In early August 2022, Viktor Orbán flew to the United States to attend C-PAC. For those blissfully unaware, C-PAC is a conservative convention, where Republican heavy hitters gather to give speeches and entertain their most devoted constituency – much like Comic Con, really, just lacking any of the fun parts. The main star of the event was Donald Trump, the former president, but Orbán was easily amongst the main attractions.
Trump is not the only admirer of Orbán in America: his potentially greatest challenger for 2024, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida is also a devotee. His controversial law, the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, barring teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues with students in school has been, by the admission of his press secretary, modeled heavily after Hungary’s anti-LGBT legislation.
American conservative journalists are also heads-over-heels for the Hungarian strongman. Rod Dreher, editor of The American Conservative, claims Americans have a lot to learn from Orbán. More telling, however, is the case of the talk-show host Tucker Carlson, whose ongoing fascination with Orbán and his politics led him to travel to Hungary and shoot a documentary on his regime, painting Hungary as a model for conservatives to follow.
This all begs the question of why would Fidesz’s support in America be so strong? Why is it that conservative American leaders find strong ways to connect with Fidesz, and not with any other euro-skeptic, hard-right party in the Union, that might be even closer to them, culturally? Why is it not the French Marie le Penn or the Italian Matteo Salvini?
In this article, I intend to show that the special relationship between Orbán and the American right is not at all coincidental. Republican advisors helped build Orbán’s political machine. Orbán’s Fidesz is a lot closer to the Republicans, than to classical European conservative parties.
Father of the Party
Back in 2008, Fidesz began to employ two American consultants and they were not bland individuals. Arthur J. Finkelstein and George E. Birnbaum were the very top of the American political game, strategists and advisors with impressive resumes and numerous connections back in the Bush administrations. Finkelstein was always the bigger fish of the two. He was known as the ‘godfather of dirty politics’ and is responsible for turning the word ‘liberal’ into something akin to a slur in American politics.
Finkelstein was the kind of man who did not care about morals or long-term consequences, only about winning. His candidates rarely spoke about themselves or their accomplishments. Their main goals were always to attack and label their opponents. ‘Liberal’ was amongst the most sought-after labels, painting liberal governance in apocalyptic terms. Liberal values were painted as opposed to American values. Minorities – whether racial, sexual, or any other form – were micro-targeted through already existing sentiment towards them.
I believe anybody familiar with Hungary’s political messaging understands that even today, almost a decade after Finkelstein’s death, this is exactly what Fidesz does. I would even venture so far as to say that modern Fidesz was made more in the image of Arthur Finkelstein than any of its active politicians. Antal Rogán, officially Minister for the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and unofficial propaganda-guru of the party, learned what he does, even to this day, from the American master of misinformation.
The media-empire that Rogán now controls spends billions of euros each year for communication campaigns denouncing each of the government’s perceived enemies, ‘Brussels’ – a convenient stand-in for the distant, sentient European Union – and conducts campaigns aimed at making the government’s bigoted policies towards gays and transgender people more acceptable to the society. As a gay man himself, who has spent decades running homophobic campaigns and helping to elect staunchly bigoted members of the US Congress, Finkelstein would certainly applaud this.
I believe this lies at the heart of why Fidesz and the Republican Party feel so close to one another: Fidesz is a party that was built on American methods, and American experiences. Finkelstein took the worst aspects of his work and distilled them into a formula Fidesz follows to this day. Controlling the conversation was always his method, as well as the outright demonization of enemies. It could also potentially explain why issues of the so-called culture war have such a prominent place in Hungarian politics with the government continually coming down on the conservative side of the argument.
“I Have Come to America”
When it comes to Republican politicians, they will either whole-heartedly agree with Hungary being a model the United States should follow or claim they know little about the subject. Tucker Carlson’s favorable portrayal seems to have been the catalyst for some senior politicians of the GOP learning about Hungary. Carlson, being the most watched cable news anchor in America, has immense political clout with right-wing voters.
When Orbán was criticized on CNN for his comment on race-mixing, which alarmed many in Hungary and the international community, Carlson took to his show on FOX News and critized CNN directly apologizing to Orbán on behalf of the American media. Carlson has been a major supporter of Donald Trump’s policies, including fortifying the Mexican border, and sees Hungary as having done exactly that: ‘protected’ its southern border from ‘illegal migrants.’
For Carlson, it doesn’t matter if these “illegal immigrants” are refugees, as long as he can scare people of a different ethnicity than his predominantly white audience. It is another principle taken from Finkelstein’s playbook that both the Hungarian and American right-wingers use to great effect.
It is not only Tucker Carlson that is enamored with Orbán’s politics. The most likely Republican politician to challenge Donald Trump’s bid for a second term is the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis.
His controversial bill back in 2021 – nicknamed the Don’t Say Gay bill – was closely modeled on Orbán’s own anti-LGBT legislation. This applies not only for the content of these bills, but also for the message around them, which was remarkably similar – both bills invoked the protection of children from gays, commonly portrayed by conservatives as preying on and grooming young people just by interacting with them. The bills were only nine months apart, with the shameful Hungarian law coming first, followed by the Florida legislation.
DeSantis followed Orbán’s lead in many more cases as well, too numerous to name them all. From cracking down on Disney to gerrymandering, he has used the state’s power to push against the enemies of his beliefs and his party. Following the Hungarian example, state-run politics has become the biggest tool used to consolidate the Republican Party’s power in Florida, so much so that the state is no longer considered winnable for Democrats.
While Trump also attempted to follow the ruleset of Orbán’s playbook, DeSantis was the one who found success doing so. Trump repeatedly tried and failed to use the state-power to punish his enemies in society – primarily the media. DeSantis used the stir caused by his anti-LGBT bill to have a high-profile conflict with Disney, painting the entertainment giant as a “woke” and “peddling their unchecked pressure campaigns.”
Like Orbán, he also launched an attack on higher education, prohibiting college professors from approaching the topics of gender and race in certain ways. This “Stop WOKE act” severely undercut the First Amendment.
Orbán and DeSantis are both populist leaders, with a penchant for calling themselves one of the ‘ordinary’ folks and positioning themselves against cultural and societal progress. In truth, there are many more similarities between Orbán and DeSantis than between Orbán and Trump. At the end of the day, Trump ended up being – aside from his scandalous persona – a run-of-the-mill conservative president, who allowed party bigwigs to run his agenda.
DeSantis, however, learned from Orbán’s lessons and has already successfully used state power to surpass the right-wing’s enemies. Even constrained by the legal system and the federal government, Florida’s transformation is stark, and have propelled its chief architect to the very forefront of the Republican Party.
Strangely, for all the success Arthur Finkelstein’s methods have seen in the United States, his candidates have never won a presidential election. The reason for this is difficult to determine, maybe the negative campaigns he ran could not translate so well to the national stage in a giant country like the United States. If that is the case, he found some vindication in the Hungarian elections in and following 2010 – and since then, Orbán has transformed the country into the blueprint of what the American right-wing could have done if they had ever received the power to do so.
It is not as if Finkelstein’s methods faded away in the United States. The late strategist, who has been dead since 2015, left a mark on the Republican Party that is still evident today in the daily coverage pouring out of Fox News and other affiliated media outlets.
Both in Hungary and Republican America, liberals are the enemy responsible for every gaffe, every tragedy, and every discomfort suffered by their politicians and their voters. Liberalism is a threat to them: to their values, to their way of life, to the world they know. What started out as a winning formula invented by Finkelstein has become a way of life for conservatives in both Hungary and the United States.
With Fidesz controlling most of Hungary’s traditional media, this very way of life is pouring back to people, becoming a self-replicating loop. People are afraid of liberalism and its values and vote for Fidesz. Fidesz, then spends billions to make them even more worried about whatever strikes their fancy that day.
Republicans look longingly at the success of Fidesz and Orbán. They see it as a blueprint for how to get rid of those liberals they see as the biggest threat. Tucker Carlson’s love-affair with Hungary and DeSantis’ emulation of Orbán’s tactics both elevate the Hungarian prime minister to international infamy and make their long-term goals obvious for everyone to see (if they pay attention).
And all that stands in the way of America’s ‘orbanization’ is the hope that the Democrats won’t lose.