Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s interview last Thursday with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was a dangerously misleading presentation of one of the most serious breakdowns of democracy in the past decade. In the interview, Mr. Carlson compliments Mr. Orbán’s efforts and expresses astonishment at the criticism directed at him by American liberals. After all, according to Mr. Carlson, Mr. Orbán is merely making Hungary freer with simple, common-sense conservative measures to restrict immigration and promote the family. That liberals are so disgusted with Hungary is merely a sign of their own degeneracy.
If a viewer of the interview isn’t familiar with what has been going on in Hungary for the past eleven years, it might be easy to believe that Mr. Orbán’s brand of politics is no big deal. However, there’s certainly more going on beneath the surface. If Mr. Orbán were just any center-right figure, he’d hardly be worth remarking on. He is the leader of a small country with a small economy. Either Mr. Orbán’s liberal critics are truly deranged, as Mr. Carlson clearly wants his viewer to believe, or there is something very rotten in the state of Hungary that Mr. Carlson doesn’t want viewers to see.
In the first episode of Spectacles: Bird’s Eye, Harry and Philip discussed Mr. Orbán’s Hungary as an example of a political regime claiming to have established democracy without liberalism, or the rights and guarantees that protect freedom of speech, expression, and equality before the law. As we noted in that episode, Mr. Orbán himself has actively claimed to be building an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. Yet that was hardly on display in this interview. What, then, is going on in Hungary? Has a majority truly placed its faith in Mr. Orbán’s vision as he claims? Are Hungarians really freer than Americans, as Mr. Carlson claims? And if not, why all these lies?
When Mr. Orbán’s party, Fidesz, won a parliamentary supermajority in the 2010 Hungarian elections, it did indeed win the popular vote, although barely. Wielding this disproportionate majority, Mr. Orbán rewrote the country’s constitution, amending electoral laws to make it easier to maintain his party’s supermajority, while packing the Constitutional Court with his allies. In the two elections which have taken place since 2010, Fidesz has twice failed to capture more than 50% of the vote but has twice succeeded in maintaining its supermajority, a product of the new, biased electoral laws.
With an absolute grasp on power in his own party, and in turn an effectively absolute grasp on power in his country, Mr. Orbán has pursued some policies which are amenable to conservatives: restrictions on immigration, tax credits for large families, and anti-LGBT legislation. But it’s important to note, as Mr. Carlson so carefully avoids admitting, that he has done this without a true popular majority behind him.
So too is it the case that what popularity he has is likely in large part thanks to his allies buying up just about all major media companies in Hungary through his crackdown on dissident publications. Say something Mr. Orbán doesn’t like, and you’re likely to find yourself buried in fines and forced to close shop or sell off your business to his cronies. In other words, rejecting those key tenets of liberalism—like freedom of speech and press—has enabled his anti-democratic efforts. Likewise, it is curious how Mr. Orbán’s friends and allies seem to find themselves enriched by his rule. This is what Mr. Carlson calls freer than America.
Mr. Carlson’s silence on the matter of how Mr. Orbán has come to exercise power is telling. Mr. Orbán and Mr. Carlson are both populists; in other words, they claim that they or those whose ideologies they support are the sole legitimate representatives of a “pure” people, setting themselves against a corrupt—and more or less imagined—homogeneous global elite. Whether both men actually believe this, are merely acting, or some combination of the two, this explains the silence. In their view, Mr. Orbán and those like him, including former President Donald Trump, are indeed the only legitimate representatives, even if they do not enjoy support from a majority of their citizens. Those citizens who do not support them, then, are not true Hungarians or Americans at all.
Where such an ideology leads—in fact already has led—is deeply disturbing, and citizens ought to beware the misleading air of democratic legitimacy eagerly provided by Mr. Carlson and Fox News to Mr. Orbán and his destruction of democracy. Their friendly sitdown is clear evidence that profound challenges to democracy are neither academic nor far away—they are in our homes, and on our television screens.