Carlson in Hungary
As Tucker Carlson informed his audience during a show which recently aired in Hungary, the country is indeed small and in the middle of Europe. It has no navy, no nuclear weapons and its GDP is smaller than New York state’s. Considered the weakest link in the EU, Hungary is constantly facing wide international criticism for its rising authoritarianism, corruption scandals, media repression, cruel anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigration policies. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is relatively well-known for his moral traditionalism, ethno-nationalist vision and aggressive border policies to keep immigrants and refugees out of the country with a fascistic border fence.
For 11 years now the ruling Fidesz party has had total control over the Hungarian state by winning a two-thirds majority in the Parliament. Its strength makes participation as an opposition, that is, without abolishing the electoral system, extremely limited. To further tighten control over the state and radically transform society in their image, Fidesz replaced the Hungarian constitution with a set of “fundamental laws” which are more like ideological blueprints for the ultra-conservative “hybrid regime”. This so-called “hybrid regime” is characterized by traditional features of electoral democracies (for example the Parliament), while in practice Orbán’s political system operates through a top-down centralized power structure, and slips into a grey zone between liberal democracy and totalitarian regime. In this sense, Fidesz created an unbalanced “political playing field” where actual political competition is systemically unfair.
To justify his abuse of power and anti-democratic politics, Orbán’s ideologues developed a handful of unoriginal conspiracy theories: it’s either Soros and the globalists, Brussels and the “liberal fascists” or simply an “international communist” -led attack to destroy the ethnically homogeneous Hungarian nation. Orbán’s rhetoric is based on demonizing oppressed groups and his political opponents: all you can learn from Hungarian state propaganda is that only Viktor Orbán can save the “Judeo-Christian” Western civilization jeopardized by deviant progressives, feminists, Muslims, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and evidently Jewish financier George Soros.
For many of these reasons, Hungary is getting a lot of bad international press. Unlike other states which do better covering their tracks, the lack of whitewashing Orbán’s harsh grip on power is troubling for his advocates abroad who seek to normalize his repressive strategies. For Orbán’s loyalists and the far right internationally it’s imperative to pursue a public image of Hungary as a democracy. As a minor concession, they use the term “illiberal democracy” – its illiberality is supposedly necessary keep people from rioting and from legitimizing anti-regime forces. It was in this context that Tucker Carlson arrived in Budapest.
Budapest, center of the European far-right?
The Hungarian far-right ecstatically hailed the arrival of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson as the “good press” that could finally present the Hungarian model in a positive light. Pro-government state media introduced Carlson as the “last objective journalist in the world” and used his endorsement of Orbán for domestic propaganda purposes. The Hungarian movement was in desperate need of the international legitimacy afforded by his trip, only finding true allies in far-right forces from Poland, Italy and Israel.
In addition to the interviewing Orbán, Carlson gave a speech at a pro-government conference organized by the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC). MCC is a state sponsored elite college, and prominent tool of the culture wars. It was set up to support the ruling Fidesz party’s far-right agenda among Hungary’s upper class youth. As is more commonly done by the private sector elsewhere, Orbán’s government is itself funneling billions into private academic foundations, think tanks and ultra-conservative institutions to fight back against so-called progressive cultural power.
Pushed to the limits of parody, the director of the MCC launched a right-wing franchise of cafés to honor the legacy of late British conservative bigot and Orbán’s friend – Roger Scruton. There are mass efforts to set Budapest up as both an ideological and cultural center for the international ultra-conservative movement. For example, another pro-government conservative conference, “Brain Bar Budapest”, has hosted Jordan Peterson, MAGA activists, climate change denialists, and Israeli hasbara propagandists.
In organizing extravagant mega-events hosted by the MCC and Brain Bar (free for students), Orbán and his ideologues are also looking for ways to reach younger audiences in Hungary. According to polls, the Fidesz party is not doing well with younger voters. This is the case for many reasons, but mainly because the party refuses to engage in issues important to younger people such as climate change, the housing crisis, and income inequality. Exposing students to Tucker Carlson’s reactionary messages is also an attempt to uplift the conservative youth movement and cement a far-right “common sense”.
Tucker Carlson’s arrival provided a significant boost to Orbán’s movement: he personally met Orbán and aired his show from the capital with an exclusive interview. But the benefits flow both ways. What seems like business as usual for Carlson is in fact a troubling attempt to promote Hungary’s cruel system as admirable to his millions of followers in the U.S. With Donald Trump out of office and barred from many considerable platforms, the American far-right is turning to Hungary as a negative utopia. It embraces and is trying to make real their increasingly fascistic ideas, and modes of social organization.
Replacement theory as state ideology
Orbán has achieved a lot within a year: his government banned gender studies, seized control over multiple public universities, banned transgender people from receiving legal recognition in Hungary, and the latest anti-LGBTQ law adopts a severe Russia-style censorship of LGBTQ content. It prohibits sharing content regarding homosexuality or sex reassignment to people under 18 in school educational materials, films, books, media, and advertisement. This makes Hungary’s LGBTQ population not only systemically excluded, but increasingly invisible. The government is determined to censor all types of content that is inconsistent with traditional gender roles. They argue that children are exposed to “gender ideology”, “transgenderism” and “gay propaganda” in schools, and frame it as a “radical liberal” plot by the EU to corrupt traditional Hungarian families.
Orbán’s government was also quick to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to radically expand executive powers and further limit press and judicial freedoms in the name of “crisis governance”, while tightening their grip on the electoral system. Much of these despicable records were of course praised by Tucker Carlson, master of spreading misinformation and ideological manipulation. So naturally, the interview started as if it would be the most heartfelt white supremacist chit-chat ever: both Carlson and Orbán endorsed the racist “white replacement” conspiracy theory, rejected critical race theory and “gender ideology”, and both claimed to rebel against “hegemonic” liberalism, while relying on a sense of victimhood.
“This is our country, this our history, this our language” said Orbán on Fox, after which he claimed a mandate to protect the ethnic purity of the nation from “outside intruders” at all costs. The “white replacement” theory is state ideology in Hungary, and it forms the basis of the government’s dehumanizing anti-immigrant rhetoric. Fears of “white replacement” are behind the ridiculous claims that financier George Soros and the EU are “importing migrants”, or that “Muslim invaders” are corrupting Hungary’s white Christian nation. During his last campaign Orbánneven featured a series of antisemitic posters of George Soros with the caption: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh”. Since the laughing Jew trope is one of the oldest antisemitic tropes in existence, it raised not only concern but wide international condemnation.
Having Israel’s at-the-time far-right tyrant Benjamin Netanyahu on his side, Orbán shook off most of this entirely legitimate criticism claiming he cannot be antisemitic because he supports Israel and Bibi. Of course, Orbán then purposely escalated both his antisemitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric so he would appeal to white supremacist voters, who are actually committed to replacing anyone who doesn’t fit their pristine ideology. Meanwhile the Fidesz party’s pro-Israel conservative wing continues to make baseless antisemitism accusations exclusively against left-wing people who dare to sympathize with the Palestinian struggle.
Furthermore, local Jewish and Roma populations are constantly excluded from Hungarian nationalist narratives. Nearly one million Roma people are treated as second class citizens and are victims of systemic racism, police brutality, and rampant poverty. Keeping large margins of its own population oppressed and vulnerable, Orbán has told Carlson that he would gladly welcome white Western “refugees” who would escape culturally diverse liberal democracies.
Combating “white replacement” became law in Hungary: in 2018 a draft bill was introduced to criminalize aid to “illegal immigrants” and asylum seekers. This was a serious attempt by the ruling party to not only criminalize immigrants, but also those who help them: NGOs, independent groups, journalists, activists and many with left sympathies. It was a desperate effort to silence critics and crack down on professionals who had been reporting on the violent abuses against asylum seekers at the Hungarian borders. Additionally, the government presented another “fundamental law”, one that would ban the “settlement of foreign populations” in Hungary, while heavily modifying criteria for who is eligible for refugee protection.
The China question
While Tucker Carlson unironically believes the US is the greatest country in the whole wide world, during his visit he also stated that he thinks Hungary is “freer than the U.S.” One might assume American conservatives would not embrace Hungary’s traditionalist government so enthusiastically without acknowledging its close ties to China, the latest cold war fantasy enemy of the United States. During the interview, Carlson asked Orbán about his relationship with China’s Xi Jinping that was – according to New York Times’s Ben Novak –scrapped from the official transcript Hungarian officials sent to reporters. As expected, Carlson asked Orbán what he thinks about China’s alleged human rights abuses and described Xi as a murderous dictator, but Orbán awkwardly avoided the question and was very eager to change the subject.
Orbán is nurturing a very friendly relationship with China’s Xi. With Trump and Netanyahu out of the picture, Orbán is in desperate need of legitimate international allies. In 2021 the relationship with China formed the main political discourse within the Hungarian opposition. For example, the Hungarian government decided to purchase Covid vaccines from China going against official EU recommendations, while ignoring many red flags such as documentation errors, lack of transparency, and insufficient efficacy and safety data at the time.
In May anti-China sentiments intensified as Hungary announced its plan to build a campus for the Chinese Fudan University in Budapest. Tens of thousands of Hungarians marched in the biggest post-lockdown protest yet to oppose the project, because many believed it would undercut local higher education and increase state corruption. The Fudan University campus project is on hold for now, proving that resistance of some sort is still possible, but Orbán’s foreign policy and his close relationship with China will definitely be a central topic in the 2022 general elections in Hungary.
While there’s plenty of valid criticism of how such an investment would hurt local communities, the pro-EU/pro-NATO centrist opposition is pushing an anti-Communist agenda framing Orbán’s far-right establishment as “communist”. The narrative is as false as it is politically damaging for the Hungarian left. The centrist opposition argues that the only valid explanation of Xi and Orbán’s close relationship is that they’re both communists, conveniently ignoring the capitalist logic of their mutually beneficial economic ties. Resisting “Chinese influence” is framed as a cold war style anti-Communist struggle. This has also resulted in a significant increase in sinophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Asian bigotry that could put local Asian immigrants at risk of further isolation and discrimination. For this reason, anti-racist left-wing politics is even more necessary, but there’s not much to be hopeful about.
Similarly to other post-socialist countries in the Eastern European region, it is difficult to establish successful left-wing projects in Hungary. This phenomenon is due to demonization, historical revisionism, and the anti-Communist sentiments that are still strong in Hungarian society. This is compounded by the Fidesz-created atmosphere of hate and intolerance with a set of targets including communists, feminists, progressives, minorities, etc.
While most Hungarians seem submissive in the face of authoritarian rule, and organizing is indeed difficult, younger generations in urban areas are engaging in radical thinking and activity to combat this rising authoritarianism. There is a new generation of activists, artists, and scholars who have integrated into small feminist, anti-fascist, and environmentalist groups. These groups are trying to re-imagine and re-introduce concepts of social justice, class struggle, and working class organizing within the Eastern European historical context.
They are trying to make headway against the centrist opposition which makes lazy efforts by giving in to mainstream Western imperialist anti-China and Russiagate hysteria. They blame the “Eastern menace” (Russia and China) for the downfall of a westernized Hungarian liberal democracy, conveniently ignoring the devastating social and economic conditions that produced the Fidesz regime. On the contrary, Orbán’s repressive system is secured by Western European corporations, which invest in the country because of extremely low wages, broken labor laws, union busting activities, and tax havens. Truly being able to challenge Orbán’s establishment requires a critique not only of him and his party, but of Western capitalist interests that keep the system afloat.
Ultimately, Carlson probably left somewhat disappointed, because he wasn’t able to gaslight Orbán into participating in America’s latest anti-China hysteria live on Fox. Still, he made a point to his millions of followers, one that presents the Hungarian model as a desirable path for American conservatives: authoritarian, ethno-nationalist, and Christian. While GOP representatives and MAGA loyalists might not have the most nuanced understanding of Hungary (or, for that matter, any awareness of its existence), this might change in the future thanks to Carlson’s campaigning from the Hungarian capital. As for Hungary’s far right, Carlson’s visit was a massive endorsement as they feel more empowered than ever to carry on their hateful agenda that further erodes democratic institutions, puts marginalized groups at risk, fuels inequalities, and slowly suffocates Hungarian society as a whole.