"A Christian politician cannot be racist": Viktor Orbán brings his far-right pep rally to CPAC Texas

Over the last two years, Orbán has become an icon of American conservatives rivaled only by Donald Trump

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published August 5, 2022 11:31AM (EDT)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Hilton Anatole on August 04, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Hilton Anatole on August 04, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The Democratic Party and "globalist ruling class" both "hate and slander" conservatives in the U.S. and abroad. "Progressive liberals and communists are the same." The U.S. presidential and European Parliamentary elections in 2024 are "the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization." So the right must boldly fight immigration, LGBTQ rights and "the clash of civilizations," secure in the knowledge that "a Christian politician" can never be racist.

That, effectively, is how this week's three-day Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the most prominent gathering of the American right-wing, began in Dallas yesterday afternoon. While the first speaker on stage, out of deference to its host state, was Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott — joking about his plans to swap liberal Texans for conservative Californians and soliciting audience members to rent buses to redirect migrants from the southern border to blue states — the clear commencement of the conference came with the speaker who followed him: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Over the last two years, Orbán has become an icon of American conservatives rivaled only by Donald Trump himself. That's so much the case that this week's CPAC is bookended by Orbán's opening speech and Saturday night's closer by Trump, who earlier this week posted pictures of him and Orbán meeting at his New Jersey golf course along with the caption, "Great spending time with my friend." Thursday's opening speech was the most high-profile appearance Orbán has made since igniting international controversy two weeks ago over comments he made condemning the notion of "mixed race" nations as an "ideological ruse" of the "internationalist left," and urging supporters to read one of the most infamously racist books of the last 50 years. But Orbán's Dallas address wasn't his first invitation by CPAC.

In recent years CPAC has incrementally broadened its scope beyond U.S. borders, holding mini versions of its flagship American gathering in countries such as Israel and Brazil. In May, the group held its first-ever European conference in Budapest, where Orbán, serving as host, offered a 12-point "open source" plan for Americans to emulate Hungary's "Christian conservative success" and reject "progressive dominance." (Among Orbán's recommendations were that conservatives commit to playing "by our own rules," embrace the values of "national conservatism," build their own media, and "expose the intent" of their enemies.) In Dallas, Orbán struck a similar tone: part pregame coach ("You must play to win!"), part commanding officer of an international brigade ("We must coordinate the movement of our troops because we face the same challenge"). Throughout he spoke from the premise, widely accepted among today's U.S. right, that Hungary, which recently voted Orbán into his fourth consecutive term, has discovered the secret recipe for permanent conservative rule.

While Orbán and his administration frequently adopt a posture of modesty — what could their small Central European nation possibly teach the U.S.? — in reality, the mantle of authority the right has conferred upon him is no surprise to anyone who's watched American conservatives' deepening love affair with Hungary's proudly "illiberal democracy." While a year ago that admiration was largely confined to an elite band of "post-liberal" intellectuals — many of whom were carefully courted by Orbán's party through a series of flattering visiting fellowships and access to Hungarian leaders — it has since spread across a far broader swath of the American right, with Fox News' Tucker Carlson devoting multiple specials to the Hungarian miracle and rank-and-file conservatives calling for "nothing short of an American Orbánism." 

As New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of the 2020 book "Strongmen," noted this week on Twitter, "Orbán's appearance today at CPAC is the outcome of a carefully cultivated relationship. He can be the Big Man mentoring the GOP in how to wreck a democracy." 

And so he did.

Declaring Hungary "the Lone Star state of Europe," Orbán assured CPAC that, "We Hungarians know how to defeat the enemies of freedom." Politics, he said, were not enough. "This war is a culture war."

Orbán continued: "Hungary is an old, proud, but David-sized nation standing alone against the woke globalist Goliath. We invite the solidarity of American conservatives. They are in total attack, so we need a total defense. You have to be brave. If you feel fear, you have a job to do. The only thing we Hungarians can do is show you how to fight back by our own rules." 

"Orbán's appearance today at CPAC is the outcome of a carefully cultivated relationship. He can be the Big Man mentoring the GOP in how to wreck a democracy." 

In large part, apparently, that means dismissing all criticism out of hand. Telling CPAC attendees that his presence was surely confounding "the leftist media" ("I can already see tomorrow's headlines: 'Far-right European racist and antisemite strongman, the Trojan horse of Putin, holds speech at conservative conference'"), progressive NGOs ("already busy writing their so-called research papers" about how he had "destroyed Hungarian democracy"), as well as Democratic elites hostile to Hungary's "Christian and national values," Orbán suggested that any such critiques were invalid on their face. 

"We are not the favorites of the American Democrats," he continued. "They did not want me to be here, and they made every effort to drive a wedge between us. They hate me and slander me and my country, as they hate you and slander you and the America you stand for." Why? "Because they knew what I would tell you. Because I am here to tell you that we should unite all our forces." 

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All of this is happening in the aftermath of the international scandal Orbán caused in late July when he said, during a speech in neighboring Romania, that "we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race." Invoking the "great replacement" conspiracy theory that claims there is an intentional effort to replace white populations in Europe and North America with non-white immigrants, Orbán continued:

Whether we like it or not, the peoples of the world can be divided into two groups: those that are capable of biologically maintaining their numbers; and those that are not, which is the group that we belong to. …Migration has split Europe in two — or I could say that it has split the West in two. One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. Those countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples. I could also say that it is no longer the Western world, but the post-Western world.

Any liberal claims that Europe is, and for centuries has been, "mixed-race," Orbán argued, are "a historical and semantic sleight of hand" conflating the notion of intra-European migration with "a world in which European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe." The difference, Orbán continued, is "we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race."

It's hardly the first time Orbán has gestured towards such arguments. In 2019, Orbán famously declared, "We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others." In promoting Hungary's pronatalist family policy — which includes provisions like tax amnesty for women who bear four or more children — he's long argued that Hungary doesn't merely "need numbers" but rather "Hungarian children," and that Hungarians "want our children, not foreign children, to inherit this country." 

Yet the length at which Orbán spoke against "race-mixing" in July — as well as a joking aside about calls to reduce energy consumption that some interpreted as making light of Nazi gas chambers — prompted unusually sharp condemnation across Europe and America, with Jewish leaders warning that he had invoked "dangerous" historical ideologies and journalists comparing the remarks to the Nuremberg Race Laws of Nazi Germany.

On Facebook, Orbán's predecessor, former Hungarian prime minister and opposition member Ferenc Gyurcsány, wrote that "Orbán is the tragedy of Hungary. We will die if it stays this way. We're going to be pariahs. A nation with no morals." Days after his remarks, one of Orbán's longest-serving advisors, Zsuzsa Hegedüs, quit, writing in a resignation letter published by the Hungarian press, "I don't know how you didn't notice that your speech you delivered is a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels." 

In response, Orbán issued his own public defense: "You can't be serious about accusing me of racism after 20 years of working together. You know better than anyone that in Hungary my government follows a zero-tolerance policy on both antisemitism and racism." 

Orbán and his administration used the same zero-tolerance line in numerous responses to the scandal: in response to questions from NBC News, as a Twitter chastisement of CNN host Fareed Zakaria, and again in Orbán's own remarks at CPAC, when he claimed that, despite the headlines the "leftist media" would concoct, "I'll tell you the truth: in Hungary we introduced a zero-tolerance policy on racism and anti-semitism." He would go on to assure CPAC that his, and their, Christian faith precluded their being racist. "If you believe in God, you also believe that humans were created in God's image. Therefore, we have to be brave enough to address even the most sensitive questions: migration, gender and the clash of civilizations. Don't worry. A Christian politician cannot be racist, so we should never hesitate to heavily challenge our opponents on these issues. Be sure Christian values protect us from going too far." 

This also echoed Orbán's response to Hegedüs, when he wrote, "According to my understanding, God created all people in his own image. Therefore, in the case of people like me, racism is excluded ab ovo" — from the beginning. 

"It's very circular reasoning: what we'd call a 'No true Scotsman' fallacy," said Samuel Perry, a religious studies professor at the University of Oklahoma and coauthor of the recent book, "The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy." The intended takeaway, Perry explained, is that "When Orbán says that 'a Christian politician cannot be racist,' he's saying that if we conservatives have the right values, the Christian values, then we don't have to second-guess our hard stances on things like immigration, transgender issues or other culture war issues. We're the good guys. We're on the right side." 

"Orbán's remarks about trusting our Judeo-Christian teachings are music to the ears of right-wing conservatives because that's the world they're pining for as well. And they don't want to apologize for it," said Perry. "Sure, they reject the label 'racist' when they absolutely need to. But they also don't want to apologize for saying their country has raised the draw-bridge and doesn't owe anything to anybody." 

"Of course a Christian can be racist," added University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler, author of the 2021 book "White Evangelical Racism." But just as some commentators have suggested that Orbán's "mixed-race" comments were a calculated offense — to divert attention from Hungary's growing economic crisis — Butler suggested that the prime minister's CPAC declaration was an equally intentional provocation. The implicit claim is that "being Christian means being white," Butler explained. "This is the rhetoric he's using for white supremacy." 

"He's speaking the language of white nationalism that represents the Republican Party. When he feels enabled to speak this boldly at CPAC, and nobody is questioning this message, you have to understand that everyone who is there has signed onto that." 

In the aftermath of the July controversy, one of Orbán's earliest and most stalwart U.S. supporters, American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher, wrote numerous articles arguing that Orbán hadn't meant what he said, but rather was "using the term 'race' as a symbol of religion and culture (and I wish he would not have done that, because it makes it hard to explain what he means)." But as journalist John Ganz noted in an article about Orbán's enduring "American apologists" at the New Statesman, race "is always a 'symbol,'" and in European politics, it's a symbol that has long functioned as shorthand for "a number of concerns about national decline and the supposed encroachment of a civilizational enemy." The same symbolic nature, Ganz continued, was deployed in late-19th century Europe, to seed hatred against Jews. That subsequently blossomed into "the catastrophe of the next century."

In a press conference the week after his Romanian speech, Orbán appeared to embrace Dreher's reframing of his comments, saying that while he does "not want Hungary to become an immigrant country…For us the basis of this is not biological, and it is not a racial issue: it is a cultural issue, and we simply want to maintain our civilization as it is today." Any other interpretation, he suggested, was due to the fact that "I sometimes express myself in a way which is open to misinterpretation." 

This was apparently enough to convince Orbán's advisor to recant her resignation. It does little, however, to explain why Orbán also endorsed the noxiously racist 1973 dystopian novel "Camp of the Saints," by late far-right French writer Jean Raspail, as an "outstanding" book that could instruct "anyone who wants to understand the spiritual developments underlying the West's inability to defend itself." Raspail's book, a favorite of the U.S. alt-right and widely popularized by Steve Bannon, is about an armada of Indian migrants, depicted as grossly racist caricatures, who overrun Europe thanks to the feckless inaction of liberal elites. Before Raspail died in 2020, he eagerly applied the plot of his book to real-world developments, arguing in 2013 that "very coercive" measures would have to be taken to prevent the erasure of French culture due to mass migration, and in 2019 warning that, unless Muslim and African migrants were repelled from Europe, "we will head inevitably towards a racial war." 

Orbán's defenders tried to explain this as well. Dreher wrote that while Orbán "made a big mistake" in recommending "Camp of the Saints," there was "one good thing about that bad book":  that Raspail's genocidal fantasy nonetheless "reveals the spiritual void that compels European elites to fail to defend their countries and civilization from mass Third World migration. You don't have to believe in the Great Replacement theory — I do not — to recognize that this is happening all over western Europe." That echoes what Dreher wrote in 2021 when he claimed that Hungary's decision to exclude Muslim migrants had been validated by recent events and that the coming European elections would force countries like France to "either cease to be a liberal democracy or cease to be French."

Such a contortionist act of rationalization led Dreher's onetime-fellow traveler, journalist Damon Linker, to issue a public appeal for his old friend to publicly denounce Orbán's arguments before they might be repeated on CPAC's main stage. "You have done a lot to bring American conservatives into alignment with Orbán," Linker wrote. "He could well say things in Dallas that further embolden racist and xenophobic factions of the American right, bringing their toxic ideas even further into the mainstream …I hope you will soon come to see that you have a unique responsibility to speak out against this darkness — to use your voice to explain why your allies on the right must repudiate the racist and xenophobic anti-liberalism for which Viktor Orbán has now unambiguously made himself a leading spokesman." 

But no such denunciation is likely to come, from Dreher or any of Orbán's other American friends. 

"That's why Orbán's in Texas," said Butler. "Because he's speaking the language of white nationalism that represents the Republican Party. When he feels enabled to speak this boldly at CPAC, and nobody is questioning this message, you have to understand that everyone who is there has signed onto that." 

And that's the spirit in which Orbán closed his address, calling for an international, right-wing popular front.

"The future of the West is in grave doubt," Orbán warned. "We must take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels. We must find friends and allies in one another. We must coordinate the movement of our troops because we face the same challenge." Europe and America's coming elections, he said, "will define the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization. Today we hold neither of them yet we need them both. You have two years to get ready." 

"God bless Texas," he concluded. "God bless our friendship." 

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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