In light of all this, a little authoritarian country-shopping makes perfect sense. But the options for a new emotional homeland are limited. Some of the most effective and conservative autocrats — Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — are, well, you know, Muslim. Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in Britain didn’t pan out as hoped. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is a little too effective and was once in the Soviet Army anyway.
This leaves Hungary, which has backslid from democracy just the right amount for Orban’s opponents to feel the heat. He proudly calls his nation an “illiberal democracy.” Freedom House says the country is “sliding into authoritarian rule.” Orban’s party has changed election regulations to impose a number of obstacles and restrictions on its opposition. “These include,” reports Freedom House, “unequal access to media, smear campaigns, politicized audits and a campaign environment skewed by the ruling coalition’s mobilization of state resources.”
To others, this might seem like disturbing democratic digression. For Republican state legislators, this is a policy agenda.
Orban “thinks families are more important than banks,” Carlson effused on Fox News. “He believes countries need borders. For saying these things out loud, Orban has been vilified.” It is useful, in a certain way, to hear aloud what many American populists feel too inhibited to say. Here is Orban in 2018: “We must defend Hungary as it is now. We must state that we do not want to be diverse. … We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others.”
These sentiments about ethnic and cultural purity are not really new in Central Europe. But it must be thrilling for right-wing populists to hear them expressed in real time.
The explanations of such attitudes by conservative writers are nearly as bad as the attitudes themselves. Many Americans, we are told, already feel worse discrimination from liberal and corporate elites than opposition figures do in Hungary. Conservatives must watch every word they say and write for fear of being canceled and harassed. Especially on issues of race, sexuality and gender, they are becoming dissidents in an increasingly repressive, progressive culture.
I don’t dismiss these concerns. I support discourse over indoctrination. Those who actually trust in the power of truth do not need, and should not seek, the power to coerce assent. Not in a college class. Not in a newsroom. Not in an office setting. There are exceptions, of course, to restrict things such as harassment, cruelty and humiliation. But the American default position is free speech.
It is the resulting logic that confuses me. Conservatives are concerned about aggressive corporate political correctness, so they should support … Viktor Orban? Conservatives are frustrated about the unfair enforcement of changing cultural norms, so … let’s daydream about authoritarianism? Those who excuse this sort of thinking are not explaining the right; they are helping unmoor conservatism from liberal democracy.
The normal intellectual movement of the American right, when faced with ideological challenges, has been to repair to the American founding for wisdom about civil liberties, checks and balances, and republican virtue. It has not been to throw American principles overboard in speeding toward reactionary goals. That is one lesson that won’t be learned in Orban’s paradise.
All but the most committed political pilgrims will eventually fly home to the United States from Hungary. And what a disappointing return that will be — to a diverse, colorful country of gloriously varied traditions. But at least MAGA World now has an easily summarized foreign policy: Disdain America first.