“Good evening and welcome to Tucker Carlson Tonight. We’re coming to you this evening from Budapest, Hungary,” Tucker Carlson said to open his show on Monday. “If you care about western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here, right now.”
The introduction followed on the heels of a photo posted to the host’s Twitter account a few hours prior that made those of us who keep an eye on authoritarianism sit up a little straighter. In it, Carlson is standing on a rooftop in picturesque Budapest, listening to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pontificate. News that Carlson would speak at the far-right conference MCC Feszt followed, along with the announcement that his show would broadcast from Hungary all week.
What became apparent very quickly was the nature of the broadcast’s intent. Carlson has, in the past, lauded Orbán and held him up as a champion of Christianity and so-called “western civilization.” These praises have served as glimpses of where the increasingly anti-democratic Republican Party might be interested in going, pairing incredibly well with a constant and troubling flirtation with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, but this on-location broadcast will undoubtedly serve both to introduce Orbán’s authoritarian project in Hungary to conservative American viewers and, if possible, entice them with promises of the results should they continue to accept, support, and fight for efforts to erode democracy and pluralism within the United States.
In a way, Carlson is both broadcasting from a foreign land and a possible future.
To study Orbán’s Hungary is to look in a broken mirror. In his second term as prime minister, he has ruled over his culture as an authoritarian strongman for more than a decade and systematically consolidated power. His means of doing so are eerily reminiscent of tactics that the Republican Party in America has either adopted or has signaled an aspiration to achieve.
When Carlson mentions western civilization and a supposed “attack” on its institutions, what he is referencing is an aggressive ethno-nationalism that has made Orbán and his Fidez Party the undisputed power in Hungary. Orbán’s message is depressingly familiar. In appealing to frustrated Hungarians, he paints a portrait of a country under attack. On the ground, this is encompassed by the threat of immigration, or the welcoming of outsiders that will inevitably dilute the culture of Hungary.
Back in 2015, faced with a developing refugee crisis in Europe, Orbán not only constructed a wall along its southern border, but actually demanded that the European Union reimburse Hungary for “protecting European values.” The wall, much like Donald Trump’s long-promised barrier, served as a metaphor for a society that had decided to define itself in opposition to “outsiders” and “the other,” a position championed by Tucker Carlson, who has claimed that immigrants make the U.S. “dirtier” and criticized Democratic leaders for opposing a wall, saying “they don’t think our country deserves” one.
The story Orbán tells to rationalize his wall and rhetoric should also be recognizable. Using fellow Hungarian George Soros as a catch-all bogeyman, Orbán prides himself as a champion against a massive global conspiracy that involves wealthy and powerful liberals, and international organizations determined to undermine the authority of the state and break the back of nationalistic thought. This has earned high marks from everyone from Carlson to Steve Bannon, who has not only praised Orbán but has used his achievements and policies as jumping off point for his project called The Movement that seeks to inspire populist, nationalist movements and, according to critics, attack the basis of liberal democracy itself.
Arguably it is Orbán’s anti-liberal stance that is most attractive to the right. In an infamous 2014 address that has come to be known as the Tusnádfürdo speech, Orbán told his country that it must “abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society.” This declaration stood in stark contrast to the trajectory of western civilization, for which liberal democracy had been the de facto state of play.
Within this system, certain rights were considered inalienable and automatic. Expression. The press. The right to representative government and the rule of theoretically impartial law. Under Orbán, Hungary has seen a troubling erosion of these principles. In an effort to protect “voting integrity,” the country has been gerrymandered to the point of an effective one-party system, the supposedly impartial judiciary has become a political weapon to be wielded by those in power, media has been effectively dominated to the point of serving as state-sponsored propaganda, widespread and overt corruption has become the norm as Orbán and his allies help themselves to spoils, and even the nation’s education system has been captured and altered, the materials erasing problematic moments in Hungarian history and lionizing the regime, forming what one educator called “the curriculum of a dictatorship.”
What Orbán and his allies have made clear to admirers like Carlson and Bannon is that it is possible, given the willpower and audacity, to reject liberal democracy in the 21st century and realize an authoritarian regime.
The right-wing distrust of liberal democracy began with the birth of liberal democracy. Modern conservatism found its footing with fear and paranoia bred from the revolutionary convulsions of 18th-century France, when the overthrow of the monarchy signaled an abrupt departure from tradition and the beginning of an unpredictable future.
Representative government as opposed to monarchical sovereignty threatened an established hierarchy of power that critics of the revolution, like Edmund Burke, insisted that “men should be frequently thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjugation.” The traditions of the past, including the hierarchy, belief in tried and true culture and religious orthodoxy, were necessary if society was not to spin out of control and inevitable oblivion.
This fear was perpetually accompanied by conspiracy theories, including fears that the revolutions were directly inspired and controlled by secret societies, including the Freemasons and Illuminati, and, eventually, the larger narrative that Jews like George Soros were busy pulling the strings and plotting the destruction of society, the law, and Christianity itself. And, with these fears, came a need for control, including crackdowns of subversives within the nation, defense against those beyond the borders, and a perpetual terror that any change, be it in society or population, might be a precursor to certain destruction.
For centuries this worldview has held sway in history, whether it was the counter-revolutionary government of the British, the Concert of Europe in the 19th century that saw Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich construct an international alliance to oppress liberal thought, or even here in the United States, where red scares beginning in 1917 saw people of color and people on the left persecuted in the name of defending the world from communism.
Currently, we find ourselves in another such moment. The Republican Party of the United States faces historic unpopularity and declining electoral chances. Donald Trump’s presidency accomplished little beyond legitimizing obvious corruption and exposing the limits of oversight and the vulnerability of the system to manipulation. Trump’s Orbán-like appeals, fashioned in part by Bannon, including his promise to “Make American Great Again,” the weaponization of the border and immigration, a constant stream of conspiracy theories and misinformation, and an unending challenge of the rules of government, made increasingly clear that illiberal tactics might find success within the U.S.
The message of the right, transmitted through Fox News, Breitbart, and a constellation of right-wing channels, accounts, and influencers, tells virtually the same story as the horror that Orbán has used to legitimize his crimes. There is importance in western civilization, they maintain, that must be protected at any and all costs, particularly from evil, criminal traitors determined to undermine it. They are in league with foreigners and constantly manipulating people of color. Behind the scenes lies a shadowy threat pulling the strings. They control the media. They control culture. And liberal democracy, with its freedoms, its espoused equality, with its acceptance of diverse identities and ideas, brings with it the contagion of the very populations and creeds that will dilute the country and undoubtedly destroy it.
What is the right willing to do to “save” western civilization and themselves?
Already, in the wake of the 2020 Election, we have seen the Big Lie of the “stolen election” make possible endless audits, conspiracy theories, and a slew of antidemocratic legislation designed to disenfranchise voters. The Critical Race Theory outrage—which has nothing to actually do with “Critical Race Theory” but is an assault on actual history and information—is designed to allow right-wing actors to shape and censor curriculum.
As Carlson began his show, acceptance of this new illiberal path is necessary for anyone who cares about “western civilization, democracies, families.” He has warned them, night after night, that immigration is sullying the country and that it is changing before their very eyes. Should they not act, should they not protect themselves and their nation, it might simply disappear.
Not long after the introduction, Carlson interviewed Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution, who suggested liberal policies and the concept of non-citizens voting reminded him of the circumstances that led to the fall of Rome. Tucker agreed before claiming, “This is being done intentionally, stealing our country from American citizens. That’s exactly what this is and we’re allowing it.” A few seconds later, he charged President Joe Biden with having “already radically changed this country.”
The message is crystal clear. Should nothing be done, should patriots on the right not protect themselves, their traditions, and their culture at all costs, should liberal democracy be allowed to continue to pervert their traditions and customs, they might see it all slip away.
This story has been told time and time again, with varying degrees of success. By broadcasting from Hungary, by singing its praises, Carlson is gifting them a glimpse of a moment they might win.