Tucker Trips Out

The last time anyone over here thought about Hungary over there was 1956 – “The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, or the Hungarian Uprising, was a nationwide revolution against the Hungarian People’s Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from the 23rd of October until the 10th of November 1956. Leaderless at the beginning, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since the Red Army drove Nazi Germany from its territory at the End of World War II in Europe.”

The world paid attention to this and the Hungarians almost pulled it off. This was heroic. The UN met. Radio Free Europe told them to fight on, the free world was with them, and then the Soviet tanks rolled in. Those over there who wanted a free Hungary broadcast pleas for help. Those of us now in our seventies remember those pleas, and the images of the battles in the streets on the evening news. Would the United States stand up for freedom? Would the United States stand up for democracy? Would we help them toss out the Soviets?

Nope. Of course we wouldn’t send troops or bomb the Soviet lines of tanks rolling in. That would lead to another world war, a nuclear one this time. But we wouldn’t even send aid – weapons and communications gear and all the rest – for the same reason. Eisenhower saw these people, seeking freedom, wanting an actual democracy, and declined to act. The United States did nothing at all. Many thought this was beyond shameful. The commies were rolling back in! Others understood. Eisenhower understood global war better than anyone. He wouldn’t start another one.

And then the Soviets did their thing in Hungary. They shut down all dissent, and the press. There were executions. The shut down everything. Hungary went dark forever, or at least until the Soviets were no more, many decades later. But really, Hungary was forgotten.

And now it’s not. Over all the dark years the seething resentment grew – the Soviets were awful and the United States and the West were useless. Hungary turned inward. Some missed the Nazis of long ago. Fascism hadn’t been that bad. And sometimes a nation needs a strong authoritarian leader.

They got one. And as the BBC notes, Fox News loves him:

US guest of honour and Fox News host Tucker Carlson was granted a lightning visit by military helicopter to Hungary’s 175km (109-mile) high-tech, high-cost razor-wire border fence with Serbia this week.

He liked what he saw. After praising the fence for being so “clean and orderly”, in contrast to the “chaos” on the US-Mexican border, he told his viewers: “It doesn’t require a GDP the size of the US, it doesn’t require high-tech walls, guns, or surveillance equipment. All it requires is the will to do it.”

And he praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for not allowing “this nation of 10 million people to be changed forever by people we didn’t invite in and who are coming here illegally”.

To make sure his US viewers understood his message, he contrasted Mr Orbán’s policies with those of US President Joe Biden.

“Because the lessons are so obvious, and such a clear refutation to the policies we currently have, and the people who instituted those policies, Hungary and its government have been ruthlessly attacked and unfairly attacked: ‘It’s authoritarian, they’re fascists…’ There are many lies being told right now, that may be the greatest of all.”

Orbán needed that:

Carlson’s visit comes at a useful time for Mr Orbán. After 11 years in almost unchallenged power, he faces a fierce battle for re-election in eight-months’ time against an unusually united opposition, from left to right, which accuses him of hijacking Hungarian democracy and financially favoring his own coterie of oligarchs and loyalists.

Mr Orbán also stands accused of using Pegasus spyware purchased from the Israeli company NSO to tap the phones and mine the personal data of up to 300 independent journalists, lawyers and businessmen not aligned with his Fidesz party.

The European Commission has suspended the disbursement of post-Covid EU recovery funds, citing insufficient safeguards against corruption. Nordic governments have also suspended payment of funds to NGOs, after failing to reach agreement with the government over who should disburse them.

But the embattled Hungarian prime minister loves a fight, and Carlson is his latest high-profile ally.

But he’s just the latest. Sarah Posner offers a bit of deep background:

Carlson is actually a latecomer to the American right’s love affair with Orbán, even though he shares common cause with the demagogue who has claimed Hungarians oppose immigration because they do not want their “own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed by others.” The American right’s love affair with Orbán dates back at least a decade, and was cultivated by top strategists and lobbyists in the Republican Party, as well as leading figures in the religious right.

The guy’s a Trump Republican even if his party is named Fidesz:

In 2008, Orbán, who had served one term as prime minister from 1998 to 2002 and was plotting a return to power, retained the Republican political strategist Arthur J. Finkelstein, mentor to such luminaries as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. In the United States, Finkelstein’s signature advice to clients was to adopt messages that would “polarize the electorate.” Two years later, Orbán was again prime minister. His Fidesz-controlled government promptly undertook a host of anti-democratic measures, including requiring media organizations to register with the government, eroding checks and balances, constitutionally mandating a “right to life” from the moment of conception, and defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The party also redrew parliamentary districts and changed the process for allocating parliamentary seats, further cementing its hold on power, and stacked the courts with loyalists. Along the way Orbán engaged in a relentless anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros, demonized immigrants, and closed Hungary’s borders.

All of this should sound familiar. Finkelstein knew what he was doing. He was changing the world:

In rare public remarks in Prague in 2011, the strategist enthused about strongmen on the rise around the world, exploiting the refugee crisis to manufacture anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim animus. “Anti-Muslim parties become important in developing coalitions for their governments,” he said, with a message of, “they’re taking our jobs. They’re taking away our way of life.” That kind of scapegoating, he said, “is creating an energy source around which these movements take place.”

A political consultant’s job, said Finkelstein, is to tell people what they should know because “no one knows anything about anything.”

And the rest is history:

When Orbán and Fidesz won again in 2014, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe lambasted the party’s “undue advantage,” including “the manner in which a large number of changes to the legal framework were passed, restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage, and the blurring of the separation between a ruling party and the state.” But Orbán, now increasingly emboldened to thumb his nose at the criticisms of his corrosion of democracy by the likes of the United States, the European Union, and NATO, openly declared, in 2014, his embrace of an “illiberal democracy.”

He then hired another Finkelstein ally, former Florida Republican Congressman Connie Mack IV, as his lobbyist in Washington. Mack’s job, according to his disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was to craft “political messages” to deliver to the administration, Congress and the media, to “have an influence on political decision making.” By 2015, Mack was one of the top paid foreign agents in Washington.

He earned his fees:

Orbán became the first foreign leader to endorse Trump; he praised “this resolute American presidential candidate” because he would jettison the American “policy of exporting democracy.” The Trump campaign’s top foreign policy advisor, his future Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, sent the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, Réka Szemerkényi, a warm letter, describing Hungary as “a global beacon for the power of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”

This was a sharp right turn from the administration of George W. Bush, which had been critical of Orbán during his first run as prime minister, and from the position of the late Senator John McCain, who in 2014 called Orbán “a neofascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin.”

But that turn worked out just fine:

Mack had done his job: to make Orbán appear to American audiences as a run-of-the-mill conservative under attack by liberals – using Orbán’s, and the American right’s, favorite scapegoat, George Soros. In a November 2017 appearance on “Blunt Force Truth,” a podcast hosted by former “Love Connection” host Chuck Woolery, Mack complained that Obama-era holdovers in the State Department were unfairly making life difficult for his client. “I wish our State Department would treat him more like a friend and an ally,” Mack told Woolery, “Instead of some of these underlings attacking him for things that George Soros is making up.”

Right-wing media took up the theme of unfair criticism of Orbán. A 2017 Heritage Foundation column complained he had been “vilified in the mainstream media and formally rebuked by the EU” for opposing “the EU’s overly permissive migrant policy” and fighting against Soros’ influence. A Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent claimed Orbán “has been treated like a pariah in the Western media over its position on open borders, but Hungary’s leaders are smart enough to know that their national values will never please the global Left.”

Orbán had become a hero:

In 2017 Orbán played host to the World Congress of Families, a natalist gathering organized by American religious right figures with their counterparts around the world. In a cover story in the far-right magazine “Chronicles,” Allan Carlson (no relation to Tucker), one of the founders of the World Congress of Families, questioned whether America could still be a “City on a Hill – With Transgender Toilets?” He praised Orbán’s “pro-family” policies, arguing “if we want to make America great again,” America should take a cue from Budapest.

In Orbán’s speech at the gathering, he claimed Hungary was experiencing declining fertility rates, but rejected immigration, because Hungary prefers a “renewal of our own resources.” After his 2018 reelection, Orbán recalibrated “illiberal” democracy to “Christian” democracy, presenting himself as the political and spiritual leader of “a new constitutional order based on national and Christian foundations.”

Tony Perkins, the influential president of the Family Research Council, which is an official partner of the World Congress of Families, has praised Orbán as “a strong conservative that has championed biblical values in Hungary.”

And now Tucker Carlson has jumped on this train, and the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie notes this:

To critics, Orbán’s Hungary is corrupt, repressive and authoritarian, a place where democracy is little more than window dressing and the state exists to plunder the public on behalf of a tiny ruling elite. To Carlson, it’s a model for the United States, a showcase for anti-immigrant policies and reactionary cultural politics.

“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,” he told his audience on Monday, “you should know what is happening here right now.”

But that’s been said before:

Carlson is not alone. Orbán’s fans in the West include notable writers at major conservative and right-leaning publications like National Review, the American Conservative and the New York Post…

Orbán’s American admirers include the political philosopher, Patrick Deneen; J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” who is now running for the Republican Senate nomination in Ohio; and Rod Dreher, a popular conservative blogger and author.

“Which is the only power capable of standing up to Woke Capitalists, as well as these illiberal leftists in academia, media, sports, cultural institutions, and other places? The state,” Dreher wrote on Wednesday. “This is why American conservatives ought to be beating a path to Hungary.”

Well, maybe not:

At this point, students of American political history – and specifically students with a working knowledge of the history of the conservative movement – will recognize something familiar about this story. Here we have prominent conservative writers and intellectuals using their platforms to support or endorse regimes whose politics and policies align with their preoccupations, even as the values of those regimes stand in direct opposition to the ideals of American democracy.

Yes, we’ve seen this before.

In 1957, William F. Buckley Jr. published a “Letter from Spain” in the pages of his magazine, National Review. An admirer of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Buckley did not hesitate to praise him in the most effusive terms he could muster:

“General Franco is an authentic national hero. It is generally conceded that he above others had the combination of talents, the perseverance, and the sense of righteousness of his cause, that were required to wrest Spain from the hands of the visionaries, ideologues, Marxists and nihilists that were imposing on her, in the thirties, a regime so grotesque as to do violence to the Spanish soul, to deny, even Spain’s historical identity.”

Five years later, in 1962, Buckley traveled to Mozambique – then under Portuguese colonial rule – where he wrote favorably of the status quo and condemned the United Nations for its anti-colonialism…

And in 1963, Buckley had these sympathetic words for the apartheid government in South Africa:

“They may be wrong, as we may be: but we should try at least to understand what it is they are trying to do, and deny ourselves that unearned smugness that the bigot shows. I cannot say, ‘I approve of Apartheid’ – its ways are alien to my temperament. But I know now it is a sincere people’s effort to fashion the land of peace they want so badly.”

Buckley was an odd duck, but perhaps no more than n overeducated eccentric:

Whatever its source, conservative defenses of, and even affection for, foreign autocracies – of which enthusiasm for Orbán’s Hungary is only the latest example – is too consistent to ignore. It is also, at the same time, a phenomenon of conservative elites, too niche to attribute to the entire movement or its rank-and-file.

Perhaps so, but Jonathan Chait sees this:

In 1919, the progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens visited the nascent Soviet Union and declared, “I have seen the future and it works.” Tucker Carlson’s weeklong visit to Budapest, where he is using his Fox News show as an infomercial for Viktor Orbán’s illiberal regime, is being conducted in much the same spirit. “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,” Carlson gushed to his viewers.

Of course, “democracy” is not a category description any small-d democrat would apply to Hungary, a state that has “dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions” under Orbán, according to Freedom House, which no longer categorizes it as a democracy at all.

And that’s the problem here:

These are not mere details, and Carlson is not overlooking them. He is laying down a marker in the highest profile way he can that Orbán’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.

And that’s what this is:

It is certainly not Hungary’s economy that has attracted a growing number of American right-wing admirers. Hungary has fallen behind its central European peers as Orbán’s corruption and crude populism have spurred many of the nation’s wealthier citizens to leave. Nor is there much conservative inspiration to be mined from Orbán’s pandemic management, which has been simultaneously more heavy-handed and less effective than that of other European governments.

No, it’s something else:

The Trump administration lavished Orbán with praise. Trump has even likened the Hungarian strongman to himself, calling him a “tough man, but he is a respected man, probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s okay. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe.”

Trump’s ambassador in Budapest confessed frankly that his boss envies Orbán’s ability to bully and suppress his critics: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”

And he blew his chance to become just like Viktor Orbán:

Hungary’s democratic backsliding was slow and gradual, without a single dramatic moment when its character flipped from democracy to dictatorship. Even now, it retains the surface trappings of a democracy without the liberal characteristics that make those processes meaningful. If America ceases to be a democracy, it will likely follow a path similar to Orbán’s.

The broad lesson of Trump’s presidency is that clumsy, violent efforts to seize power – such as the January 6 insurrection – will meet with intra-party resistance, but subtler power grabs will not. Republicans decided to shrug at abuses like Trump using American diplomacy as a lever to coerce Ukraine to smear his opponent, refusing to accept the election outcome, or using the presidency to line his own pockets. They have enthusiastically joined in state laws to restrict voting and hand power over elections to party hacks.

What they seem to want is a leader who shares Trump’s contempt for democracy, but possesses a subtler touch. That is the vision Orbán offers.

That may be what this trip was actually about:

The difference between the left-wing American enthusiasts for Soviet communism a century ago and the conservative enthusiasts for Orbánism today is that at least the former were blinded by devotion to an ideal. They believed and hoped the Soviets were building a workers’ paradise and allowed this dream to blind them to the terror state that actually existed. Carlson is not ignoring Orbán’s iron hand. For him, the repression is the very allure.

On the other hand, Kevin Drum offers this:

Just for the record, everyone understands that Tucker Carlson couldn’t care less about Hungary, right? Nor does he care about the policies of its quasi-autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán. And of course, neither does his audience, very few of whom have even heard of Orbán before this week.

Tucker’s weeklong lovefest in Budapest is solely a dumber than usual effort to annoy liberals and prompt them to write earnest thumbsuckers about the conservative love for authoritarians. So how about if we don’t do it? There’s no chance that Hungary will become a model for the US, so we can safely ignore Carlson’s latest stunt.

Okay. Too late. This was one of those earnest thumbsuckers about the conservative love for authoritarians.

But the conservative love for authoritarians is real, and a real worry, and maybe, back in 1956, Eisenhower should have sent in the troops. We could have saved Hungary. And ourselves.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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