Authoritarian Tourism

Tucker Carlson’s Hungarian pilgrimage is latest sign of American right’s tightening alliance with foreign autocrats

Tucker Carlson is broadcasting his Fox News show from Hungary this week, a trip that seems motivated by a desire to strengthen the alliance between the American right and its central European cousins. In addition to taping his own show there, Carlson is, according toThe Daily Beast, speaking at MCC Feszt, “a far-right conference in Budapest that is backed by Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.” Orbán was so delighted by Carlson’s visit that he posted on Facebook a photo of him chatting with the Fox News host.

In July of 2019, Carlson praised the ultra right Hungarian government for its strongly pro-natalist and anti-immigration policy. On his show, Carlson lambasted the liberal values of the EU in order to applaud Orbán’s strongman leadership:

The neoliberals who run the European Union and every think tank in Washington strongly agree on what Hungary should do to fix the problem. Give up. Instead of helping the native population to have more children, the Hungarian government, they say, should import a replacement population from the Third World. That's the George Soros solution. But Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has a different idea. Instead of abandoning Hungary's young people to the hard-edge libertarianism of Soros and the Clinton Foundation, Orbán has decided to affirmatively help Hungarian families grow. 

Carlson’s trip is part of a larger pattern of American right-wingers who, alienated from their own country, are looking to Eastern and Central European states as alternate ideological homelands. As Rod Dreher, who himself is enjoying a long sojourn in Budapest, wrote in The American Conservative in June, “I’m hearing that there are conservative Americans in the DC area who are talking about attempting to emigrate to one of the Visegrád countries (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland). They see no hope anymore here.”

Dreher added, “If I were in government in one of the Visegrád countries, I would start working on a program to entice emigration from dissatisfied Americans who have something to contribute, in terms of human capital and financial capital, to my country. When I was in Budapest last fall in a group meeting with Viktor Orbán, he told us that conservatives should always consider Budapest their home.”

It might seem strange for people who call themselves “America first” nationalists to be so quick to abandon their own country and idealize foreign lands. But their nationalism has little to do with love of the actual country; it’s a love of an ideal, an image of a nation in place of the nation itself. That idealized image is transferrable—it could be a picture of almost anywhere. Plus, a far-away land is easy to idealize. One’s home country, on close inspection, always has blotches and warts. 

In his 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell, suggestively refers to this tendency as “transferred nationalism”: 

The intensity with which they are held does not prevent nationalist loyalties from being transferable. To begin with, as I have pointed out already, they can be and often are fastened upon some foreign country. One quite commonly finds that great national leaders, or the founders of nationalist movements, do not even belong to the country they have glorified. Sometimes they are outright foreigners, or more often they come from peripheral areas where nationality is doubtful. Examples are Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, de Valera, Disraeli, Poincaré, Beaverbrook. The Pan-German movement was in part the creation of an Englishman, Houston Chamberlain. For the past fifty or a hundred years, transferred nationalism has been a common phenomenon among literary intellectuals. With Lafcadio Hearne the transference was to Japan, with Carlyle and many others of his time to Germany, and in our own age it is usually to Russia. 

As Orwell points out, “transferred nationalism” has been a phenomenon of both the left and right. The case of the fellow travellers who made pilgrimages to Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China. Less known, but in the same pattern, are the American conservatives who during the Cold War had idealized views of Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, and apartheid South Africa. In the 1960s, National Review ran ads for tourist agencies offering trips to Spain, Portugal and South Africa, suggesting that the market for authoritarian tourism included not just the magazine’s writers but some readers as well.

I’ll revisit the history of transferred nationalism in a future post, but for now I want to note a few of the factors that make Orbán’s Hungary a fantasy land in the right-wing imagination. The best account of the courtship between Orbán and the American right can be found in Sarah Posner’s 2020 book Unholy, a study of the religious right in the age of Trump. 

Posner highlights several strands binding the American and Hungarian right. One is the American political consultants who specialize in xenophobic messaging. She calls attention to the work of Arthur J. Finkelstein, a GOP political consultant who specialized in winning votes for the right by polarizing the electorate. An influential figure in Republican circles and mentor to the likes of Roger Stone and other Trump advisors (a cohort known as “Arthur’s kids”), Finkelstein, who died in 2017, spent the last decade of his life advising Orbán on running xenophobic and homophobic campaigns that targeted immigrants and George Soros—the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist who became Orbán’s convenient foil. Orbán himself added anti-LGBTQ politics to the mix. (The fact that Finkelstein was gay and Jewish adds a layer of grotesque irony to his alliance with Orbán). 

As Posner notes, “American political consultants have not confined their activities to the United States; they have exported this disdain for liberalism around the world, and in Europe they have aided the rise of right-wing-populist, anti–European Union, anti-NATO autocrats. In 2008, Finkelstein set off for Budapest to become a political consultant for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party.”

Posner describes an illuminating speech from Finkelstein:

During a rare public appearance in 2011, at the Cevro Institute, a university in Prague, the famously reclusive Finkelstein provided insights into the divisive campaign strategy he used on behalf of Orbán and other politicians across the continent. That strategy, he said, was crafted to respond to world events, particularly the global financial crisis of 2008, and the Arab Spring that spread across the Middle East two years later. Starry- eyed Westerners, Finkelstein intimated, believe grassroots protests, like the Arab Spring, that sought to bring down dictatorships, would result in “more freedom in the world.” But to Finkelstein, who was always looking for the points of division, these rebellions against autocratic regimes would ultimately produce “stronger not weaker governments” and “stronger not weaker personalities.” That was because, he concluded, xenophobic and nationalist parties in Europe and even the United States used the refugee crisis that unspooled from war, violence, and unrest in the Middle East to sow anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hate. 

Orbán’s political success won him fans among the American religious right, who particularly admired his “pro-family” politics (natalism combined with hostility towards immigrants and LGBTQ people). In 2017, Orbán hosted in Budapest a meeting of the World Congress of Families, a religious-right umbrella organization. 

As Posner reports, “In 2018, Tony Perkins, the influential president of the Family Research Council, which is an official partner of the WCF, praised Orbán on his radio program as ‘a strong conservative that has championed biblical values in Hungary.’ The notion that Orbán was protecting ‘biblical’ values superseded any concern about his evisceration of democratic institutions.” 

For Orbán’s fans, the autocratic nature of his governance is, at best, a matter of indifference. At worst, it’s something certain Americans actually admire and want to emulate. As Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post notes, “Orbánism represents the fever dream of the US right—a government captured through gerrymandering and a stacked judiciary, backed by pro-regime media and a web of crony clients, animated by Christian nationalism & a relentless culture war against liberals, immigrants, minorities.”

Shortly after the Russian Revolution, Lincoln Steffens visited the Soviet Union and enthused,  "I have seen the future, and it works.” It’s entirely likely that Tucker Carlson is in Hungary right now, feeling the same thrill of encountering a model society that can, he hopes, be imported home.

(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)

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