David Remnick: The January 6 committee has laid bare in withering detail Donald Trump's attempt to overturn a free and fair election, but Trump had been showing his contempt for the Democratic process all along. He made headlines, again and again, praising strong men like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Trump's admiration for Vladimir Putin, "A genius," he recently called Putin, often embarrassed Republicans. A much wider group of conservatives has come to admire another autocrat from the former Soviet block, a leader who has done everything in his power to shut down free media and keep immigrants out of his country.
Donald Trump: Thank you very much. It's a great honor to have with us the Prime Minister of Hungary. Viktor Orbán 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 okay. That's okay. You've done a good job and you've kept your country safe.
David Remnick: Many have called Viktor Orbán a desperate. An authoritarian who has changed Hungary's constitution several times now, in order to get his way, but there was Orbán with Donald Trump in the White House in 2019.
Viktor Orbán: So many changes are going on, and we have some similar approaches. I would like to express that we are proud to stand together with United States on fighting against illegal migration, on terrorism, and to protect and help the Christian communities all around the world.
David Remnick: As with so much in politics these days, what once seems startling, is now a commonplace.
Tucker Carlson: Hey, it's Tucker Carlson. Greetings to Hungarian CPAC. I can't believe you're in Budapest and I am not. What a wonderful country.
David Remnick: Last month, the Conservative Political Action Conference, one of America's most significant political gatherings, went to Budapest.
Tucker Carlson: You know why you can tell it's a wonderful country? Because the people who have turned our country into a much less good place are hysterical when you pointed out. The last thing they want is any kind of signpost to a better way, and Hungary certainly provides that. A free and decent and beautiful country that cares about its people, their families, and the physical landscape.
David Remnick: You've got to ask, what do conservatives see when they look at Orbán's Hungary? If that country is some kind of signpost, in what direction does it point at? That's the question that made Andrew Marantz fly to Budapest and report on the CPAC Hungary Convention. Andrew, welcome back. You've been covering the ride for a long time for the magazine, what was your first thought, when you heard that Hungary of all places was going to host a CPAC event?
Andrew Marantz: Honestly, I thought it was a joke maybe. It's just sort of so on the nose, the idea that you don't have to follow this very closely to know that Hungary is a pretty authoritarian place. Obviously, a lot of people have worried for a few years now that the Republican Party is becoming more ambivalent about certain bedrock norms of American democracy. To openly state we're going to go to this semi-authoritarian country, I thought it was maybe a troll or something, but it was very real.
David Remnick: You've covered CPAC events in America before, how was covering CPAC in Hungary any different? Was it easy to get in, for example?
Andrew Marantz: It was not. The basic Free Press instinct that American conservatives have that even if you're my so-called enemy in the culture war, it's not really a question that I'm going to let you cover my event. That assumption did not exist in Hungary. Actually, by the time I got to Hungary, I still didn't have a press pass. This was parallel to what I was hearing a lot of people on the ground saying, which was a lot of things in places like Hungary operate by what I heard people call bureaucratic gaslighting.
They'll tell you, "Yes, of course, we'd love to have you come," but then they keep saying, "I'm sorry, there's not enough room, maybe next time," and that was what kept happening to me. Eventually, my requests were denied, and there was essentially no recourse. They said it's a private event, and we don't want you to attend.
David Remnick: In the end, you found your way in.
Andrew Marantz: Yes, I found a way. I actually had someone pass me a badge and just walked in that way. Then it seemed like by the time I was in there, it would have been too embarrassing to kick me out. So they said, "Oh, welcome. Here you are."
Andrew Marantz: Is this [unintelligible 00:04:41]. Which way is the-- Oh, here. Okay, thank you.
Viktor Orbán: [foreign language]
Interpreter: Ladies and gentlemen, my dear American friends and conservatives from all around the world who have gathered here today, a very warm welcome.
David Remnick: At the big opening event, Viktor Orbán, gave the keynote speech and I think most people only really became familiar with Orbán in the last five years. We know that Donald Trump is a big fan, but who is Viktor Orbán? How did he come to power in Hungary?
Andrew Marantz: Well, initially, when he was first elected in 1998, he was a champion of liberal democracy in the region. Bill Clinton had him to the White House and said, "This is a very exciting champion of open society, he actually studied at Oxford on a Soros scholarship." Then he lost in 2002, and it apparently shattered him. He vowed to just do whatever it took to never lose power again. In his case, what that meant was returning in 2010, setting up a more and more semi-autocratic system, and turning in his words against liberal democracy and toward what he calls illiberal democracy.
David Remnick: What's changed in Hungary since Orbán took power?
Andrew Marantz: One of the interesting and shocking things about this is that you could go to Hungary and actually never know that people think of it as a authoritarian place. You're not going to see gulags, you're not going to see people hauled off by secret police on a daily basis. There are universities in Hungary. Now, if you pay attention to the fine print, you know that the main independent University in Hungary was forced out and is now in exile in Vienna. Other universities are under the subtle control of some of Orbán's political allies. There are still courts, but if you pay close attention, the independence of the judiciary has been chipped away at over the years.
There is media that runs critical stuff about Orbán but they might find that their advertising revenue gets squeezed or that their ownership changes to people who are more in favor of the regime. You can be gay in Hungary, but you can't get married or you can't adopt children. The Hungarian government says, these are popular policies and we don't care if other countries don't like it. Their claim always is we have our democratic mandate, and we're using it. There's nothing illegal about what we're doing, you just don't like the result.
David Remnick: What about that mandate? How big have Orbán's electoral victories been exactly? Given the way you talk about how he's consolidated power, how legitimate are those elections? How much do they reflect the real will of the Hungarian people?
Andrew Marantz: In the last election, he got about half of the popular vote, a little more, and they ended up with more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, which is a super majority that allows them to amend the Constitution. He also has informal control over the media, that makes it almost impossible if you're a normal Hungarian to find the opposition's message unless you go looking for it. Yes, people are voting for him, and yes, he's popular, especially in rural areas and things like that, but he's doing a lot to make sure that the opposition can't get a foothold. Again, is not technically illegal, but it's not exactly a level playing field.
David Remnick: Well, let's hear a little bit from Orbán's keynote speech.
Viktor Orbán: [foreign language]
Interpreter: How can I pitch in? How can I contribute to this meeting today? Well, perhaps if I told you how we won. How we defeated first the communist system, and then how we defeated the liberals. Just most recently, how we defeated the unified troops of the international liberal left at the elections. I will tell you how we defeated them once, twice, third, fourth, fifth time and how we're going to defeat them again. As they say at the football pitch, more, more, more, the sky is the limit.
David Remnick: It sounds kind of Trumpian.
Andrew Marantz: Oh, very, yes. Steve Bannon, famously called Orbán Trump before Trump, and now it seems like they're looking to him as a Trump after Trump. What would a more diligent, patient, frankly smarter, more energetic version of that look like and Orbán provides--
David Remnick: What did it sound like? What did Orbán give the CPAC audience in terms of a game plan for defeating liberalism?
Andrew Marantz: He was pretty clear. He said you need your own media. You need to control the universities, which he's done. His main thing is what he calls national sovereignty, which means essentially, don't let international bureaucrats tell you what to do when it comes to respecting human rights at the border or respecting gay rights or any of that stuff. Do what you want to do as a country which in Hungary's case means, don't let same-sex couples adopt. Don't allow asylum seekers to come seek asylum in your country. Whenever he's called on this, he says, this is my democratic mandate. Who are you to tell me what to do?
David Remnick: What were you seeing on the floor of the convention?
Andrew Marantz: It was much quieter than the one in Orlando. It wasn't the three-ring circus of triggering the libs. It was much more, formally dressed people handing out thick glossy brochures and things, but there were a few signs of the more circusy element of politics where they would get into culture-war issues, which frankly they, I think, have learned from the Americans how to do.
Speaker 3: Yes, sure.
Speaker 4: Very great stuff.
Speaker 3: Okay, good.
Speaker 4: It says let's go, Brendon.
Speaker 3: Yes, of course.
Speaker 4: That's great. There is this never trust the left.
Speaker 3: Good. Thank you.
Speaker 4: There is this one which shows the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán.
Speaker 3: Gatekeeper of the West.
Speaker 4: Yes. Who is the gatekeeper of the West.
Speaker 3: Very nice. Thank you.
Speaker 4: Yes, you're welcome. We also have great books.
David Remnick: Who was there from the American side? Were there a lot of big names from the far right and the most conservative wing of the Republican party?
Andrew Marantz: Yes. It was actually a big tent. Candace Owens was there. The very fiery YouTube culture warrior. She was eight months pregnant. She was there with her husband who is the CEO of Parler, which is a free speech absolutist social network. You also had Rick Santorum was there, the former Pennsylvania Senator.
You had people from project Veritas. You had people from immigration think tanks. Trump gave a one-minute address.
David Remnick: How was that short video received by the Hungarians and the Americans in the audience?
Andrew Marantz: Oh, they loved it. He didn't have a lot of specifics to say. He basically said Orbán's a great guy.
Donald Trump: CPAC Hungary. We are very close as you know all of us to Viktor Orbán. He's a great leader, a great gentleman and he just had a very big election result. I was very honored to have endorsed him. A little unusual endorsement.
Andrew Marantz: A lot of this is a PR campaign for Orbán, right? He wants to be a big player and so if you have big names touting you, then you're a big player in the region. There were more substantive speeches from people who were really trying to stitch together what an American urbanism would look like. Some of it was just ruffling feathers, but some of it was really saying, okay, which parts of this model actually could we import?
David Remnick: Now you met a number of young American conservatives, including someone named Gavin Wax. Who is that?
Andrew Marantz: Gavin Wax is in his twenties. He's the president of the New York Young Republican Club, which, back in the day was a Reaganite sort of slightly country club, Republican vibe. Then after Trump, there was a internal takeover and Gavin and his friends made it a much more Bella coast Trumpy thing. They actually went out of their way to endorse both Trump and Viktor Orbán for their reelection campaigns.
David Remnick: I guess there's no mystery as to why Gavin Wax was invited to the Budapest session of CPAC.
Andrew Marantz: Yes. They tend to people who give them warm fuzzy press.
Speaker 6: They invited us, they gave us a booth. They gave me a speaking slot. We met with the ambassador from Hungary in DC. They invited us for a personal hour reception with him and his wife. They have taken a keen interest in our club and what we're doing, what we're trying to build in terms of international.
Speaker 7: Why has Hungary become the focus of the right? Why is the first CPAC happening here? Why here?
Speaker 6: I think there's a few reasons. I think the government of Hungary is actively putting a lot of efforts to make sure that they become this beacon of international conservatism. I think on the ground here, there's been a lot of success politically here in Hungary, under the Orbán administration, that can't really be said about a lot of other countries. I think they've just done a very good job of reaching out to the American conservative movement that just simply hasn't been happening in other countries in Europe or abroad. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe it's a language thing. I'm not exactly sure, but they've seized the moment, certainly.
David: It seems to me shocking to see a full outward embrace by American conservatives, young American conservatives of an authoritarian leader like Viktor Orbán.
Andrew Marantz: Yes. It actually is shocking and it should be shocking, but of course, that's not how someone like Wax would see it.
Speaker 6: I would reject that. I don't think this is an authoritarian country. I think it is a democratic country that elected a right-wing government and some people don't like that they elected a right-wing government that is governing in a right-wing fashion, but if you claim to be a supportive democracy, or if you want to say you're support of democracy with certain limits, then that's fine. I agree with you.
If he has violated those limits constitutionally, if he has violated limits in terms of his higher education policy, in terms of media policy, in terms of immigration policy, then I have disagreements with a lot of left-wing governments in many countries that violate those things. I'm not going to claim that those countries are non-democratic.
David Remnick: Boy, how prevalent is this argument that Hungary is merely run by a conservative right-wing government, but is essentially democratic. How prevalent is that argument among American conservatives?
Andrew Marantz: You hear it all the time. This is just sour grapes, the liberal world order is just mad that a conservative government is executing its agenda. I have to say Orbán has played his hand extremely well because he does things so technically, and so by the books, and so methodically that you actually can't say he's broken the law. He has changed the law first and then done what he wants within the law that he has changed, but that's not technically illegal.
It's not technically undemocratic, right? You get into this weird semantic thing where you start to argue first principles and you can't actually point to anything he's done that's specifically unconstitutional. He just rewrote the constitution.
Speaker 7: Look, I think what's developing in a place Hungary and the US is a sort of intellectual movement behind the Trump electoral win. I think Trump won, he was an idiosyncratic candidate. He was very unique. He was very different than what we've been used to, but there really wasn't a cohesive ideology behind him. I do think that what's forming at an event like this at CPAC Hungary and at other similar venues, is a codification of an ideology behind Trumpism behind Orbánism behind these right-wing populous movements.
Andrew Marantz: I think there was a quiet consensus that Trump was a pretty feckless lazy leader. His heart may have been in the right place by their lights, but he didn't get things done. When you talk about American Orbánism, you're much more likely to hear people talk about Ron DeSantis. Maybe someone JD Vance, maybe someone Josh Holly.
In fact, Ron DeSantis apparently, looks to Hungary as a legislative model. There has been some chatter that the Don't Say Gay bill in Florida was explicitly modeled on anti-gay legislation that was passed in Hungary the year before.
David Remnick: Did you leave Budapest with a different or new understanding of the American conservative movement?
Andrew Marantz: Yes. A more disquieting one, frankly, because there is this constant debate over what is alarmism, what is hysteria, and what is real? I couldn't really imagine a Putin-style takeover or a 1930s-style takeover. Those are outdated reference at this point. I could comfort myself by saying, that's not a thing that will probably happen here, but this very technical, legalistic Orbán model, I actually totally can see happening here. There are differences, but the similarities were pretty striking.
David Remnick: How would that happen? How would that work?
Andrew Marantz: Some of it you could argue has already happened, right? You could imagine an extremely gerrymandered electro map, which we clearly already have. Very sharp negative partisanship, very sharp polarization, people living in different epistemic universes. Then, let's imagine that you want to change the courts without abolishing the courts, but you want to just deprive the opposition party of a chance to seat one of its nominees and then you want to ram through your own nominees, right? That's something we've already seen happen.
Again, you don't wake up one day and there's no Supreme Court, you just chip away at the institutional legitimacy. Again and again, I would talk to Hungarians and they would say, look, I don't want to alarm you, but it's not hard for me to imagine you being essentially at the top of the slippery slope that we were at 12 years ago. In fact, one guy just said to me, "You're looking at your worst nightmare."
David Remnick: Andrew Marantz, thanks so much.
Andrew Marantz: Thanks, David.
David Remnick: Andrew Marantz is a staff writer for the New Yorker and he's the author of the book, Antisocial, which is about extremism and the internet.