Tucker Carlson is broadcasting from Hungary because its authoritarian, anti-immigrant leader has set a model for America’s far right

Tucker Carlson
The Fox News host Tucker Carlson at a summit in 2019. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Fox News’ Tucker Carlson is broadcasting from Hungary this week.
  • Carlson is promoting the worldview of Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
  • America’s far right sees Orbán as a more successful, effective version of Trump.
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Fox News’ Tucker Carlson is broadcasting from Budapest, Hungary, this week. For a lot of people, this might be perplexing. But for those who’ve closely followed the far right in recent years, it makes perfect sense.

Many American conservatives admire Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a xenophobic, anti-LGBTQ authoritarian who’s been in power for 11 years and who endorsed President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign last year. They see Orbán as a more effective version of Trump – and a model for the future of right-wing politics in the US.

Carlson is effectively in Hungary to promote Orbán’s nationalism and antidemocratic approach to governance, and authoritarianism experts are concerned – particularly over what this says about the direction of American conservatism. The Fox host’s Hungarian excursion comes as Republicans continue to whitewash the pro-Trump Capitol insurrection and vie to restrict voting in several states, and as recent Morning Consult polling suggested that more than a quarter of Americans qualified as having right-wing authoritarian political beliefs.

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“There’s nothing funny about this encounter,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University historian and expert on strongman leaders, wrote of Carlson’s visit with Orbán. “Carlson’s world aligns to an alarming degree with that of Orbán … The goal of these alliances has always been to mainstream far-right values.”

“Orbán has arguably been among the most successful sitting leaders at creating an electoral autocracy – the 21st century way of being a strongman that entails keeping a veneer of democracy going while turning elections into sham events, taking judicial and press freedoms away, and suffocating society slowly,” Ben-Ghiat said, adding, “This is where the GOP is heading, accelerating the agenda of the Trump presidency to undo our democratic freedoms and institutions.”

Carlson is boosting Orbán’s profile while ignoring his autocratic leadership

Carlson, perhaps the most prominent right-wing voice in the US, shared a tweet showing him meeting with Orbán on Monday. The Fox host is also set to speak on Saturday at a far-right conference called MCC Feszt that’s tied to Orbán.

“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 said during his show on Monday night, making no mention of Orbán’s antidemocratic tendencies.

Carlson decried the mainstream media in the US, saying its true purpose was to defend the ruling class. He did not, however, discuss the extreme degree to which Orbán had shored up control of the news media in Hungary. In July, Reporters Without Borders pointed to Orbán as one of the world’s 37 “press freedom predators.”

The Fox host on Wednesday gave a talk at a dinner with Orbán’s office, praising Hungary as a great place that the West could learn from and telling the audience, “You’re truly hated by all the right people,” according to tweets from Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative.

Dreher has also expressed admiration for Orbán and championed the Hungarian leader’s politics in his writing.

“What I see in Orbán is one of the few major politicians in the West who seems to understand the importance of Christianity, and the importance of culture, and who is willing to defend these things against a very rich and powerful international establishment,” Dreher told Vox last year.

“I find myself saying of Orbán what I hear conservatives say when they explain why they instinctively love Trump: because he fights,” Dreher added. “The thing about Orbán is that unlike Trump, he fights, and he wins, and his victories are substantive.”

Carlson and Orbán have promoted a white-nationalist worldview

Carlson and Orbán, who faces elections in 2022, have been looking to each other as allies for some time.

Anna Massoglia, an investigative researcher at OpenSecrets, reported that Hungary in 2019 paid $US265,000 ($AU361,047) to a lobbying firm in Washington, DC, and that the payment was partially designed to help coordinate an interview on Carlson’s show.

Around that time, Carlson on his show praised Orbán’s ethnonationalist, anti-immigration policies while decrying the “neoliberals who run” the European Union. “Instead of helping the native population to have more children, the Hungarian government, they say, should import a replacement population from the Third World,” Carlson said in July 2019.

“But Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has a different idea,” Carlson added. “Instead of abandoning Hungary’s young people … Orbán has decided to affirmatively help Hungarian families grow.”

Carlson has espoused a white-supremacist “replacement” conspiracy theory on his show, accusing Democrats of “importing” immigrants to “dilute” US voters. Orbán, who has presented himself as a defender of Christianity and built a wall to keep out refugees, has made nearly identical talking points.

“We do not want to be diverse,” Orbán said in a 2018 speech, adding, “We do not want our own color, traditions, and national culture to be mixed with those of others.”

Following in Orbán’s footsteps would spell trouble for American democracy

Victor Orban sitting to Donald Trump's right and looking at him.
Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Orbán, who was once described by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign CEO and chief strategist, as “Trump before Trump,” has eroded democratic institutions and tightened his grip over the central European country’s political system over the past decade or so.

The Hungarian leader, a champion of what he calls “illiberal democracy,” has packed the nation’s courts and media with allies. Orbán has also gamed the electoral system – via gerrymandering and other dubious tactics – to favor his Fidesz party.

“At this point, Hungary is a full-on dictatorship. No if, ands, or buts,” Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College and author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe,” told Insider last year as Hungary’s Parliament granted Orbán broad emergency powers to combat the coronavirus, giving him the ability to rule by decree.

Last year, the watchdog Freedom House said in its annual “Nations in Transit” report that Hungary no longer qualified as a democracy, citing “a stunning democratic breakdown” in the country. In its 2021 report, it continued to criticize Hungary’s “unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade.” Similarly, the Economist Intelligence Unit classified the US as a “flawed democracy” in its latest “Democracy Index” report, falling from its status as a “full democracy” in 2016.

If the far right gains more control over the levers of power in the US, pushing the political system closer to Orbán’s Hungary, it could have irrevocable consequences for American democracy.