Op-Ed: American conservatives’ pilgrimage to Hungary is a joke

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stands at a lectern.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Budapest, Hungary, on Thursday. The conference is being held in Europe for the first time.
(Attila Kisbenedek / AFP via Getty Images)

The Conservative Political Action Conference is meeting in Hungary, where attendees heard a keynote address by strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an icon of the international hard right. Imagining Orban’s strut to the podium, students of modern history may be reminded of events that date back almost a century. The interwar years, as one right-winger, Michael Ledeen, once wrote, were the age of “Universal Fascism,” the high era of “The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, 1928–1936.”

Is that what we’re facing? Has the new age of the Fascist International dawned? It is certainly true that ethnic nationalists around the world luxuriate in the belief that they are part of a global movement. A couple of years ago, America’s Steve Bannon joined with an Englishman, Benjamin Harnwell, in a failed attempt to found an international academy for the theory and practice of the Alt Right, to be housed in an abandoned 13th century Italian monastery. The Italian authorities blocked them, but both men are no doubt still confident that they are riding the wave of history. Marine Le Pen of France is well-known for looking across the border for support, and there are plenty more examples.

But before we conclude that the clock has turned back to the age of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, let’s bring some perspective to the current moment. It is true enough that hard-right-wingers are eager to participate in an international movement. It may even be true that some of them dream of a new Fascist International, placing agents and agitators around the globe, just as the rival Communist International once did. It is certainly true that a lot of Russian money has gone to support the far right around the globe, though that money may well be drying up. It is not wrong to hear echoes of the interwar years, when Mussolini was an international icon, and Hitler looked not only to Mussolini but also to American race law for inspiration.


But none of that is a reason to panic. In fact, in some ways, the CPAC gathering in Budapest is more an occasion to snicker.

First of all, the fact that the New Right is going global is nothing special. All modern political movements are global. Politics has been globalizing for two and a half centuries, at least since the American experiment inspired the revolutionaries of France. Today everybody has international meetings. That is true of ethnic nationalists too, much though they may pretend to be concerned only with the homeland. It would be surprising if the hard right were not staging international gatherings, especially considering the opportunities they offer for boondogglers and cloak-and-dagger fantasists.

Mussolini and Hitler would have regarded this particular international gathering with condescension. Orban is a pathetic icon by the standards of the 1920s and 1930s. He is doing reprehensible damage, and we badly need some way to get rid of him. But like so many hard-right figures today, he is more a grifter than a leader. At this point his power depends on his misuse of EU funds. It is hard to resist citing Marx: Hitler was tragedy; Orban, destructive as he is, is farce.

Most of all, the American far-right wing is unlikely to benefit much from its global pretensions. No political movement in the United States has ever prospered by advertising its foreign allegiances. American voters like their politics American. Steve Bannon or Tucker Carlson may feel a thrill when they picture themselves bestriding the global stage, but they are losing sight of what works in the United States.

None of that is to say that America is not in danger. It is. But the dangers emanate from a wretchedly engineered set of governing institutions like the Senate, the electoral college and the Supreme Court, which now threaten to entrench minority rule in a modern democracy. That is what we should be panicking about, not the farce in Budapest.

James Q. Whitman, a professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale Law School, is the author of “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law.”