Why have Orban's latest remarks not angered conservatives?

Is there anything the Hungarian Prime Minister could say on race that puts him beyond the pale?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends a Nato summit dinner in Madrid last month. Reuters
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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is due to be a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the US city of Dallas next month. CPAC, as it is known, is the most influential gathering of American conservatives, and Mr Orban will be speaking alongside luminaries of the US right such as former president Donald Trump, the one-time Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and Senator Ted Cruz.

At the time of writing, it still seems likely that Mr Orban will be given a hero's welcome, even though he just gave a shocking speech in which he condemned not only the idea of non-Europeans living in the same country as Europeans but also, by implication, mixed race unions.

The West has split in two, he said. “One half is a world where European and non-European peoples live together. These countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples.”

Muslim immigrants, he continued, were “flooding and occupying the West … This is why we have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race.”

Mr Orban has a history of making provocative remarks, quarrelling with the European Commission, and for his strong anti-immigration policies. But even for him, this is extraordinary.

It is no good dismissing Orban, recently re-elected with a thumping majority, as an outlier

Now, you can try to excuse his remarks, as Rod Dreher has done in a thoughtful piece in The American Conservative magazine. “What Orban is saying is that Europeans want to live with and mix among other Europeans, because that is what keeps the peace,” Dreher wrote. “He is using the term ‘race’ as a symbol of religion and culture … He is clearly not talking about genetics.”

To be sure, Mr Orban was not taken out of context. You can read the whole speech, delivered on Saturday in Romania, which has a large ethnic Hungarian population. If you do, you will immediately see that this was not the speech of a thug. It is for the most part elegantly written. It has wit, and Mr Orban makes some valid points that foreign policy realists would have to agree with, including: “We see that rival civilisations have adopted western technology and have mastered the western financial system, but they have not adopted western values – and they have absolutely no intention of adopting them."

You can point to the special position Hungary is in. It is a small country of about 10 million where, as Mr Orban put it: “There are still far more funerals than baptisms … This is the alpha and omega of everything: if there is no turnaround, sooner or later we will be displaced from Hungary, and we will be displaced from the Carpathian Basin.” He is not alone in suffering from a form of existential fear. Similar sentiments are felt by some majority groups undergoing demographic change, from the US to Malaysia.

You can argue with justice that Mr Orban is far from being alone in playing the race card to win votes. I’ve noted before that Cambodia’s long-time opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, has been accused of stirring up prejudice against ethnic Vietnamese in his country, and the “horrors of Hindutva”, as the writer William Dalrymple once put it to me – the violence and terror inflicted by Hindu ultranationalists in India – are well known.

You can also acknowledge that Mr Orban is just one of a number of politicians scaremongering about the supposed dangers of Islam attempting to take over the West, with his citing of the Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1683, and even the Battle of Poitiers, when the Frankish king Charles Martel defeated an invading Umayyad force – in 732.

American television host Tucker Carlson delivers a speech at the CPAC conference in Budapest in May. AP Photo

But you are still left with the words Mr Orban said. You are still left with his evident dread at the prospect of “peoples of mixed race”. I cannot think of any leader so openly raising the spectre of that horrible word, “miscegenation”. It is no good dismissing the Hungarian Prime Minister, recently re-elected with a thumping majority, as an outlier. The far right could lead the next government in Italy, and has been gaining strength in much of Europe. Mr Orban himself has been embraced by “conservatives around the world”, as a New Yorker magazine profile put it last year, and to Dreher he is “an iconoclastic visionary of the right … a Margaret Thatcher to some emerging Ronald Reagan".

Mr Orban has been condemned by leading politicians in both Hungary and Romania. But what of those adoring conservatives? One, at least, the American Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger, has raised his voice. He tweeted: “August 4, Dallas, CPAC is having this man as a speaker. Will potential candidates boycott CPAC? Or do they support pure race ideology?”

And that is exactly the question conservatives who have cheered on Mr Orban now have to ask themselves. Is there anything he could say that is, and puts him, beyond the pale? Or have we reached such a concerning moment that it has become acceptable in mainstream conservative circles to argue for racial purity? A once-admired and, at its best, an inclusive political tradition will have sunk to an appalling low, if so.

Mr Orban has set his conservative fans on both sides of the Atlantic a test: can they, will they, distance themselves from these remarkably incendiary statements? If not, they will have lost every shred of decency they may once have possessed.

Published: July 27, 2022, 7:00 AM