Fearmongering at CPAC Hungary

A journalist goes under the radar to expose the frightening truth behind a right-wing global conference

Fearmongering at CPAC Hungary
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest, Hungary, on May 19, 2022. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

“The Whale” is a building in Budapest on the banks of the Danube, just around the corner from the building I’ve lived in for the past two years. It consists of two long and low buildings, former warehouses, joined together by a curling glass structure in the middle. I always found its fusing of modern and traditional architecture intriguing.

In early May, the Whale was set to host the second Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Hungary, a platform for right-wing figures from around the world. The conference was returning to Budapest for a second year, set to include video messages from such major conservative luminaries as Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson. The in-person speakers consisted mostly of European right-wing politicians and media figures, alongside some Americans, including Kari Lake, Paul Gossar and Rick Santorum.

On the day of the event, I arrived at the Whale to find that, above the carpeted stairs, they had erected a large white arch, emblazoned with the CPAC Hungary logo and the words “No Woke Zone” in a slanting font across the top. The arch was surrounded by people in formal dress, mostly black suits and red ties. Security guards stood around, checking people’s passes as they entered. Around the entrance, someone had scribbled in chalk on the floor: “You’re Not Patriots / You’re Not Christians / You’re Not Pro-Family / You’re Not Good People.” On another side, someone had written, “You make the world a worse place. Why?” and “Your cynicism is cowardice.” The writing was ignored by the guests. Smiling people posed with the No Woke Zone sign, their toes touching the words “You’re Not Good People.” I entered the No Woke Zone, passing through metal detectors while men dressed as Hungarian soldiers from the 18th century looked down at me holding what I hoped were decorative muskets.

The Whale looked completely different from the last time I had seen it. The first floor had been converted into a military museum full of vintage Hungarian army paraphernalia, costumes and weapons, as well as modern gear and mannequins dressed up like operators from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Walking in front of me was a man wearing a shirt emblazoned with the faces of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Donald Trump with doves flying around their heads and the words “Peacemakers / Saviors of the World.” I spoke to this man over coffee later in the day, when he told me that he made the shirt himself. As we went up the elevator, my eyes flickered back and forth between his shirt and a robotic dog mounted with a machine gun that was part of the museum exhibit.

The second floor was like a job fair. Booths were arranged in a large circle, each for a different conservative institution with ties to the conference. There were stands for think tanks, publications and conservative clubs like the New York Young Republicans, each manned by staff handing out pamphlets. I spoke to a young Hungarian law student who told me he was looking forward to “networking.” In the middle, a photographer was taking photos of people in front of a wall covered in CPAC logos. There was a table with boards you could hold up that featured the slogans of the conference: “No Woke Zone,” “No Country for Woke Men,” “United We Stand,” “Biology vs. Fantasy” and more. The setup felt like a high school prom.

The conference room was tucked in the nose of the Whale. The building’s glass was blocked off and there was no natural light. The room was lit by blue spotlights and LED screens that depicted CPAC logos as well as the Hungarian and American flags. The auditorium filled up. I managed to find a seat, but behind me a small crowd was standing. There were a lot of older people present, I noticed. For a moment, I wondered if I was the youngest person there before I saw a child in a suit being maneuvered through the crowd by his parents, who rested their hands on his shoulders.

Three priests and a rabbi were the first speakers invited on stage. The priests spoke about the need for peace and the importance of “Christian values” as the foundation of society. The rabbi, a young man, began by observing that although it was “self-evident” that we shouldn’t eat insects, the Hebrew bible says not to anyway. Even self-evident truths like “biology matters” must be reiterated to reaffirm our values. He received plenty of applause as he concluded the 15 minutes of sermons.

To kick off the conference following the religious service, we were encouraged to donate to a charity providing aid for Hungarians living in western Ukraine. I had reported from that region a couple of months earlier. Hungarians and Ukrainians live side by side there, and the ethnic lines are not always clear. People I met considered themselves to be both Hungarian and Ukrainian. I wondered how the charity checked whether someone was Hungarian enough before offering them aid.

The speeches went on for almost eight hours, for two days in a row, but the themes and topics covered can be summarized quite easily and the message was consistent. According to the conference, there is an enemy. As Trump said in his video message, “We are now engaged in a historic battle with the Marxists, globalists and communists.” Orban, in his speech, said “we are all under attack” from a “virus.” He identified three variants of the virus: migration, gender and progressive foreign policy. The answer to this threat is, as Orban said and later tweeted: “No Migration, No Gender, No War.” Almost every speech at the event touched upon at least one of these three “variants.” This is what, as Orban put it, “the defenders of the free world gathered here in Budapest” are fighting against.

In the logic of CPAC, the stakes of the battle are high. Representative Barry Moore of Alabama put it succinctly in his speech: “It’s not left versus right; it’s good versus evil.” Orban, as well as other speakers, drew a parallel between current adversaries and communists: “The woke movement and gender identity are exactly like communism because they break the nation into groups.” Orban put this risk in catastrophic terms: “Without nations, the West will fail.”

Each of the variants of the virus identified by Orban seeks to destroy nation, family and tradition. The LGBTQ “agenda” was probably speakers’ most popular example of the woke movement’s threat. According to many of them, Orban included, it is a danger to children. LGBTQ people have decided to “come after children” through the “educational deep state,” as Gladden Pappin, the incoming president of the state-owned Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs, put it. The woke ideology, according to numerous speakers, is part of the plot to weaken families. Migration, another popular example of the globalists’ agenda, was presented as an attempt to destroy national identities because “the globalists want to homogenize culture.” According to Matt Whitaker, the former acting Attorney General under Trump, migration is a “corporate interest.” The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine was also a central topic. Calls for peace were made frequently, but no one specified on whose terms peace would be made. Orban’s vague “no war” sloganeering is hard to criticize.

Hungary was described as “the shining city on the hill” in the fight against the enemy. That exact phrase was used three times during speeches. Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona called Hungary “a beacon in the West,” for resisting the “woke forces of evil.” Orban called Hungary the “antidote” to the “virus.”

The conference was exceedingly repetitive. That’s probably why around 70% of the audience had left by the time the final speeches of the day rolled around. One reason for the many speakers was revealed by Orban when he commented that, while Hungary is often portrayed as alienated among Western countries, there were people from all over the world in Budapest for CPAC. The length of the program wasn’t intended to cover a wide range of subjects, and it didn’t. It was a show of strength: 16 hours of people talking about the same enemy, describing the left as an existential danger to society.

Orban pointed to the European Parliament elections coming up next year as an opportunity to “reconquer Europe.” He mentioned Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, specifically as international allies. Neither made an appearance or sent a video message.

The international allies did not use consistent terminology to refer to themselves. In his speech, Orban spoke about “conservatives.” Miklos Szantho, head of the Center for Fundamental Rights, one of the organizers of the event, told the crowd, “We are conservative, right-wing, populist, nationalists. Don’t be ashamed to say these words.” Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist under Trump, echoed this in his video message, referring to the CPAC attendees as part of the “populist nationalist movement.” Gavin Wax, president of the New York Young Republicans Club, took it a step further, declaring that “conservatism is dead” in the United States, and that what has replaced it — “populism” and “nationalism” — is preferable. He spoke these words in a particularly manic fashion, waving his hands around.

“The media” was identified as a primary enemy. Matt Schlapp, one of the first speakers of the conference, said that he liked how the Hungarian government got to “decide who a journalist is.” Friends of mine, journalists from respected international outlets, had not been issued passes when they applied. It was well understood that they were trying to keep independent journalists away. I applied for a pass as a guest, not press. That was uncomfortable, but it’s the reason I was one of the only independent journalists who managed to get in.

Failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake read out headlines of reports on CPAC Hungary, printed onto paper, then ripped them apart, declaring that the media “will destroy the world if we let them.” This sentiment was reiterated by multiple speakers, who claimed that the enemy, or virus, has control of the media, higher education and many other mainstream institutions.

During Lake’s speech, I was sitting next to a journalist friend, Flora Garamvolgyi, who had managed to get in. As far as we knew, we were the only two independent journalists allowed into the event. In between speeches, on our way to get coffee, she told me that one of the headlines that Lake ripped up had been hers, published the day before. We were the enemies; Lake was on stage telling this assembled crowd that we would destroy their society.

Shortly after Lake’s speech, my friend and I tried to interview Rick Santorum. I wanted to ask the speakers who had just spoken in generalities to provide some specifics. Most of these attempts were fruitless, because they were whisked away before anyone could say a word to them. I managed to approach Santorum, though, and he told me that he would like to institute state-supported maternity and paternity leave, as it exists in Hungary, in the U.S. This was the most practical thing I had heard at the conference so far. I went back to my seat and only learned later that Garamvolgyi had been thrown out of the event.

I left immediately and went to join her outside. She was understandably upset. She’s Hungarian herself and, in the past, after writing an article covering Hungarian government corruption, she was targeted by state-funded Hungarian media. They posted her personal Facebook account, called her a traitor and an agent of a foreign government and dragged her name through the mud for a week straight. Her grandmother, she told me, called her up confused, asking what she had done and why she had done it. At CPAC, the organizers had decided that these very same state media figures were “real journalists,” while she was not. She had been tossed out of the event when security guards heard her say the name of her publication. As we sat together on the bench, she said, “I’m just trying to do my job.” We were both angry, and sat in silence for a while.

I returned in time to catch the panel on free speech. A Dutch political commentator named Eva Vlaardingerbroek complained about state censorship of right-wing journalists in Europe.

Toward the end of each day, the conference died down. Many seats were left empty, people filtered in and out of speeches, with the relatively few attendees who were still there mostly congregated in the cafe area on the second floor. The bigger names spoke earlier in the day, and people clearly lost interest in the reiterations by lesser figures.

My head was hurting from the LED screens and I was feeling a bit sad, so I left slightly early. CPAC exhausted me. It was an event at which political and social concerns became existential risks. It seemed designed to make you fearful: LGBTQ people are coming for your kids, your culture is disappearing and society is in danger. It was a whirlwind of fear, invented enemies and high stakes.

I knew I would have to document the hypocrisy at CPAC. My family is Hungarian, and I was born in Hungary, so I was also aware that, when I did so, I would be a target, labeled a traitor, like my friend. I suspect this will be my last CPAC, not because I’m unwilling to report on it again, but because I would likely be thrown out of future events. If the “nationalist populist” leaders ever did consider me a journalist, they certainly won’t anymore. I left CPAC full of an existential dread.

The past two years, I saw the Whale every day — the posh bars that occupy the river-facing side of the building, the types of places that reek of expensive cologne and are populated by men wearing oversized Alexander McQueen sneakers. Now it represents something different: a place in my neighborhood that transforms yearly for a conference of people who think I’m an enemy. I’m just trying to do my job.

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