BUDAPEST – It was a reunion of conservative fellow travelers: a jovial host – who heads an authoritarian government determined to target liberal institutions, including universities, the judiciary, and the media – and his American guest exchanging smiles.
Over the course of a week in which he was broadcasting every evening from Budapest, American talk show host Tucker Carlson posed for photos and interviewed Hungarian authoritarian leader Viktor Orban and took a helicopter to inspect a Hungarian border fence designed to prevent migrants from entering.
The visit of Mr. Carlson, the leading Fox News host, owned by Rupert Murdoch, reinforces Mr. Orban’s mission to establish Budapest as the ideological center of what he sees as an international conservative movement.
For Mr Carlson, the trip to Hungary was an opportunity to put Mr Orban, whom he admires, on the map of his viewers at home, a conservative audience who can be open to the illiberalism promoted by the Hungarian leader. . On Wednesday’s show, Carlson hailed Hungary as “the little country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.”
Mr Carlson’s Fox News show espouses far-right views, particularly on immigration, where he and Mr Orban share common ground. The host presented Hungary’s harsh policies on rejecting asylum seekers as a model for an American immigration system he deems too lenient and has weakened the power of native-born citizens, an argument that , according to critics of Mr. Carlson, overlaps with white supremacist ideology.
A former foreign correspondent for American magazines, Mr. Carlson is also an instinctive television showman, listening to provocation. His friendly interview with Mr Orban sparked a series of thought-provoking articles in the English-speaking media which, although mostly critical of Mr Carlson, gave the Hungarian leader new international media coverage.
Fox News viewers in the United States are tipping in: This week’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight” shows drew an estimated 3 million viewers per night, handily beating the competition on CNN and MSNBC.
Mr Carlson’s visit comes as populist Mr Orban has grown increasingly isolated and is in a precarious position, at home and abroad, in the face of his government’s retreat on democracy and recession. mismanagement by its administration of the coronavirus epidemic.
Mr Carlson’s positive view on Hungary is not shared by many in the European Union, where Mr Orban is often seen as a far-right strongman who has severely weakened democratic institutions, s’ is closer to Beijing and Moscow and has diverted public assets to foundations. controlled by its allies.
Mr Orban’s party is now being challenged by a coalition of six opposition parties in elections scheduled for next year.
In an interview with Mr Carlson aired Thursday, Mr Orban said he expected an effort from the “international left” to oust him next year.
To garner support from his conservative base, he immersed himself in the culture wars that rocked politics in the United States, and in which Mr. Carlson also actively participated, regularly attacking the Liberals.
Mr. Orban’s party recently passed a law restricting representations of homosexuality; critics said it was being used to target the country’s LGBTQ community. And government-aligned media regularly speak out against the destabilizing effect that “awakened” Western culture has on mainstream society.
By moving billions of dollars of money and assets into quasi-private educational foundations controlled by his allies, analysts say, Mr Orban is setting up an ideological control center, backed by paid conservative thinkers from Europe and from North America living in Budapest.
Several conservative European and American public intellectuals have already answered Mr. Orban’s appeal.
American author and journalist Rod Dreher, who writes for The American Conservative (Mr. Carlson sits on its advisory board), has been in Hungary since April, on a paid fellowship at an institute funded by Mr. Orban’s government.
He said he was inspired by the Hungarian leader when he first met him with a group of visiting conservatives in 2019.
“Here is a leader who was not the rogue strongman in the media cartoon, but an intelligent man who had obviously thought deeply about political and cultural issues,” Dreher said.
Hungary was also at the center of the concerns of another American conservative, Stephen K. Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald J. Trump, who traveled to Europe to work with Mr. Orban and other nationalist populist parties before. the 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Mr Bannon’s efforts failed, in part because of the difficulty in reconciling competing national priorities between the different nationalist parties on the continent.
Mr Carlson himself has a family connection to the Hungarian leader – his father, Richard Carlson, is listed as a director of a Washington-based company that has lobbied for Mr Orban in the United States.
In 2019, the company Policy Impact Strategic Communications revealed in a lobbying dossier that it “coordinated an interview with Minister Szijjarto on the Tucker Carlson show”, referring to Péter Szijjártó, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
William Nixon, chief executive officer of the company, said in an interview that Mr Carlson’s father – a former journalist, media official and US ambassador – was not involved in arranging the interview with the Foreign Secretary and is neither an investor nor an employee of the ‘company. A file shows that the company contract with the Hungarian government ended at the end of 2019.
Mr Nixon said the cabinet had no role in organizing Mr Carlson’s trip this week to Hungary. Fox News said Mr Carlson’s father “is retired and has nothing to do” with the visit or meeting with Mr Orban. “Tucker and his team booked the interview and the expenses were covered by Fox News,” the network said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Mr Carlson drove a military helicopter to Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to inspect the chain-link fence erected in 2015 by Mr Orban’s government to prevent migrants from entering the country. He praised the efforts of the government.
Mr Carlson was also due to speak on Saturday at a youth event organized by a “talent management” institute to which Mr Orban’s government has poured billions. And he’s making a documentary about Hungary while there, which is slated to air on Fox Nation, Fox News’ subscription streaming service.
Although Mr Orban is increasingly shunned by many European conservatives, Mr Carlson praised Mr Carlson, describing the Hungarian leader as a virtuous champion of family values and a role model for America.
Since the deadly riot in Washington on January 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, Mr. Orban’s appeal has grown among American conservatives, who have increasingly found a common cause with authoritarian governments, said Dalibor Rohac, senior fellow of the American Institute of Business.
Traditionally, he said, “the conservative disposition has been a distrust of power and the imposition of checks and balances. It has eroded in Hungary.
Benjamin Novak reported from Budapest and Michael M. Grynbaum from New York. Kenneth P. Vogel contributed to Washington reporting.