The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. conservatives yearn for Orban’s Hungary

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It’s one of the least surprising convergences on the planet. Fox News host Tucker Carlson — arguably the most influential voice on the American right, absent a certain former president — is in Hungary. Every episode of his prime-time show this week will be televised from Budapest. Carlson is also expected to address a conference in the Hungarian capital that’s linked to the political movement of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who shared images Monday on social media of his meeting the 52-year-old American broadcaster.

Carlson, as my colleague Michael Kranish charted in a probing profile last month, has become the “voice of White grievance” in the United States, the most well-known proponent of a brand of far-right, nativist politics popularized by former president Donald Trump and now pushed further by a coterie of pundits and politicians who are steadily taking hold of the Republican Party. In a departure from the Reaganism of the past, they are virulently anti-immigrant and skeptical of free trade and corporate power (except, of course, when it suits their political interests). They embrace an often religious and implicitly racist brand of nationalism, while waging a relentless culture war against the perceived threats of multiculturalism, feminism, LGBT rights and liberalism writ large.

In Orban, Carlson and his ilk have in recent years found both a kindred spirit and a pioneering champion. The illiberal Hungarian prime minister’s dominance at home — his current spell in office could extend to the better part of two decades if his ruling Fidesz party wins elections next year — is matched by his capacity to antagonize liberals abroad, especially the political elites at the helm of the European Union. Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon once hailed Orban as “Trump before Trump,” a nod to the Hungarian leader’s ultranationalist bona fides.

On his show, Carlson has frequently celebrated Orban for defending his countrymen from the supposed dangers of Muslim migrants and Brussels technocrats. “Hungary’s leaders actually care about making sure their own people thrive,” Carlson said in 2019, referring to Orban’s efforts to incentivize Hungarian families to have more children. “Instead of promising the nation’s wealth to every illegal immigrant from the Third World, they’re using tax dollars to uplift their own people.”

Carlson, of course, has said next to nothing about the autocratic character of Orban’s rule, which critics on both sides of the Atlantic cast as a cautionary tale of how democracies backslide. To a certain extent, that should be expected. After all, Orbanism represents the fever dream of the American right: The Hungarian prime minister rules a government steadily captured through gerrymandering and a stacked judiciary. The overwhelming majority of media outlets are now loyal to him, while he presides over a network of patronage — and alleged graft — that ties in many of the country’s titans of industry.

All the while, he and his allies peddle a traditionalist, ethnic nationalism and constantly sound the alarm over the rather illusory menace posed by immigrants, minorities and refugees — or “invaders,” as Orban described them — to Hungary’s way of life. Like a number of Republican state governments in the United States, Orban has sought to make Hungarian education more “patriotic.” In his attacks on various civil society institutions, Orban has been accused of invoking antisemitic tropes. The Hungarian parliament recently passed anti-LGBT legislation that prompted furious backlash elsewhere on the continent, with some European leaders calling for Hungary’s departure from the E.U. And under Orban’s watch, Hungary appears to have deployed military-grade spyware to tap the phones of independent journalists and dissidents, a slap in the face of the E.U.’s strict digital privacy protections. (Orban’s office responded to the allegations with a broad statement asserting its continued governance by “rule of law.”)

“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,” noted my colleague Philip Bump. “Orbanism will almost certainly be cast not as a danger to American traditions but the salvation of it.”

The Fox News host is hardly the only right-wing American pointing to Orban’s example. In a recent speech, J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist campaigning on a folksy, nationalist platform in the Republican Senate primary in Ohio, derided the “childless left” in the United States as agents of “civilizational collapse.” He then pushed for Orban’s agenda: In Hungary, “they offer loans to newly married couples that are forgiven at some point later if those couples have actually stayed together and had kids,” Vance said. “Why can’t we do that here? Why can’t we actually promote family formation?” (Of course, tens of millions of American households already benefit from child tax credits.)

The influential conservative commentator Rod Dreher relocated to Budapest earlier this year on a fellowship after touting Hungary as a kind of safe space to host right-wing Americans desperate to escape the “hegemonic” liberalism taking root in their homeland. In his defense of Orban, Dreher espoused the merits of Hungary’s “soft authoritarianism” over the “soft totalitarianism” of the E.U. project.

It’s a peculiar statement of our times that Hungary — a small nation whose modest economy gets buoyed by E.U. handouts and whose government goes in search of Chinese loans — has become such a lodestar for the right-wing movement in the world’s most powerful country. But that is where we are. In its index tracking the political direction of democratic parties around the world, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute found that the Republican Party had slid toward the illiberalism of ruling parties in Turkey and Hungary, both home to right-wing, majoritarian governments that have eroded democratic norms to maintain power.

Such a context, of course, no longer seems that alien to the United States, where Trump and myriad Republican lawmakers propagate falsehoods about their defeat in the last presidential election and attempt to whitewash or excuse the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

In Hungary, opposition parties of all stripes are working to form a united front against Fidesz next year to take down Orban. Their unusual — some would say desperate — bid has been billed in some corners as the “last chance” to save the country’s democracy and, potentially, its future within the European Union. We know which side Carlson will be cheering.

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