Here's why American conservatives are holding a big conference in Hungary The Conservative Political Action Conference is in Hungary this week, with a keynote from Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He has clamped down on democratic institutions and targeted minority groups.

Here's why American conservatives are heading to Hungary for a big conference

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, meets this week. It's one of the biggest gatherings of conservatives in the world. But they aren't meeting in Florida or Texas, as they have done in the past. This year, they are headed to a country where democracy is largely considered to be backsliding. NPR's Mara Liasson explains.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It might seem strange that a nationalist conservative group identified with Donald Trump and America First is holding its meeting in Hungary. But this week, CPAC's keynote speaker will be Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a hero to conservative intellectuals like Rod Dreher, speaking here at a conservatism conference last year.

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ROD DREHER: Right now, the political leader of the conservative resistance in the West is the prime minister of a small central European countries that most Americans never even think about.

LIASSON: Viktor Orban has been criticized as a white ethno-nationalist authoritarian. He's restricted Muslim immigration and LGBT rights while building a close relationship with Vladimir Putin. Many American conservatives, however, see Orban's Hungary as a kind of anti-woke paradise. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, one of the most prominent proponents of the idea that minorities are replacing white Western civilization, broadcast his show from Budapest last summer.

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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.

LIASSON: Matt Schlapp, the chairman of CPAC, says there's a lot about Orban and Hungary for American conservatives to admire.

MATT SCHLAPP: He has embraced their Christian heritage. And if Christian societies want to have their values reflected in government, that's a good thing.

LIASSON: And, no surprise, Viktor Orban is also one of Donald Trump's favorite foreign leaders. Princeton sociologist Kim Scheppele, an expert on Hungarian politics, says Trump's relationship with Orban is different than the typical good relations an American president might have with a foreign leader.

KIM SCHEPPELE: All of the international democracy rating agencies agree that Hungary is no longer a democracy. And the U.S. hasn't had a president be best buddies with a dictator before.

LIASSON: In 2019, Trump invited Orban to the Oval Office, a gesture the previous two U.S. presidents had avoided.

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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.

LIASSON: Right now, both American conservatism and Hungarian politics are driven by cultural issues, like immigration, gender identity and abortion. And Kim Scheppele says in Hungary, the culture wars are on the surface while the push for autocracy is just below.

SCHEPPELE: All the culture war campaigns have been used to disguise the fact that, by law, Orban has been limiting the democratic space. And he's done that particularly by rigging the election laws and then capturing all of the independent agencies that could tell him no.

LIASSON: Orban has packed the courts. The press in Hungary is also controlled by Orban loyalists. That's something Matt Schlapp dismisses by attacking the U.S. mainstream media.

SCHLAPP: There has been some criticisms of the freedom of the press in Hungary, as there are in many of the countries where we visit. But I think we are struggling with these problems right here in America. And we really don't have the right to look down our nose at what other people are doing with the press.

LIASSON: So what does this tell us about American politics? Kim Scheppele says Hungary has become the leading model for MAGA.

SCHEPPELE: What it tells us about the American Republican Party is that it realizes it's not alone - that there are international models, that they can learn from these.

LIASSON: And right now, says Scheppele, Viktor Orban is showing the way.

SCHEPPELE: What Orban has really perfected is how to keep reelecting leaders whose aspirations are absolutely not to maintain a democracy, but rather the opposite - right? - to lock in power forever to a small group of people. When you raise that question now in the United States, people don't automatically say that's a bad idea.

LIASSON: What Orban is doing is not only not a bad idea to conservative thought leaders like Rod Dreher, it's an existential necessity.

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DREHER: We are living, right now, through an ongoing societal catastrophe with gender confusion and transgenderism. Viktor Orban wants to save his nation from this ideological toxin and does not hesitate to use the power of the state to do so, even if it might violate the spirit of liberalism.

LIASSON: That's small L liberalism, as in democracy with checks and balances and a tolerance for diversity of backgrounds and opinions. When CPAC comes to Hungary, Dreher and others say it will be able to see what a nationalist conservative government can accomplish. So whether it's coming from Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson or CPAC, the message from the top is clear - conservative activists have a lot to learn from a self-described illiberal leader like Viktor Orban.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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