Next month in Budapest, America’s most prominent conservative gathering, founded on ideals of personal liberty and limited government, will honor a European leader accused of undermining democracy and individual rights.
Some Republicans see CPAC’s May meeting as a litmus test for how closely American conservatives are willing to align themselves with a global movement of far-right, Russia-friendly strongmen embraced by former US President Donald Trump.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a longtime supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, will be the event’s keynote speaker. Orban, who was re-elected by a large margin on Sunday, is accused by the European Union of curtailing media and judicial independence, enriching associates with public funds, and rewriting election laws to cement his power.
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungary joined the EU sanctions against Moscow. Orban, on the other hand, has refrained from directly criticizing Putin, has prohibited weapons shipments through Hungary to Ukraine, and has opposed EU sanctions on Russian natural gas.
CPAC’s organizers, the American Conservative Union (ACU), have been pushing to promote Trump’s divisive brand of nationalist populism to foreign audiences for years. A similar CPAC-branded event was held in Brazil last fall, with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right leader and Putin supporter, as the featured speaker.
The EU’s criticism of Orban is “politically-ideologically based,” according to an Orban spokesperson, and is part of a long-running “provocation campaign and witch hunt” by liberal elites.
The Hungary gathering has drawn attention to a growing schism among Republicans. While some people have become more accepting of Putin and other foreign leaders with authoritarian tendencies, others are concerned.
Traditional anti-authoritarian conservatives, who value personal freedoms, limited government, and free markets, are on one side of the Republican divide, according to Gregg Keller, who served as ACU’s executive director from 2011 to 2014 alongside Cardenas and now heads the Atlas Strategy Group, a political consulting firm. “Reagan internationalist-type folks,” Keller says of this typically older group.
Their ideology is increasingly at odds with Trump’s most ardent supporters, Keller describing them as “more populist, younger, isolationist folks” who regard Putin’s attack on Ukraine as “none of our concern.” Many Trump supporters admire Orban for using his political clout to push a conservative cultural agenda, including immigration restrictions and LGBTQ rights restrictions.
“You’re seeing those two opposing views very much go head-to-head” at CPAC Hungary, Keller said.
According to ACU Executive Director Daniel Schneider, the ACU has received requests to host similar CPAC gatherings in dozens of other countries where like-minded groups have offered to co-sponsor events. Potential sponsors have contacted the organization from Slovakia, Kenya, Mongolia, Guatemala, and other countries, he said.
The cost of the offshore meetings is covered by the foreign co-hosts of CPAC events, according to Schneider. The Budapest conference is co-hosted by a Hungarian think tank that receives funding from Orban’s government, while the Brazil event is co-hosted by a Brazilian think tank owned by Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and a far-right Brazilian legislator.
CPAC Hungary, which takes place May 18-20, will be the conference’s first in Europe and its fifth outside of the United States since the ACU first took it to Japan in 2017.
Some conservatives in the United States are concerned about CPAC’s reliance on foreign donors and the exposure those organizations receive from influential conservative officials and leaders.
In February, a Republican strategist filed an anonymous complaint with the US Justice Department, alleging that the ACU and its leaders broke the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by failing to report money they received from foreign organizations while promoting those organizations’ interests to American audiences. According to Reuters, the written complaint essentially serves as a formal request for a federal investigation. The Justice Department refused to confirm or deny that it was looking into the matter.
According to the complaint, foreign hosts of at least three overseas CPAC meetings, including CPAC Hungary, provided more than $150,000 in sponsorships for CPAC’s flagship US meeting in Orlando, Florida, in February. The complainant, a longtime CPAC attendee, expressed disappointment in an interview with Reuters over “how ACU has monetized CPAC to foreign actors” and given them a platform in the United States.