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How Viktor Orbán Conquered the Heritage Foundation

Once the redoubt of Reaganism, the think tank has taken to promoting Trump’s favorite strongman.

Donald Trump and Viktor Orban stand for photographers at the West Wing of the White House in 2019.
Andrew Harrer/Getty Images
Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán stand for photographers at the West Wing of the White House in 2019.

Last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made waves by flying to the United States to meet with Donald Trump—but not with sitting president Joe Biden. It was, at a minimum, a severe breach of diplomatic protocol, and one that threatens to unravel Budapest’s strained relations with Washington even further. Even Biden himself commented on the meeting, saying that Orbánan authoritarian who has effectively unwound Hungarian democracywas “looking for dictatorship.”

But there was one other meeting that Orbán took while in the U.S. that hasn’t received enough attention—and points directly to how Orbán has cultivated American conservatives to his cause and created a beachhead for Hungarian influence in Washington. On Friday, he spoke at a closed-door meeting at the Heritage Foundation’s headquarters in the nation’s capital. Joined by Heritage president Kevin Roberts and failed presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, Orbán spoke, according to a readout, in front of an audience that “included renowned U.S. right-wing politicians, analysts and public personalities.” (This article has been updated with responses from a Heritage Foundation spokesperson.)

The event was, on paper, a somewhat dull affair, with Orbán covering matters ranging from Hungary’s “conservative family and economic policies” to the state of the war in Ukraine. Pulling back, however, the talk was nothing short of shocking. Instead of meeting with the White House, Orbán traveled to Washington to sit with the leadership of a think tank, using them as a platform to access and influence conservative Americans about both foreign and domestic policy.

All of which leads to one question: How, and why, did the Heritage Foundation become the go-to vehicle for Budapest’s budding autocracy to target Americans?

The answer follows several different tracks. On the one hand, Hungary has been shedding lobbying outfits for the past few years, dropping a range of P.R. shops and Twitter influencers to focus solely on Heritage. On the other hand, internal transformations at Heritageand a willingness to shred its reputation as a bastion of Reaganite, and even democratic, credentialsled the think tank’s leadership directly into Orbán’s lap, allowing it to become little more than a mouthpiece for a strongman and a leading proponent for Orbán-style rule in the U.S. 

For their part, the Heritage Foundation tells The New Republic that the recent tête-à-tête with Orban is consistent with the organization’s mission. “Heritage independently promotes conservative policies and is not beholden to any public official, candidate, or political party,” a spokesperson said, “While Heritage supports many of the conservative, pro-family, anti-globalist policies of our NATO ally, Heritage President Kevin Roberts has publicly criticized Hungary for its relationships with China and Iran. Heritage has never promoted the interests any political figure or government, which includes Victor Orbán and the Hungarian government.”

Still, for Orbán, seeking stateside alliances with likeminded ideological allies has been an important mission. During the Trump era, Orbán’s government ran one of the most prominent lobbying campaigns in the U.S., almost all of which focused on forging stronger links between Washington and Budapest. This was to some degree understandable: With Trump ensconced in the White House, Hungary became America’s preferred partner in Europenot least for the authoritarian model Orbán set for Trump. (As Trump said of Orbán last week, “There’s nobody that’s better, smarter, or a better leader than Viktor Orbán. He’s fantastic.… He’s a great leader.”) According to the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, database, Budapest inked deals with eight separate American law or communications firms during Trump’s presidencyan unprecedented burst of activity.

Not that all of these lobbying efforts were traditional, or even successful. In one contract, Budapest signed a firm called Strategic Improvisation, Inc. As part of the arrangement, the firm’s president, a Twitter reactionary named David Reaboi, began pumping pro-Orbán content on social media. While Reaboi made tens of thousands of dollars from working as a foreign agent, it’s unclear what, if any, impact his tweets actually had. (Reaboi did, however, produce arguably the most unintentionally hilarious filing FARA has ever seen, revealing that a tweet in which he said he supported Hungary and was “not in this for the money” was, in fact, paid for by Budapest.)

But with Biden’s election, Hungary’s lobbying efforts collapsed. Some of the contracts ended after only a few months, while others—including the deal with Reaboi’s firm—were canceled the day before Biden entered the White House. As of this week, Hungary is one of the few nations without a single active firm represented in the FARA database. (A spokesperson for the Heritage Foundation tells The New Republic that they conduct “zero lobbying activity,” and “has not conducted any activities at the request, direction, control of, or that are financed by, a foreign individual, entity, or government.” Indeed, one of the unique things about the relationship between Budapest and Heritage is that they fall outside the purview of the FARA.)

But that doesn’t mean Hungarian influence has waned. If anything, it’s simply shiftedusing loopholes and workarounds to dodge disclosure requirements, while nonetheless wooing conservative Americans and staking its ties in Washington almost wholly on a Trump victory this November.

Enter the Heritage Foundation. While Heritage grew to prominence in the 1980s as a font of Reaganite policy, in recent years the organization has undergone a monumental shift in terms of both policy and priorities. Rather than persist in its stolid dedication to conservative values, Heritage has swung in a far more reactionaryand far more authoritariandirection in recent years. Across the policy landscape, Heritage has become little more than an intellectual breeding ground for Trumpist ideas.

While much attention has understandably focused on Heritage’s so-called “Project 2025,” which provides a roadmap for Trump to seize as much power as he can, such a shift has extended to foreign policy. This has been seen most especially in Heritage leading the effort to gut funding for Ukraine. But it’s also evident in the way Heritage has endeavored to anchor its relations with Orbán, making Budapest once more America’s preferred partner in Europeregardless of the cost. 

Much of that shift is downstream from Heritage’s leadership, overseen by Kevin Roberts. Appointed as Heritage’s president in 2021, Roberts immediately began remaking Heritage’s priorities with a distinctly pro-Orbán bentand began opening up Heritage as a vehicle for Hungarian influence in the U.S.

Part of that involved things like last week’s confab, one of many meetings between Roberts and Orbán. (After one 2022 sit-down, Robertswho, among other things, has said he doesn’t think Joe Biden won the 2020 electionposted that it was an “honor” to meet with Orbán, praising his “movement that fights for Truth, for tradition, for families.”) But the relationship is structural as well: Heritage finalized what they refer to as a ‘landmark’ cooperation agreement with the Danube Institute, a Hungarian think tank that appears to exist only to praise Orbán’s government.*

The Budapest-based Danube Institute is largely unknown in the U.S., but it has transformed in recent years into one of the premier mouthpieces for propagating Orbánist policies. While it is technically independent, it is, as Jacob Heilbrunn notes in his new book on the American right’s infatuation with dictators, located “next to the prime minister’s building and funded by Orbán’s Fidesz party.” Indeed, the Hungarian think tank is overseen by a foundation directly bankrolled by the Hungarian statemeaning that the Danube Institute is, for all intents and purposes, a state-funded front for pushing pro-Orbán rhetoric. 

A spokesperson for the Heritage Foundation told The New Republic that their arrangements with the Danube Institute is “restricted to carrying out educational research and analysis, as well as related events—none of which involved any financial commitment from either party” and that “at no point did Heritage receive funds from or pass funds to the Danube Institute, the Hungarian government, or the prime minister’s office.”

The Danube Institute claims it is dedicated to “advocat[ing] conservative and national values and thinking,” which almost always ends up with the institute praising Orbán’s pronouncements. It has become, according to Hungarian journalists at Atlatszo, “one of the main tools of the Orbán government’s ideological expansion abroad”—and one of the “main vehicles” to “building a political network in the United States.”

Such focus makes sense in terms of the Danube Institute’s personnel. For instance, the institute identifies arch-reactionary Rod Dreher as the “director of [its] Network Project.” The Southern Poverty Law Center obtained Dreher’s contract, which described him as an “agent” who would connect with a “circle of Christian-conservative contacts” on the institute’s behalf, while also writing publicly in praise of the Danube Institute’s “achievement[s].” Along the way, the Danube Institute began doling out significant grants to a range of other American conservatives, such as provocateur Christopher Rufo, who received tens of thousands of dollars, as well as a number of writers published in The American Conservative. 

Most important, however, is the man currently running the Danube Institute: John O’Sullivan, a British conservative who once served as the director of studies at—you guessed itthe Heritage Foundation. “With his extensive connections in the conservative universe, [O’Sullivan] became Orbán’s conduit to the American Right,” Heilbrunn noted.

Unsurprisingly, the key to O’Sullivan’s and the Danube Institute’s outreach to American conservatives has been the Heritage Foundation. A post in early 2023 from the Hungarian Conservative noted that the Danube Institute and the Heritage Foundation had “signed a landmark cooperation agreement, deepening Hungary’s transatlantic relations.” While the formal cooperation agreement hasn’t yet been published, the summary noted that “each year four researchers from the Heritage Foundation will visit Budapest and work with the Danube Institute as visiting researchers” and that Heritage “will also organize more joint events” with the Danube Institute in the future.

The two have already begun operating closely, co-hosting the Danube Geopolitical Summit last September. Featuring both Heritage and Danube Institute leadership, as well as a number of Hungarian officials, the conference centered on many of the aforementioned themes Orbán routinely highlights, railing against so-called “wokeness” in Western democracies. At the conference, James Carafano, Roberts’s key adviser at Heritage, “stressed the importance of building transatlantic connectivity,” saying he was “so proud to be associated with the Danube Institute.”

While the arrangements with Americans like Dreher appear to contravene America’s foreign lobbying laws, the relationship between Heritage and the Danube Institute unfortunately appears to fall outside of the purview of things like FARA. All of which means that we have no idea how much funding may be flowing directly from Orbán’s regime to the Heritage Foundationand what this “landmark cooperation agreement” between Heritage and the Danube Institute actually entails.

But we’ve already seen what the arrangement looks like in practice. While the entire relationship between Heritage and the Danube Instituteand between Budapest and American conservatives writ largecan seem like an overwrought, overly complicated series of agreements and associations, zooming out, the links become clear.

In Hungary, a state-funded organization that serves as little more than a propaganda arm for Orbánist policiesand which has already directly funded a number of American conservative writershas formally partnered with an American think tank that’s collapsed into little more than a bastion of Trumpism. Both have thus provided platforms for one another, reinforcing each other’s efforts and reaching mutual audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. All the while, they’ve done so in a manner that hasn’t required any transparency about finances or expectations and that skirts America’s current foreign lobbying lawskeeping both Americans and Hungarians in the dark about the relationship.

It is, in many ways, unprecedented. While American think tanks have seen a range of dodgy funding streams in recent years, we’ve never seen anything like the partnership unfolding between Heritage and the Danube Institute. All of which makes Orbán’s equally unprecedented tripwhen he visited the former president, as well as a pro-Trump think tank, but not the current White House itselflast week that much less surprising. As Orbán himself said an interview with Hungarian media after his talk in Washington, when it comes to the Heritage Foundation, “Hungary has an honored place.”  

This article has been updated with responses from a Heritage Foundation spokesperson.

* This article originally mischaracterized the nature of this relationship.