Behind the American Right’s Fascination With Viktor Orbán

An admiration for autocrats was once seen as a disorder of the left, but American conservativism has its own discreditable history of this.

A photo illustration showing Viktor Orbán flanked by Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump
Franco Origlia / Getty; Lynne Sladky / AP; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

Updated at 6:15 p.m. ET on August 29, 2022


ungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has become a hero for the American right. This past January, Tucker Carlson relocated his Fox News show for the second time to Budapest. In May, Orbán himself opened a special event in Budapest organized by the U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference; the Hungarian leader was a guest again at the group’s annual meeting this month in Texas, where his declaration that “the globalists can all go to hell” was greeted with hosannas.

In between those two appearances, Orbán was welcomed for a huddle with Donald Trump. And after the prime minister gave a speech in July in Romania warning about the perils of “mixed race” relationships, the well-known American conservative writer Rod Dreher rose to his defense, brushing aside any notion that Orbán is racist and overlooking Hungary’s fascist past. John O’Sullivan, a former editor of National Review, now runs a think tank called the Danube Institute, which receives funding from the Hungarian government, which is run by Orbán’s populist national-conservative party, Fidesz. In the Claremont Review of Books, Christopher Caldwell declared that Orbán is “blessed with almost every political gift—brave, shrewd with his enemies and trustworthy with his friends, detail-oriented, hilarious.”

The right’s ardor for Orbán has prompted some performative confusion in Western media. An Economist headline asked, “Why Is the American Right Obsessed With Viktor Orbán?” And an article in The Hill by Kim Lane Scheppele, a sociology professor at Princeton, was titled: “Orbán Dazzles US Conservatives—What Do They See in Him?”

The most common answer is that Orbán has made Hungary a laboratory for the conversion of  a liberal democracy into an authoritarian state. The thinking goes like this: For an American right fascinated (in an obviously self-interested manner) by the creation and maintenance of minority rule, the formula begins with a crackdown on the press. Snub international institutions (in Orbán’s case, the European Union) and depict the Holocaust survivor George Soros as a diabolical financier. Add in an assault on the rule of law. Finish off any lingering political opposition by gerrymandering it out of existence. The end result is a white, Christian nation that can safely hold back the malignant forces of globalist tyranny. Case closed.

Or is it?

Despite the U.S. right’s recent Hungarian romance, the truth is that its endorsement of foreign authoritarianism is rooted in a long-standing hostility toward American democracy, one that predates Orbán’s rise to prominence. The American right’s weakness for authoritarianism has drawn less attention than the American left’s periodic attraction to dictatorship; consider the long and melancholy history of American leftist excuse-making for Stalin and Mao.

All along, a similar, if less noticed, malady was taking root on the right. Over the past century, a number of conservative intellectuals and journalists have hailed a succession of authoritarian regimes. The real seduction was power itself: In a memorable 1946 critique of James Burnham, a former Trotskyist who later helped William F. Buckley Jr. found National Review, George Orwell identified the underlying desire to “usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip.”

The modern right’s antipathy toward liberal democracy can be traced back to the early 20th century, when a Boston Brahmin named Brooks Adams famously complained about “the degradation of the democratic dogma.” Henry Adams adopted his brother’s phrase for the title of his 1920 book, and suggested that the corruption of American democracy from the Washington to the Grant administrations contradicted Darwin’s theory of evolution.

This conservative unease about American democracy reached its apogee with H. L. Mencken, a passionate Nietzschean, an anti-Semite, and an admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm. Mencken’s fervor for Kaiser Bill, as he was known in America, may seem a mere idiosyncrasy in retrospect, but his enthusiasm exhibited many of the traits that would characterize succeeding conservative generations, above all a disgust for supposed cultural decadence allied to an exalted view of foreign authoritarian values that should be adopted in—or, if necessary, forced upon—America. Prussia, in other words, could set right what was wrong with America. And so, when World War I erupted, in 1914, Mencken was ecstatic:

I, too, like the leaders of Germany, had grave doubts about democracy … It suddenly dawned on me, somewhat to my surprise, that the whole body of doctrine that I had been preaching was fundamentally anti-Anglo Saxon, and that if I had any spiritual home at all it must be in the land of my ancestors. When World War I actually started I began forthwith to whoop for the Kaiser, and I kept up that whooping so long as there was any free speech left.

Indeed he did. All that was missing was for him to don a spiked helmet. Mencken wrote two articles—for The Atlantic, in fact—about the conflict, lauding Germany’s “grave, blond warriors” in one, in 1914, and Germany’s military leadership in the other, in 1917. Another essay Mencken submitted, in 1915, “After Germany’s Conquest of the United States,” never ran; shortly after the magazine received it, a German U-boat sank the Lusitania en route from New York to Liverpool; more than 100 American citizens were among the nearly 1,200 lost. (“Your reprehensible paper is damnably effective,” The Atlantic’s editor, Ellery Sedgwick, wrote the author, but “I have no desire to foment treason.”)

The pattern Mencken established never ended. In the 1920s and ’30s, the American right moved toward isolationism and, citing a pacifist disdain for war, sympathized with the Third Reich. Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Joseph P. Kennedy urged solicitude for Hitler’s grievances. Crediting the Nazi leader with having “determined the broad lines of our national life for at least another generation,” The Wall Street Journal urged “realism” in June 1940, even as Germany was overrunning France. And the young Buckley imbibed this credo in the first magazine he ever subscribed to: Scribner’s Commentator, a pro-isolationist monthly that revered the Lone Eagle (Lindbergh) and denounced “warmongers” pushing for aid to an embattled Great Britain. (The publication went out of business in 1942, after its assistant editor, Ralph Townsend, was arrested by the FBI for acting as a Japanese agent; he subsequently pleaded guilty.)

During the Cold War, the American right assailed liberals who had supported the battle against fascism as soft on communism. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted in 1952, also in The Atlantic, the right’s eagerness to expose supposed domestic traitors served mainly as cover for its own, earlier failure to stand up to Nazism. Nevertheless, the style was set. Buckley’s National Review went on to praise a long list of thuggish regimes.

One of Buckley’s early National Review colleagues, Willmoore Kendall, was an eccentric intellectual who had lived in Spain during the Civil War and who had switched his allegiance from Leon Trotsky to Francisco Franco. In a short story based on Kendall’s life, “Mosby’s Memoirs,” Saul Bellow writes of his  protagonist that he had “made some of the most interesting mistakes a man could make in the twentieth century.” One such mistake was Kendall’s decision to serve as an adviser to Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. In a 1957 letter to the political theorist Leo Strauss, Kendall explained how Trujillo—widely regarded as one of the bloodiest dictators in Latin American history—exemplified “Hobbes’ ‘public-spirited philosophy.’”

At Yale, Kendall had taught both Buckley and L. Brent Bozell Jr., who later became Buckley’s brother-in-law, and Kendall’s influence on them endured. As the historian Joshua Tait has observed, Buckley’s magazine was a fount of propaganda for fascist Spain: “The conservative experience of Spain was characterized by celebrations of the Nationalist victory against leftist ‘aggression,’ anti-anti-Franco apologia, and rethinking conservative dogmas in the shade of Spanish cathedrals.” In 1957, Buckley visited Spain and declared Franco a “genuine national hero.” For his part, Bozell lived in Spain during the 1960s and ended up a fanatical Catholic monarchist.

When it came to apartheid South Africa, prominent conservatives offered a farrago of excuses to defend official segregation, just as they had defended Jim Crow in the American South. In a 1960 editorial, National Review declared outright that apartheid was a force for good: “The whites are entitled, we believe, to pre-eminence in South Africa.” Buckley himself implied in 1963, after traveling through South Africa, that the critics of apartheid were the intolerant ones: “We should try at least to understand what it is they are trying to do, and deny ourselves that unearned smugness that the bigot shows.” A founding father of the conservative movement, Russell Kirk, who lamented the Warren Court’s support for voting rights, recalled Burke’s phrase to warn in a 1965 article for National Review that a universal franchise would be a disaster in South Africa because “this degradation of the democratic dogma, if applied, would bring anarchy and the collapse of civilization.”

The right went on to compound these errors with puff pieces about the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as an economic modernizer or the Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi as a freedom fighter. In our time, some have fastened upon Russian President Vladimir Putin as a heroic defender of traditional Christianity and a foe of global elites. The praise for Putin was ignited in 2013 by the pundit and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who claimed that the Russian dictator seemed to be an authentic paleoconservative, one whose mission was “to redefine the ‘Us vs. Them’ world conflict of the future as one in which conservatives, traditionalists, and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west.”

Then came the invasion of Crimea in 2014, which prompted a number of conservatives to depict Putin as a virile leader, in contrast to President Barack Obama. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Sarah Palin said. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Similarly, Rudy Giuliani said of Putin, “That’s what you call a leader.” In 2017, Caldwell, of the Claremont Review of Books, wrote: “If we were to use traditional measures for understanding leaders, which involve the defense of borders and national flourishing, Putin would count as the pre-eminent statesman of our time. On the world stage, who can vie with him?”

Now that Putin is mired in a calamitous war in Ukraine, American conservative fealty to him has begun to taper off. But the impulse to celebrate a foreign authoritarian leader as an enticing model has not. Today, this branch of conservatism continues to prophesy a new national ideal that scorns liberal democracy. Although the left’s former fascination with communist countries such as Cuba or Vietnam has faded, the right’s affinity for antidemocratic regimes has not. Far from being unique, Orbánism is simply its latest iteration.

Where the Leninist left once hoped to accelerate history, the right’s political pilgrims aim to reverse it—restoring an idealized past of ethnic homogeneity, traditionalist ideas of family and religion, and pre-democratic social hierarchy. These conservatives are entranced by Orbán’s bombast about defending a “Christian nation” against a Muslim invasion from the Middle East and elsewhere.

“Lacking any understanding of the languages, histories, or actual beliefs of the citizens of authoritarian regimes, conservatives—like the leftists who admired the Soviet Union—see what they want to see,” Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of the modern Republican Party, told me, “and choose not to think about the monstrosities that would accompany the imposition of that model on the United States.”

This is the guiding spirit of a new movement on the political right, the self-described national conservatives who first emerged in 2019 and enjoy funding from moguls such as Peter Thiel. Among other things, the “NatCons,” as they are known, seek to detach nationalism from fascism, a task that one of the group’s champions, Yoram Hazony, undertook in his specious book The Virtue of Nationalism. At a NatCon conference in Rome in 2020, Christopher DeMuth, the former president of the American Enterprise Institute, conducted a public interview with Orbán himself, introducing the Hungarian strongman as “boldly at the forefront. He is not only a political but an intellectual leader.” A NatCon 3 conference in Miami is scheduled for September, where Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—who is casting himself as an American Orbán with his culture-war crusade against woke liberals, LGBTQ topics in local schools, and freedom of speech at colleges and universities—will be among the main speakers.

America’s new national conservatives are looking to fulfill an old dream—of taking strength from an autocrat abroad to rule without restraint at home. As Orwell understood, when they see someone wielding the whip, they want to get their hands on it.

Due to an editing error, this article originally misattributed the phrase “the degradation of the democratic dogma” as borrowed from Edmund Burke. It was Brooks Adams’s own coinage.