In their 1985 single, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” punk rock band The Ramones departed from their usual sardonic humor and joined the uproar among American Jewish communities over President Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German cemetery whose 2,000 World War II dead included 49 members of the Nazi Waffen-SS. But while Reagan’s offense seems due more to tone-deaf insensitivity than malice, the same can’t be said of Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s excursion this week to Budapest.
Carlson, arguably our generation’s answer to Father Coughlin, was photographed conversing with Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, using his show to promote the country’s racist and xenophobic regime and planning on Saturday to speak at a far-right training center designed to export Orbán’s illiberal vision abroad. So his trip deserves no less an uproar, as the most important takeaway is that he has made as searingly apparent as a shot of pear pálinka the threat that he and the rest of the increasingly authoritarian American right pose to our country’s democracy.
Far from going to the Hungarian capital to admire its elegant architecture while washing down spicy gulyás with sweet Tokaji and gaze upon the blue Danube flowing beneath the splendid Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Carlson went to Budapest to forge and deepen ties between American fascists like himself and their European counterparts.
But oddly enough, admiration for Hungary’s officially sanctioned bigotry and authoritarianism and the aspiration to emulate them in the US appears to be the quiet part that American fascists like Carlson and writer Rod Dreher – a Walter Duranty-like admirer of the Orbán regime who has lived there for several months – really, really don’t want to say out loud.
Broadcasting live from Budapest, for example, Carlson exhorted his viewers to pay attention to what’s going on in Hungary “If you care about Western civilization and democracies and families” and in a subsequent broadcast pointedly denied that Orbán is a fascist.
Dreher’s April 4 column defending Carlson’s visit in The American Conservative, complete with a chummy selfie of the two, is even more illustrative.
Alongside the familiar refrain that Orbán’s regime has “successfully fought against wokeness and other aspects of the liberal globalist agenda,” Dreher mockingly puts the accurate characterization of Hungary as an autocracy in scare quotes, insisting that Orbán allows “free and fair elections” that his Fidesz party is purportedly afraid it might lose next year.
“The key insight about Orban is that he believes that the future of his nation and of Western civilization hangs in the balance. He’s right about that,” Dreher writes in one of the now tiresome platitudes that Orbán’s American fans have repeated as they fawn over his dictatorship.
What Dreher doesn’t bother mentioning is Orbán’s methods, let alone their being the whole reason he is considered an autocrat. These include the Fidesz party gerrymandering Hungary’s electoral districts so that it can’t lose its majority in Parliament, effectively making Hungary a one-party state. Another is Orbán and his loyalists using financial pressure to take over nearly all of the country’s news media. On the economic front, Orbán’s government has tailored policy to enrich his allies in business and punish those who would challenge him. And in what was described as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic but looked more like a dictatorial shot across the bow, Parliament even gave Orbán the ability to rule by decree last March.
One-party rule, de facto government control of the media, instituting corruption and dictatorial powers sure sound like the classic hallmarks of autocracy to me. You’d think Dreher would have some eloquent counterpoint at the ready, but all he can muster is this whopper of a false equivalence: “The United States is in the throes of a left-wing cultural revolution that is turning the country into a soft totalitarian society,” he writes. But however objectionable the “woke” left’s occasional illiberal tendencies, to equate opinionated college professors or screechy Tumblr teens with an authoritarian national government, let alone suggest they’re more dangerous, is intellectual dishonesty bordering on self-parody.
Autocracy’s natural handmaiden is officially sanctioned bigotry, but Dreher doesn’t have much to say about that either.
He does give a shoutout to Carlson’s “quite sensible” desire to find out what Orbán has done to “hold off those like George Soros and the woke leadership of the European Union,” but he doesn’t say anything about Orbán and his party’s antisemitic portrayal of Soros as a Jewish financier plotting for world domination. Nor does he mention Orbán’s racist attacks on Roma, like last year, when he opposed court-ordered compensation for Romani children in the town of Gyöngyöspata over years of school segregation based on race – yes, you read that correctly – and bemoaned “members of an ethnic group” receiving “a significant amount [of money] without doing any work.”
Mind you, this wasn’t some 1950s Dixiecrat US senator, but a European head of government in 2020 talking about schoolchildren from a long-persecuted ethnic minority that has seen a significant rise in racist hate crimes in recent years. And in a country that was complicit in deporting Jews to Nazi death camps.
But don’t mistake Carlson’s absurd suggestion that Orbán’s regime is concerned with democracy or Dreher’s convenient omissions for naivety. Both of these men, along with other American right-wingers heaping praise on Hungary’s autocracy, know exactly what Orbán is and what they’re defending.
To wit, Dreher lets the mask slip perhaps a little more than he intended with this Machiavellian rationalization of Orbán’s totally-not-an-autocracy:
“His various strategies for how to address that existential challenge may be wise or correct, or ineffective or morally wrong, but what sets him apart from American conservative leaders is that he recognizes the nature of the crisis, and is prepared to act boldly to address it.”
Or to translate from the original German: Orbán’s systematic destruction of democracy is perfectly acceptable to maintain Hungary as a preserve of Western – i.e. exclusively straight, white and Christian – civilization. And in April, Carlson endorsed the white nationalist “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which is what neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville in 2017 were articulating when they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
Dreher lets the mask slip a little more when he compares Carlson’s gulyás gallivanting to Richard Nixon’s visit to China.
“Carlson coming to Hungary opens the door for conservative thinkers to consider what Hungary (and other Visegrad countries) have to teach us about how to resist globalist liberalism,” Dreher writes. “A lot of US conservatives are intimidated by the false idea, propagated by liberal media and Establishment conservatives, that Hungary is a fascist state. It’s preposterous – and now that Tucker Carlson has violated that taboo with his presence, many more conservatives will start asking questions about Hungary, seeking to know more.”
Except Hungary is a fascist state, albeit one masquerading as a democracy, much as the thugs who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 believed they were defending democracy rather than trying to overthrow it. And anyone familiar with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s creation of the Fascist International in the 1930s will find the idea that right-wingers should flock to Hungary and learn from its 21st century fascist example in order to resist “globalist liberalism” – a phrase with antisemitic undertones – disquietingly familiar.
But while America’s leading right-wing media personality coming out as a supporter of authoritarianism represents a disturbing escalation, in a sense Carlson is doing us all a favor. Because despite Dreher’s futile efforts to prove the contrary, Carlson has demolished whatever plausible deniability may have remained to suggest he isn’t the white supremacist fascist whom anyone paying attention has always known him to be. And it’s a lot easier to oppose an enemy and expose him as a dire threat if he can’t hide anywhere.
Alaric DeArment is a journalist in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @biotechvisigoth.