In his triumphant speech Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán played one of the oldest—and most morally grotesque—rhetorical cards in the central European diplomatic playbook: comparing the domestic political opponents of his audience with the totalitarian murderers who once subjugated his homeland.
"The Hungarians defeated communism, which was forced on us by Soviet troops and arms. It took a while. We began our fight in 1956 and won in 1990, but we did it," Europe's longest-serving prime minister said. "But communists are tough to beat. They rose from their ashes, came together with the liberals, and come back all around the world stronger than ever. If somebody has doubts whether progressive liberals and communists are the same, just ask us Hungarians. We fought them both, and I can tell you they are the same."
The claim that communists have come back "stronger than ever" would surely be news to the three dozen or so modern-day countries whose populations in 1988 were still under the iron boot. Only in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba have communist parties retained their monopoly on power. One could perhaps make the argument that current and former communists, after allowing for quasi-capitalistic economic activity, now have more internal strength and financial resources in China and post-Soviet Russia than they did in 1990, but that's not an argument that Orbán, the best friend of both Moscow and Beijing within the European Union and NATO, is eager to make.
The conflation of contemporary Western lefties with former East bloc totalitarians, a favorite dinner-party trick of such perennially overrated post-communist politicians as former Czech President Václav Klaus, serves the dual purpose of flattering American conservatives that their parochial political concerns (about, say, gay marriage) are imbued with internationally heroic heft, while diverting attention away from the less seemly (and less traditionally conservative) record of the speaker.
Addressing a CPAC audience, Orbán made sure to shout out the conference's patron saint: "We know what we have Ronald Reagan to thank for." But that's a considerably different song than he was singing two weeks ago in front of an audience of ethnic Hungarians in the Transylvania region of neighboring Romania.
There, in a speech that generated controversy for other reasons, the Hungarian actually compared Reagan to communists: "Historically, the Americans have had the ability to pick out what they identify as an evil empire and to call on the world to stand on the right side of history—a phrase which bothers us a little, as this is what the communists always said."
It is Orbán's flirtations with regional instability that seem the oddest fit with American conservatives. The prime minister, who has drawn rebukes this year from the governments of several bordering countries for expressing unrequited dissatisfaction with the post-World War I map-drawing Treaty of Trianon, launched his CPAC remarks by saying, "We are a nation of 15 million in the heart of Europe with a unique language."
The main problem with that sentence is that Hungary has only 10 million inhabitants. Trianon-lamenting nationalists, however, have been using the 15-million formulation for decades to agitate for restoring some of the lost Greater Hungary.
Such language was greeted with understandable regional alarm after the end of the Cold War, prompting NATO to insist on the permanent settlement of border disputes as a precondition for the first formerly communist entrants to join. Orbán and his allies have been increasingly brazen since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which borders Hungary and houses a restive Hungarian minority allowed to vote in Hungarian elections.
In his Transylvania speech, Orbán thundered that "the motherland must stand together, and Transylvania and the other areas in the Carpathian Basin inhabited by Hungarians must stand together," and that "the world owes us something—and that we want to, and will, call in that debt. This is our strongest ambition."
The Hungarian's calls, repeated in Texas on Thursday, for the Ukrainian war to end via a settlement negotiated directly between Russia and the U.S. (preferably with a Republican president after 2024) are seen by Kyiv as a possible stalking horse for a land grab.
"The way the official Hungarian leadership is treating Ukraine lately is worse than even that of some of the Russian satellite states from the former Soviet Union," Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk complained on Facebook in March. "Why? Is that because they want Russian gas with a discount? Or maybe that is because they silently dream of our Transcarpathia?"
Not helping to calm inflamed regional nerves was Orbán's bizarre and historically illiterate claims Thursday that "a Christian politician cannot be racist," that "the most evil things in modern history were carried out by people who hated Christianity," and that "the horrors of Nazism and communism happened because some Western states in continental Europe abandoned their Christian values, and today's progressives are planning to do the same."
It's not just Americans who should know damn well that the desultory ranks of openly racist politicians in our lifetimes have included Christians. Hungary, during the tail end of World War II, was ruled by the notorious Jew-murdering Arrow Cross Party, founded by the Catholic Ferenc Szálasi, who served a dual role during that reign of terror as prime minister and minister of religion and education.
The whole of Central Europe during those hellish years was a hotbed of clerico-fascism. This history is very well known to Viktor Orbán, given how many times his government has been accused (including by one of his longtime advisers last month) of playing footsie with antisemitic tropes and rehabilitating wartime Hungarian leaders.
Many a political audience, no doubt, loves to hear that they are not bigoted, that anyone accusing them of such must come from (in Orbán's cloyingly Trumpist formulation) "the industrial fake news corporation," that their cause is holy and just, that their opponents are actual enemies and on the wrong side of a civilizational war. Such is the nature of the systematic organization of hatreds.
Unfortunately for the rest of us and the rest of the world, hatreds are not always containable within the box of peaceful political competition, particularly at a time of a sovereignty-challenging war in Europe. Viktor Orbán no doubt won over some American conservative sympathy for whatever future project he has in mind for 15 million ethnic Hungarians. We shall see how seriously the next Republican president takes the current European map.