The American Right’s Cult of Victor Orbán

The American Right’s Cult of Victor Orbán

The American Right’s Cult of Victor Orbán

The Hungarian autocrat is proving worryingly influential.


Way back in the 1970s, during the first season of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase played a newscaster who, week after week, breathlessly announced, “The top story of the night: Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!” Reminders of Franco’s demise unfailingly elicited laughter. But not all Americans were delighted to see the fascist dictator reduced to the butt of a recurring joke.

In the offices of National Review, Franco’s death was an occasion for mourning. The flagship journal of the American right published two somber obituaries. James Burnham, a founding editor, extolled Franco as “our century’s most successful ruler” and a man possessed of “a patient stubbornness, a flawless prudence, and an unshakable faith in his mission.”

Burnham wrote as a hard-nosed Cold Warrior who appreciated Franco’s services in fending off communism. Reid Buckley, brother of the magazine’s editor, William F. Buckley Jr., took a more romantic view of the dictator’s embodiment of Catholic traditionalism. For him, Franco was “a Spaniard out of the heroic annals of the nation, a giant. He will be truly mourned by Spain because with all his heart and might and soul, he loved his country, and in the vast context of Spanish history, did well by it.”

I was reminded of these lofty words celebrating a blood-soaked tyrant while reading an astute essay by the historian Joshua Tait in The Bulwark comparing the American right’s onetime passion for Franco to its contemporary passion for the Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán. Budapest, astonishingly, has become a mecca for the American right over the past few years; major intellectuals like Christopher Caldwell, John O’Sullivan, and Rod Dreher have made pilgrimages to Orbán’s domain. They speak of Hungary with the zeal of converts who have had a vision of Heaven.

Compared with Orbán, even Donald Trump seems pusillanimous. No wonder Tucker Carlson has repeatedly used his Fox News show to spread the good news of Hungarian authoritarianism. In early August of 2021, Carlson filmed a week of his show in Hungary and told his audience, “If you care about Western civilization and democracy and families and the ferocious assault on all three of those things by the leaders of our global institutions, you should know what is happening here right now.” In January 2022, Fox Nation aired a “documentary” by Carlson titled Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization.

Orbán, his right-wing fans gush, has rolled back LGBTQ rights, he’s kept out refugees, he’s cowed the media, he’s raised the native birthrate, he’s made liberal philanthropist George Soros into a national hate figure, he’s gerrymandered the electoral system, and he’s packed the courts. The right might be losing the cultural war in America, but Hungary offers a model for anti-liberal politics that not only wins elections but has shown how to use the strong arm of the state to enforce its will.

As Tait notes, “For American national conservatives already abandoning small-government positions, Orbán fuels dreams of an American right brandishing the power of the federal government. Others may see in Hungary a hint of ‘integralism’—the possibility of a Christian state integrated under the governance of the Catholic Church.”

Tait draws some telling parallels between the fascist fellow travelers of the Cold War and their 21st-century counterparts: “As with the current relationship with Hungary, 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.”

The example of Franco and the more traditionalist Spanish monarchist movement known as Carlism encouraged National Review writers like L. Brent Bozell Jr. to jettison the anti-statist constraints of classical Anglo-American liberalism. Bozell dreamed of a more energetic and authoritarian state, one not afraid to impose Christian notions of virtue on a recalcitrant population. It’s perhaps no accident that Bozell would become a pioneer in the fomenting of violence to end reproductive freedom. In the early 1970s, he created a Carlist group called the Sons of Thunder that harassed abortion clinics.

Just as Franco inspired Bozell to indulge in bigger dreams, so the current cult of Orbán is helping to radicalize the American right. Carlson’s Hungary vs. Soros is a prime example. Like any wealthy person who takes strong political stands, Soros deserves scrutiny and criticism. But Carlson goes beyond policy objections to Soros by presenting a thinly veiled version of the anti-Semitic myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. Soros, according to Carlson, is a puppet master who is encouraging immigration with the intent of undermining traditional Western civilization.

While drawing parallels between the past and present, Tait notes that the National Review “intellectuals were never as close to Franco as contemporary conservatives are to Orbán.”

There’s every reason to think the Orbán cult can have a much bigger impact than Franco’s fandom had. Bozell and others traveled to Spain and idealized it—but they had few interactions with the Spanish state. Orbán’s regime, by contrast, has been working zealously to cultivate American allies, financing think tanks like the Danube Institute and publications like the Hungarian Conservative. This slick magazine is surprisingly easy to find on anglophone newsstands. I myself bought an issue in Regina, Saskatchewan; others have spotted copies in New York and London.

The National Review intellectuals, aside from William F. Buckley, rarely reached a mass audience. Carlson, by contrast, has the most watched news show on cable television.

Pro-Franco thinkers tended to be Catholic. Orbán, a Protestant, has a more ecumenical American following. In 2017, he hosted a meeting of the World Congress of Families, a leading evangelical group that promotes traditionalist family values and pushes to restrict LGBTQ rights.

The romance of Francoism became moot when Spain underwent a democratic revolution after the dictator’s death. Reid Buckley and Brent Bozell were building sand castles quickly washed away by history. Orbán, who is facing rising opposition in his own country, might prove equally transient. What is more likely to last, however, is a recalcitrant right in both Hungary and the United States—one so fearful of modernity that it is willing to openly embrace authoritarianism.

Francisco Franco is still dead, and Orbán might eventually be out of office, but the desire for a strongman to defeat the left will remain.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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