How strange it seemed at first when, in March this year, Vladimir Putin mentioned J. K. Rowling in one of his speeches. What, you might have thought, can she possibly have to do with Russia’s war in Ukraine? Was this the final proof that Russia’s President had lost his mind? It seemed so random and so very silly.
But there was method in his madness. Putin knew that Rowling was a controversial figure – she’s outspoken in her views on the question of transgender rights – and his primary audience at that moment were western onlookers. In the same breath, he said that Russian culture was being “cancelled” in the West, just as “they cancelled the children’s writer Joanne Rowling”.
He was signalling to those in the West who abhor what is described as “cancel culture”, in an attempt to foster scepticism and even cynicism amongst Western populations, and degrade what at the time seemed to be a fairly united opposition to Russia’s brutality in Ukraine.
It’s not clear whether or not this is a particularly effective tactic. But Viktor Orbán, the autocratic leader of Hungary, was up to something very similar this week. (Whoever thought of Putin as a trend-setter?)
Orbán spoke on Thursday at the CPAC conference – the annual conservative jamboree – in Dallas, Texas, to a crowd of American right-wingers who cheered him loudly. Speaking in English, he used Trumpist phrases like “fake news” and “We… built that wall”, and they cheered him louder. Orbán is not Putin, but the goal here is the same; fan the flames of division abroad to strengthen his own position on the world stage.
Orbán also raised questions of sexuality and gender (“the mother is a woman, the father is a man… full stop. End of discussion!”) and said that “A Christian politician cannot be racist” (a statement with which his former supporter Zsuzsa Hegedus would not agree; she broke with him two weeks ago, describing one of his speeches as a “pure Nazi text”).
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The crowd seemed to love it. (Think of how strange that is. The leader of a former-Warsaw Pact country cheered to the rafters by hardline American conservatives! How times have changed.) Orbán posed for photos with Donald Trump and has appeared with Tucker Carlson on FOX News. All three of those men would argue that US Republicans have far more in common with supporters of Orbán’s Fidesz party than they do with Democrats.
The question is, how many in the US would agree? The results of this year’s midterm elections might go some way to answering that question. Orbán – and Putin – will be watching closely.