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Why Tucker Carlson’s special on Hungary and Soros matters

Fox Nation’s “Hungary vs. Soros” is an appalling example of the mainstream right’s embrace of views from the fringe.

Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) Feszt on August 7, 2021, in Esztergom, Hungary. The multiday political event was organized by MCC, a privately managed foundation that recently received more than $1.7 billion in government money and assets. The leader of its main board, Balazs Orban, who is also a state secretary in the prime minister’s office, said MCC’s priority is promoting “patriotism” among the next generation of Hungary’s leaders.
Janos Kummer/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The film opens with soaring music, footage of white children laughing and playing, beautiful vistas of classical European architecture. Fifteen seconds in, the music turns dark. We see images of dark-skinned youth, chaos, and blood. Then there’s a foreboding black-and-white shot of a man in profile, hunched at a desk, the curvature of his nose prominent in silhouette.

He’s the one responsible for all of this, the brown assault on white tranquility. Europe, we are told, is this predator’s “main hunting area.”

This is the beginning of Tucker Carlson’s new “documentary” for Fox Nation, the right-wing media giant’s streaming service. It is titled Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization, and it purports to tell the story of how a plucky little democracy in Central Europe has carved out a conservative model in the face of a relentless assault by the forces of global liberalism personified by George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier.

The story is a lie. Hungary is nominally a democracy but it has made a turn toward authoritarianism in the last decade; Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has painted Soros as a scapegoat whose allegedly nefarious influence justifies Orbán’s anti-democratic moves. The documentary amplifies this propaganda, treating the Jewish philanthropist as the spider at the center of a global web of conspiracy.

“It’s appalling to see Tucker Carlson & Fox invoke the kind of anti-Semitic tropes typically found in white supremacist media,” writes Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (an anti-hate group). “There’s no excuse for this kind of fearmongering, especially in light of intensifying anti-Semitism.”

Neither anti-immigrant demagoguery nor whitewashing Hungary’s descent into autocracy is new for Carlson. What’s striking about the report — part of a series dubbed “Tucker Carlson Originals” — is how it uses conspiratorial, bigoted ideas previously consigned to the far-right fringe to make the explicit case that the American government should emulate an authoritarian regime.

In recent years, anti-Semitism has become more visible on the right in both its mainstream and fringe incarnations. We saw the deadliest attack on Jews in American history in Pittsburgh; Charlottesville, Virginia, marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us”; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-GA) Jewish space lasers; and President Trump’s anti-Semitic comments of both the overt and coded varieties. Carlson’s attack on Soros is certainly not new but this latest iteration is notable all the same — yet another signpost on the American right’s path to mainstreaming what used to be unacceptably extreme.

The hateful heart of Hungary vs. Soros

Carlson’s short documentary is divided into two parts. The first half focuses on Hungary and the 2015 refugee crisis, arguing that Budapest alone has stood up against a Soros plot to open Europe’s borders to migrants. The second half focuses on the Orbán government’s family policies, arguing that its passage of tax incentives to encourage citizens to have more children have turned around the country’s declining birth rate.

A migrant family prepares to board a train leaving for the Austrian border at the Keleti railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 10, 2015. At the time, migrants who arrived in Budapest overnight would gather in large numbers in the morning at the railway station as they tried to be on the first trains leaving Budapest due to fears the borders would soon close.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The “fight for civilization” in the film’s title is thus positioned as a demographic one. Carlson argues that migration to Hungary is akin to an actual military invasion (which Hungary has experienced many times in its history). These migrants, enabled by Soros through his support of civil society groups who advocate for their rights, are effectively trying to colonize Hungary and replace its population with their babies, the documentary argues.

“Unlike the threats from the Soviets and the Ottoman Empire, the threat posed by George Soros and his nonprofit organizations is much more subtle and hard to detect,” Carlson says. The country’s government is fighting back against Soros and his hordes by closing the border and providing financial support to native-born (read: white) couples to have more babies.

This isn’t purely Carlson’s invention, but a product of what the Hungarian leadership told him. In the documentary, Orbán tells Carlson that “we would not like to leave this country to the migrants, we would like to leave it to our grandchildren.” Hungary Family Minister Katalin Novák is similarly blunt: “We don’t think we need to import children in order to overcome our demographic difficulties.”

In reality, Hungary has a very small foreign-born population. Even during the peak of the 2015 migration crisis, most sought to pass through to other European Union countries. And the data on the effects of Orbán’s natalist policy is mixed at best.

But it’s not the argument it makes about Orbán’s policy that defines the documentary. It’s how it makes that argument. A recurring visual motif is a contrast between chaotic, scary footage of non-white migrants and tranquil images of happy, white families.

At one point, Carlson follows Hungarian authorities as they apprehend two migrants attempting to cross the border. The two young men, self-described Syrians who appear to be in their late teens or early 20s, are put up against a metal fence and photographed, as if in a mugshot.

An unnamed migrant being processed by Hungarian border authorities shown on screen during Carlson’s documentary.
Fox Nation

It’s a dehumanizing spectacle, the humiliation of two desperate people seeking a better life, but the viewer is supposed to cheer. Just a few minutes later, the film cuts to domestic scenes of white Hungarian families shopping for cars and playing ping-pong. That, the documentary suggests, is who the border officers were protecting.

How Carlson’s film mainstreams the anti-Semitic extreme

An obsession with demographics and children has been a hallmark of far-right rhetoric for decades. The “14 Words,” perhaps the most famous neo-Nazi slogan in America today, goes as such: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Swap in “Hungarian” for “white” and it’s virtually identical to Orbán’s and Carlson’s rhetoric in the film.

The Fox host has explicitly borrowed from the far right in this area in the past. He has repeatedly used the term “Great Replacement” on-air, a term associated with the anti-immigrant fringe, as part of an argument that Democrats are using immigration policy to conduct “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries,” as Carlson once put it.

Carlson has repeatedly dismissed allegations of racism and anti-Semitism from watchdog groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which has publicly called on Fox to fire him in response to his inflammatory remarks. The Hungary documentary represents yet another escalation in insidious rhetoric.

A Jewish financier and Holocaust survivor who funds progressive and pro-democracy causes around the world, Soros has long been the target of right-wing conspiracy theories. Carlson’s film taps into that narrative and amps it up. Early on, he accuses Soros of plots to ”oust democratically elected leaders” and “install ideologically aligned puppets” in their place. In Carlson’s telling, European leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron decided to admit refugees in 2015 because of Soros.

“In 2015, Soros got to play a role in transforming the continent of Europe,” Carlson intones. “Soros lobbied European leaders directly to get them to open their borders to impoverished people from around the world, and they did.” He points to “leaked documents” showing a $600,000 investment in pro-refugee public advocacy by an unspecified Soros-backed organization as evidence. (It is evidence — that Soros invests in pro-refugee public advocacy.)

It’s the imagery that gives away the game. Soros, shown repeatedly in stark black-and-white, is painted as that most hoary of villains — the Jewish financier pulling the strings attached to the world’s leaders.

People walk off a tram in Budapest, Hungary, next to a billboard with portraits of then-European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born financier George Soros on February 22, 2019. The billboard, which sports a slogan reading “You too have a right to know what Brussels is preparing,” was erected as part of an anti-immigration media campaign prior to the European parliamentary election.
Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

“Obviously, Soros funds a lot of NGOs across the globe and in Hungary,” says Cas Mudde, an expert on European right-wing politics at the University of Georgia. “However, [Carlson’s] suggestion that he has ‘installed’ politicians who are ‘puppets’ is not just factually wrong but also is very much in line with classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”

In particular, Mudde notes the connection to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous 20th-century Russian forgery that claims a Jewish conspiracy is manipulating Europe’s leaders. A more contemporary parallel is a set of comments made by the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, who killed 11 people and cited the work of the Jewish refugee charity HIAS as his motivation for committing the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in American history.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the shooter wrote on the social media platform Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”

Anti-Semitism and beyond

Carlson is fully aware that he’s playing with fire. Early in the documentary, he preempts the anti-Semitism charge and instructs his viewers to dismiss such accusations as a liberal media smear — suggesting that, because Soros has been critical of the Israeli government, he somehow cannot be the target of anti-Semitism. (A Fox spokesperson did not respond to my request for comment.)

“The media dutifully pushed George Soros’s agenda on immigration and culture, while at the same time defending him from all criticism,” he says. “They claim any attack on George Soros is anti-Semitic; Soros himself is an opponent of Israel.”

The move here is to use images and phrases that evoke racist and anti-Semitic ideas without explicitly blaming minorities or Jews. So long as you avoid explicitly bigoted statements, you can blame any criticism on the overly sensitive wokesters in the liberal media, a maneuver he performed in response to criticism of his documentary during his Thursday night show.

Carlson takes a similar tack when it comes to Hungary’s democratic decline. Forget the fact that Orbán and his Fidesz party have cultivated a corrupt, pliant class of political elites and seized control of 90 percent of the country’s media outlets — the documentary suggests that criticism of the Hungarian government is a function of the left’s jealousy.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks at the Budapest Demographic Summit IV in Budapest, Hungary, on September 23, 2021.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

“The Western liberals cannot accept that, inside of Western civilization, there is a conservative national alternative which is more successful,” Orbán tells an approving Carlson. (Trump has fully embraced Orbán in his post-presidency, endorsing the prime minister in his 2022 reelection bid.)

Mudde terms the documentary “classic ‘national conservative’ propaganda,” referring to an intellectual movement that has sprung up since the Trump victory in 2016 to put ideological meat on Trumpism’s bones. These national conservatives generally take the view that Orbán’s mix of anti-immigrant hostility and pro-family policies are a model to be emulated in America. Like Carlson, they tend to dismiss and downplay the evidence of his authoritarianism.

And also like Carlson, they tend to get in trouble for flirtations with outright bigotry. At the 2019 National Conservatism Conference, University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Wax made headlines by claiming the United States should adopt an immigration policy shaped by an understanding that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” Yoram Hazony, the Israeli intellectual who convened the conference, defended Wax — writing that she merely “advocated an immigration policy that favors immigrants with cultural affinities to the U.S.” (This month, Wax started another firestorm by writing that “the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.”)

Carlson, of course, is far more influential than Wax. There is an argument that his obvious provocations should be ignored — that Carlson feeds on outrage from liberals and the mainstream media. There may be something to that, but it’s a sentiment that assumes that Carlson’s brand of far-right politics is not self-sustaining.

But one thing we keep learning and re-learning about America is that there is a real constituency for this sort of thing. And that is something worth worrying about.

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