Hungary Insight

Power trip: Tucker Carlson in Budapest and the allure of hypocrisy


Though the US’ borders remain closed to European visitors, waves of freshly vaccinated Americans have crossed the Atlantic for summer holidays in Europe, taking advantage of loosened travel restrictions. Among them (though it remains unclear whether he has been vaccinated) has been Fox News host Tucker Carlson, perhaps the most important voice in contemporary Republican politics, who has spent this week in Hungary.

Yet rather than sipping a glass of delicious Tokaj Furmint at a Budapest wine bar or sunning himself on Lake Balaton’s peaceful shores, Carlson’s trip appears to have been strictly business.

Tucker Carlson goes on a power trip to Hungary

Ahead of delivering a lecture titled “The world according to Tucker Carlson” on Saturday at Mathias Corvinus Collegium’s “MCC Feszt,” Carlson has gazed thoughtfully through the fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border, hosted his talk show – Tucker Carlson Tonight – from Budapest, and met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for dinner and an interview.

Carlson pitched the Budapest editions of Tucker Carlson Tonight in civilizational terms, telling his viewers that “if you care about Western civilization and democracy and families, and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here right now.” And in introducing his interview with Orbán, Carlson declared that “leaders in Washington” pay attention to Hungary “obsessively,” outraged by Orbán’s bold stance that “families are more important than banks.” Meanwhile, the ticker at the bottom of the screen screamed “VIKTOR ORBAN BELIEVES IN FAMILIES & BORDERS.”

This is apparently meant to contrast Orbán with globalist politicians like Joe Biden, a noted anti-family individual and rejector of borders.

Carlson’s framing fuels the idea that Hungary is a leading player in the defense of Western Christian values, a position frequently held by US conservatives in the current era of right-wing American politics.

Despite the great efforts of right-wing intellectuals to map a coherent ideology onto the Trump-era GOP, doing so has proved quite difficult. This is, after all, the GOP that did not even offer a platform articulating its positions ahead of the 2020 election.

Be(a)ware of what you wish for

This makes Orbán’s relatively clear articulation of what he is up to (media consolidation in the hands of the few, judicial polarization, and reliance on gerrymandering and internal division to entrench minority rule through elections held on an unlevel playing field) into a guiding beacon for Americans who lament that “if Donald Trump had had even half the intelligence and the focus of Viktor Orbán, America would be a very different place.”

Additionally, having in many ways taken over the mantle of GOP leadership from Trump, Carlson operates less on the basis of any ideology and more out of a reflexive posture that equates getting pushback with telling the truth while telling a compelling story about “a shadowy group of elites conspiring against hardworking Americans.”

That Orbán is widely criticized by mainstream media outlets, the EU, democracy-focused NGOs, and human rights watchdogs is a highly appealing quality in Carlson’s eyes – if those are the enemies Orbán has made, he must be doing something right. And indeed, Carlson, while at dinner with Orbán, celebrated him for being “truly hated by all the right people.”

This is not dissimilar from the calculation that led many conservatives in the US initially wary of Donald Trump to throw their support behind him, as Newt Gingrich’s observation that “Trump may be the most effective uprooter of liberalism in [his] lifetime” demonstrates. Even if he was not an ideal candidate, the Democrats sure hated him and he hated them and these were excellent credentials.

Trump’s Presidency also highlighted a number of overlaps between Orbán’s Hungary and the modern American right, not least in the contradiction between populist messaging aimed at less-well off members of society and pursuit of economic policies that concentrate wealth in elite hands and increase inequality. That blatant willingness to engage in contradiction and hypocrisy is at the root of the Carlson/Orbán relationship.

China’s deep pockets

Take China, for example. As Washington D.C. has coalesced around the idea of great power competition with China, Carlson has spouted theories about shadowy Chinese influence in the country, declaring in recent months that US officials “helped China cover up COVID origins” and that the New York Times is “in China’s pocket.”

If the New York Times is in China’s pocket, it would be hard to come up with a metaphor for where Orbán is – even among EU members, which generally take a less critical eye towards China than the US, Hungary is especially open to China. For evidence, one need not look further than the proposed Fudan University campus in Budapest and Hungary’s willingness to veto EU statements on issues like human rights in Hong Kong to please potential Chinese investors.

Lastly, like Carlson and other leading GOP voices, Orbán expressly stokes the flames of culture wars and domestic divisions. In one instance, signs ostensibly addressed to migrants and refugees were put up in 2015, warning that “If you come to Hungary, you must respect Hungarian culture!”

That the signs were in Hungarian rather than any language a potential migrant or refugee would speak betrayed their fundamental purpose – creating another faultline along which the polity could be divided. Similarly, plastering anti-George Soros posters in Budapest metro stations, as was done in 2016, can be read essentially a show of force, a flexing of political muscle in the face of a Budapest public that has little recourse other than voting against Orbán and Fidesz (and repeatedly getting outvoted, in part due to Hungary’s US-style gerrymandering).

Orbán, Carlson and the allure of repression

Such issues, of course, are not part of the story that Carlson tells about Hungary’s “democracy” and defense of “Western civilization.” Carlson would rather discuss Orbán’s domestic political opponents, deemed “former Communist anti-Semites,” or suggest that the “Biden State Department” might work to manufacture an end to Orbán’s tenure in the April 2022 elections.

And such is Carlson’s current grip on the GOP that this extreme selectivity when it comes to facts, general hypocrisy, and overall willingness to say the incredible will not result in much beyond impassioned denunciations by former Obama officials on podcasts.   

Fundamentally, then, the connection between Orbán and Carlson is less about a common ideology or worldview, and more about power, plain and simple – the power to indulge in hypocrisy at no cost, the power to enrich oneself and one’s friends, and the power to not have one’s place of prominence in society questioned.

In his excellent column highlighting ways in which the US may follow Hungary’s authoritarian footsteps, Jonathan Chait draws a comparison between Carlson’s Hungarian journey and Western leftists’ trips to the Soviet Union in its early years. Yet he distinguishes those early travelers, whose “devotion to an ideal” blinded them “to the terror state that actually existed” with Carlson, who “is not ignoring Orban’s iron hand.” Indeed, “repression is the very allure.” In the world according to Tucker Carlson, power and influence are both means and ends.

By Nicholas Kulawiak

A Californian born to Irish and Polish parents, Nicholas received his M.A. in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies from Georgetown University, along with a graduate certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. He enjoys hiking, skiing and eating baklava, among other things. He is currently based in Sarajevo.