CPAC Hungary and Zsolt Bayer continues the mainstreaming of bigotry in the GOP

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It’s pretty remarkable how this keeps happening.

When Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) appeared at a white nationalist conference early last year, he soon disavowed “white racism” and escaped punishment from his party.

When, months later, the same group appeared to advertise a fundraiser with Gosar, he initially seemed to defend it. But then House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Gosar had told him the event was, in fact, “not real.” Again, the GOP gave Gosar the benefit of the doubt.

When Gosar then appeared at the same conference this year, this time joined by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), party leaders denounced their appearances. But both Gosar and Greene indicated there was somehow, again, some kind of misunderstanding, and Greene even defended her speech as reaching out to “young conservatives who feel cast aside and marginalized by society.” Again, leaders let it slide without sanction.

The sum total of it, as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) pointed out last week, is that those within their GOP and conservative movement have seen that aligning with racist theories like the “great replacement” and even racists themselves just isn’t a dealbreaker in today’s GOP. And a week after Cheney’s comment, there’s yet another example.

The Guardian reported this weekend that one of the speakers at the new Conservative Political Action Conference in Hungary, Zsolt Bayer, has a history of bigoted comments. Bayer, a talk-show host in Hungary and key figure in the political party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, shared a stage with not just leaders of the American conservative movement, but even former president Donald Trump.

From the Guardian’s report:

In 2011, he used the phrase “stinking excrement” to refer generically to Jews in England, and in 2013 wrote: “a significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals and they behave like animals.”

When he was awarded the Hungarian order of merit in 2016 by the country’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, the star speaker on the first day of CPAC Hungary on Thursday, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum protested, saying it “reflects the longstanding refusal of the leadership of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party to distance itself from Bayer, in spite of Bayer’s repeated pattern of racist, xenophobic, antisemitic, and anti-Roma incitement”.

Bayer also said on his blog in 2020, amid Black Lives Matter protests in the United States, “Is this the future? Kissing the dirty boots of f****** [Black people] and smiling at them? Being happy about this? Because otherwise they’ll kill you or beat you up?” (There is some dispute about whether Bayer used an epithet for Black people, which we’ll get to.)

Also recently, Bayer reportedly called Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who descended from Hungarian Jews, a “ROOTLESS Hungarian” — echoing a popular anti-Semitic trope used to marginalize Jews, particularly in the Stalin-era Soviet Union. The adjective was employed in a similar manner by Adolf Hitler.

During his appearance at CPAC Hungary, Bayer, according to the Guardian, unfavorably compared Calvin Klein ads featuring a White woman whom he labeled “very hot” and a Black woman whom he labeled “not so hot.” He reportedly added that “it’s clear that this ad was born under the aegis of Black Lives Matter.”

There was a time relatively recently when the usual response to such an incident would be to retreat — to say you weren’t familiar with the views of someone like Bayer. But CPAC has gone in a very different direction.

Before the Guardian’s article landed, CPAC issued a statement late last week that referenced the news outlet and complained of “a coordinated smear campaign on conservative leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.”

After the article landed this weekend, CPAC doubled down in a statement Monday. It said, “We reject the reporting of The Guardian and have been assured by our partners in Hungary that the substance of this attack is false.” Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, said, “We reject this unfounded reporting. We have many speakers with independent views.”

Precisely what does CPAC object to in the Guardian’s report? It’s not at all clear, because the statement doesn’t say. When we asked for such details, Schlapp said merely, “We responded on twitter.”

A closer look at Bayer’s comments shows that they are bigoted. His comment about “stinking excrement,” for instance, didn’t explicitly reference Jews in general. But the context is clear. He was responding to critics of Hungary’s new media law, isolating their Jewish surnames. According to a 2011 translation from Tablet magazine, he said:

A stinking excrement called something like Cohen from somewhere in England writes that “foul stench wafts” from Hungary. Cohen, and Cohn-Bendit, and Schiff. [The social democratic newspaper] Népszava appears with the red figure of the man with the hammer and demands freedom of the press. Most people think that this is something new and that war like that didn’t take place before. Nonsense. There is nothing new under the sun. Unfortunately, they were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány.

Orgovány was the site of a 1919 anti-communist massacre in Hungary’s “White Terror,” in which many Jews were tortured and killed. (Bayer’s appearance was denounced Monday by the American Jewish Committee, saying it was “unacceptable” for him to be given a platform.)

Bayer’s comments about the Roma have also been widely translated. As the German outlet Der Spiegel reported in 2013:

Bayer sparked an uproar in early January when he wrote an article in the Fidesz-aligned, right-wing newspaper Magyar Hirlap about a New Year’s Eve stabbing in a bar in Szigethalom, a town south of Budapest, in which Roma are suspected of involvement. “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence,” he wrote. “They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. … These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.”

No one in the Fidesz party leadership publicly condemned Bayer’s article. A party spokeswoman said that since Bayer had expressed “his own opinion” as a commentator rather than as a Fidesz member, the party would not take a stance on it. And Fidesz communications chief Máté Kocsis even went so far as to say that anyone who criticized Bayer’s article was “siding with the murderer” — in other words, with the Roma — even though no one was murdered at the stabbing in question.

As for Bayer’s BLM comments, he used a Hungarian word that has generally meant “Black people” and doesn’t carry the same connotations as the n-word in English. But it is not considered politically correct. And as with his comments about “stinking excrement,” the thrust of the entire sentiment is clear.

If you look closely at CPAC’s latest comments, you can see the beginnings of a potential backtrack and an attempt to insulate. Schlapp says, “We have many speakers with independent views.” The fuller CPAC statement says that “we do not have a policy of pre-screening remarks at our events.” This is similar to how Gosar and Greene talked about reaching groups of young people — even, apparently, if those young people might hold racist views: It’s just about free speech! Those who point out you’re electing to appear with racists are just trying to censor or cancel you!

But at some point, leaders of the party might ask themselves how often they’ll be put in a position of waving this kind of thing away, if they accept that increasingly defiant response and allow these kinds of views to be associated with the GOP mainstream.

Andras Petho and Zsuzsanna Vida contributed to this report.