The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hungary turned to authoritarian nationalism. So Tucker Carlson went to Hungary.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A previous version of this article incorrectly described Viktor Orban as president of Hungary. He is the prime minister. The article has been corrected.

Those who don’t regularly pay attention to Tucker Carlson’s program on Fox News may not recognize the consistent thread running through his rhetoric. When he emerges into public awareness, it’s often for one of his surreal forays into conspiracy-mongering (like accusing the National Security Agency and UPS of being out to get him) or for spreading misinformation about the efficacy of coronavirus vaccines. But these are simply tactics meant to drag his audience into his universe, where he can stoke their frustrations about his true passion: the purported threat posed by immigrants polluting the United States.

On this issue, too, his rhetoric occasionally breaks into the mainstream, as when he described immigrants as making the country “dirtier.” His embrace of white replacement theory, rhetoric suggesting that immigrants are diluting the true nature of the United States, similarly rose to the surface of public attention. But this line of thinking isn’t an exception that spurs outrage. It is, instead, central to Carlson’s worldview.

Carlson and other polished conservatives, such as Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance, argue forcefully for the primacy of American families. They espouse a largely unobjectionable position — that the government should make it easier to have children — but frame it in contrast with the less-ideal or problematic form of population growth that accompanies increased immigration. Vance, a politician, massages this idea a lot. Carlson, a firebrand, does not. To hear Carlson tell it, the country is imperiled by immigration at an existential level, at risk of seeing its essence diluted, and increased procreation by Americans is less a good in and of itself than as a bulwark against change.

He frames this — in the same way that many white nationalists do — as a broad battle between Western civilization and outsider hordes encouraged by a cabal of elites who are eager to see traditional values collapse. Those who engage in the defense of the West are presented by Carlson as heroes of the cause.

In February 2018, for example, he praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for defying the European Union on the issue of immigration.

“At least one politician in Europe is fearlessly raising an alarm about the kind of society European elites want to create, one that is rejected unanimously almost by European citizens,” Carlson said. “In a speech yesterday kicking off his party’s bid for reelection, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned that politicians in Brussels, Berlin and Paris are going to destroy Western civilization with their enthusiasm for mass migration left unchecked.”

“He said Europe could end up with a Muslim majority while the continent’s Christian culture would be blotted out,” Carlson continued. “ … Naturally, though, [E.U.] leaders denounced Orban as authoritarian — hilarious, considering the source. Their motto effectively is: Do as we tell you or you hate democracy. How’s that for Orwellian?”

Actually, the reason that E.U. leaders have criticized Orban as authoritarian is that he has embarked on an unabashed and explicit effort to shift Hungary away from the traditions of liberal democracy, in which power is assigned through free and fair elections. Orban is criticized as authoritarian because he has embraced autocracy.

In August 2019, the Economist explored how Orban’s Fidesz party has centralized power at the expense of democratic systems. That has included aligning the three branches of power in the country — executive, legislative and judicial — under Fidesz’s control.

“Through this systematic entanglement of powers Mr. Orban and his associates have turned Hungary into something akin to a one-party state,” the magazine wrote. “They have done so with no violence at all and broad public support. The achievement is bad for Hungarian liberty and its long-term prospects — and an object lesson in what is possible for autocrats and would-be autocrats elsewhere.”

The Varieties of Democracy Project at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden has measured the evolution of national political parties for several decades, looking at the extent to which they embrace illiberal positions or deploy populist rhetoric like targeting “elites” as opponents. Particularly over the past 20 years, Fidesz has quickly become more illiberal and populist.

Orban’s political strength in recent years has depended heavily on the opposition to immigration that Carlson hailed. When unrest in the Middle East spurred large numbers of refugees and other migrants to head toward Europe, Orban used the moment to tighten his grip on his country. In 2015, he began a campaign emphasizing the need to maintain national sanctity.

“Posters throughout Hungary read, ‘If you come to Hungary, you must respect Hungarian culture!’ All the posters were in Hungarian,” the New Yorker reported in January 2019. “That summer, Orban’s government began to construct a fence along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia, essentially halting immigration to the country.”

An anti-corruption activist in the country who spoke with Ben Rhodes for the Atlantic framed this as being more about power consolidation than concern about immigration.

“Orban has skillfully and relentlessly deployed a right-wing populism focused on the failings of liberal democracy and the allure of an older national story: Christian identity, national sovereignty, distrust of international institutions, opposition to immigration, and contempt for politically correct liberal elites,” Rhodes wrote. “Smash the status quo. Make the masses feel powerful by responding to their grievances.”

“Sandor Lederer, a Hungarian anti-corruption activist who runs an NGO called K-Monitor,” his report continued, “summed up this simple us-versus-them frame: ‘We’ve got to protect Hungarians against this dot or that dot, and you can fill out this project with new topics’ — globalist multinational corporations, Muslims, migrants, European Union bureaucrats, the liberal media, and George Soros.”

George Soros, of course, is the Hungarian-born billionaire whose advocacy for open government has been targeted — often with anti-Semitic undertones — as an exemplar of global power. In his 2018 report praising Orban, Carlson included b-roll shots of posters written in Hungarian, incomprehensible to those who didn’t speak the language — with the exception of the stop-sign-shaped warning at the bottom: “Stop Soros!”

In that Economist report, Orban’s authoritarian shift is documented in great — and increasingly familiar — detail.

Consolidating power in the courts, enabling expanded legislative shifts. Creating a body empowered to resolve “election disputes” — though the need for such a fail-safe is reduced by the heavy gerrymandering that Fidesz did after the 2010 elections. Relying on loyal propaganda outlets to control messaging. Undermining the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Orban, the article reports, describes his consolidated single-branch government as “the ‘system of national co-operation’. He used to speak more openly of an ‘illiberal democracy.’ ”

That aspect of Orbanism doesn’t faze Carlson, not that this is a surprise. Carlson’s framing of Orban is uniformly positive and almost entirely centered on his pro-native-Hungarian policies. He even readily echoes Orban’s framing.

“Instead of helping the native population to have more children, the Hungarian government, [E.U. leaders] say, should import a replacement population from the Third World. That’s the George Soros solution,” Carlson said on his show in 2019. “But Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has a different idea. Instead of abandoning Hungary’s young people to the hard-edged libertarianism of Soros and the Clinton Foundation, Orban has decided to affirmatively help Hungarian families grow.”

All of this is important because of the role that Carlson plays in the right-wing media discourse. He has emerged as the loudest voice on the right since Donald Trump left office, thanks to his popular television show and the amplification of his network.

This week, Carlson is broadcasting from Hungary. In his broadcast on Monday, he praised the increasingly illiberal country for its success on the metrics Carlson cares about.

“If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions,” he teased, “you should know what is happening here right now.”

Later in the program, Carlson showed viewers the bullet holes pockmarking Hungary’s Supreme Court building.

“They are a reminder of how many times this country has been dominated by foreign powers,” he said. “A kind of living testament to the violence that has unfolded here and again to the foreign domination of this country, and it really affects the way Hungarians feel about themselves and their government.”

He has teased an interview with Orban set to air at some point this week. On Saturday, Carlson will speak at a far-right conference in the country.

The subtext of the Economist article was obviously that Orban was presenting a path for other authoritarians and that Trump, who was the president at the time, might follow along similarly. After all, the Republican Party has followed Fidesz’s path, according to the Varieties of Democracy Project — with data for the party’s anti-election surge in 2020 not yet included.

But it is Carlson, more than Trump, who is steadfastly focused on amplifying the same narrative that Orban used to pull Hungary away from the democratic tradition. While it’s not clear whether Orban sees the issue of immigration solely as a way to hold power, there’s little question that Carlson sincerely believes his rhetoric about the risk posed to traditional America, and there’s little question that many on the right — especially the far right — share that concern. That belief leads Carlson to champion a political leader who used the same issue as a political mechanism to reshape his country in a more authoritarian bent.

Millions of Fox News viewers this week are likely to be presented with a vision of Hungary that not only deprioritizes its political shift but champions Orban’s ostensible focus on preserving national character. Orbanism will almost certainly be cast not as a danger to American traditions but the salvation of it. Orban is almost certainly about to get a week-long infomercial on the United States’ most-watched cable network for nationalist authoritarianism, just as he wanted.