BUDAPEST — A group of white supremacists descended upon Budapest this weekend for a "congress" they hoped would become the first step toward a "European ethnostate" devoid of the racially impure. But after they fell afoul of Hungary's backslide into authoritarianism, the vanguard of millennial "identiarianists" found itself driven underground, reduced to skulking in a dingy train station underpass between a currency exchange and a stand selling pizza slices, and shying away from police.
They were there for a conference organized by the National Policy Institute (NPI), a fringe white nationalist think tank run out of its leader's home in Whitefish, Montana. The NPI doesn't really advocate for policy nor is it really an institute, but it shot to an outsize role at the center of Hungarian political life last week after the country's strongman prime minister, Viktor Orbán, banned its inaugural pan-European conference, barred its speakers from entering the country, and threatened to arrest those who came from within the EU. The conference venue and hotel backed out at the last minute, citing government pressure. Only two of the originally scheduled speakers appeared before the 76 attendees who were reduced to gathering in the back room of a restaurant.
"We thought we would have no problem. We thought the government wouldn't care," NPI President Richard Spencer told BuzzFeed News. "But we have the high moral ground."
The night before the conference, several dozen police officers raided a bar where the NPI had organized an informal meet and greet. They kept the attendees there until 1 a.m. and escorted every person who could not provide identification to their hotels. Spencer tried to get the conference attendees to leave the bar en masse. That's when police decided to arrest him.
"This is all meant to distract us from what we've really come to talk about — biopolitics," a British man who gave his pseudonym, Bain DeWitt, told BuzzFeed News.
On paper, Budapest seemed the ideal venue for the NPI, which thinks rising discontent with EU migration policy has created an opening for it. Economic stagnation and political sclerosis in the European Union have given fodder to anti-immigrant parties across the continent and Hungary is home to Jobbik, one of Europe's largest, which won 20% of seats in parliamentary elections in April.
The party initially delegated its leader, Gábor Vona, to speak at the conference; when campaign commitments ahead of local elections set for Sunday forced him to pull out, he was replaced by Márton Gyöngyösi, who once suggested drawing up "lists of Jews" supposedly threatening Hungary's national security.
"I believe the former members of the Warsaw Pact can hold the line, but it is a race against time," Jared Taylor, an American advocate of "racial realism" who took over organizational duties after Spencer's arrest, told the conference. "Will they establish themselves as culturally and racially confident nations before they are poisoned by the sicker but wealthier West? Or perhaps the healthier Central European nations will support Western identitarians and save all of Europe. I believe these are the questions on which the future of Europe will turn."
The organizers, however, had not banked on falling foul of Orbán, who vowed to create an "illiberal new state based on national foundations" in a speech in July. Since winning a new majority, Orbán has led an unprecedented crackdown on independent media and NGOs and deepened ties with Vladimir Putin's Russia, which he cited as a model for Hungary's future development.
Western leaders including President Obama have been increasingly vocal in their criticism of Hungary's dark turn. "He just said he likes authoritarian capitalism but he's just saying, 'I don't want to ever leave power,'" former U.S. President Bill Clinton said on the Daily Show last month. In remarks on Thursday that were clearly aimed at Orbán, Victoria Nuland, the influential State Department official responsible for Europe, said that the region was threatened by "the twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption."
Ahead of the elections on Sunday, however, the NPI conference gave Orbán the opportunity to distance himself from Jobbik as it attempts to chip away at his center-right base. After Interior Minister Sándor Pintér said the conference was illegal, Gyöngyösi dropped out and issued a statement condemning it. "They really threw us under the bus," Taylor told BuzzFeed News.
The ban also helped draw a line between Orbán and Russia in the face of Alexander Dugin, a philosopher who says he advises Putin but recently fell out of favor after calling for the ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians. Russia's sharp conservative turn and attack on Western liberal hegemony during the Ukraine crisis have led many fringe right-wing figures to embrace Putin. Spencer is planning to publish a book by Dugin this fall on Martin Heiddeger, the German philosopher who was a member of the Nazi Party throughout its time in power.
Hungary denied Dugin a visa and told him that he would be arrested if he tried to enter the country, Spencer said. Dugin declined, through Spencer, to talk to BuzzFeed News and did not respond to repeated calls and text messages.
Dugin posted the speech he intended to give at the conference online.
Despite the fate of Spencer, who said he was held without charge and deprived of sleep until 3 p.m. the next day before being deported and banned from entering the countries in the EU's visa-free travel zone for three years, the organizers pressed ahead with the conference behind closed doors in a restaurant. Rumors about its location swirled around Budapest. BuzzFeed News received a tip from a source via Hushmail claiming to have discovered plans to hold it in a public park, and nearly mistook an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for it.
About 40 protesters split into groups and rallied against it at several possible venues. "We must protect society against this," Roberto Contreras, a journalist protesting outside Budapest's anti-communist museum, told BuzzFeed News on Sunday, oblivious to the fact that several conference attendees had just walked inside.
By the standards of white supremacist gatherings, the group was surprisingly diverse. Attendees came from the U.S., Canada, and countries across Europe. "We're rootless cosmopolitans," Spencer joked, repurposing an anti-Semitic slur.
Most of them asked not to have their names published for fear of retaliation from the Hungarian government and their employers. "I've been reading their stuff online, and these are the only guys who really get it. There's never been something like this where we all have a chance to meet each other," a man in his thirties who works for a major news agency told BuzzFeed News.
Some were from even further afield. "Richard! I'm Pedro Llobo from Mexico," a man said as he went to shake Spencer's hand. "I flew 1,000 miles just to come to your conference!" ("There are white people in Mexico," Spencer said by way of explaining his attendance.)
One of the people who paid $150 to attend the conference was a Japanese man researching a Ph.D. dissertation about European nationalism. Taylor, a child of missionaries who lived in Japan until he was 16, noticed the man sitting quietly in a corner listening to the discussions and approached him in fluent Japanese. The man did not seem to even register that Taylor was speaking Japanese and replied as if this was completely normal.
"He was from the Japanese countryside," said Taylor, who prides himself on his Confederate war veteran ancestry, says things like "Great Scott!" with complete sincerity, and speaks with the rolling lilt of a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia, where he lives. "This was all new to him."