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Why Tucker Carlson's trip to Budapest is bad news for America

Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s right-wing leader, has a fan in Carlson.
Image: Tucker Carlson
Carlson isn’t there just to take in the beautiful architecture. Rich Polk / Getty Images; MSNBC

Fox News host Tucker Carlson is doing something rather unusual this week: He’s broadcasting his show from Hungary’s capital, Budapest. He’s also doing some high-profile cultural immersion while he’s there, having already met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Monday. On Saturday, he’s slated to attend a far-right conference and deliver a speech titled “The World According to Tucker Carlson.”

If you’re not familiar with the scene in Budapest these days, this might all seem kind of random. But unfortunately it’s just the opposite.

Carlson’s agenda seems quite clear: to encourage his followers to consider Hungary’s disturbing political model as a possible future for the U.S.

Orbán is an energetic right-wing authoritarian who has in recent years become a darling of right-wing populist movements growing across the West. And he has strived to cultivate Budapest’s emerging role as an intellectual and cultural center of right-wing nationalism in Europe. Carlson, one of the most popular hosts on American cable news, is very conspicuously strengthening ties with others in that scene during his visit — and inviting his millions of viewers to learn about it and admire it, as well. Carlson’s agenda seems quite clear: to encourage his followers to consider Hungary’s disturbing political model as a possible future for the U.S.

Experts who follow extremist behavior on the right tell me they’re concerned. Hannah Gais, a researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center who studies right-wing extremism, said in an email that Carlson’s broadcasting in Hungary is particularly alarming given the tremendous platform he commands at Fox News.

“Night after night, he’s promoted rhetoric that was once on the fringes, or at least should be on the fringes, to millions of viewers,” Gais wrote. “Tucker has already carried water for Orbán’s anti-immigration policies and his attacks on philanthropist George Soros — now he’s further whitewashing this authoritarian government for an American audience.”

Carlson, arguably the most influential right-wing populist media figure in America, has taken an interest in Orbán for years. In 2019, Carlson praised Orbán’s policies to financially incentivize married couples to have children and asked his audience whether “the U.S. should follow Hungary’s example.”

But the bigger picture is that Carlson and others are attracted to why Orbán advocates for generous family support schemes — and that’s to avoid relying on immigrants to help maintain population and economic growth. Carlson has openly aired white supremacist replacement theory on his show, arguing that the U.S. will lose its essential character if it lets too many immigrants in. He sees in Orbán an exciting champion of the kind of world he wants to live in.

Orbán’s nativist record is well-known on the right. He has been a fierce critic of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to allowing immigrants into the European Union, and he built a wall on Hungary’s southern border (sound familiar?) to keep refugees out of the country. His ethno-nationalist goal of keeping “Hungary for the Hungarians” is laden with antisemitic theories that Jewish financiers are destroying the country.

Vox’s Zack Beauchump, who has reported from Hungary and covered the country’s political life for years, has argued that many conservatives see almost a Trump 2.0 in Orbán: “Orbán is the leader they wish Donald Trump could be — smart, politically savvy, and genuinely devoted to their ideals. Hungary is, for them, the equivalent of what Nordic countries are for the American left: proof of concept that their ideas could make the United States a better place.”

Orbán’s appeal to the right extends beyond his ultra-nativism. He is also a social traditionalist who has banned gender studies at universities and shot down the legal recognition of trans people.

And what the Hungarian strongman has gained perhaps the most attention for globally is his yearslong corrosion of Hungary’s democratic institutions, through measures like consolidation of hundreds of media outlets under the control of political allies, gaming elections and using emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic to dramatically expand executive power.

The idea of Carlson’s popularizing Orbán and his nationalist-authoritarian model is, well, disconcerting at the least.

“Orbán has arguably been among the most successful sitting leaders at creating an electoral autocracy,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University who studies authoritarian leaders, wrote in her newsletter. “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.”

The idea of Carlson’s popularizing Orbán and his nationalist-authoritarian model is, well, disconcerting at the least. At a time when Trump is destroying public faith in America’s democratic institutions and pro-Trump intellectuals are openly discussing the need for an authoritarian coup to fend off the left, the idea of the MAGA crowd’s finding a north star in Hungary is spooky stuff.

Let’s hope Carlson is not too successful.