Tucker Carlson is only the latest — and most famous — American conservative to find inspiration in the autocratic government of Hungary under Viktor Orban. The Fox News personality last week hosted his show, one of the most popular on cable news, from the capital city of Budapest and on Saturday was scheduled to deliver a speech, advertised as “The World According to Tucker Carlson,” to a conference of far-right activists.
To critics, Orban’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.
Carlson is not alone. “Orban’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,” Zack Beauchamp wrote in a piece for Vox last year.
Orban’s American admirers include 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.”
At this point, students of American political history 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.
We’ve seen this before. Many times, in fact.
In 1957, William F. Buckley Jr. published a “Letter from Spain” in the pages of his magazine, National Review. An admirer of 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.”
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.”
And in 1977, James Burnham, a staunch anti-communist and one of the most influential conservative political theorists of the postwar years, wrote a brief defense of the apartheid government in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
“Although under the present Rhodesian government only 5% of the population possesses a considerable degree of democracy, that is of itself enough to put Rhodesia well up on the democratic scale,” he said, dismissing American and international critics of the apartheid state.
Whatever its source, conservative defenses of, and even affection for, foreign autocracies — of which enthusiasm for Orban’s Hungary is only the latest example — is too consistent to ignore.
Rather than treat it as a pathology of conservatism writ large, I am inclined to follow the lead of Jeet Heer, a columnist at The Nation, who sees this enthusiasm as a form of “transferred nationalism,” a term borrowed from George Orwell’s famous 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism.”
But at this moment in American life, it’s conservatives who have set their sights abroad. Parts of the movement have even adopted a kind of anti-Americanism; a contempt for the United States as it exists. These conservatives still call themselves “patriots” — and disdain their opponents as “traitors” — but theirs is an abstract loyalty to an idealized country.
It makes sense that as this tendency develops, so too does the yearning for a country that can be hailed as a model and a lodestar — the soaring and gilded counterpoint to our fallen and decadent society.
But that too is projection. And sooner or later, the conservatives who hail Hungary under Orban as an attractive alternative to the United States will see that their vision of that country is as false as their image of this one is.
Jamelle Bouie is a New York Times Opinion columnist.