DALLAS — It was a conservative reception one would expect for a party leader like former President Donald J. Trump, filled with standing ovations, rejoicing and roaring approval for a provocative message opposing immigration and same-sex marriage.
But the recipient of Thursday’s heroic welcome was Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, who has been widely condemned for his attacks on democratic norms. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, he was the opening headliner.
Revered by a wing of the American political right, Mr. Orban, the European Union’s current longest-serving leader, arrived at CPAC after sparking further outrage with his recent comments opposing a “mixed-race” society.
Mr Orban defiantly shrugged off the criticism in his speech on Thursday, saying the media would label him a “far-right strongman, European racist, anti-Semite, Putin’s Trojan horse” in their headlines about his remarks. He attacked those who accused him of racism and anti-Semitism as “simply idiots”.
“They want us to give up our zero migration policy because they also know that this is the decisive and final battle of the future,” Orban said.
Mr. Orban has a long history of spreading such contempt, and his antagonism — toward immigrants, the news media, the “revival” and more — has helped cement his status with American conservatives, who provided a far-reaching platform. Among them is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News commentator, who traveled to Hungary to report on the Prime Minister. In May, CPAC held a conference there.
Leaders of CPAC, an influential right-wing group best known for welcoming top Republicans and aspiring presidential candidates to its regular conferences, had resisted calls to disinvite Mr. Orban.
He joined an opening day lineup that included Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, Fox News host Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska. The conference will culminate this weekend with a speech by Mr. Trump, who has often been compared to Mr. Orban.
Mr Orban’s speech at the Hilton Anatole hotel – a cavernous store of “Trump won” merchandise, right-wing media booths and an itinerant election-denying MyPillow founder Mike Lindell – drew an eclectic assortment of participants in the convention.
Protesters also showed up, but were escorted away by police. The protests hinted at the wider outrage associated with Mr Orban’s presence at the rally following his July remarks, which drew comparisons to Nazi rhetoric.
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“On one level, Orban has simply played the culture wars cards he has always played, leaning on his anti-immigration campaign, his ‘family values’ campaign against gender fluidity and the rights of homosexuals, and his law and order campaign,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University, said in an email Thursday. “He expected acclaim for those positions – and he got it.”
Jerry Brooks, 58, a convention attendee from Live Oak, Fla., who hosts a podcast called “In Black & Right,” said in an interview Thursday ahead of Mr. Orban’s speech that he was impressed by the Hungarian leader.
“He seems to be speaking some sort of international language – and that’s freedom,” said Mr Brooks, who is black.
Not all paying attendees are identified as Trump supporters. Some were newbies to CPAC, there explicitly to hear from Mr. Orban, who they said embodied their perspective on prioritizing their country.
Among them was a contingent of around 30 from the Hungarian club DFW. Lana Kerstein, the group’s organizer who holds American and Hungarian nationality, said in an interview ahead of the speech that she had long admired Mr Orban for his efforts to preserve Hungarian culture and the rule of law.
“What’s wrong with that? I don’t think it’s wrong. This nation has to survive,” said Ms. Kerstein, a businesswoman in her 40s who describes herself as conservative. .
Dana Spencer, 46, a retired dog groomer from Barry, Texas, about two hours from Dallas, said in an interview that she didn’t know Mr. Orban but could appreciate his stance on the immigration.
“I want people to come legally,” said Spencer, a first-time CPAC attendee. “We pay for their accommodation, their flights, their bus rides to New York.”
The support Mr. Orban found in Dallas contrasts with the fallout from his July speech in Romania.
“These countries are no longer nations: they are nothing more than a conglomeration of peoples,” Orban said, according to an Associated Press translation, attacking countries in Europe that have large numbers of immigrants.
He spoke of a divided Europe where immigrants were changing the character of “our world”.
“We are ready to mix with each other, but we don’t want to become mixed-race people,” Orban said. “Migration has split Europe in two – or I could say it has split the West in two.”
Criticism of these comments was quick.
Zsuzsa Hegedus, a confidante of Mr. Orban, wrote in a July 26 resignation letter published in Hungarian media that even the most “bloodthirsty racist” could not tolerate Mr. Orban’s rhetoric. She compared Mr. Orban’s message to themes used by the Nazis, including Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda chief.
“I don’t know how you didn’t notice that you were presenting a pure Nazi text worthy of Goebbels,” she wrote.
Deborah E. Lipstadt, the US special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, echoed Ms. Hegedus a day later on her official speech Twitter accountcalling Mr. Orban’s assessment alarming.
Mr. Orban’s latest audience with leaders of the political right in the United States comes as Republicans prepare for midterm elections, in which they hope to gain control of the Senate and House. Republicans have so far nominated a string of candidates who have challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and could affect the outcome of the next one.
Mr Orban, who points out that he won free and fair elections in order to justify what he calls “illiberal democracy”, has also used the power of his office to shape the contours of the elections more to his liking.
Tuesday, Mr. Trump hosted Mr. Orban at his golf resort in Bedminster, NJ, where the two posed for photos. It was a bold meeting between the former president and Mr. Orban, whom Stephen K. Bannon, a former top adviser to Trump, once called “Trump before Trump.”
Mr. Orban’s parting words for CPAC on Thursday were provocative.
“Globalists can all go to hell,” he said. “I came to Texas.”
Blake Hounshell contributed report.