The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

CPAC accidentally hyped the wrong autocracy

Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, waves at the audience during the Aug. 4 general session at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

One of the rare points of general consensus in the United States at the moment is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was bad and Russian President Vladimir Putin is reprehensible. These are not universally held positions, certainly; some TV hosts have repeatedly sided implicitly with Russia, even in recent weeks. But as a general rule, Russia’s position on the subject is not the one that’s carrying the day in the U.S. political conversation.

Which is one reason a tweet from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over the weekend sparked an outcry.

“Vladimir Putin announces the annexation of 4 Ukrainian-occupied territories,” it read. “Biden and the Dems continue to send Ukraine billions of taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, we are under attack at our southern border. When will Democrats put #AmericaFirst and end the gift-giving to Ukraine?”

An animated Russian flag fluttered gently underneath.

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It’s not even really clear what the point was. That the illegal annexation — a function of obviously contrived “refendums” in the contested regions — should be recognized as legitimate? That Ukraine doesn’t deserve military support (that “gift-giving”) as it staves off the invaders? Matt Schlapp, husband of a former official in President Donald Trump’s administration and head of the organization that runs CPAC, disavowed the tweet, blaming it on his not having had a chance to vet it.

But why wouldn’t someone at CPAC think this comported with organization policy? The group has been hyping autocrats and autocrat-aspirants for years now. The mistake was just in picking the wrong one.

At the outset of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Republicans viewed Putin about as unfavorably as they did various Democratic elected officials. Since early 2017, Republicans have been consistently less likely than Americans overall to describe Russia as an enemy of the United States (as opposed to an ally). But when the invasion happened, that changed. Now, Republicans are about as skeptical of Russia as Democrats or Americans are overall. Putin ruined his image.

For years, Russia held a special appeal to the American right. When it seized Crimea in 2014, there was a segment of the GOP that contrasted Putin favorably with the Democratic president at the time, Barack Obama. When Russian actors sought to bolster Trump’s 2016 candidacy, 2014’s enemy-of-my-enemy position evolved in some ways to a friend-of-my-friend one.

But an undercurrent was an appreciation for Putin’s perceived toughness, how he wielded power. Russians, conservative media personality Megyn Kelly once said, “don’t want this whole Brooklyn, pumpkin-spice-latte-drinking man that they are creating here.” And, she added: “I don’t want that, either.”

Trump himself made his predilections in this regard very explicit. His relationships with autocrats — Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Chinese President Xi Jinping — were generally more positive than his ties to America’s geopolitical allies. He himself appealed to the right’s desire for leadership with an iron fist, a heavy hand that would set aside election results and crush the opposition.

Beyond Trump, no leader has benefited more from this instinct among the American right than Orban. On the heels of a speech in Europe in which he warned of the specter of that continent “becom[ing] peoples of mixed race,” he addressed a CPAC gathering in Dallas. In doing so, he largely echoed Trump — understandable, given that the two share a broad philosophy. (When Orban ran for reelection this year, Trump eagerly endorsed him.)

Orban is the head of Hungary’s Fidesz party. It, like the Republican Party in the United States, has seen a rise in anti-pluralist sentiment over the past two decades, according to analysis from the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. In other words, both parties are moving away from a system in which different parties contest equally for power. Orban’s has done so explicitly.

(Putin’s party, United Russia, has long been deeply anti-pluralist, of course.)

Among the opponents of pluralism whom CPAC has supported is Trump himself. Over the weekend, he spoke at a rally in Michigan in which he declared that no future election results could be trusted. This has been a centerpiece of his rhetoric since 2020 for obvious reasons: Getting people to think election results are suspect is a key part of getting them to think that he didn’t lose.

The effect within his party, though, has been widespread. Most Republicans still say they think the 2020 election was stolen. Polling from Yahoo News conducted by YouGov shows that less than half of Americans think that candidates should commit to accepting the results in their elections. Nearly 4 in 10 of those who voted for Trump in 2020 say that losing candidates should continue to challenge the results.

Appearing on “Morning Joe” on Monday, political strategist Frank Luntz expressed deep pessimism about those numbers.

“When you lose faith and trust in elections itself, you’ve lost your democracy,” he said. “And we are so close to the edge.”

Luntz is not a leftist. He’s a longtime Republican consultant, someone with close ties to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). And his assessment is that the sort of skepticism about elections espoused by Trump and embraced by Republicans as the party moves away from pluralistic democracy is a significant danger.

CPAC eventually deleted that tweet. In a statement, the organization acknowledged that the message “belittled the plight of the innocent Ukrainian people” and that “[w]e must oppose Putin.”

The space Putin carved for himself on the American right has all but evaporated. At this point, he can’t serve the right well as a useful foil in criticizing the left. CPAC’s admitted error wasn’t in siding with an autocratic foreign power against the American president. It’s just the power they chose to side with.