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We asked Republican senators about Tucker Carlson's favorite authoritarian leader. Their praise and dodges underscore the danger to the US.

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Tucker Carlson interviewing Viktor Orbán
The Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. YouTube
  • Carlson's recent visit to Hungary sparked alarm among democracy watchdogs and Democratic lawmakers.

  • But some Republican senators endorsed Carlson's embrace of Viktor Orbán and his authoritarian model.

  • Romney, however, denounced Orbán as an autocrat who's "only a few clicks away from Vladimir Putin."

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The host of America's most-watched cable news show recently spent a week in Budapest extolling the virtues of a small European country sliding into autocracy, triggering alarm among democracy experts and Democratic lawmakers.

Insider approached nearly a dozen Republican senators this week to ask them whether they endorse Fox host Tucker Carlson's promotion of Hungary's right-wing populist leader. Their answers - and nonanswers - underscore the ongoing erosion of support for democracy on the American right.

Some Republican lawmakers either tacitly or explicitly portrayed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's government as a model for US conservatives. Others insisted they weren't well-informed enough to answer questions about Hungary, which has attracted widespread condemnation, while putting its European Union membership in question.

"The only thing I know about [Orbán] is what I heard right there on [Carlson's] program," Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who's served in the Senate for 40 years, told Insider at the Capitol on Tuesday. "I saw enough snippets that I thought that he was a rational person."

"I haven't been tracking what's happening," Tennessee Sen. Bill Hagerty, who served as Trump's ambassador to Japan and sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Insider.

"Call our press office," Sen. Ted Cruz, who also sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Insider. Cruz's spokespeople declined to comment when Insider reached them by email.

The only GOP senator who said he was very familiar with Hungary's government was Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican and close ally of former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Orbán's leadership as a model for the US. He called Carlson's glowing portrayal of the autocrat "pretty accurate."

"I recognize the liberal left doesn't like Hungary, but there are so many positive things about what they're doing in that country," Johnson told Insider.

Tucker Carlson on the cover page of the Hungarian weekly magazine Mandiner at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) Feszt on August 7, 2021 in Esztergom, Hungary.
Carlson on the cover page of the Hungarian weekly magazine Mandiner on August 7. Janos Kummer/Getty Images

Hungary's democratic backslide

Orbán has spent the past 11 years in power asserting control over the judiciary, enriching his loyalists, and eliminating the free press, while remaking his country's laws to benefit his far-right Fidesz party.

After winning two-thirds of the seats in parliament in 2010, Orbán wasted no time in overhauling the nation's constitution. Foundational laws were promptly rewritten without the approval of any lawmakers outside Fidesz, with the EU and UN raising concerns, and critics warning that Hungary was "sliding into authoritarianism." This set the tone for Orbán's rule.

Fidesz has since remade Hungary's electoral system - gerrymandering parliamentary districts and nearly halving the number of seats in parliament - to give it an advantage. The party has consistently won a two-thirds majority in parliament since 2010, despite not always winning a majority of the national vote. And Orbán granted dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians outside the country's borders, who vote overwhelmingly for Fidesz.

In his domestic policy, Orbán has taken particularly aggressive stances against immigration - including erecting a 180-mile border wall - and LGBTQ rights in his efforts to keep the country of nearly 10 million white, Christian, and conservative. He's forced Central Europe's premier university out of the country, and he's funneled billions of dollars in government money into conservative institutions run by his loyalists as part of an effort "to turn Hungary into the intellectual capital of the nationalist conservative movement," Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Insider.

Orbán's close ties to Russia and China have also been a source of tension with the EU, which has frequently condemned the Hungarian leader on issues like human rights.

Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), a project that monitors the health of democracy worldwide, said in its 2021 report that Hungary lost its status as a democracy in 2018 and ranked among the top 10 autocratizing countries.

"Over the past decade, the Orbán government has undermined the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and freedom of the press; impeded Ukraine's cooperation with NATO; and cozied up to Russia, among many other acts inconsistent with a modern European liberal democracy," James Kirchick, a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, told Insider.

'Everybody's got different views' on Hungary

Multiple GOP senators declined to comment or said they didn't know enough about Orbán's leadership to have an opinion on the state of Hungarian democracy or the US right's affinity for it. Others took the opportunity to criticize American democracy.

Grassley said he didn't have "the slightest idea" what Orbán had done in Hungary but had a favorable opinion of the leader after watching clips of Carlson's show last week. He went on to suggest that it wouldn't be out of character for Republicans to look abroad for political inspiration.

"Have you ever heard of Mrs. Thatcher?" he said, referring to the former conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "A lot of things that Republicans started to do in the 1980s was because of what Thatcher was successful doing in Great Britain."

An aide to the senator interjected to say Grassley didn't condone what Orbán has done in Hungary, but the senator insisted the Hungarian leader appeared "rational."

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida insisted that "everybody's got different views" on Hungary's leadership and pivoted to criticizing American democracy. He said he had a Hungarian friend who's considering moving back to his home country if the US "keeps going down this path of systemic socialism."

Victor Orban Donald Trump
Orbán at the White House with then-President Donald Trump. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Johnson, the Wisconsin senator who said he felt Hungary was a model for the US, was asked if he thought Orbán's restrictions on free speech and civic society were still problematic. He replied by turning the question around.

"I think what's problematic is what's happening in this country in terms of the media censorship and the media bias," he said.

Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, declined to comment on Hungary and Carlson and instead emphasized American exceptionalism.

"I think the US model should serve as a model for the world, one in which we continuously improve each generation upon the previous generation's handiwork and we leave a more perfect union for our children and grandchildren," Young told Insider. "I've got nothing else to say."

Why Hungarian autocracy appeals to the American right

Carlson's full-throated embrace of Orbán and his populist-nationalist Fidesz party didn't surprise many observers of conservatism. Orbán has become a hero to the far-right across Europe and the US, who've applauded his efforts to create a conservative ethnostate through strict anti-immigration policies, incentives for Hungarian parents, and censorship of progressive civic and educational institutions.

After years of criticism from US administrations, Orbán has found admirers in Trumpian Republicans. Right-wing commentators and operators, including the former Trump advisor Steve Bannon and writers at conservative outlets like National Review and American Conservative, are big fans.

Johnson told Insider he'd met "repeatedly" with Hungarian parliamentarians and called them "family-oriented." He added that Orbán's anti-immigration policies had shown "you actually can defend your border and represent the people of your country, as opposed to an open border and chaos that we're seeing here."

Experts on authoritarianism say that Trump's embrace of autocratic leaders and his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election have deepened the American right's disdain for democracy.

Staffan Lindberg, a Swedish political scientist and the director of V-Dem, said that embracing Orbán and his politics "means espousing authoritarianism and anti-pluralism."

"The suggestion that the GOP should emulate Fidesz and Orbán's politics is nothing short of saying that democracy is no longer the system for the US: Democracy should be dismantled, die," he told Insider.

Democrats are outspoken in their condemnation of Orbán, who President Joe Biden last year suggested was a totalitarian "thug," and say they're increasingly worried about the US right's embrace of authoritarianism.

"Orbán is trying to model a kind of repressive, pseudo-democracy where free speech is virtually nonexistent," Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Insider this week.

"There's obviously a lot of sympathy in the Republican Party for authoritarianism and there's a lot of Republicans who are giving up on democracy," he added. "That's what January 6 was all about. ... The Republican Party right now presents a real threat to American democracy."

Many European conservatives and experts on the right are also increasingly critical of the Hungarian ruling party.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, said conservative respect for Orbán "reflects the continued deterioration of the American Right."

"Supposed conservatives are sacrificing once strongly held commitments to liberty and the rule of law," Bandow told Insider. "Support for the family and tradition are important but are secure only when nestled within a democratic system and based on a liberal constitutional order."

Tucker Carlson discussing Viktor Orban.
Carlson broadcasts from Hungary and praises the country's autocratic leader. YouTube

There used to be stronger opposition to Orbán's leadership in the GOP's ranks. In 2019, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a letter to Trump expressing its concern with Hungary's "downward democratic trajectory." The lawmakers, including Republican Sens. James Risch and Marco Rubio, urged Trump to press Orbán on Hungary's embrace of China and Russia and its authoritarian slide.

Rohac said the right's criticism of Orbán had mostly dried up since then and "pro-Orbán and anti-anti-Orbán voices are dominating the conversation."

"It wasn't taken as a given that Viktor Orbán is a friend of conservative values, of the conservative movement," Rohac said. "I think those scruples have just disappeared. It's very hard to find anybody who would be critical of Orbán among politically active Republicans."

Still, a few GOP elected officials remain willing to speak out against Hungarian authoritarianism.

"I think Viktor Orbán and Hungary are far from a model for any other nation," Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican and former GOP presidential nominee, told Insider on Tuesday. "Mr. Orbán is only a few clicks away from Vladimir Putin, and autocracy is antithetical to the American experience."

Spokespeople for Risch and Rubio didn't reply to Insider's multiple requests for comment.

Rohac said Orbán's appeal to Republicans came down to his success in crushing progressive culture and politics.

"The best explanation was provided by Tucker Carlson himself at this dinner with Orbán last week when he said that you are hated by the right sort of people," Rohac said, referring to Carlson's comment last week to Hungarian right-wingers.

"I'm afraid that's where we are with intellectual conservatism - that it's no longer about policy. It's no longer about principles. It's no longer about having some sort of coherent worldview that reflects conservative principles.

"It's squarely about owning the libs. It's squarely about just doing things that the other side will hate. And for that, Orbán is your man."

Read the original article on Business Insider

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