The years following Donald Trump’s presidency have seen great ideological ferment among American conservatives. A schism now runs through the Republican Party over whether its commitment to liberal democracy or its adherence to deeply conservative values is stronger. Even setting aside former President Donald Trump’s egotistical approach to power, the energy on the Right is on the side of an illiberal faction that seeks to use state power to implement a drastic rightward shift in American society. The American Conservative Union’s (ACU) recent trip to Hungary serves as one important mile marker for this change. But the parallels between the changes occurring in American conservatism and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s brand of illiberalism extend beyond CPAC and Trump.
On May 19 and 20, 2022, the ACU and the Hungarian Center for Fundamental Rights (AK), a government-backed NGO, organized CPAC Hungary. This marked the first time that CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, was held in Europe. Orbán, who gave the opening address at CPAC Hungary, also looks set to feature prominently in an upcoming Dallas-based CPAC in August 2022. Though it has been derided in the past for its “Star Wars bar scene” nature – a jab at the wacky set of characters it assembles, CPAC serves as a “barometer” for the conservative grassroots in America. Indeed, it was then-citizen Trump’s speech there in 2011 that served as preview for the future of American politics as he sent “more than 2,000 conservative activists into a frenzy of approval.”
CPAC goes to Hungary
CPAC’s ties to Budapest have set off alarm bells about the direction of conservative politics in America. Combined with Trump’s own relationship with Orbán – a pre-recorded Trump told the CPAC audience that Orbán was a “great leader and gentleman” – it evokes visions of a new (un)holy alliance between Trumpian Republicans and Orbán’s Hungary.
Should this be the takeaway from CPAC and Hungary? The recent history of attempted transatlantic populist alliances – Steve Bannon’s The Movement failed because of diverging interests and Bannon being viewed as an American interloper in Europe – suggests this likely would not work. Ultimately, like the American right’s fixation with Hungary overall, this cooperation may just be mutually beneficial and not the beginning of a true transatlantic coalition.
For Viktor Orbán, who seeks to position Hungary as the ideological hub of an illiberal conservative revolt against global progressivism, hosting CPAC provides a status boost. For American illiberal populists, the relationship with Budapest provides a useful real-world example for the type of society they ostensibly want to create, where, at least according to far-right Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, Hungarians’ virtue and love for their country are evident from how they keep it “clean” – either of trash or of migrants.
But CPAC Hungary does represent an important milestone in developments in American politics that go beyond the conference and Donald Trump. While former President Trump still holds sway over the Republican Party, whether that lasts is at least somewhat unclear. Recent polling shows that a slight majority of Republicans now support someone other than Trump to be the party’s nominee in the 2024 presidential election, likely thanks at least in part to the currently ongoing January 6 Committee hearings. Either at the hands of Republican voters or simply due to age, Donald Trump’s time at the head of the Republican Party has an expiration date. But a new and dangerous strain of conservative politics is taking hold on the American right that looks set to outlast him.
Parallel ideological developments
Over the past few years, an entire ecosystem of illiberal conservative thinkers has emerged as part of what has been called the “New Right” in the United States. They are accompanied by a slew of new institutions and publications seeking to prepare the policies and personnel of a new Republican Party. Not all members of this new movement are overly enamored with Donald Trump, either. Trump allies might also admit that he was “lazy” and “feckless” and actually prefer a ”Trump after Trump” that possesses real political skill and a stronger work ethic, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis viewed by many as the heir apparent. Examining the similarities between the New Right and Hungary provides a chilling glimpse of where conservative politics in America could go.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has cast himself as the defender of “true” Western values and has propagated a vision of so-called illiberal democracy. In this vision, Orbán has explicitly decried attacks by European “liberals” on Europe’s “Christian culture” and lamented the looming “destruction” of Europe through migration. His cynical deployment of Christianity serves to legitimize his illiberalism and has been effective in binding voters to him that might otherwise be turned away.
In his May 2022 inaugural address launching his fourth term, Orbán explicitly warned about the “great European population replacement programme” that seeks to replace “missing European Christian children with migrants” – a widespread far-right conspiracy myth. Public acceptance of LGBTQ individuals – or “gender madness” in Orbán’s parlance – is a part of this “replacement programme.” In line with the Great Replacement myth, Hungarian state policy is explicitly pro-natalist, pledging as much as 5.2% of GDP in financial incentives to encourage families to have children and reverse Hungary’s demographic decline. (The campaign has so far yielded uncertain results.) In keeping with both classical populist tactics and his illiberal worldview, Orbán has also cast groups like migrants or more recently the LGBTQ community as threats to Hungarian society, sowing fear and driving turnout at the expense of minority groups.
In the American context, the New Right possesses a similar vision. Centered around writers and thinkers like Nate Hochman of the National Review, Sohrab Ahmari of Compact, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard University, Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame, or Rod Dreher of The American Conservative, the movement believes that modern liberalism has led to the decay of traditional morals within society and that it may not be possible to reestablish this moral center through democratic means. Indeed, many of these thinkers might argue that America is already something of an autocracy; they believe the progressive Left has seized the most important cultural institutions and uses them to repress those who disagree.
Writing in The Atlantic in March 2020, Adrian Vermeule made one of the clearest statements of this new aspiration on the right when he explicitly advocated for an ”illiberal legalism” that does not hesitate to “legislate morality.” When asked to sketch out his policy vision in a recent interview with Ezra Klein of The New York Times, Patrick Deneen warned that immigration hurts the working class and instead advocated for social policies that explicitly benefit the creation of families, such as monetary support for parents. Sohrab Ahmari is perhaps most famous for raging against “drag queen story hour,” a California public library event where drag queens read to children, as being “demonic” and “transvestic fetishism” on Twitter. In a subsequent 2019 essay, Ahmari went on to call for “conservative Christians” to abandon values like civility and decency in fighting the culture war with the goal of “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
With many, but not all, of the most prominent right-wing thinkers coming from the new Catholic right, the concept of Christian nationalism is one important framework to understand some aspects of the changes taking place on the right – and provides a clear parallel to Orbán’s exploitation of Christianity. From this perspective, America is an explicitly Christian nation, imbued by God with unique freedoms and purpose. For adherents of this belief system, modern America has become increasingly immoral because of the perceived disappearance of Christianity from daily life, say in the form of prayer in public schools. This moral collapse can only then be reversed by reestablishing an archconservative form of Christianity as the basis for American society.
Yet, religiosity is declining in both the United States and Hungary: in the United States, the number of self-identified Christians is steadily decreasing. A survey of Trump voters conducted in 2018 revealed that those who attended church less were more economically populist and more white Identitarian. Similarly, in Hungary, only 15% of Hungarians said they attend church regularly, even though 80% identified as Christian. Some rightwing thinkers have therefore argued for a less religious approach: writing in the New York Times, Nate Hochman recently sketched out a vision for a secular New Right that could be more successful than the overtly religious right.
Though still nascent, the New Right in America has achieved significant legislative victories, exploiting alleged threats to American children to advance anti-LGBTQ legislation and silence debate regarding systemic racism. The “Parental Rights in Education” bill recently passed in Florida by Gov. Ron DeSantis outlaws classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity before the 3rd grade, requires that all discussions of sexual orientation be “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate,” and allows parents to sue school districts over alleged violations. At least a dozen states have followed Florida and are considering similar legislation. Numerous states have also banned the teaching of critical race theory (CRT), a legal concept positing that racism is baked into American laws and institutions. Since 2021, school districts in 26 states have also banned more than 1500 books, many of which deal with LGBTQ themes or racism.
The vague wording of these laws makes them incredibly far reaching. The Virginia executive order banning critical race theory in schools instructed that all policies promoting “inherently divisive concepts” be halted. Florida teachers have expressed concerns that even discussing children’s families could violate the law or that even simply revealing their own sexuality through a reference to a partner could cost them their job – it can. According to Gov. DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw, opponents of Florida’s new law are either “groomers” themselves – in other words, pedophiles – or silent supporters of pedophilia. Hungary’s 2021 law banning LGBTQ individuals from appearing in sex education materials in schools may have served as inspiration for the Florida law. When asked about the law’s origins, Pushaw allegedly said, “Oh yeah, we were watching the Hungarians, so yay Hungary.”
The state as a tool against illegitimate opponents
Two other important commonalities between the new illiberal conservatism that is forming in America and Viktor Orbán’s vision of illiberal democracy is that both reject the legitimacy of their democratic opposition and view state power as a tool to achieve their vision of society. Orbán has famously said that “the nation cannot be in opposition.” Throughout his time in office, he has constructed a legal and constitutional system gerrymandered to turn Fidesz’s roughly 2.7 million voters into a constitutional supermajority, to which both institutions and the private sector must be subservient.
Maintaining power through this system is more important even than protecting Hungarians’ lives, as the government’s censorship of news related to the healthcare system and the COVID-19 pandemic shows. Orbán’s opponents often face vicious smear campaigns by government-controlled media. The case of András Hodász, a well-known Catholic priest, is one recent example – and he is not the first pastor that Orbán has targeted. Hodász criticized the Orbán government for focusing on an alleged threat to children posed by the “gender lobby” while ignoring more important issues like depression or addiction. He has since been banned from Hungarian church media and was forced to shut down his Youtube channel following a smear campaign launched against him.
How the New American Right might in turn use government can be seen either in Florida Gov. DeSantis’s decision to strip Disney of its special tax status after the company criticized his anti-LGBTQ bill or in Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance’s advice that a second Trump administration should fire every mid-level civil servant and “replace them with our people.”
Recent appointments to the US Supreme Court under President Donald Trump also fit this approach and have ushered in a new era for the court. The US Supreme Court decision to overturn the federal right to abortion showed a new willingness to wield government power to enact sweeping change despite the opposition of a majority of Americans and in direct contrast to statements made by some of the justices under oath. Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion that the Supreme Court should “reconsider” rulings guaranteeing the rights to access contraception, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage based on the same legal rationale suggests that some believe the Court should go further still.
Culture warring and heated rhetoric also threaten to drive deep polarization to violent extremism. Not content with books being banned, a pastor from Tennessee – your author’s home state – organized a book burning in February 2022. The January 6 insurrection has revealed a willingness by elements of the American right to reject the legitimacy of political opposition at the highest levels of government. A new potential for political violence resides in millions of Americans who sympathize with the rioters – an inconvenient fact for the New Right’s more genteel ideologues. Politicians that cross the movement, like Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a member of the January 6 Committee, have faced death threats directed at them or their families.
So, in the end, how should one think about these developments on the American right? For one, CPAC’s visit to Hungary and former President Trump’s appearance there represent just one part of this story. Viktor Orbán has provided a useful, and clearly self-serving, example for how to build an illiberal state through years of subtle state capture and culture war. But decades of changes in American politics are leading towards an illiberal conservatism that is unafraid to use state power to enforce political and cultural viewpoints held by a minority of Americans. All the while, deepening polarization increases the chances for political violence.
Should the Republican Party look to move beyond Donald Trump’s inept menace, it looks likely that the result will look more like Hungarian politics than less. And that should be much more worrisome for supporters of liberal democracy.
This article first appeared here: cz.boell.org