Tucker Carlson's Hungarian rhapsody: A far-right manifesto for waging the 'demographic war'
Earlier this week, fans of the highest-rated host in U.S. cable news were told that one of the most recognizable and demonized Jews in public life is waging a "political, social and demographic war on the West." Hungary, they were told, is this monstrous figure's "main hunting area," but all of North America and Europe are in his sights, and only through the widespread embrace of aggressive conservative nationalism can he be defeated.
In fairness, not all of that is made clear at first. For the first quarter of Fox News host Tucker Carlson's new documentary short, "Hungary vs Soros: The Fight for Civilization," it's hard to tell why it was made. Yes, over the last several years Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's proudly "illiberal" Hungary has become the centerpiece of American conservative vision-boarding. Yes, many on the U.S. right would love to emulate Hungary's pronatalist policies to encourage early marriage and large families; its crackdowns on press and academic freedom, including the defunding of university gender studies; its effective ban on Muslim immigration, and its actual bans on same-sex marriage, adoption and LGBTQ content for minors. It's no secret that Soros remains one of the right's foremost villains, blamed for everything from protests against Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation to Donald Trump's election loss to migrants seeking entry to America.
But all that aside, the latest "Tucker Carlson Original" looks and feels, at least at first, like old news: a tighter, better produced, chalkboard-free remake of Glenn Beck's three-hour 2010 anti-Soros series, "The Puppet Master," which was widely condemned as antisemitic and is sometimes credited for helping drive Beck's departure from Fox the following year.
Carlson's reboot, which wasn't aired on Fox News proper but its seedier online streaming service, Fox Nation, includes many of the same ingredients as the original. There's the same sort of ominous soundtrack and grayed-out coloring when Soros appears on screen, and the same fixation on Soros as a "globalist" who is allegedly erecting a new world order through his sprawling web of influence and his control of media "storylines."
There's a familiar framing, early in the film, of Soros as being amoral in some difficult-to-specify way. In Beck's version, an opening quote from Soros noted that his mother, in pre-Holocaust Hungary, had been "ashamed of being Jewish." In Carlson's, within the first minute or so we see a clip of Soros telling an interviewer he doesn't believe in God. While Carlson doesidn't repeat Beck's use of ghoulish medieval puppet props, he deploys the same metaphor, accusing Soros of using his money and NGO network "to oust democratically elected leaders and install ideologically-aligned puppets into positions of power." And, like Beck, Carlson cites as evidence Soros's support for various Eastern European "color revolutions," without acknowledging to his audience that those revolutions were almost entirely peaceful protests against communist or post-communist dictatorships.
There are some notable differences in Carlson's update. In establishing Hungary under Orbán as the last bulwark against Soros's allegedly creeping empire, Carlson turns into something of a Budapest tour guide, marveling at airport advertisements encouraging people to have more children, the city's architecture and anti-Soros street signs. ("Will George Soros attack our country again?") He works in some combat reporter-style helicopter footage as he tours the Hungarian border fence, and lingers long on the faces of two hapless teenage-looking refugees who were caught trying to enter the country, and who Carlson darkly suggests probably aren't Syrian, as they claim. He even stops to appreciate Budapest's "mostly conservative" graffiti, like a wall spray-painted with "Fuck Liberals" (in English) and a symbol that looks a lot like the white supremacist rendering of the Celtic cross.
But the big reveal begins about a quarter of the way through, when Carlson first mentions "nationalism." Orbán was once the beneficiary of Soros's philanthropy, Carlson says, but now understands him as a threat after becoming "a Hungarian nationalist." This is likely to fly under the radar for most viewers, but that is effectively the documentary's guiding theme: Orbán is "the sort of man, the sort of political leader, who has taken these populist nationalist instincts and turned them into effective policy." Furthermore, "Soros opposes Orbán because Soros opposes nation states" and the upcoming Hungarian elections "will be the defining battle in the war between George Soros and Viktor Orbán, in the battle between globalism and nationalism."
None of that rhetoric is anything new when it comes to Orbán, who's made Hungarian national sovereignty the defining issue of his political identity. But it definitely says a lot about Carlson, and how he's helping to mainstream one of the most contentious and troubling ideologies of the contemporary right.
Last November, hundreds of right-wing academics and thinkers gathered in Orlando for the highbrow National Conservatism conference. Much of the three-day gathering focused on trying to develop a new conservative coalition along post-liberal lines. As I wrote in The New Republic earlier this month, the National Conservatives see classical liberalism — meaning old-fashioned, small-L liberalism, which prioritizes individual rights and private property, and is embraced by many staunch conservatives as well — as the root of modern society's problems. A society ordered around unfettered personal and market freedom, they argue, makes it too difficult to raise families according to "traditional" values. A widespread commitment to multicultural pluralism, in their view, has led to an oppressive cultural imperialism where individual countries are prohibited from protecting their borders or upholding their historical cultures. They'd like to see newly empowered national governments that embrace official or public religion, use state power to coerce people into leading virtuous lives (according to their standards) and reassert the sort of proud, unapologetic nationalism that reigned before the horrors of World War II.
Besides academics and writers, the National Conservatism movement has recently been adopted by former American Enterprise Institute president Christopher DeMuth, and is influential enough that the November conference drew a number of leading Republican politicians and contenders, including sitting senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, and wannabe-senator J.D. Vance.
Many of the intellectuals heading up the postliberal/National Conservatism movement are Roman Catholic "integralists," who ultimately want to see the country governed according to a conservative Catholic vision of the "common good" (with most details about what that means left strategically vague). Other leaders are avowed nationalists, seeking to reclaim the term from what they see as its unfair association with the likes of Nazi Germany. A number of them have made that case prominently in books published in the last four years, including First Things editor R.R. Reno's "Return of the Strong Gods," National Review editor Rich Lowry's "The Case for Nationalism," and National Conservatism conference organizer Yoram Hazony's "The Virtue of Nationalism."
In both of those camps within right-wing intellectual circles, Hungary has emerged as the most practical model they can aspire to: It's the sort of nationalist "Christian democracy," as Orbán calls it, that they believe stands the best chance of replication in the U.S. (at least until there's enough support for the right-wing Catholic utopia sometimes described, jokingly or not, as the Empire of Guadalupe). As abundant media coverage has noted, the U.S. right has cheered on most of Orbán's most controversial policies. His government has assiduously courted their support, including through private institutions' offer of visiting fellowships and scholarships to numerous conservative academics and thinkers and Orbán's personal invitation to figures like American Conservative writer Rod Dreher that they consider Hungary their "intellectual home."
Those overtures have reaped undeniable benefits. Fulsome statements of support have flowed in from the likes of Dreher (who plays a starring role in the Fox Nation documentary) and Carlson, who broadcast his top-rated prime-time show from Budapest for a week last August. Orbán's reelection bid has drawn the endorsement of Donald Trump and many of his acolytes, all the way down to, just this week, the New York Young Republicans Club. In tangling with critics about the endorsement on Twitter this Thursday, the club's vice president taunted his foes by writing, "We're literally unifying the international right. …I'm not here to argue. I'm here to win.")
Orbán's regime also had a major presence at the National Conservatism conference in Orlando. There was a promotional table offering free conservative Hungarian books and magazines; a panel on "international nationalism" featuring Orbán's political director, Balázs Orbán (no relation), who enjoys a sizable American following; and a plenary address from Dreher on "What Conservatives Must Learn from Orbán's Hungary." (They must learn to unashamedly embrace "state power" in defense of conservative values and build a "conservative deep state" to ensure that entrenched right-wing policies can survive the unfortunate results of electoral defeat.)
Most of Carlson's viewers are unlikely to know much about all the ideological furniture in the background, or to care about it. But he's doing his best to bring them the Cliff Notes version, breaking the ideas discussed by Ivy-educated right-wing elites in Orlando into digestible bite-sized chunks, and delivering them, airplane-style, into mainstream conservative discourse.
One of those chunks is the rehabilitation of nationalism as a conservative virtue. Another is the idea that it's not just acceptable but commendable to use family policy as a means of engineering a country's racial makeup.
For years, Hungary had one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe. Combined with high emigration— mostly to other European Union nations — it was losing 32,000 people from its population annually. Orbán's government sought to address this by unveiling an aggressive suite of pronatalist policies in 2019, including interest-free loans to families that are forgiven with the birth of a third child, subsidies for minivans, and a lifetime exemption from income tax for mothers who have four or more kids.
Policies like these have enjoyed support from some conservative quarters for years. In 2007, the international right-wing coalition World Congress of Families called for similar measures while warning about what it called "demographic winter." This was the idea that European countries were producing too few children, leading to both "the graying of the continent" and the creation of dangerous population vacuums that would be filled with immigrants too difficult to assimilate. At the time, as I reported in The Nation, most of the racial hand-wringing was couched in euphemistic terms. But these days that subtext has become text, and sometimes the flashing headline, with the proliferation of conspiracist narratives about "white genocide" and the "Great Replacement," or Trump-era activists calling for a "white baby challenge."
In this new context, Orbán has been embraced by some on the right for framing his pronatalist policies as an intentional barricade against Muslim immigration, saying that while other countries were buoyed by immigration, Hungary didn't merely "need numbers" but rather "Hungarian children," or that Hungary didn't "want our colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others." Katalin Novák, the stylish and combative former family minister who became the face of Hungary's pronatalist campaign, warned that countries that abandon tradition will find themselves "condemned to [demographic] death." Conservatives on this side of the Atlantic swooned, with Breitbart dedicating regular coverage to Hungarian pronatalism, the National Review cheering that Orbán was "redefining the possibilities for modern social conservatism," and Carlson praising the plan as a model of family values during a 2019 interview with Hungary's foreign minister.
Orbán is not quite that blunt in Carlson's new special — the second half of which focuses on Hungary's pronatalist initiatives as part of the country's battle against Soros — but unlike other countries that choose to, in Carlson's words, "import new citizens from the rest of the world," the prime minister says Hungarians "would not like to leave this country to the migrants, we would like to leave it to our grandchildren." Carlson nods along with this, visiting a series of large Hungarian families as they beam at each other on playgrounds or buy new cars with government subsidies, before cutting to a black-and-white clip of a grim-faced Soros, saying that he's very concerned about the direction Hungary is headed. The unsubtle takeaway is that these amorphous questions of shifting populations and changing family structures is actually deliberate "demographic war," with Soros as general of the opposing army.
That's not an original idea either. It's the encapsulated narrative within or beneath the Great Replacement or white-genocide conspiracy theories, which hold that liberals — and specifically Jewish liberals — want to bring large numbers of immigrants and refugees into the U.S. or Europe to "replace" the white population there. That narrative has been the direct inspiration for numerous mass murder events, including the El Paso Walmart shooting, the mosque murders in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the assault on worshippers at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, where the killer blamed a Jewish group for aiding refugees.
In September Carlson finally introduced the term "the great replacement" to his audience — after hinting or gesturing at it for months — calling it a "policy" to "change the racial mix of the country" through "the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries."
In the documentary released this week, Carlson illustrates this premise with a series of images intended to land more powerfully than words: a back-and-forth contrast between scenes of white people strolling amid the old-world beauty of Budapest streets or boating on the Danube, and scenes of Black and brown people, almost exclusively in situations of violent chaos, surging against fences, fighting with cops or, at their most benign, crying on the street. Toward the end of the documentary, the video cuts rapidly and repeatedly between second-long shots of white couples on park benches and footage of a crowd of shirtless Black men, shouting in a foreign language and lunging at the camera.
The next shot is meant to come as a relief: Orbán, back at the interview table, saying that he hopes his administration's work will "be enough to convince the people that it's a reasonable decision to support us, and not give the country to George Soros."
Carlson's larger point appears to be that a similar decision, one with apocalyptic or civilization-scale consequences, faces Americans as well.
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