Right-wing Christian blogger and media figure Rod Dreher has moved to Hungary, where he continues…
Right-wing Christian blogger and media figure Rod Dreher has moved to Hungary, where he continues…
Right-wing Christian blogger and media figure Rod Dreher has moved to Hungary, where he continues…
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
EU lawmakers voted on Thursday to no longer view Hungary, a European country and an EU member state, as a democracy.
The resolution, which passed by 433 in favor and 123 against with 28 abstentions, said that Hungary was instead “a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy,” the Associated Press reported.
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French member of the European Parliament, said “for the first time, an EU institution is stating the sad truth, that Hungary is no longer a democracy,” the AP reported.
Hungary and its far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have inspired many US conservatives with their crackdowns on liberal elements of society.
Two of its most prominent US fans are former President Donald Trump and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Trump called Orbán a “strong leader” in July, and said he was “respected by all.” Trump endorsed Orbán when he campaigned for re-election in early 2022, returning a gesture Orbán made in endorsing Trump in 2020.
Carlson made a high-profile trip to Budapest, Hungary, in August 2021, moving his show there to promote Orban and his government.
Carlson also then said during a dinner with Orbán’s office that Hungry was a great place that the West could learn from, telling those present “You’re truly hated by all the right people.”
The EU parliament resolution Thursday expressed “deep concern about the deliberate and systematic efforts of the Hungarian Government to undermine the founding values” of the EU.
It said this included human rights rights like freedom of expression and academic and media independence.
It also expressed concern about what it said was government efforts to make the judiciary less independent and removing “constitutional checks and balances.”
Orbán has pursued a hardline stance on immigration, and his government has increased state control over Hungary’s media, judicial system, and academic institutions.
Hungary’s prime minister delivers opening address to American conservatives at CPAC in Texas
Viktor Orbán, the autocratic leader of Hungary, has urged Christian nationalists in Europe and the US to “unite our forces” during a speech to American conservatives in Texas.
The prime minister met the former US president Donald Trump in New Jersey earlier this week and, on Thursday, delivered the opening address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas.
Zsuzsa Hegedüs said the Hungarian prime minister’s remarks on ‘race mixing’ were indefensible
A longstanding adviser to Viktor Orbán has resigned in protest at “a pure Nazi speech” the Hungarian prime minister gave that was “worthy of Goebbels”.
Zsuzsa Hegedüs, one of Orbán’s longest-serving advisers, has known the prime minister since 2002 and described her relations with him as friendly. However, in her resignation letter – published by the Hungarian news outlet hvg.hu on Tuesday – she said she had become increasingly uncomfortable with Orbán’s “illiberal turn” in recent years.
Fox Nation’s “Hungary vs. Soros” is an appalling example of the mainstream right’s embrace of views from the fringe.
The film opens with soaring music, footage of white children laughing and playing, beautiful vistas of classical European architecture. Fifteen seconds in, the music turns dark. We see images of dark-skinned youth, chaos, and blood. Then there’s a foreboding black-and-white shot of a man in profile, hunched at a desk, the curvature of his nose prominent in silhouette.
He’s the one responsible for all of this, the brown assault on white tranquility. Europe, we are told, is this predator’s “main hunting area.”
This is the beginning of Tucker Carlson’s new “documentary” for Fox Nation, the right-wing media giant’s streaming service. It is titled Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization, and it purports to tell the story of how a plucky little democracy in Central Europe has carved out a conservative model in the face of a relentless assault by the forces of global liberalism personified by George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier.
The story is a lie. Hungary is nominally a democracy but it has made a turn toward authoritarianism in the last decade; Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has painted Soros as a scapegoat whose allegedly nefarious influence justifies Orbán’s anti-democratic moves. The documentary amplifies this propaganda, treating the Jewish philanthropist as the spider at the center of a global web of conspiracy.
“It’s appalling to see Tucker Carlson & Fox invoke the kind of anti-Semitic tropes typically found in white supremacist media,” writes Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (an anti-hate group). “There’s no excuse for this kind of fearmongering, especially in light of intensifying anti-Semitism.”
Neither anti-immigrant demagoguery nor whitewashing Hungary’s descent into autocracy is new for Carlson. What’s striking about the report — part of a series dubbed “Tucker Carlson Originals” — is how it uses conspiratorial, bigoted ideas previously consigned to the far-right fringe to make the explicit case that the American government should emulate an authoritarian regime.
In recent years, anti-Semitism has become more visible on the right in both its mainstream and fringe incarnations. We saw the deadliest attack on Jews in American history in Pittsburgh; Charlottesville, Virginia, marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us”; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-GA) Jewish space lasers; and President Trump’s anti-Semitic comments of both the overt and coded varieties. Carlson’s attack on Soros is certainly not new but this latest iteration is notable all the same — yet another signpost on the American right’s path to mainstreaming what used to be unacceptably extreme.
Carlson’s short documentary is divided into two parts. The first half focuses on Hungary and the 2015 refugee crisis, arguing that Budapest alone has stood up against a Soros plot to open Europe’s borders to migrants. The second half focuses on the Orbán government’s family policies, arguing that its passage of tax incentives to encourage citizens to have more children have turned around the country’s declining birth rate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
A migrant family prepares to board a train leaving for the Austrian border at the Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 10, 2015. At the time, migrants who arrived in Budapest overnight would gather in large numbers in the morning at the railway station as they tried to be on the first trains leaving Budapest due to fears the borders would soon close.
The “fight for civilization” in the film’s title is thus positioned as a demographic one. Carlson argues that migration to Hungary is akin to an actual military invasion (which Hungary has experienced many times in its history). These migrants, enabled by Soros through his support of civil society groups who advocate for their rights, are effectively trying to colonize Hungary and replace its population with their babies, the documentary argues.
“Unlike the threats from the Soviets and the Ottoman Empire, the threat posed by George Soros and his nonprofit organizations is much more subtle and hard to detect,” Carlson says. The country’s government is fighting back against Soros and his hordes by closing the border and providing financial support to native-born (read: white) couples to have more babies.
This isn’t purely Carlson’s invention, but a product of what the Hungarian leadership told him. In the documentary, Orbán tells Carlson that “we would not like to leave this country to the migrants, we would like to leave it to our grandchildren.” Hungary Family Minister Katalin Novák is similarly blunt: “We don’t think we need to import children in order to overcome our demographic difficulties.”
In reality, Hungary has a very small foreign-born population. Even during the peak of the 2015 migration crisis, most sought to pass through to other European Union countries. And the data on the effects of Orbán’s natalist policy is mixed at best.
But it’s not the argument it makes about Orbán’s policy that defines the documentary. It’s how it makes that argument. A recurring visual motif is a contrast between chaotic, scary footage of non-white migrants and tranquil images of happy, white families.
At one point, Carlson follows Hungarian authorities as they apprehend two migrants attempting to cross the border. The two young men, self-described Syrians who appear to be in their late teens or early 20s, are put up against a metal fence and photographed, as if in a mugshot.
An unnamed migrant being processed by Hungarian border authorities shown on screen during Carlson’s documentary.
It’s a dehumanizing spectacle, the humiliation of two desperate people seeking a better life, but the viewer is supposed to cheer. Just a few minutes later, the film cuts to domestic scenes of white Hungarian families shopping for cars and playing ping-pong. That, the documentary suggests, is who the border officers were protecting.
An obsession with demographics and children has been a hallmark of far-right rhetoric for decades. The “14 Words,” perhaps the most famous neo-Nazi slogan in America today, goes as such: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Swap in “Hungarian” for “white” and it’s virtually identical to Orbán’s and Carlson’s rhetoric in the film.
The Fox host has explicitly borrowed from the far right in this area in the past. He has repeatedly used the term “Great Replacement” on-air, a term associated with the anti-immigrant fringe, as part of an argument that Democrats are using immigration policy to conduct “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries,” as Carlson once put it.
Carlson has repeatedly dismissed allegations of racism and anti-Semitism from watchdog groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which has publicly called on Fox to fire him in response to his inflammatory remarks. The Hungary documentary represents yet another escalation in insidious rhetoric.
A Jewish financier and Holocaust survivor who funds progressive and pro-democracy causes around the world, Soros has long been the target of right-wing conspiracy theories. Carlson’s film taps into that narrative and amps it up. Early on, he accuses Soros of plots to ”oust democratically elected leaders” and “install ideologically aligned puppets” in their place. In Carlson’s telling, European leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron decided to admit refugees in 2015 because of Soros.
“In 2015, Soros got to play a role in transforming the continent of Europe,” Carlson intones. “Soros lobbied European leaders directly to get them to open their borders to impoverished people from around the world, and they did.” He points to “leaked documents” showing a $600,000 investment in pro-refugee public advocacy by an unspecified Soros-backed organization as evidence. (It is evidence — that Soros invests in pro-refugee public advocacy.)
It’s the imagery that gives away the game. Soros, shown repeatedly in stark black-and-white, is painted as that most hoary of villains — the Jewish financier pulling the strings attached to the world’s leaders.
Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images
People walk off a tram in Budapest, Hungary, next to a billboard with portraits of then-European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born financier George Soros on February 22, 2019. The billboard, which sports a slogan reading “You too have a right to know what Brussels is preparing,” was erected as part of an anti-immigration media campaign prior to the European parliamentary election.
“Obviously, Soros funds a lot of NGOs across the globe and in Hungary,” says Cas Mudde, an expert on European right-wing politics at the University of Georgia. “However, [Carlson’s] suggestion that he has ‘installed’ politicians who are ‘puppets’ is not just factually wrong but also is very much in line with classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
In particular, Mudde notes the connection to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous 20th-century Russian forgery that claims a Jewish conspiracy is manipulating Europe’s leaders. A more contemporary parallel is a set of comments made by the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who killed 11 people and cited the work of the Jewish refugee charity HIAS as his motivation for committing the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in American history.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the shooter wrote on the social media platform Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
Carlson is fully aware that he’s playing with fire. Early in the documentary, he preempts the anti-Semitism charge and instructs his viewers to dismiss such accusations as a liberal media smear — suggesting that, because Soros has been critical of the Israeli government, he somehow cannot be the target of anti-Semitism. (A Fox spokesperson did not respond to my request for comment.)
“The media dutifully pushed George Soros’s agenda on immigration and culture, while at the same time defending him from all criticism,” he says. “They claim any attack on George Soros is anti-Semitic; Soros himself is an opponent of Israel.”
The move here is to use images and phrases that evoke racist and anti-Semitic ideas without explicitly blaming minorities or Jews. So long as you avoid explicitly bigoted statements, you can blame any criticism on the overly sensitive wokesters in the liberal media, a maneuver he performed in response to criticism of his documentary during his Thursday night show.
Carlson takes a similar tack when it comes to Hungary’s democratic decline. Forget the fact that Orbán and his Fidesz party have cultivated a corrupt, pliant class of political elites and seized control of 90 percent of the country’s media outlets — the documentary suggests that criticism of the Hungarian government is a function of the left’s jealousy.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the Budapest Demographic Summit IV in Budapest, Hungary, on September 23, 2021.
“The Western liberals cannot accept that, inside of Western civilization, there is a conservative national alternative which is more successful,” Orbán tells an approving Carlson. (Trump has fully embraced Orbán in his post-presidency, endorsing the prime minister in his 2022 reelection bid.)
Mudde terms the documentary “classic ‘national conservative’ propaganda,” referring to an intellectual movement that has sprung up since the Trump victory in 2016 to put ideological meat on Trumpism’s bones. These national conservatives generally take the view that Orbán’s mix of anti-immigrant hostility and pro-family policies are a model to be emulated in America. Like Carlson, they tend to dismiss and downplay the evidence of his authoritarianism.
And also like Carlson, they tend to get in trouble for flirtations with outright bigotry. At the 2019 National Conservatism Conference, University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Wax made headlines by claiming the United States should adopt an immigration policy shaped by an understanding that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” Yoram Hazony, the Israeli intellectual who convened the conference, defended Wax — writing that she merely “advocated an immigration policy that favors immigrants with cultural affinities to the U.S.” (This month, Wax started another firestorm by writing that “the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.”)
Carlson, of course, is far more influential than Wax. There is an argument that his obvious provocations should be ignored — that Carlson feeds on outrage from liberals and the mainstream media. There may be something to that, but it’s a sentiment that assumes that Carlson’s brand of far-right politics is not self-sustaining.
But one thing we keep learning and re-learning about America is that there is a real constituency for this sort of thing. And that is something worth worrying about.
Over the last decade, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party have transformed a democracy into something close to an autocracy. Shortly after his first reelection in 2014, Orbán gave a speech outlining his political project. Citing globalization’s economic and social failures, Orbán defended the course he had set by noting that those nations best prepared for the future were, “not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.” Drawing on that message, he defined a form of regime change. “The Hungarian,” he said, “is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”
Hungary had to be anchored in a sense of nationalism, Orbán believed, and that nationalism required an autocratic hand, and that hand belonged only to him and Fidesz. The identity of the Hungarian nation and Viktor Orbán’s politics would be one and the same.
Orbán had spent years softening up his nation for this turn. In his first term, he systematically worked to remold Hungary’s democratic institutions. Parliamentary districts were redrawn to benefit Fidesz. Ethnic Hungarians outside the country were given the right to vote. The courts were methodically packed with right-wing judges. Fidesz’s cronies were enriched and, in turn, members of the business elite funded Orbán’s politics. The government constructed a massive propaganda machine, as independent media was bullied and bought out and right-wing media was transformed into quasi state-media. Whereas Fidesz once had a foreign policy formed in opposition to Russian dominance, Orbán embraced Vladimir Putin and courted Russian investment and the corruption that went along with it.
[Franklin Foer: Viktor Orbán’s war on intellect]
In the United States, the Republican Party has plowed similar ground for a decade. The grievances of the 2008 financial crisis were marshalled into the Tea Party, a right-wing populist movement that offered a traditional form of belonging to largely white and Christian voters. Republican office-holders have weaponized redistricting to protect themselves. Half of American states have put in place restrictive voting laws over the last decade. In post-Citizens United America, Republican policies have enriched an elite donor class that has spent billions on right-wing politics. Fox News serves as the lynchpin of a sprawling right-wing propaganda machine, which includes television, radio, websites, and social–media platforms. The GOP has focused methodically on the courts—from obstructing Obama appointees, to accelerating a transformation of the judiciary under Trump. And like Fidesz, the Republican Party has shifted from a foreign policy rooted in opposition to Russia, to a cynical mix of courtship and denialism with respect to Russian interference in our democracy.
In Hungary, to justify his efforts, Orbán 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. 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, 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.
Similarly, in the United States, Donald Trump provided the illiberal, nationalist bow that tied his party’s efforts together and consolidated an authoritarian direction. Like Orbán, he melds grievances with a rotating cast of villains in a form of ethno-nationalist us-versus-them politics. But the occasionally buffoonish nature of these fights should not obscure what is happening behind the Twitter tirades. In line with Steve Bannon’s commitment after Trump took office, this administration has pursued the “deconstruction of the administrative state” coupled with a disregard for democratic norms, as loyalists are promoted, Trump allies are pardoned, domestic spending is redirected over congressional objection, foreign governments are pressured to investigate Trump’s political opponents, inspectors general are purged, ethics rules are flouted, and nearly any form of congressional oversight is resisted.
Most insidiously, under Attorney General Bill Barr, the Justice Department is being transformed into an extension of Trump’s political interests. This led to the spectacle of the Justice Department attempting to drop charges against former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn, despite his pleading guilty to the crime of lying to the government, and the department going to extraordinary lengths to investigate its own clearly justified conduct in the Russia investigation. In the most ominous glimpse of where this can lead, Barr stood in Lafayette Park as peaceful protesters were dispersed by security forces for a photo opportunity, lending the imprimatur of the Justice Department to a violation of the most basic freedom in the Bill of Rights.
After his first reelection, Orbán’s focus on the persecution of his enemies intensified. Political opponents, civil society, and independent media have learned to live with various forms of harassment, from ceaseless disinformation to legal threats. Hungary completed a fence to keep migrants out. Conspiracy theories about Soros evolved into a campaign used to justify everything from onerous restrictions on civil society to sham investigations. Corruption mushroomed and became a backdrop of Hungary’s government spending. Hungary’s historical sins—including complicity in the Holocaust—were whitewashed, as everything from prominent statues to revised curricula rooted Hungary’s future in right-wing aspects of its past.
[Read: The EU watches as Hungary kills democracy]
The structural changes to Hungary’s democracy enabled this: Orbán was elected to a third term in 2018 with less than half the popular vote, yet he presides over all of Hungary’s levers of power like a colossus. If Trump is reelected, he, too, is almost certain to receive less than half of the popular vote. But as Trump casts aside democratic norms and campaigns on conspiracy theories, it’s clear that a second Trump term will leave America’s political system and culture looking even more like Hungary’s.
In February, I travelled to Budapest. One of the interesting things about Hungary’s capital city is that in many ways, it feels like the center of any other Western democracy—until you realize how much the combination of Fidesz’s structural advantage and Orbán’s populism shapes public life. There is still independent journalism, but it’s ghettoized into online sites that largely reach a cosmopolitan elite. As Szablocs Panyi, an investigative journalist, told me, Orbán can count on his propaganda machine reaching most Hungarians while constantly disparaging independent journalists. “You know,” he says, describing the playbook of delegitimizing objective reality, “there’s no facts, it’s just opinion, everything is partisan.” He says it’s a “psy-op” intended, “to try to shift our focus from our work to what they are saying about us.”
Civil society is similarly besieged. Marta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights organization, described a constant barrage of government laws that it has challenged in court, and Fidesz-friendly media attacking its work. Right-wing journalists have camped outside the Committee’s office and routinely disparage its work. The effort is meant to demoralize people, dissuading them from engaging in public life. The message that Orbán wants to get across, she said, is that “politics is risky, it’s dirty, it’s corrupt, so I should not associate myself with it.” That apathy is meant to cripple opposition.
Sandor Lederer sees a common thread between Orbán and Trump. “You just simply create a bigger scandal,” he said, “or bigger story to prevent people from talking about the real issues in the country, so you have a completely irrelevant, fake debate, about symbolically important things, but never about a sense of how you run a country or how your country is currently working.” This, Pardavi laments, is the emptiness that characterizes Orbán’s politics as he has sought to hold power. Instead of offering solutions to problems, “he starts weaponizing hate.” And all of that hate serves no real purpose. “I think the saddest and most alarming part of this is that this political system is built up so that Orbán would stay in power and Fidesz would be well funded,” he said. For all the talk of nationalism, Orbán’s real purpose is the pursuit of power.
A similar politics of hate and power could easily take root in a second Trump term. As with Orbán, we can expect all-encompassing conspiracy theories like the amorphous “Obamagate” to offer pretexts to hound and prosecute Trump’s political opponents, while a compliant Justice Department offers virtual immunity for selective Trump associates to engage in corruption. With legislative oversight ignored and executive branch self-policing silenced, the basic functions of government will become indistinguishable from Trump’s short-term political interests. Assuming Trump maintains the fealty of a Republican majority in the Senate, the courts will be further transformed in Trump’s image, removing any other meaningful check on his actions. With no reelection to consider, Trump will be unbound from accountability, with the most powerful institution in the history of the world—the United States government—at his fingertips. Meanwhile, manufactured polarization will continue to allow him to sustain the support of his followers while trying to demoralize his opponents. In a country already wrestling with the deep and open wounds of racism, our national fabric will continue to tear at the seams.
Concerns about democracy itself do not often animate voters. Instead, issues that cut closer to home—the state of the economy, access to health care, or issues related to social identity—are more often the focus of political campaigns. There is, of course, mounting evidence that Trump’s hostility to the competent functioning of government and preoccupation with his own political fortunes have exacerbated a crisis that threatens every Americans’ health and economic security. But more fundamentally, Americans should consider what they are validating if—given the evidence of four years—they choose to continue down a course that is hostile to the democratic norms and constitutional checks and balances that have been a secular religion in America for nearly 250 years; a course that welcomes the continued weaponization of hatred from the Oval Office in ways that threaten the social cohesion that a diverse democracy depends upon.
[Read: ‘The most dangerous man in the European Union’]
Orbán and Trump are part of the ascendance of authoritarian nationalists around the world—from Brazil to Russia to Turkey to India to China to the Philippines. Their success rests on an argument that Orbán made out loud after he was reelected—that globalization and liberal democracy have failed, and that a more traditional form of nationalism is required to make their countries great again. And looking at the span of history, it is not hard to argue that authoritarian nationalism—rather than liberal democracy—is actually the norm, while liberal democracy stands out more as a post-war exception. The horrors of World War II awakened the public to the dangers of authoritarian nationalism, and to the damage that it could do both to individual countries and to the relations between them. But now, on the precipice of a defining election at home and rising great-power conflict abroad, that lesson seems forgotten.
Bannon once called Orbán, “Trump before Trump.” A few weeks into the pandemic, Orbán granted himself near dictatorial powers, and he has since detained citizens for crimes as trivial as criticizing the government on Facebook. The United States is not approaching that level of autocracy—yet. But our democracy’s insurance policy is supposed to be the resilience of our democratic institutions, and there is ample daily evidence that they are now being molded into something different before our eyes—transformed from obstacles that could contain Trump’s impulses, into vehicles to punish his opponents. Meanwhile, things that were once unimaginable in American politics—say, the president of the United States regularly demanding that his opponents be jailed—barely raise an eyebrow. And Trump himself has not been shy about expressing his regard for autocrats, including Orbán. Last year, he welcomed him to the Oval Office, praised him for doing “a tremendous job in so many different ways,” while noting that he was, “like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay.”
[Anne Applebaum: Creeping authoritarianism has finally prevailed]
Americans are not conditioned to think that our political system might be transformed, and Trump’s own incompetence offers false reassurance that there are limits to what he can do. But Trump’s authoritarian impulses have fit into the Republican Party’s illiberal tendencies like a plug into a socket, powering an authoritarian movement.
A few weeks ago, I emailed Lederer to see how he was doing after Orbán’s power grab. He took it in stride. “To be frank,” he wrote, “I’m more worried for the U.S. than for Hungary at the moment, horrifying news keeps coming every day. Please do share if you have any optimistic scenario for America.”
Orbán has shown that after winning an election, a leader and his party can dismantle democracy while offering the public a constant cocktail of nationalism and hatred. That, I fear, is what a second Trump term will yield—unless voters reject him in November. The optimistic scenario—for America, as well as Hungary—is if that augurs a broader backlash against a dangerous brand of politics that has failed in the current crisis and offers only a darker future.