Tucker Carlson and Viktor Orbán sit at a round wooden table, polished to a mirror finish. Behind them is a grand bookcase full of elegantly bound anthologies. The Fox News host is seated in front of a metal spiral staircase, like in an Ivy League library. The Hungarian prime minister sits in front of a massive national flag.
“Hundreds of thousands of migrants stream into the EU every year,” says Carlson. “And the rest of the EU says ‘Welcome, please come.’ Hungary stands alone in saying no. Why?”
“Well,” replies Orbán. “That was the only reasonable position.” He pauses for a moment. “You have to defend your border. You have to say, ‘Guys, stop!’”
“And you think you have a right to do that?” Carlson presses.
“Of course! It’s coming from God, from nature,” replies Orbán. “Because this is our country. This is our population. This is our history. This is our language. So we have to do that.”
“Saying what you just said,” says Carlson, “I think [that] will make sense to a lot of our viewers.”
Carlson broadcast his Fox News cable show from Budapest, Hungary, throughout the week of August 4. Tucker Carlson Tonight draws in an average viewership of 4.33 million, making it the highest-rated cable news show in US history. Carlson spent the week touring Budapest, visiting Hungary’s border fence, and sitting down for multiple interview segments with Orbán, the hard-right prime minister who has ruled the central European country since 2010. On Saturday, August 7, Carlson spoke at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (or MCC) Festival — a weekend of ultraconservative speakers hosted by the college that Orbán created in the hopes of fostering a new conservative elite.
Carlson’s visit to Hungary highlights the global nature of the current growth of nationalist ideology, white supremacist beliefs, and anti-migrant fearmongering. This trend is being capitalized on by authoritarian populists around the world to cement their power — and is fueling the Republican party’s evolution toward an embrace of fascism.
After spending the last half decade as a mouthpiece for Donald Trump, Carlson has elegantly transferred his allegiance to Orbán, cast as the “Western-style conservative leader” US voters should seek out. Presenting Hungary as a right-wing paradise does not just further Carlson’s ideological manipulation of his viewers — it also allows him to reach an international viewership potentially vulnerable to his brand of misinformation. For him, Orbán’s illiberal Hungary represents a blueprint for successfully subverting a consolidated liberal democracy — and a glimpse into what a more competent version of Trump might be able to achieve.
Sitting down with Carlson and approving his invitation to the MCC conference, Orbán also hoped to expand his own audience. This is a crucial step in his plan to establish the small country as a center for global far-right, white supremacist ideological and cultural production. A recent declaration “protecting sovereignty” signed by ultraconservative as well as “identitarian” political forces from across the EU seems to suggest that such a far-right international is indeed taking shape — with Orbán playing a key role.
The kind of authoritarian populism promoted by Orbán also appeals to broad swaths of the US right. While Carlson is known for his open support of Trump, this is what the Washington Post’s Philip Bump calls “sycophancy-adjacent rather than entirely immersed in the MAGAverse.” The key to Carlson’s support of Trump, Bump elaborates, is that “Trump shares many of his core philosophies, like preserving institutional power for white Americans.”
In this sense, a notable connection to Orbán lies in “replacement theory” — the racist conspiracy theory postulating that white people and their culture will be driven to extinction and overtaken by immigrants of color. As far back as 2017, Carlson used his platform to argue that US Democrats “know if they keep up the flood of illegals into the country, they can eventually turn it into a flood of voters for them.” The Democrats “don’t have to foster economic growth,” Carlson continued, “or be capable administrators, or provide good government. They just have to keep the pump flowing, and power will be theirs.”
Under Orbán’s leadership, replacement theory is official state ideology. Not only was this same theme reflected in his address to the Budapest Demographic Summit in 2019, but it is also the stuff of propaganda leaflets regularly sent by the government to all Hungarian households.
If often resorting to subtler language, conservative US figures draw on this same theory. Earlier this year, House representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar were linked to a plan to create an “America First” caucus, centered around a belief in “Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” and specifically argued that when immigrants are “imported” into the US “en masse,” it threatens American culture’s “long-term existential future.”
The political influence of this ideology can hardly be understated: an April 2021 survey by GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson “found that nearly half of Republican respondents believe politics is about ‘ensuring the country’s survival as we know it’” and that “there is a ‘real sense in the Republican coalition today that they are under siege.’”
Trump Before Trump
With such clear affinities, it’s no wonder Steve Bannon once called the Hungarian premier “Trump before Trump.” Orbán has cemented his power around the idea that a pure, ethnically homogeneous nation must be preserved from outside attacks. While he refrains from openly talking about race, it is blatantly obvious what he means when he talks about “homogeneity” and the preservation of “Judeo-Christian civilization” from a planned invasion organized by shadowy forces, like NGOs supported by George Soros. Orbán is careful not to openly endorse Nazi groups, particularly given the importance of his alliance with the Israeli far right. Rather, in the thirty years since Soviet troops left the country, Orbán’s Fidesz party has strategically built itself on a foundation of right-wing authoritarian populist ideology that has become popular with despots around the world.
The transferability of this message shone through from the Hungarian premier’s conversation with Carlson. “This is our country, this is our population,” Orbán tells the Fox News host. “This is our history; this is our language. . . . You can’t say simply [say,] ‘It’s a nice country, and I would like to come and live here because it’s a nicer life.’ [There] is not a human right to come here, because it’s our land. It’s a nation. It’s a community. Family. History. Tradition. Language.”
“Oooh . . . they’re so triggered by that!” replies Carlson. “‘Family. History. Tradition. Language.’ They hate it when you say that. But why? Those are all good things!”
Since taking power in 2010, Orbán and the Fidesz party have overseen Hungary’s slide into kleptocracy and authoritarianism. This “hybrid regime” has the trappings of representative government — a parliament, elections, some form of media — but in practice, it has been entrenched into a centralized, top-down power structure dominated by Orbán’s close associates.
After Fidesz won 68 percent of seats in parliament in 2010, granting it a so-called supermajority, Orbán was able to replace Hungary’s constitution with an “alaptörény” — a set of “fundamental laws.” In 2014, he declared Hungary an “illiberal democracy,” arguing that liberal values today represent “corruption, sex, and violence.” Today, the electoral watchdog Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deems Hungary’s elections free but not fair, making Hungary a “ballot box autocracy” in which authoritarians design and use manipulative practices such as widespread gerrymandering and a controlled media environment to ensure their continued power.
Carlson is eager to introduce his viewers to Orbán because he is so easily compared to Trump. And the Hungarian premier is only too keen to return the favor. “Donald Trump was a great friend of Hungary,” the prime minister tells Carlson. “He was very supportive of us. Not just personally but politically also. . . . ‘America First’ is a very positive message in Central Europe. Because it means if, for Donald Trump, ‘America First,’ it means that, for us, Hungary could be first as well.”
As well as describing the European Parliament as a group of “useful idiots,” Orbán has especially criticized EU migration policy. In 2015, when refugees from Africa and the Middle East came to Hungary’s border via what is sometimes called the Balkan route, Orbán began to demonize them as well, building a fence along the border with Serbia, where asylum-seekers faced severe human rights abuses. During his time in Budapest, Carlson visited this same fence in person and was clearly impressed — calling the border “peaceful” with “no suffering mass of humanity.” For him, it showed that Hungary has “no desire to destroy itself” and “no desire to encourage crime and misery and unemployment in its cities.”
In Carlson’s portrayal, Hungary is an “obvious success.” “There’s an option to the chaos and crime and filth growing all around us,” Carlson tells his viewers. “We don’t have to live like that anymore; actually, we could have a functioning country [like Hungary]. All we’d have to do is uphold our own laws. . . . Other smaller countries, far less privileged places, have figured this out.”
To emphasize his point, Carlson airs footage of downtown Budapest taken by his film crew.
“There are not tent cities of drug addicts living in the parks here,” he says. “There isn’t garbage and human waste littering the sidewalks. People don’t get beheaded at intersections. BLM is not allowed to torch entire neighborhoods in Budapest. That’s how Americans used to live before our leaders decided they no longer care about you. The Hungarian government protects its border because it wants to protect its citizens.”
It speaks volumes about Carlson’s lack of professional integrity that he makes no mention of the areas where he and Orbán hold wildly divergent views. For instance, while Carlson calls China a threat to the West, Orbán has an excellent relationship with the Chinese Communist Party and is determined to allow Fudan University to open a campus in Budapest. Tellingly, when Carlson did voice criticism of Xi Jinping, not only did Orbán avoid responding, but the Hungarian government simply censored this comment from the state copy of the interview transcript. Orbán’s administration similarly tried to block a recent EU statement critical of China’s actions in Hong Kong.
Carlson — who frequently cries censorship and claims that voices like his are silenced by “Joe Biden’s allies within Silicon Valley” — has not responded to this omission. This is yet another indication of how Carlson is using Hungary to project internal US politics — it doesn’t truly matter to him if he disagrees with the reality of Orbán’s government.
This is also apparent on the question of COVID-19 vaccines and whether people should be compelled to take them. While Carlson did cast scientifically unfounded doubts about the efficacy of vaccines and considers vaccine passes a violation of freedom, Orbán was one of the first leaders in Europe to introduce such a pass, without which people cannot access a number of indoor venues.
There are other gaping holes in Carlson’s account. It is true that, compared to the United States, Hungary has relatively low levels of violent crime. This is likely due to several factors, including significantly lower levels of gun ownership. Indeed, Carlson conveniently fails to recognize the fact that other EU countries, including those that embrace multiculturalism, also have significantly lower rates of violent crime than the United States. As for homelessness, Carlson does not mention that, up until 2018, Hungary had one of the largest per capita populations of people living on the streets in the EU. What changed that year was that Orbán’s Fidesz party used its power to amend Hungary’s “fundamental laws” to make homelessness illegal. Thirty thousand unhoused people across Hungary, many of them in Budapest, were forced to either find housing or face imprisonment, where they are required to labor for the state (indeed, incarcerated labor was used to build the border fence that Carlson so admired).
Carlson nonetheless claims to be speaking truth to power. Addressing the MCC Festival, Carlson told the crowd that, as a cable news show, “We have no real power other than to talk unimpeded, which is an increasingly rare luxury in the United States.” Carlson frequently bemoans the state of press freedom in the United States — claiming that all media is beholden to what the “liberal establishment” (the Biden administration, at the moment) tells it to do. It is indeed true that US media is increasingly beholden to corporate monopolies. But as Carlson sees it, Fox News is the only accurate, unbiased media source willing to defy the journalistic establishment. And he compares American media consolidation with that of Hungary, where hundreds of formerly private news outlets were simultaneously “donated” by their owners to a central company run by Orbán’s close personal friends — all in a single day in 2018.
But for the Fox News host, the Hungarian press is, if anything, far freer than its US counterpart. He continues his MCC speech, reading a tweet from Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum from his phone. “In Orbán’s Hungary, 90 percent of the media is controlled by the ruling party. Businesses are repeatedly harassed if they don’t toe the party line. Elections are manipulated. Party leaders are mysteriously rich.” A ripple of laughter passes through the crowd. “And I said to myself,” Carlson continues, “‘Wait a minute! I live in that country!’”
A Better Home
Orbán’s regime clearly sought to use the visit by a famous international personality for domestic propaganda purposes — and Carlson did him a great favor in casting him as the defender of a “normalcy” America has lost. Orbán shared multiple posts about his meeting with Carlson on his social media platform, and the Fidesz-aligned new network Hír TV broadcast Carlson’s entire MCC lecture.
But not everyone in Hungary was impressed. One of the country’s few remaining independent news websites, 444.hu, described it as “one of those rare events that take place in Hungary yet attract greater attention in America than in Hungary.” There was, nonetheless, strong criticism. When Carlson asked Orbán about how he feels about Joe Biden calling him a totalitarian thug, Orbán claimed that such statements are an insult to the Hungarian people. Responding to this, Budapest’s green mayor, Gergely Karácsony, said that the real insult is not what Biden said but the fact that the prime minister of Hungary is indeed a totalitarian thug.
It is important to note that, while Orbán and his Fidesz government are kleptocratic authoritarians, Hungary is still far from a totalitarian system enacting total control over citizens’ everyday lives. Yet through policies like encouraging white, Hungarian, Christian families to have more children to combat the supposed decline of the white population, the prime minister does push a harsh identitarianism, in explicit counterposition to Western liberal democracy. Orbán told Carlson that Hungary is the alternative of choice for the “millions and millions of people who disagree with the direction of the policy taken at this moment,” policy that is “against protecting the families” and “based on migration,” that is “welfare-oriented,” and that is more “Open Society” — a reference to George Soros’s nonprofit organization promoting civil society.
Orbán has been pushing to transform Hungary into this alternative — with a particular emphasis on fostering right-wing culture and academia. Mathias Corvinus Collegium, the school hosting the event that Carlson spoke at this past weekend along with leaders within the international conservative community like Dennis Prager of PragerU, is a centerpiece of this agenda. The school, which was originally founded in 1996 to train Hungary’s elite in a post-Soviet world, has become one of the thirty-two conservative, government-affiliated organizations in Hungary. This network includes foundations, think tanks, parks, concert halls, a cinema, and even a boarding school. These organizations receive billions of dollars annually in public funding — despite being privately owned and run. Orban allocated $1.7 billion USD to MCC at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, about 1 percent of the country’s GDP.
This comes on the heels of Orbán’s attempt to dismantle both higher education and any kind of dissident academic thinking. Orbán has banned gender studies in Hungary, forced the expulsion of the Central European University, an international school cofounded by George Soros, and seized control of Hungary’s five largest public universities.
Orbán envisions Hungary as a right-wing paradise — as he tells Carlson, a central hub within a more extensive international network of “conservative and Christian Democrat thinkers.” That is why, Orbán says, “Ordinary citizens are moving to Central European countries,” like Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Even as Hungary closes its borders to asylum-seekers, it is opening its arms to the “many Christian families and conservative families who think that Western Europe is not secure enough, [that] the future is unstable.”
“There will be a new migration,” the prime minister tells Carlson, by “the Christians and the Conservatives trying to find a better home.”
For the Fox News star who claims to love America, the hope is to make his home a bit more like Hungary.