DALLAS – Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban urged cheering American conservatives on Thursday to “take back the institutions,” stick to hardline stances on gay rights and immigration and fight for the next U.S. presidential election as a pivotal moment for their beliefs.
The exuberant cheers and standing ovations at the Conservative Political Action Conference for the far-right prime minister, who has been criticized for undermining his own country's democratic institutions, demonstrated the growing embrace between Orban and Republicans in the U.S.
He mocked the media in this country and in Europe. And in a speech he titled “How We Fight,” Orban told the crowd gathered in a Dallas convention ballroom to focus now on the 2024 election, saying they had “two years to get ready," though he endorsed no candidate or party.
“Victory will never be found by taking the path of least resistance," he said during one of the keynote slots of the three-day CPAC event. "We must take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels. We must find friends and allies in one another.”
Referring to liberals, he said: “They hate me and slander me and my country, as they hate you and slander you for the America you stand for.”
His entrance drew a bigger welcome than the governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, received moments earlier on the same stage. From there, the cheers continued as Orban weaved through attacks on LGBTQ rights, boasted about reducing abortions in Hungary and celebrated hardline immigration measures back home.
Other speakers will include former President Donald Trump — who met with Orban earlier this week and will address the gathering on Saturday — Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Republican candidates fresh off GOP primary election victories Tuesday.
Orban's visit to the U.S. came amid backlash back home and in Europe over anti-migrant remarks in which he railed against Europe becoming a “mixed race” society. One of his closest associates compared his comments to Nazi rhetoric and resigned in protest. Orban told the crowd in Texas the media would portray him as a racist strongman and dismissed those who would call his government racist as “idiots.”
His invitation to CPAC reflects conservatives' growing embrace of the Hungarian leader whose country has a single-party government. Orban also is considered the closest ally in the European Union to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that President Joe Biden had no plans to speak with Orban while he’s in the U.S. Asked if the administration had any concerns about CPAC inviting such a leader to speak at the high-profile conference, Kirby demurred.
“He’s coming at a private invitation,” Kirby said. “Mr. Orban and the CPAC, they can talk about his visit.”
Trump praised Orban, who has been prime minister for 12 years, after their meeting this week in Florida.
“Few people know as much about what is going on in the world today,” the former president said in a statement after the meeting.
To some attending the three-day conference, Orban is a model leader who makes an impression beyond Hungary because of his policies and personality.
They praised him for his border security measures and for providing financial subsidies to Hungarian women, which Orban has called an effort to counter Hungary's population decline. Lilla Vessey, who moved to Dallas from Hungary with her husband, Ede, in the 1980s, said what she hears back in Hungary is that Orban is not anti-democratic.
“I don't know how it happened that the conservatives kind of discovered him," said Ede Vessey, 73. “He supports the traditional values. He supports the family.”
Scott Huber, who met Orban along with other CPAC attendees at a private event hours before the speech, said the prime minister expressed hope the U.S. would “moderate a little bit from the far-left influences” in November's midterm elections. The 67-year-old Pennsylvanian said he would not disagree with descriptions of Orban as autocratic and that he has upset democratic norms, but said he thought it would change in time.
As to why Orban is winning over so many conservatives, Huber noted Orban's attacks on George Soros, the American-Hungarian billionaire and philanthropist who is a staunch critic of Hungary’s government and a supporter of liberal causes.
“That's why I was so interested in seeing him," Huber said.
Through his communications office, Orban declined an interview request by The Associated Press prior to his speech in Dallas.
The AP and other international news organizations also were prohibited from covering a CPAC conference held in Budapest in May, the group's first conference in Europe. During that gathering, Orban called Hungary “the bastion of conservative Christian values in Europe” and urged conservatives in the U.S. to defeat “the dominance of progressive liberals in public life.”
He has styled himself as a champion of what he calls “illiberal democracy.”
Orban served as prime minister of Hungary between 1998 and 2002, but it’s his record since taking office again in 2010 that has drawn controversy and raised concerns about Hungary sliding into authoritarian rule. He has depicted himself as a defender of European Christendom against Muslim migrants, progressives and the “LGBTQ lobby.”
Last year, his right-wing Fidesz party banned the depiction of homosexuality or sex reassignment in media targeting people under 18. Information on homosexuality also was forbidden in school sex education programs, or in films and advertisements accessible to minors.
Some of the biggest applauses during Orban's speech came when he described Hungary’s family framework.
“To sum up, the mother is a woman, the father is a man, and leave our kids alone, full stop,” he said.
Orban has consolidated power over the the country's judiciary and media, and his party has drawn legislative districts in a way that makes it very difficult for opposition parties to win seats — somewhat similar to partisan gerrymandering efforts for state legislative and congressional seats in the U.S. That process currently favors Republicans because they control more of the state legislatures that create those boundaries.
Orban's moves have led international political observers to label him as the face of a new wave of authoritarianism. The European Union has launched numerous legal proceedings against Hungary for breaking EU rules and is withholding billions in recovery funds and credit over violations of rule-of-law standards and insufficient anti-corruption safeguards.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.