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Opinion: Why conservatives gave a big welcome to leader who suppressed Hungary's democracy

Opinion by Julian Zelizer, CNN Political Analyst

Updated: Fri, 05 Aug 2022 14:53:19 GMT

Source: CNN

Editor's Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, "The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment." Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban headlined the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas Thursday. He received a boisterous reception, as the audience cheered him on during his blistering attacks on abortion, immigration, LGBTQ rights and more.

"Victory will never be found by taking the path of least resistance," he said, "We must take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels." Sounding very much like former President Donald Trump, who'll be the keynote speaker this Saturday, Orban said of Democrats: "They hate me and slander me and my country as they hate you and slander you."

Orban is not the kind of leader some conservatives were envisioning as a keynote speaker when the organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the Cold War.

Back then, the autocratic state was perceived as the direst threat to democracy. Today, the leaders of autocratic states are treated in heroic fashion.

The prime minister received a standing ovation when he said: "Now the west is at war with itself. We have seen what kind of future the globalist ruling class has to offer. But we have a different future in mind. The globalists can all go to hell, I have come to Texas."

As a powerful piece in The New Yorker recounted, Orban's invitation came as no surprise. Republicans have become increasingly fascinated with this strong-armed authoritarian leader who twists and manipulates the political process to solidify his power and weaken opponents.

His speeches about racial purity have gone so far that one of his closest advisers for 20 years condemned his remarks. "This is why we have always fought. We are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race," Orban said in Romania on July 23, causing Zsuzsa Hegedus to lambaste the prime minister, calling the speech "a pure Nazi text." Last year, the Orban administration banned LGBTQ content in educational materials and on TV shows for those under 18 and tightened control over the judiciary.

While promoting his brand of ethno-nationalism, Orban has extended his reach to control the education system and the media. He is part of a dangerous strand of autocrats who have been choosing the strategy of slowly eroding the democratic process and exploiting vulnerabilities rather than just acting as an all-out dictator. But the results are equally dangerous.

The fact that conservatives warmly welcomed Orban at CPAC is evidence that the illiberal and anti-democratic elements of Republican politics which flared during the Trump presidency are alive and well. As Orban's popularity indicates, the profoundly anti-democratic strains that have been shaping the GOP keep getting stronger, not weaker, since the tumultuous end of the Trump presidency. Following his meeting with Orban a few days earlier, Trump argued that: "Few people know as much about what is going on in the world today."

The talk comes on the same week that several election deniers, as well as participants in the January 6 insurrection, won in the primaries. The assault on the 2020 election continues to be a unifying theme in Republican circles. Even if some Republican voters are tiring of Trump, his rallying cry animates much of the electorate. Indeed, election deniers are now the Republican candidates in four swing states -- Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada. One can imagine what the 2024 election could look like if they win, and the election is close.

Then, there is the continued silence about the January 6 hearings. The House select committee put forward a powerful case against the Trump administration and its supporters. To fill out what happened in public, Reps. Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney showed the intentionality behind the entire effort to overturn the election, including the violence. The committee also used an array of testimony, video, and images to demonstrate how orchestrated the entire effort to overturn the election was even though most Trump officials told him repeatedly that the claims of mass election fraud were "bullshit," as former Attorney General William Barr.

Yet the general silence from the GOP has been notable. There is not much of a backlash, there is not much of a response, there is no evidence that most of the party can see this as a scandal that was so much worse than Watergate.

The anti-democratic mentality that has taken hold within the GOP remains alive and well. The Trump presidency was just one stage in a long-term evolution of a party that has become increasingly radicalized in its tactics since the 1980s. All signs point to the problem getting worse, which will leave our democratic system in constant peril.

Orban's presence at the convention throws cold water on those hoping for some deep-seated change in the GOP after the Trump presidency. The movement called Trumpism is much deeper than Trump. Regardless of whether he is the Republican nominee in 2024, the party likely will continue bearing his stamp.


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