The American Conservative Union’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the largest gathering of conservatives in the world, convened in Hungary this year on May 19-20. CPAC usually features speakers who are prominent figures in the conservative movement, and this year’s keynote speaker was Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who is known both domestically and internationally for his far-right views, which have pushed major media outlets to determine that Hungary is no longer a democracy. The mass shooting at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York is the latest in a trend of far-right extremist violence taking place in the US; Orbán voices shared views with such extremists.
In light of these events, SIS senior associate dean and professor Carolyn Gallaher agreed to answer a few questions about the platforming of far-right figures, the current state of the US’ GOP, and a racist conspiracy theory that’s been gaining traction among conservatives.
- Why is CPAC, one of the most influential gathering of conservatives that’s hosted by the American Conservative Union, taking place in Hungary this year?
- CPAC is an annual conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union. CPAC has always been on the conservative side of the Republican politics, but over the last few years, CPAC has adopted far-right views common in white nationalist and Christian Dominionist circles. These views have also been echoed by Hungary’s proto-authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán.
- Hungary has been in a democratic decline under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. What does hosting CPAC there signal about the state of American conservatism? What does it mean that members of the GOP, which for decades held itself up as the party identified with a strong foreign policy in which the US presented itself as a beacon of freedom to the world, are supporting so visibly a leader who has made Hungary demonstrably less free?
- CPAC’s embrace of Orbán is clear evidence that a large chunk of the Republican Party has abandoned liberal democracy. CPAC celebrates Hungary, even though it has become increasingly authoritarian. For example, Orbán’s Hungary does not have freedom of the press or an independent judiciary. Many people who attend CPAC would like to see a leader like Orbán do something similar in the US.
- Orbán is a keynote speaker at this CPAC. What about him resonates with the conservative movement? Is Orban’s popularity among American conservatives related to the enduring popularity of former president Trump among that same group?
- American conservatives believe that America is not only “in decline,” but that malicious forces (“globalists,” “elites,” “cosmopolitans,” the “left”) are trying to take it over. They want a so-called strongman to save them. CPAC loved Trump because they saw him as a strongman, and they love Orbán for similar reasons. They actually like that neither Trump nor Orbán is committed to democracy, because they know their racist views would not prevail in a functioning democracy. They need a strongman to weaken and ultimately destroy democracy.
- Both Orbán and Fox News host and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, who is also a speaker at CPAC, have used “replacement theory” in their rhetoric. “Replacement theory” was also referenced in the manifesto of the shooter who killed ten people in Buffalo, New York, last week. What is “replacement theory?” Is it a new idea?
- “Great Replacement” is a conspiracy theory that claims malicious actors are trying to destroy presumably white and Christian countries like Hungary and the US by flooding them with “outsiders.” This idea is not new (neo-Nazis made this argument in the 1980s), but French philosopher Renaud Camus popularized it again in a book he wrote in 2011. In it, he argued that so-called “globalists” were trying to turn France into a Muslim nation by encouraging immigration. (In far-right rhetoric, the term “globalist” is often a coded stand in for Jewish people).
- What are the implications of influential people like Orbán and Carlson framing “replacement theory” as fact?
- The Great Replacement theory is factually inaccurate. The US, for example, has never been a white nation. In 1492, colonialism brought people from all over the world to American shores. People came by force or free will from Europe, Asia, and Africa. They joined Native Americans who were already here. The conspiracy theory is also dangerous. When government figures use great replacement framing, they are laying the groundwork for dehumanization and attacks against groups defined as potential replacers. The mass shooters in Buffalo, El Paso, and Pittsburgh provide clear evidence of how this process ends.