On April 23, the Tennessee state Senate received an unexpected guest from the other side of the Atlantic. When Republican Senator Rusty Crowe was given the floor, he started by explaining how “amazing” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech had been at the conservative conference CPAC that touched on the importance of “traditional Judeo-Christian values.” He then used this as a segue into introducing István Kiss, the Executive Director of the Hungary-based Danube Institute, who was given the floor to speak. As it isn’t the norm to invite speakers from Hungary to speak on state politics in Tennessee, you could be forgiven for not understanding what the Danube Institute was, and why a Hungarian think-tank would be interested in speaking to Tennessee lawmakers.
The Budapest-based Danube Institute is a part of the propaganda arm of the Orbán regime abroad, aimed at providing the regime with an intellectual veneer to win conservative converts in the West. The institute is funded by the Hungarian state through the Batthyány Foundation, an organization that was established in 1991 to “support Hungarian public life based on common Christian values and democratic, representative governance.” It ultimately was co-opted by Orbán’s party, Fidesz, when the party began shifting large governmental grants to the failing think tank after Fidesz’s victory in 2010. This was just as the country began moving down the path of a one-party-dominated state. In 2019, the Batthyány Foundation was financed to the tune of 3.5 billion forints ($12 million) by the state.
The Danube Institute’s team is part of an international far right network. They regularly attend large far-right conferences such as the Edmund Burke Foundation’s annual National Conservatism Conference, and have even hosted their own Summit on Geopolitics, Security, and Defense where conservatives including former Australian PM Tony Abbott, right-wing British historian David Oldroyd-Bolt, professors from Sweden and Denmark, and representatives from the American Enterprise Institute (AMI) and Hoover Institute, were present. The Danube Institute has published books in English and Hungarian, such as Viktor Orbán’s Second Cycle: Beyond Prejudices and Fandom [Orbán Viktor második ciklusa: túl az előítéleteken és a rajongáson című], which attempts to legitimize Orbán’s politics, and many of its members speak to the media to promote the Hungarian state abroad. For this, the President of the institute, John O’Sullivan, was awarded the Central Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit by Deputy Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Balázs Orbán on behalf of the Friends of Hungary Foundation. Recently, the Danube institute has published incessantly on “wokeism,” and O’Sullivan himself has penned several op-eds on the issue of “wokeism” of state leaders in the international community.
The Danube Institute’s invitation to speak to the Tennessee state Senate is an explicit attempt to bring Orbánism to the United States. The Tennessee GOP has a history of playing hardball politics with their Democratic opponents, representing much of the state’s minority population. It was only a few weeks prior that the same state senate had voted to expel two black lawmakers for “breaking decorum” during a protest against the GOP’s inaction on enacting gun control legislation, the first time legislators had been expelled since the Civil War. They’ve also been at the forefront of the radical right’s culture wars, and have banned drag performances, have passed an abortion ban without exceptions, have vowed to ban transgender youth care, and have attempted to ban any mention of LGBTQ+ people in school curriculums. State Rep Jerry Sexton (R) stated that he would be open to the idea of “burning” library books that would be vetoed by a politically appointed commission to oversee children’s access to books. GOP lawmakers have also worked to make the state increasingly gerrymandered in favor of Republicans and pass measures to limit the ability to vote.
Tennessee GOP lawmakers see what is happening in Hungary and seek to use this as a way to legitimize their own majoritarian practices. Orbán has infamously declared that Hungary would be following a distinct model of “illiberal democracy,” which, in practice, is a crude majoritarianism without separation of powers. He has extended his control over the media, hoarded state resources, stacked the judiciary with Fidesz loyalists, and used antidemocratic practices to win elections, resulting in Hungarian democracy’s steep decline over the past decade.
It is incredibly telling that the Tennessee GOP would invite members of the Danube Institute, as it speaks to their intentions to turn Tennessee into a laboratory for autocracy. Danube Institute fellows have even commented on their growing influence in the United States. This quote is from an article written by Danube Institute fellow Lili Zemplényi in the Hungarian Conservative:
“István Kiss reminded [us] that American conservatives are happy to learn from good Hungarian practices and suggested that some of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s policies, like banning the promotion of gender ideology in schools and educational institutions, were inspired by Hungary’s child protection legislation. In other words, the Heritage Foundation has now become interested in the Danube Institute not only for the geopolitical research that the Institute produces, but also due to the Institute’s embeddedness in and knowledge of Hungary, István Kiss noted.”
Luckily, some have already begun to take notice. After the Tennessee state Senate passed a resolution commending the work of the Danube Institute, recently reinstated Representative Justin Jones (D) stated that he was “deeply troubled by [the] resolution … This organization is tied to an autocrat in Hungary, Orbán.”
“Your resolution is for an organization tied to an authoritarian you’re not even familiar with. This is about fascism. It’s disturbing.”
While the state senators ended up cutting off Representative Jones’ microphone, his words have reverberated all the way back to Hungary, as many Hungarians understand the danger that the politics of Orbánism poses to US democracy. It is of the utmost importance that Hungary’s “illiberal democracy,” and its advocates, do not gain more of a foothold in the US.