If you want to know where the Republican Party is headed—and you’d better, because with President Biden’s approval at 38% and Republicans poised to pick up seats in the House and Senate, it looks like the GOP is going to be back in power soon—you had to be at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas this past week.
The massive hotel was host to the Conservative Political Action Conference, featuring the famous (Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Ted Cruz), the almost famous (newly elected Texas Rep. Maya Flores; Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance) and all the acolytes and activists who had come to shake hands and take selfies.
Then there were the salesmen—the people selling “I’M NOT A BREAKFAST TACO” t-shirts; the TRUMP WON cowboy hats; The Plot Against the King children’s book with the detailed explanation of the hoax that was Russiagate; and the rolls of toilet paper imprinted with images of Mitt Romney as Pinocchio and Nancy Pelosi dressed as Hitler. Plus, the performance artist wearing an orange prison jumpsuit sitting, weeping in a fake cage pretending to be a January 6 protester. They had all come to network and schmooze and make a quick buck at “the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world,” as the organizers behind CPAC, which ends tonight, describe it.
I arrived Thursday—opening day. The first person I recognized was Bannon, the former Goldman Sachs executive-turned-tribune of the global populist insurgency and on-again off-again advisor to Donald Trump.
Two weeks ago, a federal jury found Bannon in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer a subpoena from the committee investigating the January 6 attack. Bannon will be sentenced in October and could face 30 days in jail. But here in Dallas, he seemed unconcerned, recording an episode of his “War Room” podcast and, during commercial breaks, engaging with the crowd gathered behind him.
“Is Joe Biden the legitimate president of the United States?” he shouted like a carnival barker.
“No!” the onlookers, one of whose members displayed a giant “GAVIN NEWSOM SUCKS” flag, shouted in reply.
A few steps away, past a half-dozen other, obscurer right-wing radio and internet broadcasters, the My Pillow guy snapped selfies with his fans. Fresh off the launch of his new product, My Coffee, he would later that day interview Sarah Palin for his internet television channel, FrankSpeech. (Not to be confused with his social-media platform, FrankSocial).
I had come to the Texas iteration of this traveling conservative circus (tour dates this year included Israel and Budapest; next up will be Australia, and then Japan) not to observe the shysters, con-men, grifters, insurrectionists, and other opportunists—though that was fun—but to witness an intellectual entrepreneur, a salesman who distributes his product for free. (That should have been a red flag. As Big Tech has taught us all too well, if you’re getting something gratis, you’re what’s being sold.)
He was by far the most serious person at this storied gathering of the once sober and serious American Right—and he wasn’t even American. He was the leader of a small country in Central Europe with an arcane language who, over the past dozen years, has emerged as one of the most influential leaders in the Western world: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Long ago, in the far away mists of the late 1980s, Orban might have protested CPAC, with its fetishization of authority and strong men.
In the waning days of the Soviet empire, a much younger Orban had been a leader of the liberal, anti-communist Hungarian student movement. During his first tenure as prime minister, from 1998 to 2002, he oversaw his country’s ascension to NATO.
But then his Fidesz Party was tossed from power, and the country was engulfed by political turmoil (triggered by the release of a recording of Hungary’s socialist prime minister admitting that his party had misled the public) and then economic turmoil (triggered by the financial crisis in the United States).
By the time Orban became prime minister for the second time, in 2010, he had become a right-wing nationalist, or, at least, he had the makings of one. In the first half of 2015, when more than 50,000 migrants illegally crossed into Hungary from Kosovo, Afghanistan and Syria, Hungarians became much more receptive to a nationalist agenda. Then, in 2018, Fidesz won its third landslide election and Orban fully embraced the new right-wing identity politics—and acquired this magnetic glow for frustrated conservatives around the world.
Orban had done two big things: He had consolidated his own power by marginalizing the judiciary, installing loyalists in key positions, amending the Constitution, and taming the free press. And he had done battle with “the elites,” as he and every other populist put it, from Budapest to Brussels. Hungarians loved it.
Every summer for the past dozen years of his premiership, Orban has given an address to the Hungarian diaspora in neighboring Romania where he typically floats outré ideas that outrage Western elites. It was there, in Transylvania, eight years ago, where Orban articulated his concept of “illiberal democracy.”
The speech was remarkable because it framed Hungary’s ongoing tribulations in big, historical terms. Orban explained that there had been the great paradigm shift following World War I, and then World War II, and then the end of Communism in Hungary in 1990—and then the “great Western financial collapse” of 2008, which revealed the bankruptcy of the elites and their betrayal of the middle and working classes in America and Western Europe. It was time, he said, to leave behind the old, Western model and embrace a new, post-liberal future closer to that of Russia, China and Singapore.
This was the message that lit the fuse. It caught like wildfire in the transnational, right-wing ecosystem. It eclipsed Reagan-era conservatism and, two years later, came to life in the form of Donald Trump.