Foreign Affairs

Orbán, Carlson, and Democracy: A Complicated Love Triangle with International Implications

In a news segment that once would have been considered satire in a country defined by the virtues and institutions of liberal democracy, it seems that America’s loudest cable host has found a new home in Eastern European politics. During a week-long visit to Budapest, Hungary, Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson filmed a documentary and aired his show in the company of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. 

Interviewing and even glorifying foreign leaders is not uncommon to American TV, even when the leaders fall short of democratic ideology. In fact, just before his visit, Carlson made a stop in El Salvador to chat with President Bukele about the future of undocumented immigration and gang activity. Yet, when Orbán announced visit via Facebook, the international community turned its head. 

If one were to take a critical view of the ideology peddled by Orbán and his administration, his political priorities would be clear: anything but democracy. After spending decades in politics, Orbán’s 4th term as prime minister has been defined by an openly illiberal agenda characterized by quasi authoritarianism. Despite having been a champion for democracy and anti-communism in the fallout of the Cold War, Orbán’s commitment to liberty has waned. After years of deep media demonization and media coercion surrounding the refugee crisis (or as he would put it, a “German problem”) of the late 2010s, Orbán’s attacks on democratic institutions put him on a one way road to modern fascism. 

These anti-democratic attacks – usually under the guise of “upholding Christian values” – have been a prominent point of worry among the European community for the last decade, but have grown in frequency in the recent past. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Orbán and his far right party, Fidesz, have ushered through a series of proposals deemed worrisome by democratic advocates. 

First, Fidesz invoked a state of emergency for the pandemic in March 2020 that gave unprecedented powers to Orbán himself. Allowing him to “rule by decree,” the legislation has created an indefinite state of legitimacy for Orbán to do whatever he sees fit when it comes to ruling and enforcing pandemic guidelines. With no end in sight, EU advocates scrutinized the unlikely idea that Orbán would repeal the rule and return to natural parliamentary rule. When pressed about this concern, his Justice Minister Judit Varga explained that, “life will give the answer to this. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, but I think it will be crystal clear for everyone in Europe when the crisis is over.” 

Unfortunately for the legal victims of the administration, the crisis seems far from over. Within the law, Orbán is effectively able to enforce a jail time penalty for individuals who seek to undermine the state’s response to COVID by spreading “fake news”. Yet, If Americans have learned anything from the past six years, it is that the relationship between objective facts and leaders who taunt the slogan “fake news” shifts us toward an Orwellian reality. For those who are not familiar with Orwell’s “1984”, the English author warns his readers about the possibility of a dystopian future in which authoritarian governments enforce their ideologies by presenting opposing viewpoints as disinformation. For American and European audiences, his nightmarish vision slips into danger of becoming reality.

Yet, this surge for government strongholds in the media has only escalated over the summer. Predicated by a constitutional change in December 2020 that redefines “family” to exclude LGBTQ+ individuals from adoption services, Orbán’s crusader style politics have taken a worrisome turn. A new item of legislation passed in June, otherwise known as pride month, openly bans the display of “homosexuality or sex reassignment” for minors in schools, advertisements, or movies. Fortunately, these bold changes in the legal status quo have drawn massive criticism and outrage from the international community. Activists and politicians across the globe, including the President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen, are seeking to bring legal action against Hungary. 

Yet, across the Atlantic, Orbán’s right wing authoritarian tendencies have found a new home among the Trumpian faction of the American Republican Party. As Carlson would probably tout, moral absolutism in political discourse is bad and often labeled as “cancel culture”. And while he would be correct in principle (that all ideas should be up for debate in politics), he is completely wrong to validate the idea that Americans in a democratic system should even consider authoritarianism as a political model. He creates a framework within which he can dismiss arguments from the left by asserting that he is a victim of cancel culture. In doing so, he actively undermines the essential principles that this nation was founded upon and leans into the playbook of notorious illiberal leaders. Despite the fact that nationalism is culpable for this situation, cherishing the American Project’s values of democracy and participatory governance is an essential part of upholding our commitment to our true national identity. 

Chipping away at the foundation of liberal democracy in the name of ‘ideological equality’ poses direct challenges to the systems that empower individuals to speak and act freely without persecution. Celebrating anti-democratic leaders erodes the very framework of having free and unregulated discourse. Following the mantra of “all press is good press,” Carlson’s dedication to glorifying seemingly antithetical values illustrates his shameless sympathy for authoritarian regimes, and his willingness to test the strength of representative government.

Unfortunately, these acts and ideological patterns are fully unsurprising, and have lasting consequences on international politics. Alongside a growing trend of right wing populism, this democratic backsliding has an uncertain effect on the systems and institutions that define our very lives. However, many of these potential consequences can be predicted based on an extensive global history.

In my personal life, after making a split decision last summer to cut Budapest out of my backpacking trip for fear of protest sparked police violence, the real life implications of these political contentions in my personal life illuminated two things: first, that these political shifts cause direct change, and that change is often quite messy, and second, that most Americans are ignorant of how messy these situations can get. 

In an allegorical case study, watching vaccine uptake rates illustrates this divide. Within Europe and North America, vaccine hesitancy is far more prevalent compared to the hesitancy in developing nations. In a 2021 study, these trends are represented by staggering statistics. Nearly 80% of citizens in lower to middle income countries indicate willingness to take the vaccine, whereas only 65% and 30% indicated so in the U.S. and in Russia. Why? It’s because most Americans and Europeans lack the personal experience of surviving the havoc caused by disease, and therefore are less inclined to understand the lifesaving power of vaccination. In other words, Americans (and citizens of other developed countries) find it easy to dismiss the threat of dangerous political change because of the comfort and security of their own status quo. 

In the same way, Americans’ refusal to believe politics can have profound effects on daily life reflects the deep seated assumption that America is a “free country,” and nothing will ever change that. Moreover, championing these leaders popularizes and fantasizes the idea of shifting the structural power within our regime without recognizing the vast potential consequences that it could wreak on society. While these consequences are difficult to predict, marking the trends in political tendencies gives the populace a dramatic and revealing insight as to what our nation’s unwritten history might reveal. Whether that means watching TV superstars frolic with the world’s most unsavory leaders, or being cognizant of how our individual perspectives are affected by status quo bias, being aware of the present is paramount to safeguarding our political future as Americans.

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