Tucker Carlson’s Self-Loathing International Tourism

Why the Fox News host—and other conservatives who dislike today’s America—happily assumed roles in an autocrat’s public-relations campaign

Illustration of Tucker Carlson
Getty ; The Atlantic

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

Tucker Carlson is spending a week in Budapest in order to annoy Americans and everybody else who believes in the ideals of America: the rule of law, a free press, free elections, the conviction that democracy is preferable to autocracy. Showing how much he despises the United States, its Constitution, and its heritage, the Fox News host is celebrating the achievements of a petty Central European autocrat, Viktor Orbán. He seems to believe that by paying homage to Hungary’s assault on democratic institutions, he will make people angry at home, just as his host does. The good thing about Orbán, Carlson told a dinner party in Budapest, is that “you’re truly hated by all the right people.” And yes, “all the right people” includes everyone who still has some faith in the American dream.

Carlson is not the first Western commentator to indulge in this particular form of self-loathing international tourism. Just as Hungary now sponsors English-language think tanks designed to promote Orbán’s illiberal ideas, so did the Soviet Union once create phony “institutes for peace” designed to promote Soviet Communism. The idea in both cases was and is the same: Lure in foreigners who are bored, disgruntled, or underpaid at home; offer meals, attention, and sometimes more.

During its existence, the USSR was particularly attractive to intellectuals and journalists who were disgusted by capitalism and democratic politics, and who believed the Soviet Union’s lies about its own prosperity. George Bernard Shaw celebrated his 75th birthday in Moscow in 1931 with a lavish banquet held at the height of a horrific famine created by Stalin’s disastrous collectivization policy. As a gesture of faith in the Soviet system, he told the audience that although friends had given him tins of food to take to Russia, “I threw all of the food out of the window” before arriving. One journalist in attendance recalled how the audience “gasped”: “One felt the convulsive reaction in their bellies. A tin of English beef would provide a memorable holiday in the home of any of the workers and intellectuals at the gathering.”

The aggrieved Americans who now find their way to Orbán or Vladimir Putin also dislike their own country, albeit for different reasons. They cannot abide its racial diversity, its modern culture, its free press. Those who dream of a white-tribalist alternative—one that also puts pressure on gay people and uses anti-Semitic tropes in its propaganda—believe they have found this nirvana at dinners and think-tank events in Budapest. In reality they, like Shaw, have found a Potemkin village: a “Christian” country where, as in Russia, only a minority go to church; a “Western” country that expelled an American university and tried to get a Chinese one to build a satellite campus instead.

Orbán’s visitors serve the same end as Stalin’s. Soviet leaders wanted to prove to their compatriots that their system is better than Western democracy, and to provide an answer to foreign criticism. Orbán’s purpose is identical. When Carlson—or Rod Dreher, Christopher Caldwell, or any of the other American commentators who have made their pilgrimage to Budapest—sings the Hungarian leader’s praises, that helps bolster Orbán’s image at home. It also gives him ammunition against the growing chorus of outside criticism that has already gotten him kicked out of the European-wide Christian Democratic movement—he is now well to the right of what used to be Hungary’s “far right” party—and may eventually get him kicked out of the European Union too.

The irony, of course, is that under Orbán, it’s impossible for a Hungarian equivalent of Carlson—a loud television pundit, critical of the government, watched by millions of people—to exist. In Hungary, the ruling party doesn’t merely influence the press. It owns the bulk of the press, and not metaphorically. This is not some subtle form of influence: A few years ago, owners, even pro-government owners, were forced to “donate” their media properties to a holding company controlled directly by people close to Orbán. Many independent radio networks and newspapers have been forced off the air and out of business through overt and covert intervention in the advertising market. The token independent outlets, mostly websites, that have been allowed to remain are subject to stringent government surveillance. The Hungarian government has gone so far as to use Pegasus spyware from the Israeli company NSO Group to track journalists, following their conversations, messages, and movements.

Carlson, whose father was the head of the agency that ran Voice of America during the Cold War, surely knows all of this. He understands he is following directly in the footsteps of the old communist fellow travelers, the men and women who made regular pilgrimages to the old Soviet Union, Mao’s China, or what used to be East Germany. I suspect that he, unlike some of the other right-wing fellow travelers, has not actually fallen for the Orbán con. But Carlson’s cynicism about America is so profound, and his nihilism is so overpowering, that he doesn’t care. If he can make people angry, he achieves his most important goal.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, there is a simple solution: We don’t have to get angry. We can switch off Fox News, watch something else. If we lived in an autocracy like the one Carlson would have America emulate, that wouldn’t be so easy.