In 1919, the progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the nascent Soviet Union and declared, “I have seen the future and it works.” Tucker Carlson’s weeklong visit to Budapest, where he is using his Fox News show as an infomercial for Viktor Orban’s illiberal regime, is being conducted in much the same spirit. “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 gushed to his viewers.
Of course, “democracy” is not a category description any small-d democrat would apply to Hungary, a state that has “dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions” under Orban, according to Freedom House, which no longer categorizes it as a democracy at all.
These are not mere details, and Carlson is not overlooking them. He is laying down a marker in the highest profile way he can that Orban’s iron fist is the future the Republican Party should want. The splashy imprimatur of a Fox News prime-time personality, who is probably the right’s most influential media figure, is an important milestone in the Republican Party’s long evolution into authoritarianism.
It is certainly not Hungary’s economy that has attracted a growing number of American right-wing admirers. Hungary has fallen behind its central European peers as Orban’s corruption and crude populism have spurred many of the nation’s wealthier citizens to leave. Nor is there much conservative inspiration to be mined from Orban’s pandemic management, which has been simultaneously more heavy-handed and less effective than other European governments’.
The Trump administration lavished Orban with praise. Trump has even likened the Hungarian strongman to himself, calling him a “tough man, but he is a respected man … probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe.” Trump’s ambassador in Budapest confessed frankly that his boss envies Orban’s ability to bully and suppress his critics: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”
The right’s entrancement with Orban has emerged fitfully over the last decade. One could find defenses of the Hungarian regime in places like the New York Post, the Federalist, the Heritage Foundation, and National Review. Yet, until recently, open support for Orban’s Hungary was an idiosyncratic minority position on the American right.
Orban’s regime has forged links with the conservative movement, including a lobbying campaign in Washington and a right-wing think tank in Budapest, where Carlson will deliver a speech Saturday. At this point, American conservatives who denounce Orban’s kleptocracy are now the minority.
What makes this alliance especially chilling is that Hungary is the model of democratic backsliding that has loomed largest in their imaginations of internationalist thinkers. Orban’s corruption of a former democracy occurred step by step. He gerrymandered the electoral map to give his supporters an overwhelming advantage, stacked the judiciary with supporters, leveraged state power to force large businesses to support his party, and installed supporters in charge of the country’s largest media organs. (Think about Trump’s efforts to bully Jeff Bezos into putting a leash on the Washington Post by denying Amazon a lucrative Pentagon contract, and you have a picture of the methods Orban has used, with more success.)
Hungary’s democratic backsliding was slow and gradual, without a single dramatic moment when its character flipped from democracy to dictatorship. Even now, it retains the surface trappings of a democracy without the liberal characteristics that make those processes meaningful. If America ceases to be a democracy, it will likely follow a path similar to Orban’s.
The broad lesson of Trump’s presidency is that clumsy, violent efforts to seize power — such as the January 6 insurrection — will meet with intra-party resistance, but subtler power grabs will not. Republicans decided to shrug at abuses like Trump using American diplomacy as a lever to coerce Ukraine to smear his opponent, refusing to accept the election outcome, or using the presidency to line his own pockets. They have enthusiastically joined in state laws to restrict voting and hand power over elections to party hacks.
What they seem to want is a leader who shares Trump’s contempt for democracy, but possesses a subtler touch. That is the vision Orban offers.
The difference between the left-wing American enthusiasts for Soviet communism a century ago and the conservative enthusiasts for Orbanism today is that at least the former were blinded by devotion to an ideal. They believed and hoped the Soviets were building a workers paradise and allowed this dream to blind them to the terror state that actually existed. Carlson is not ignoring Orban’s iron hand. For him, the repression is the very allure.