Europe is my territory for Human Rights Watch and I rarely take note of political events thousands of miles away in Texas. But the news that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas this week was chilling to me — and should be to anyone who cares about basic human rights. From my vantage point in Hungary, where I’ve lived since 2007, I can see a familiar pattern of anti-democratic rhetoric and actions emerging in Texas and the United States more generally. I know where it could end up.
Orbán may not be a household name in Texas but he has become the darling of certain political circles in the United States. Orbán first served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002. After losing his re-election bid, he capitalized on increasing public dissatisfaction and distrust of politicians to then sweep the 2010 election. He had a two-thirds majority in parliament, enabling him to change the constitution several times to carry out his full vision for Hungary.
Since 2012, I have documented for Human Rights Watch this realization of Orbán’s vision — and the draconian policies and practices he has employed to this end. Orbán hijacked public institutions, attacked the independence of courts, and left almost no independent media standing. He has criminalized basic democratic activities by civil society organizations, attacked the rights of LGBT and transgender people, and banned same-sex unions. He encouraged ruthless and rights-abusing treatment of migrants and refugees and the criminalization of those who help them.
His alleged “pro-family” policies actually reinforce traditional gender roles and undermine equality between men and women, reducing women to their reproductive function. Orbán’s previously subtle adherence to the racist “great replacement” theory, which contends that Western countries’ elites are trying to replace white people with nonwhite people for political gain, has reached a shocking fever pitch, risking emboldening white supremacists.
Orbán also has tinkered with the electoral laws to the point that his party needs less than a simple majority of the vote for him to rule with a majority in parliament, and thereby to continue gutting Hungary’s democracy. He has done all of this while using nationalist rhetoric to cement himself and his party as the defenders of the Hungarian, conservative Christian way of life.
In late July, he caused an international uproar when he delivered a stunningly racist speech against migration to ethnic Hungarians in Romania, claiming he wants to prevent Hungary from becoming a “mixed-race” country. Doubling down on white nationalism, Orbán claimed that countries where Europeans live alongside non-Europeans “are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples.”
In the same speech, he made a veiled reference to Nazi gas chambers as a joke. One of Orbán’s advisers resigned shortly after the bigotry-riddled speech, and Romania’s foreign minister and the International Auschwitz Committee of Holocaust survivors condemned his remarks.
But Orbán’s headlining appearance in Dallas, at one of the most influential gatherings in the U.S. of conservatives and Republican Party leaders, apparently will go on. So, why would they want to hear from this wanna-be autocrat? What lessons could he offer for a movement that historically has supposedly stood in opposition to authoritarian rule?
Given rhetoric coming out of some sectors of the conservative movement in the United States, it’s little wonder there may be an attraction to Orbán. But attraction for Hungary’s premier may have detrimental implications for that movement in the U.S.; they would be associating with a leader who has spent more than a decade chipping away at core democratic values and peddling racist rhetoric.
Instead of welcoming Orbán, conservative leaders at the Dallas conference (and beyond) should make clear that Orbán’s values — fixing elections, crushing dissent, and pursuing a nationalism rooted in racism — are harmful and not welcome in the United States.