"You Should Know What's Happening Here in Hungary," read the Fox News chyron as Tucker Carlson kicked off a week of broadcasts from Budapest. Earlier that day, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had posted a photograph on his Facebook page of himself and Carlson deep in conversation, and Carlson did the same on Twitter. Carlson's a star attraction at MCC Feszt, a conference associated with the government-funded Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which aims to train a future right-wing elite.
The pompous title of Carlson's speech, "The World According to Tucker Carlson," may seem laughable, but there's nothing funny about this encounter. Carlson's world aligns to an alarming degree with that of Orbán, a wily political operative who claims Hungary is an "illiberal democracy" but as of 2020 rules by decree.
Orbán's embrace of ethno-nationalism ("Hungary for the Hungarians”) anti-Semitism (anchored in his obsession with destroying his former friend George Soros) and defense of “Christendom” and white European heritage have made him a beacon of the far right, and Budapest into a hub for a new generation of extremists. So have his "pro-family," and anti-LBGTQ+ policies. In 2018 he banned gender studies from higher education and in 2020 ended the legal recognition of transgender and intersex people.
All of these political positions are likely familiar to viewers of Carlson's show, as is the anchor's praise for Orbán. "Should we follow Hungary's example?" he asked his audience in 2019, lauding the country's pro-natalist policies in the wake of Orbán's visit with former president Donald Trump.
While Tucker's own political ambitions remain unclear, he may be the newest partner of the Hungarian leader, who has mentored right-wing political stars such as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, head of the racist League party.
The goal of these alliances has always been to mainstream far-right values. In 2018 Kurz met with Orbán and called for an “axis of the willing” against illegal migration among Hungary, Italy, and Austria (all Fascist or collaborationist states during World War II). Salvini and Orbán, together with right-wing Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, formed a new European Parliamentary group to foster a "European Renaissance based on Christian values" and "make Europe great again."
Orbán has arguably been among the most successful sitting leaders at creating an electoral autocracy - the 21st century way of being a strongman that entails keeping a veneer of democracy going while turning elections into sham events, taking judicial and press freedoms away, and suffocating society slowly. As Kim Lane Scheppele Lane writes, "the new autocrats come to power not with bullets but with laws," and "know how to game the system," rigging elections in technical ways, including threatening voting officials or harassing them with expensive legal proceedings.
This is where the GOP is heading, accelerating the agenda of the Trump presidency to undo our democratic freedoms and institutions. As I observed in 2019 on the occasion of Orbán's White House visit, the goal of the Trump presidency was also to align America with the global right.
Carlson is the perfect megaphone for that continuing effort and the perfect extremist for our time of developing electoral autocracy. He is a racist radical with a clean-cut exterior. He wears a jacket and tie as he takes positions in line with those of Fascist thugs past and present. "What's Happening in Hungary" could be America's future - that's the real message coming out of Budapest this week.