You’ve probably heard about Tucker Carlson’s summer holiday in Hungary. The meandering streets, the mighty Danube, historic Matthias Church, a notorious illiberal autocrat. For Carlson, it’s something of a paradise, where the strongman leader Viktor Orbán is free to destroy Hungarian freedom. Courts aren’t delivering the results you want? Replace them. Media outlets criticizing the government? They’re fake news––take them over. Concerned that dissidents and journalists are sowing unrest? Monitor them with some military-grade spyware designed for tracking terrorists.
Understandably, the American media has had a field day. It’s no secret that Fox News has a problem with liberal democracy, and Carlson’s visit let commentators declare––with some legitimacy ––that it’s Carlson’s hope to bring Orbán-style soft dictatorship to America.
But how are they actually going to do it? Well, Tucker’s interview with Orbán actually revealed a surprisingly coherent plan. Curious? Don’t worry––we watched hours of Fox News so you don’t have to. Without further ado, here’s the plot to destroy liberal democracy.
Step One: Purify the Christian Ethno-state
Flying around in a Hungarian military helicopter last week, Carlson peered down longingly at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia. There, right in front of him, was a wall (or more accurately, a chain link fence.) When the migrants began to arrive, Carlson told his audience, “he built a wall.” And that wall “has effectively ended illegal migration into the country.” A bit later the helicopter landed and Tucker watched as two Syrian immigrants were processed. “It was a little confusing to watch.” After light processing procedures, “they were escorted through a door, and we followed them. We thought they were going for further processing, or to meet with their attorneys or some Soros-funded NGO… but that’s not what it was. That door was the border, and as we followed them through they were escorted back where they came from.” He then summarized Hungary’s immigration policy: “This is a real country. We have laws.”
Carlson later asked Orbán about his immigration policy, and Orbán described his vision for the country and his hopes for other countries. “You have to defend your people against any danger,” Orbán told Carlson. “This is not a human right to come here. No way, because it’s our land. It’s a nation, it’s a community. Families, history, tradition, language.” While he might sound like any nationalist, Orbán goes further. “America First is a very positive message here in Central Europe because it means if for Donald Trump, America First; for us Hungary could be first as well, and let’s cooperate on that basis.” It really doesn’t sound all that bad––superficially. But in practice, it’s a world without human rights protections for refugees. It’s a world without global cooperation or higher principles to guide collective action. It’s a world where ethnic or religious minorities aren’t welcome and where dissent is the same as sedition. If you can first turn countries into these regressive ethno-nationalist states, you can start to break down the liberal world order.
Step Two: Turn the EU against Democracy
Orbán has wide latitude to degrade Hungarian democracy, but how could he convince others to join him? Surely not through the EU. After all, Orbán described himself as a victim of the EU to Carlson: “I’m treated like the black sheep of the European Union.” Yet Hungary’s membership is a powerful tool for Orbán, and does more to harm Western democracy than the EU does to discourage Hungarian autocracy.
Orban is using the EU to export illiberalism. His government has practiced a “two steps forward, one step back” strategy by enacting policies that went just too far for the EU to accept, then leveraged that extreme position in negotiations to win concessions out of step with what the EU would otherwise allow. When the European People’s Party (EPP) has tried to rein in Fidesz, the Hungarian party has threatened to join a far-right coalition, reminding the EPP to tread lightly or face a significant political cost. As Europe struggled to manage the Syrian refugee crisis, Orbán riled up ethno-nationalists across Europe, branding himself as the defender of order and stability opposite the chaos.
While the EU stands strongly against Hungarian-style illiberalism, it doesn’t much matter. Hungary is still in the EU, and under Orbán’s leadership it can work to delegitimize democracy in every member state.
Step 3: Establish a New World Order
It’s a big jump from Step 2 to Step 3, but Orbán’s new world order isn’t only an idea: it’s a system that he thinks is spreading.
Besides Hungary, Orban said that “the other Central European countries are also… organizing that kind of communities of conservative and Christian Democrat thinkers as we do.” Already, Hungary “cooperate[s] with those countries” to build “a real Central European network.” The reason Hungary is targeted by the EU, Orbán told Carlson, is that “the western liberals cannot accept that inside the western civilization, there’s a conservative national alternative which is more successful at everyday life at the level of them than the liberal ones.”
With this alliance of illiberal, Central European governments, Orbán (and presumably Carlson) plan to stage a challenge to the established world order. It’s an alliance which Orbán hopes that America just might join, uniting America First policies with Hungary First policies. But in the meantime, the alliance is gaining recruits. Orbán mused that “we can’t exclude the future of the European history when there will be a new migration from west to the east… The Christians and the conservatives try to find a better home. We can’t exclude it.”
No, we can’t exclude it. But we can hope that Tucker returns quietly to Maine, Orbán loses election in what is shaping up to be his greatest challenge since assuming power, and that we might look back on this autocratic rendezvous as the nothing more than a couple of confused, embittered men pining for an imagined past that never really existed.