CPAC is America’s most influential conservative political organization. It is an umbrella group uniting the most conservative, Trump-following, part of the Republican Party with conservative organizations across the US. Its annual American-based conference brings together conservative elected leaders with the conservative “base” all in the glare of the conservative media that provide an alternative reality in which Trump didn’t lose the 2020 election, in which the Democratic Party is a conspiracy of authoritarian “globalists” and in which Trumpism is part of a world-wide populist movement to restore traditional values. Until recently, CPAC was an America Only phenomenon. Now it has gone global, taking its Conservative Political Action Conference show on the road to engage with aspiring autocrats elsewhere.
The conference’s website proclaims that Hungary is “one of the engines of Conservative resistance to the woke revolution.” Defending “God, Nation and Family,” CPAC Hungary will emphasize how to “protect our Western civilization, our true Western values, and face down the onslaught of the Left.”
Orbán’s culture war looks like its American counterpart, so it is not surprising to see that CPAC finds Hungary congenial. Coming to power in 2010, Orbán enacted in his first year a new constitution that boldly protects fetuses from the moment of conception and declares that marriage is between one man and one woman. Orbán approved endless new statues and memorials to anti-Semites of the 1930s, the Hungarian local equivalent of white supremacism. Orbán’s government revised the history textbooks to emphasize how superior Hungarians are to their neighbors and designed museums to whitewash history. Orbán campaigned to stop Muslim migration into Europe. The election campaign of 2018 denied Jewish-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros “the last laugh,” with a dog-whistle to anti-Semitism, accompanied by the accusation that NGOS funded by Soros were part of a globalist plot to make Hungary multicultural. And now Orbán has doubled down in protest of both “gender ideology” and LGBTIQ rights, insisting that parents must be able to shield their children from gender instability. Throughout, the EU was portrayed as a colonizing power forcing Hungary to bend to its will.
Culture wars bring energy to politics on both sides. They are fought out in the open, where those who oppose them can fight back. Orbán’s culture wars have not just rallied supporters, but they have distracted the opposition. What keeps Orbán in power is not just his anti-wokeness, though that is popular, but his persistent sabotage of democratic institutions which converts minority support into parliamentary supermajorities. The Hungarian culture war has drawn opposition attention away from Orbán’s consolidation of autocracy, and the danger for America is that CPAC will learn that too.
What will CPAC take away as its Budapest lessons? That culture warriors have allies? Or that culture wars are effective at distracting defenders of democracy from creeping autocracy? CPAC may claim the former but if conservatives are learning the latter, America is in for a rough ride.