even after the attack on the Capitol, the vast majority of House Republicans still voted, even in a symbolic way, but voted to overturn the results of the election. So I think especially as Trump continues to be sort of an intellectual force within the Republican Party, if he continues to sort of support and align with these ideas, I think that the rank-and-file Republican lawmaker will get in line behind them.

KEITH: OK. That was a lot. And these are themes that we are going to keep watching here on the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, but we're going to leave it there for today. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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