When I heard that Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban would speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, I was disturbed. Knowing of Orban’s authoritarian actions, which include ruling by decree and stifling press freedom, I needed to know what America's conservative movement is becoming.
To find answers, I attended a CPAC event for the first time.
"Oh my goodness! He is amazing!" yelled the attendee sitting next to me while Orban spoke about curbing "illegal immigration" and urged us to "fight back by our own rules."
Orban, choosing his words carefully, seemed to understand the language of current American conservatism too well. He spoke of winning the culture war, boasted about Hungary’s low flat tax rate, said Hungary actually built its wall to keep out migrants, called mainstream media fake news, said “winning has become our daily habit,” emphasized his country’s Christian and family values, criticized Hungarian American George Soros, praised law enforcement, and mentioned his nation’s devotion to law and order.
He also said: “We don’t need more genders; we need more rangers. Less drag queens, and more Chuck Norris.”
'We should unite our forces'
And he told the CPAC audience that "we should unite our forces." The predominantly white, middle-age crowd didn't boo or heckle Orban. Instead, they gave him a standing ovation.
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I couldn’t believe what I saw. Many of those in the audience seemed ignorant of Orban's history.
Because he used the "right" slogans and attacked the "right" enemies, the Hungarian prime minister captured the hearts and minds of conservatives in the audience.
It was a dreadful sight. American conservatism is meant to conserve the ideals of the nation's Founders, who rebelled against the tyranny of Great Britain. Yet, now we flirt with autocratic strongmen. But it’s not entirely the audience’s fault.
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Matt Schlapp, the chairman of CPAC, is to blame for attempting to bring Orban into mainstream conservatism. And, sadly, Orban’s speech was not the only attempt to bring the fringe into the mainstream at CPAC.
Conspiracy theory booths
When I arrived at the event inside the Anatole Hotel, the first booth I saw was for Real America's Voice, which was presenting its show "War Room," a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon. A conspiracy theorist and a self-described “economic nationalist,” Bannon is anything but a conservative.
I also was appalled by the many conspiratorial booths. The Patriot Mobile booth was frequented by "Pizzagate" conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. The Epoch Times – the pro-Trump, Falun Gong-backed, conspiratorial media giant – promoted its documentary, “The Real Story of January 6.”
Dr. Peter McCullough and Dr. Robert Malone, physicians known for doubting the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, were seen at one booth. And Rabbit Hill Games displayed its board game “Swing State Steal,” which promotes former President Donald Trump’s lie that Democrats stole the 2020 election.
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Schlapp needs to be more responsible. These organizations should have never been allowed a booth. Since the 1950s, conservatives have labored to make conservatism a serious, well-respected political movement. Opening the door to these organizations threatens to reverse all of that hard work. And the speakers Schlapp invited did not hesitate to say the most outrageous things.
What the speakers said
Toward the end of a panel on the Black Lives Matter movement and cancel culture, Jason Killian Meath, director of "The Culture Killers," handed Schlapp the award he won for his documentary and said, “You can use it as a weapon next time you go into the BLM crowd.”
In a panel called “Who's Going to Tell Kamala?”, Rogan O'Handley, creator of the popular Instagram account @dc_draino, said he wants gubernatorial candidates Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano to win their races in Arizona and Pennsylvania so they can decertify the 2020 election in their states. "If that brings on a constitutional crisis, bring it,” he said.
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Such flagrant disregard for the Constitution would have been condemned by conservatives before 2016. Yet, O'Handley's comments received no pushback.
I couldn't count how many times Dinesh D’Souza’s discredited movie about the 2020 election, “2000 Mules,” was mentioned in a positive light. And two women sitting next to me were shocked when I didn't agree that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. There wasn't a doubt in their minds.
The performance art
It got worse. #WalkAway founder Brandon Straka, in an act of performance art, pretended to be a prisoner who was arrested for his involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. He pretended to cry for hours in a cage and wrote messages such as “Where is everybody?” on a chalkboard.
According to NBC News, Straka was arrested and charged with "impeding law enforcement officers during civil disorder, knowingly entering restricted grounds and engaging in disorderly conduct with intent to disturb a hearing before Congress." But he was never imprisoned, despite saying he was during a panel discussion.
Later, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., joined him in the cage, pretending to console him and wipe away his tears.
It was like watching a WWE wrestling match. Everyone knew it was all fake, but everyone played along anyway. I can’t think of anything more vain and self-serving than pretending to be a victim of something you never experienced.
What happened to CPAC?
Instead of a tin-foil-hat, MAGA road show, CPAC used to be an annual event that highlighted distinguished conservatives like Washington Post columnist George Will and Purdue University President Mitch Daniels.
After my experience at CPAC, I wondered whether I still wanted to be a part of the conservative movement. Although I am a conservative, the movement seems to be unfastening from its philosophical foundation. Liberty, limited government and all-around respect for the truth no longer appear to be a priority.
If Matt Schlapp truly cares about the conservative movement, he needs to end this nonsense now.
Chris Schlak is an Opinion fellow for USA TODAY. He graduated with a degree in government from The University of Texas at Austin in May. He founded and edited The Texas Horn, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute student publication at UT Austin. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSchlak
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CPAC event in Dallas was appalling to me as a young conservative