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What Tucker Carlson’s trip to Hungary reveals about the state of our politics

The dangers of ethno-nationalism and being distracted by another country’s culture war

Tucker Carlson speaks Aug. 7, 2021, during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt, a political event in Esztergom, Hungary. (Janos Kummer/Getty Images)

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly misidentified Viktor Orbán as the president of Hungary. Orban is actually the Hungarian prime minister.

Last week, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson treated his viewers to a trip to Budapest, where the host hobnobbed with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and dispensed his signature commentary, laced with White nationalist pablum (a label Carlson rejects). Carlson’s visit is only the latest manifestation of the American right’s fascination with Orbán. U.S. conservatives from Stephen K. Bannon to Chuck Norris (as well as numerous right-wing lobbyists, political strategists and intellectuals) have visited, befriended or sung the praises of the Hungarian leader.

Many conservatives admire Orbán for his campaign against liberal “globalists,” his ability to bend laws and elections to his will, his war on “Gender Studies” and LGBTQ people — and above all for his resistance to immigration and refugee resettlement. For Carlson and other fomenters of anti-immigrant prejudice, Orbán’s plan to save “Western Civilization” by rejecting refugees and promoting higher birthrates among Hungarians is a nativist’s utopia. The American right’s “love affair” with Orbán reflects its own troubling creep toward authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism.

But this fascination also brings to mind an older parallel, one from the 19th century, when Americans fell in love with another Hungarian leader, Lajos Kossuth. The nationalist Kossuth led Hungary in its 1848 revolution against the Austrian Empire. When the revolution failed, Kossuth escaped to the United States, where he embarked on a speaking tour to raise funds and support for the Hungarian cause.

Hungarians today revere Kossuth as the “father of the nation,” with his name on numerous streets and squares. Orbán even compares his own “freedom fight” against what he deems George Soros-funded institutions to Kossuth’s revolution against the Habsburgs. Yet, the lessons from Americans’ brief embrace of Kossuth reveal the dangers of extending our political fights to a foreign country, as well as the toxicity of Kossuth and Orbán’s brand of ethnic nationalism.

Kossuth was an ideologically complex figure. On the one hand, he was a liberal who fought for Hungarian independence, ended noble privileges and emancipated the peasants. He was also a Protestant who sought an alliance with the Ottoman Turks.

Yet, in his struggle against Austria, Kossuth aggressively encouraged the rise of ethno-nationalism, sowing the seeds of future violence. His vision was a Hungary for Hungarians, by which he meant preserving power for Magyar speakers, who dominated the government. Hungary’s Romanian, Croat and other minorities were excluded and disenfranchised under Kossuth’s plans. Not unlike Orbán today, Kossuth and other Hungarian nationalists “pursued a pseudo-liberal policy … by illiberal methods,” in the words of historian A.J.P. Taylor. Indeed, Hungary’s Slavic minorities ended up siding with the Austrian Empire and fighting against Kossuth’s revolution in what Taylor described as a “fierce racial war.”

Most Americans knew little of this background or the ethnic politics of Eastern Europe. Yet, they still greeted Kossuth like a conquering hero, despite his defeat, when he visited the United States.

His arrival in 1851 was enthusiastically feted and breathlessly reported on. In New York, an artillery salute greeted the “Magnificent Magyar’s” arrival. As adoring fans mobbed him, a woman helped herself to a keepsake, cutting a piece from Kossuth’s cloak. His speaking tour — which included some 600 public addresses — took him from Philadelphia and Washington to Ohio and Indiana and down to New Orleans. One town in Mississippi even changed its name to Kossuth (and this was not the only Kossuth-inspired toponym).

So what attracted Americans to Kossuth?

Kossuth mania” (and interest in the Hungarian revolution) was largely a reflection of domestic political concerns in the United States — America’s own revolutionary tradition and rising global stature, and especially the tensions between proslavery and anti-slavery groups.

In a time of growing sectional division (the Compromise of 1850 and the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act), Hungary became an empty screen on which the different sides could project their competing ideas of “freedom.”

For example, abolitionists used Kossuth’s popularity to mock supporters of the Fugitive Slave Act. “How could they vote to honor one fugitive from slavery & chain and send back another[?]” the abolitionists wondered. Southern defenders of slavery, on the other hand, repurposed the Hungarian revolution as a symbol of “states’ rights.” Just as the Hungarians had resisted the tyrannical Habsburgs, so should Southern states resist abolitionist intervention. One proslavery journalist went so far as to imply that the heroic Hungarians (surrounded by disloyal Slavic minorities) were like U.S. Southerners surrounded by the potentially rebellious people they had enslaved.

Even Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” invoked the Hungarian Revolution. In one passage, the fugitive George Harris refuses to surrender to his pursuers, instead delivering a “declaration of independence”: “‘You mean to take my wife to sell in New Orleans, and put my boy like a calf in a trader’s pen…. But you haven’t got us…. We stand here as free, under God’s sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we’ll fight for our liberty till we die.’”

After Harris takes his stand, Stowe taunted the American fascination with distant Hungary, observing that if Harris “had been only a Hungarian youth, now bravely defending … the retreat of fugitives escaping from Austria into America, this would have been sublime heroism; but as it was a youth of African descent, defending the retreat of fugitives through America into Canada, of course we are too well instructed and patriotic to see any heroism in it.” True patriotism, Stowe implied, was to side with fellow Americans fighting for freedom and equality here at home.

Yet, while Americans’ lavish praise for Hungarians was sufficient to earn Stowe’s derision, most of them had, at most, a shallow devotion to the cause. In reality, few Americans in the 1850s had any desire to intervene in Eastern Europe. In a matter of months, newspapers and audiences grew weary of Kossuth and his speeches, and he and his wife left the country without money or U.S. military support. Americans’ interest in Hungary waned so quickly because they had use for the revolution mainly as a political weapon in their own fierce fights.

And this offers up a lesson for today. Stowe’s warning rings true again; focusing on the culture war in Hungary can become a distraction from those struggling for equality right in front of us. As in the 19th century, we have our own, homegrown oppressors working to disenfranchise Black Americans and scapegoat immigrants.

There is another lesson in Kossuth’s story. Like “Kossuth mania,” the present fascination for Orbán in America is likely to be brief and soon forgotten. But in our own era of resurgent ethnic nationalism — where right-wing talking heads warn Americans they will be “replaced” by immigrants (a White nationalist trope), and a president could tell American citizens of color to “go back” where they came from — the dangers of the ethnic nationalism Kossuth preached resonate anew.

Defining a nation by ethnicity and then targeting ethnic outsiders can lead to hatred, violence and horrific acts. Kossuth targeted Romanians and Serbs as the enemies of a “Magyar nation,” while Orbán targets Muslim immigrants as the enemies of “Christian civilization.” The parts of Kossuth’s vision that were most similar to Orbán’s reveal how dangerous such a pathway can be — and why those who lionize it pose a threat to American society and values.