Fox News' Tucker Carlson raised eyebrows earlier this month when he became the latest far-right figure to cozy up to Viktor Orban, Hungary's controversial prime minister. As the New York Times' Jamelle Bouie noted, "To critics, Orban's Hungary is corrupt, repressive and authoritarian, a place where democracy is little more than window dressing.... To Carlson, it's a model for the United States."
Given everything the public knows about the host and his ideology, Carlson's Budapest trip and his public affection for the increasingly autocratic government was not altogether surprising. Nevertheless, it was unsettling.
As New York's Jon Chait noted, Carlson "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."
But even more notable than a prominent conservative media figure expressing support for a prime minister moving his country away from democracy is a prominent Republican official doing the same thing. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported late last week:
Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson offered praise for how Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban runs his country at a time when some say the government is slipping into authoritarianism. Johnson's comments were published Friday by the online site Insider, which asked Republican U.S. Senators about Orban after Fox News host Tucker Carlson's recent visit to Hungary.
Endorsing Carlson's portrayal of Orban, the Wisconsin senator said, "I recognize the liberal left doesn't like Hungary, but there are so many positive things about what they're doing in that country."
Asked if he has concerns about Orban's restrictions on free speech and civic society, Johnson reportedly added, "I think what's problematic is what's happening in this country in terms of the media censorship and the media bias."
I realize, of course, that the far-right senator has moved aggressively in a radical direction of late. As we've discussed, the GOP lawmaker has peddled bizarre -- at times, borderline dangerous -- rhetoric on everything from the pandemic to the 2020 presidential election to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
But his praise for Orban's Hungary is qualitatively different.
For those unfamiliar with the central European country, my MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem recently explained:
Orban'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.... Orban'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.
Zeeshan Aleem's report added that the Hungarian strongman has taken a series of steps in recent years to undermine 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."
Vox published a related report in 2018 on "how democracy denied in Hungary." It noted a vote from the European Parliament, which label Orban's government a "systemic threat to the rule of law."
And yet, there was Ron Johnson, gushing about "many positive things" unfolding in Orban's Hungary.
In case this isn't obvious, Johnson isn't an obscure member of Congress. He not only led the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the Wisconsin Republican is currently the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's panel on U.S. policy in Europe.
If the GOP wins a majority in next year's midterm elections, Johnson will very likely chair that panel, despite -- or perhaps because of? -- his affinity for Hungary's shifts away liberal democratic principles.
If Carlson's embrace of Orban's model signaled the Republican Party's growing comfort with authoritarianism, Ron Johnson's praise is another uncomfortable step down the same terrifying road.