The European Union’s decision to open its collective borders to American tourists has allowed Americans of means to begin thinking about summer holidays in Europe once more. While some may dream of the south of France or Italy’s Cinque Terre, for his summer sojourn Fox News host Tucker Carlson chose the Hungarian capital, Budapest. With camera crew in tow, his is really more of a working trip. All week, Carlson is broadcasting his prime-time show from the heart of European illiberalism, snagging an interview with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a plum speaking engagement at a conservative conference backed by an organization funded by Orbán’s government. The subject would seem to be one of Carlson’s favorites: himself.
In a country where what is left of the free and independent press is a shrunken, struggling residuum, Carlson was given the kind of access of which Hungarian journalists can only dream. The Orbán regime has previously courted Carlson, according to OpenSecrets investigative researcher Anna Massoglia. In 2019, the Hungarian government paid the D.C.-based firm Policy Impact Strategic Communications Inc. $265,000 for work done on its behalf, which among other things included facilitating an interview with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on Carlson’s show.
Two years later, Carlson is in Budapest, and on Wednesday evening, the conservative commentator and unwavering reactionary Rod Dreher—who is also in Budapest, so it happens—captured him in full flow at a dinner at the Prime Minister’s Office. The lesson of Hungary, Dreher paraphrased Carlson as saying in a series of tweets, is that people “genuinely love their country and traditions, and are willing to fight for them.” The other good thing about this landlocked illiberal democracy, Carlson told his audience, is “that you’re truly hated by all the right people.” Carlson concluded: “Congratulations on infuriating the worst people in the world. Prepare to receive their wrath.”
Were it not for the failed autocoup of Jan. 6—or indeed any number of events over the past four or five years—Carlson’s arrival in Budapest and chumminess with the Orbán regime would be considered a “mask off” moment for American conservatism. That Hungarians love their country and traditions is a banal observation that could apply to just about any nation. Were he interested in a people protective of their language, literature, or culinary heritage, Carlson could have whiled away his summer in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean in France, Italy, or Spain. His fascination with Hungary, then, is likely indicative of something much darker.
“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—you should know what is happening here right now,” Carlson teased his audience at the beginning of his stay this week. Budapest, of course, does represent a front line in the struggle over democracy and civilization in Europe, though not, one has every reason to fear, for the reasons Carlson’s viewers will come to believe. Orbán, after all, has been nothing if not transparent about his political ambitions.
When the Hungarian prime minister announced in a July 2014 address to an audience in Bálványos that “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a nonliberal state,” his political project had already been in motion for four years. Following Orbán’s return to power in a landslide victory in 2010, Hungary has morphed into what the Hungarian political scientist András Körösényi has appropriately termed a Führerdemokratie, a strongman democracy, the “autocratic exercise of power within the confines of a democratic system.”
Bolstered by an electoral system that allowed him to turn, as was the case in 2018, 48.59 percent of the vote into 66.83 percent of the seats in the Hungarian parliament, Orbán has been able to use the levers of parliamentary democracy to consolidate control over the institutions of the Hungarian state. The country’s opposition complains of gerrymandered electoral districts and blurred lines between state and party campaigning. In 2011, Fidesz whisked a new constitution through parliament in nine days; its principal victim, the Austro-Hungarian journalist Paul Lendvai notes, was judicial independence.
Newspapers and other media outlets formerly critical of the government have either closed—like the left-leaning Népszabadság—or been taken over by investors close to the Orbán regime. State-run television channels “whitewash” the news in a way that favors the government. A recent study into antisemitism in Hungary commissioned by the Mazsihisz, the nation’s oldest and largest Jewish community, found that viewers of state television are more likely to believe George Soros is “mainly a power-hungry, selfish businessman who strives to promote his own interests on a global scale” than those who watch privately run channels like RTL and ATV.
The state’s successful propaganda campaign against Soros is indicative of the increasingly precarious place of minorities in Orbán’s illiberal state. Asylum-seekers have been made subject to increasingly harsh conditions since the 2015 refugee crisis. Factions of the Jewish community have been pitted against each other and Holocaust memory has been politicized. Roma continue to be subject to discrimination, exclusion, and educational segregation. Since the start of 2020, the Hungarian government has banned legal gender recognition, restricted adoption by same-sex couples, and banned the “portrayal and the promotion of gender identity different from sex at birth, the change of sex and homosexuality” to those under 18.
Orbán’s Führerdemokratie functions, the Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar has said, like a “post-communist mafia state governed by Orbán’s political-economic clan.” Hungarian and European taxpayer money has reportedly found its way into the pockets of those closest to the regime. The state has lavished funds on soccer stadiums as the country’s health care infrastructure has been left to go to seed. “But what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” the comedian Caroline Aherne once famously asked the magician’s wife, Debbie McGee, on an episode of her BBC mock talk show, The Mrs. Merton Show. To Carlson, one could ask what it was that first attracted him to the illiberal strongman Viktor Orbán.
Mercifully, there is no need to speculate. “I had dinner with Tucker last night in Budapest,” Dreher wrote in an American Conservative post published Wednesday. “We talked about why American conservatives should be interested in Hungary. We agreed that it is an example of a country where—unlike our own—conservatives have successfully fought against wokeness and other aspects of the liberal globalist agenda.” In a separate interview published in the Hungarian Conservative, Dreher—who claimed academics were freer in Orbán’s Hungary than Biden’s America—said, “If Donald Trump had had even half the intelligence and the focus of Viktor Orbán, America would be a very different place.” Maybe in the future, Dreher pontificated, “we will be able to put forward … a presidential candidate who is more like Orbán than Trump.”
With Trump out of office, Orbán—who among other things has raised subsidies for families and banned the teaching of gender studies in Hungarian universities—has become a lodestar for conservatives like Dreher and now, apparently, Carlson. “For Western conservatives of a religious and/or nationalist bent, Orbán is the leader they wish Donald Trump could be,” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has rightly observed: “smart, politically savvy, and genuinely devoted to their ideals. Hungary is, for them … proof of concept that their ideas could make the United States a better place.”
For its part, the Hungarian government has invested in sympathetic foundations and institutes in a bid to foster conservative thought and allies. The Hungarian Conservative, a bimonthly English-language journal, is published by the Batthyány Lajos Foundation, which, in 2019, received about $12 million from the state. Named as an editor at large of the Hungarian Conservative is John O’Sullivan, president of the Danube Institute, which “has received funding from the Batthyanyi Foundation, which itself gets money from the Hungarian government,” as O’Sullivan himself confessed in National Review. Orbán’s latest project is Mathias Corvinus Collegium, a private foundation granted $1.7 billion in government funds and tasked with training a future conservative elite. MCC is running the festival at which Carlson is due to speak this weekend.
The ties that bind the reactionary right in the United States with the Orbán regime in Hungary are becoming evermore apparent. They are two political tendencies with shared political goals, similar approaches to certain social and cultural questions, and a mutual disregard for liberal democracy. As soon as one year ago, one could have argued that American and Hungarian conservatism were reinforcing each other from a position of strength. Today, the picture is not so clear. In fact, Carlson’s visit to Budapest comes not a moment too soon for Orbán—whose regime, paradoxically, is both incredibly strong, increasingly vulnerable, and evermore in need of allies beyond the usual suspects in Warsaw, Ljubljana, and Moscow.
Having been divided among themselves for many years, substantially weakened by the Orbán system, the Hungarian opposition encompassing social democratic, liberal, green, and conservative nationalist parties is finally coalescing ahead of next year’s scheduled parliamentary elections. The united opposition—likely to be led by Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony—represents the first serious challenge to Orbán since 2010. The eight-party coalition housing Jewish religious nationalists and Arab Islamists that recently ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule in Israel offers something of a model for the Hungarian opposition. If not now, never.
Orbán’s plan to invest $1.8 billion in an outpost for Shanghai’s Fudan University in Budapest—shortly after having forced the venerable but, intolerably for Orbán, Soros-backed Central European University to decamp for Vienna—was met with substantial demonstrations in the Hungarian capital, placing the future of the project in doubt. His recent anti-LGBTQ laws equating homosexuality with pedophilia and banning the propagation of LGBTQ “propaganda” have met resistance at the European level, with the Dutch prime minister speculating that the time may have come for Hungary to be booted out of the European club. The EU is currently holding up delivery of funds from the bloc’s post-COVID recovery fund over concerns about how that money will be spent and the state’s observance of the rule of law.
Pro-Trump conservatives like Carlson, meanwhile, once more find themselves on the outside looking in, Trump’s political project having failed, unable to successfully manipulate the system in order to overturn last November’s election result. American conservatism is a hollowed, clapped-out venture in search of an idea, a movement completely consumed and its ideas subsumed by the all-encompassing culture war. To be “hated by all the right people,” as Carlson supposedly said of Orbán’s Hungary the other night, is not an ideology but rather a siege mentality. Pull back the curtain and there is nothing there save white rage and an unabashed admiration of those willing to channel it.
It may be the case that, for American conservatism, the root back to power runs through Budapest—or indeed, that support from American conservatives will constitute a kind of phalanx protecting the Orbán regime from its enemies domestic and foreign. Yet it may also be the case that Carlson’s trip to Budapest represents a desperate, provocative flourish prior to Trumpism’s Alpenfestung, its final redoubt at the moment of inevitable defeat. American and Hungarian conservatives are embracing one another, a clinch that will either represent the kiss of life or kiss of death for both parties involved.