In the great movie, “A Man For All Seasons”, there’s a classic scene when Thomas More speaks to his ultimate betrayer and former friend, Richard Rich, who had lied about him under oath in exchange for the position of the attorney-general of Wales. More was set to be executed as a result of Rich’s testimony. Looking at Rich, More scoffs: “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales!”
I keep thinking about this when contemplating the American right’s new flirtation with the illiberal, corrupt, authoritarian government in Hungary. When I think of the soul of Anglo-American conservatism, I think of limited government, incremental change, a concern for social cohesion, and a defense of old-school liberalism — a free press, free speech, free association, free markets, freedom of religion.
I think of a government eager to ensure that capitalism can work without excessive government intervention, but also a dedication to enforcing the integrity of the market — busting monopolies, regulating stock markets, prosecuting corruption. I think of a conservatism that enforces borders, but has no issue with vibrant, moderate immigration.
And yet many on the right now seem happy to chuck all this into the dustbin of history — in order to make a pilgrimage to a nasty little regime that for some rather ugly reason gives them hope.
In almost every respect, it is vitally important to note, the Hungarian government is profoundly anti-conservative. It is deeply corrupt, treating the free market as a joke, with one man directing vast amounts of state funds to his friends and cronies in return for their support. Its free press is under siege, with “nearly 80 percent of the market for political and public affairs news … financed by sources decided by the ruling party.” State advertising is a huge part of media budgets, and Viktor Orbàn ensures it goes to his outlets. Its government monitors the Internet for violations of the moral order, forcing one university to leave the country entirely, while setting up a heavily subsidized complex of pro-Orbàn right-wing institutions to rival the left’s.
Orbàn also has no intention of losing power — even if he were to lose the next election. He is constructing a private deep state in Hungary that controls almost the entire higher education system, transferring massive amounts of public funds to his loyalists who will dictate curricula in eleven universities. “Basically a parallel state is being composed, a state within a state, where the next government has very little room to implement its election program. Because until then, the state is simply outsourced,” said Bernadett Szel, an independent lawmaker, told the AP.
In Hungary, economic freedom means that your job is often dependent on your loyalty to the regime, and where Orbàn-supportive oligarchs police their workforces for dissent. In Hungary, representative government means an election system that Orbàn has so gerrymandered and rigged, he can win two-thirds of the parliamentary seats with less than 50 percent of the vote — and thereby amend the constitution to perpetuate his kleptocracy. In Hungary, the judiciary has been so shamelessly packed, it is loyal first of all to Orbàn, whose power keeps increasing as a result of his gerry-rigged super-majority in parliament. And Orbàn himself appears motivated by nothing as much as the amount he can steal from his own citizens. Which is quite a pile of lucre.
None of this is particularly hard to find out. This miserable cultish regime doesn’t try very hard to disguise its brand of corrupt illiberalism — and delights in the spasms of discomfort this provokes among EU elites. But this, it appears, is precisely what draws members of the disaffected American and British right. Orbàn has many of the same enemies as they do, and in tribal politics, that’s more important than what we used to think of as conservative principles.
The second source of Orbàn’s appeal is his dogged refusal to accept any Muslim refugees from Syria, and to have set up an effective fence to ensure that migrants have to bypass Hungary to get to the EU. The third appeal seems to be his willingness to deploy old-school fear of gays and transgender people to rally the heartland against toxic Western elites. The themes of country, family, Christianity, and ethnic homogeneity are Orbàn’s go-to arguments/dog-whistles, as you can see in the video above.
What you also see in that sit-down interview is Tucker Carlson making a series of false comparisons between the US and Hungary, in order to portray Orbàn’s one-party illiberalism as somehow superior to contemporary America. Like Jane Fonda before him, Tucker went to a foreign country to denigrate and smear his own. He equated a predominantly left-liberal press in a free society with an overwhelmingly pro-Orbàn media, sustained directly by government funding. He compared Obama’s post-presidential lucrative and transparent ventures in the media market to the wealth of corrupt oligarchs in Eastern Europe, who steal their wealth from the state.
Tucker then described Orbàn’s opposition as a bunch of anti-Semites (some are) without once noting Orbàn’s own rhetoric: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward, but crafty; not honest, but base; not national, but international; does not believe in working, but speculates with money.” Hmmm. Tucker knows this. His decision to deflect from Orbàn’s anti-Semitism and suggest that he was the main force opposing it is simply despicable.
Tucker then equated the pressure of citizens and online mobs in a free society with the power of an illiberal government to shut down a university or undermine opposition media by financial means. He described America as one in which free speech was effectively over, even though the First Amendment has never been stronger in the courts. He distorted a quote from Biden, repeatedly insisting that the president had personally called Orbàn “a totalitarian thug” — which Tucker’s own clip showed to be untrue. He insinuated that shadowy global elites were going to intervene in Hungary’s election next year to get rid of Orbàn, in a direct pandering parallel to Trump’s deranged fantasies.
And in his fellatial conversation with Orbàn, Tucker actually allowed the prime minister to give the impression that Hungary was now dealing with immigration from other European states, when, of course, it’s Hungary that’s fast losing its younger population to freer societies like Germany and the UK. He also let Orbàn give the impression that he was defending a Christian country against secular nihilists, when, in fact, post-communist Hungary is profoundly secular, and Orbàn’s adherence to Christianity is about as credible as Trump’s. The transactional cynicism of this money-grubber is world-class. And the simpering flattery of Tucker made Sean Penn’s interview with Fidel Castro look like hard-hitting journalism.
Orbàn — who was once an atheist and a fervent supporter of EU integration — seems a man for whom power always trumps principle, and who, having once lost an election, vowed, Trump-like, never to lose one again. “Once he is in possession of a constitutional majority, he will turn this into an impregnable fortress of power,” a critic wrote. And so he has — with the longest record of any leader in Europe bar Merkel.
And in his authoritarianism, Orbàn is often in direct conflict with Tucker’s usual politics. Take Orbàn’s response to Covid. He swiftly seized emergency powers that allowed him to “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations and implement additional extraordinary measures by decree.” That power was indefinite. Tucker didn’t let his viewers know that. And yes, this is the same Tucker who reacted (not wrongly) to Biden’s unconstitutional moratorium on evictions (initiated under Trump, natch) by calling it “totalitarian.” He then described Pelosi as a “dictator”, and declared that “representative democracy has been our system for nearly 250 years. But apparently it’s now over”:
Tucker routinely lambastes Twitter’s clumsy, private sector attempts to censor some Covid19 info. But did he mention Orbàn’s policy of preventing dissemination of what the government regards as “misinformation”? Nah. Maybe that’s because in Hungary, Orbàn would put you in jail for one to five years for challenging the government diktat. So Carlson goes abroad to suck up to a kleptocratic authoritarian and, while he’s there, lambastes his own country’s government as “totalitarian.” Really, he’s the new right’s version of Susan Sontag.
Tucker is also thrilled about Orbàn’s fence. Well, in so far as Orbàn was capable of actually building one, unlike the useless POS that Tucker supported for four years, fine. But seriously, equating Hungary and the US on immigration? The US spans a continent and is overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of migrants pouring over the border right now; Hungary, in stark contrast, is the size of Indiana, and losing population fast, as its young and brightest emigrate in large numbers. The Hungarian border is a fraction of the size of America’s, and migrants, when they reach Orbàn’s fence, have plenty of other places to go. And Hungary is overwhelmingly homogeneous ethnically and relatively poor; the US is the biggest, richest, most multiracial democracy in human history. The US needs a strong border to keep people out; given Hungary’s poverty and stagnation, Orbàn may at some point need a fence to keep his most talented people in.
In fact, it’s hard to see any area where Hungary could be a sane model for the US. Its size, demography, culture, homogeneity, history and economy are so, so different. Our very Constitution forbids the idea that the US could be deemed a “Christian democracy,” the term used by Orbàn to describe his country. So what is the appeal?
Its appeal, surely, is that it represents post-liberalism. Go there and you’ll see white people everywhere, with none of the racial and cultural diversity in so much of the West. Hungary may not have much actual thriving Christianity, but it sure validates Christianity as a political identity superior to all others. It rejects “a godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration and open societies,” in Orbàn’s own words.
“Rainbow families.” Marriage equality is forbidden in Hungary’s very constitution — as the Christianist right tried to do in the US a decade and a half ago. There is now a law banning even depictions of gay or trans people in media available to minors — which means almost all of media. Every legal and constitutional measure against gay or trans people is sickeningly portrayed as an attempt to protect children from child molesters. And it is this direct government control of the content of media — in order to demonize a minority — that Tucker Carlson seems to prefer to the First Amendment. What an absolute disgrace.
There are elements of Trumpism worth retaining and refining: a concern to keep immigration at levels we can absorb without dislocation and backlash; to shift trade policies toward protecting American workers more than we have; to leave neoconservative foreign policy in the past; to counter the elite’s relentless snobbery, incompetence and illiberal neoracism and belief in race and sex discrimination.
But the Hungary obsession suggests that these are not the core lessons some on the right have learned. They seem rather to want a leader whose corruption they are happy to enable as long as he exercises the full power of the state against their enemies; they want to counter the illiberal propaganda from left elites with illiberal propaganda from right-wing government; they regard the judiciary as an obstacle to be overcome or packed into submission rather than an essential check on executive and legislative power; they want the state to legally ban the teaching of certain subjects in schools; and they seem to admire a man who neutered the liberal press and criminalized free expression if it went against the regime’s party line.
It seems as if they had a whiff under Trump of the power the state can wield against their domestic enemies. And they want more of it. Orbàn relishes this exercise of power. Which is why they relish him.
In one respect, this is repulsive: conservatives trolling Eastern Europe for ugly authoritarians to champion, exactly as American communists once did — Tucker Carlson becoming the illiberal right’s Angela Davis. In another respect, it’s pathetic. Rather than engage America in all its multiracial and multicultural complexity, and win new minority voters over to conservative values and policies; they are so drunk with tribal hatred and paranoia they run away to a reactionary, all-white, authoritarian fantasy land in order to damn their own country from abroad.
I didn’t think it was possible, but the degeneracy of the conservative mind in America just got worse. They are now openly longing for an overthrow of liberal democracy in favor of an illiberal state they can deploy to fight their enemies. It beggars belief what they might defend in the future.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: yet another big round of reader dissents over my opinion on the pandemic right now; a pod conversation with an expert on China and Confucius to help us understand the challenging issue of confronting President Xi; seven recommended pieces from smart substackers; five notable quotes on race, gender, and John Waters’ commemorative johns; a moment of Zen with a munching beaver, and another vid of a persistent pussy cat; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge, looking at more sailboats. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a new Dishhead:
Your weekly Dish was referred to me by a great friend of mine who met you when you ushered at Hitch’s service. I’m right here in Washington, just off the central axis of 16th, and the atmosphere of the city is individual — certainly electric (if you’ll let me get away with the cliche) and bracing if nothing else. But the D.C. talk moves quickly, and the lines on the issues can be slippery. The Dish cuts through the jumble for those things, and more. It is especially clear-minded and seems to have a sort of sense of the human pulse — and that’s rare.
And Chris Bodenner’s weekly VFYW is magnificent. The way your audience finds these windows (by measuring, say, bridge azimuths, and lately finding the exact pane of glass in a globe on top of a tower) is just delightfully ridiculous. They should’ve had your readers on bin Laden. One leaked picture of his dirt garden and they’d have him pinned by lunch.
On a serious and maybe personal note, some of your writing has singularly edged me towards Catholicism (which I think is really saying something, from a twenty-something with no religion in the family). Thanks for what you do.
Out On A Limb: Update
To say I’ve been surprised by the reception (so far) of my collection of essays would be an understatement. No writer deserves a review as beautifully written and as thoughtfully argued as David French’s in the NYTBR. Or an interviewer as sharp and as empathetic as Walter Isaacson:
My Morning Joe hit is next — and has me agreeing with Al Sharpton!
And the audiobook can be purchased here. I recorded the entire thing in my own voice — which is why I was a shut-in when PTown’s bacchanal happened. The book has all my major essays on gayness, Catholicism, conservatism, wokeness, Trump, Obama, along with explorations of the appeal of opium, the lessons of plagues, the power of testosterone, and appreciations of Monica Lewinsky, Princess Diana, John Roberts, Bayard Rustin, and Abraham Lincoln. Here’s an excerpt of my reading the first essay, “Here Comes The Groom,” from 1989, which launched the public debate of marriage equality:
Thank you so much for your support and encouragement and criticism over the last three decades. The book is rightly dedicated to you:
New On The Dishcast: Michael Schuman
Michael, currently in Hong Kong, is a veteran journalist on East Asian affairs and a regular contributor to The Atlantic and Bloomberg. He’s written a book on Confucius, and his most recent one, Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, explores the driving force behind the current Xi regime. After our episode with Peter Beinart that touched on China, and after the reader dissents that made me rethink, we wanted to bring on a Sinophile to help us sort through the most important foreign policy issue of the next decade.
For three clips of my conversation with Michael — on whether China is really that culturally alien to the West and its economic system, on the overt structural racism and sexism in China, and on the current relevance of Confucius in foreign affairs — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
That link brings you to more China commentary from the best readers around, Dishheads. Several of them offer concrete ways to counter the CCP without resorting to war. A reader stationed with the U.S. Navy in Hawaii sketches out the military threat, another reader provides a scenario that would bleed China without resorting to US forces, and another worries that China wouldn’t even have to invade Taiwan to overtaken it — just look at Hong Kong.
Dissents Of The Week: Kids And Covid, Ctd
The pushback continues, mostly due to my appearance — and the appearance of your dissents — on Anderson’s show this week:
A reader pounces on me for telling Anderson that young children are 18 times more likely to drown than die of Covid:
Please stop using statistical non-sequiturs to defend your argument — you’re better than that. Sure, and the chance of being killed by lightning are even slimmer compared to Covid and lots of other events, but that does not mean we should not advise taking shelter on a golf course if a thunderstorm is brewing. So in the absence of protections like mask mandates and remote learning, how do you think we should protect kids from Covid?
Read my response here — along with five more sharp dissents from readers that I respond to. As always, please keep up the constructive criticism, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (don’t forget to include part of the window frame, and if we pick you pic, we’ll give you a free subscription): firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.