Viktor Orban and Tucker Carlson's Imaginary Enemies
The two are trying to convince the world that George Soros and LGBTQ activists are the enemies of civilization
Wikipedia Commons: Orban in Moscow
BICKSE, Hungary: My house is located in a western suburb of Budapest, only a mile away — straight as the crow flies — from a small town named Felcsút, the birthplace of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The town has a population of 1,600 and a soccer stadium seating 3,500, conveniently located next to the prime minister’s home. A few weeks ago, while sipping my morning coffee in my house, I discovered that George Soros, the Hungarian-born American billionaire investor and philanthropist, was back in the news. I was listening to my country’s only independent radio station, Klubrádió, which broadcasts exclusively online since Orbán revoked its license in 2021. The station played a snippet of a lecture that Soros gave at the California-based Hoover Institute in February.
I heard the frail voice of this 92-year-old man whom state propaganda for years had portrayed as the world’s most maniacal demon — Gargamel of The Smurfs or Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. This was the same heinous, wicked man that billboards and state-sponsored television ads had warned us was responsible for every misfortune to befall Hungary — from the withholding of European Union subsidies to the influx of migrants. Orbán’s government had even sent a letter to every single voter listing the alleged crimes of the stock market guru and pushed the Hungarian parliament to pass a law labeled “Stop Soros.” In 2018, Orbán even managed to force Soros-funded Central European University, which is dedicated to promoting liberal democracy, to relocate from Budapest to Vienna.*
But this anti-Soros campaign had become ridiculous even for the base of Orbán’s own Fidesz party after it performed worse than expected in the 2019 municipal election. So Orbán cooled it for a few years. Yet now he was going after Soros again. Why? Soros’s Hoover speech dedicated only a single sentence to Orbán — not more than nine seconds long. In this sentence, Soros did say that he hoped that Orbán would lose the national election on April 3, even though that was improbable (given that Orbán has changed election laws to favor his party and his loyalists control the major media). But one sentence uttered continents and oceans away that few people in Hungary would even hear could not explain why Soros had, once again, become Orbán’s target.
The real reason had to do with Fox News’ top-rated host Tucker Carlson. Last summer, Carlson had visited Budapest to sing Orbán’s praises for standing up to progressives and defending Hungary’s borders against migrants from Syria and Afghanistan. He also gathered ammunition against Soros for a two-part documentary unsubtly called, Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization.
The documentary aired a few months ago and has been getting prominent play in Hungary’s government-controlled media. Its first part blames Soros for trying to decimate Hungary by promoting mass immigration of brown-skinned Muslim refugees, and the second part for trampling on the country’s religious, family values by pushing an LGBTQ agenda.
Orbán has long accused Soros of “popularizing” homosexuality in Hungary. Some of the alleged accusations were so absurd that they could be featured in a Monty Python skit — for example, the bit about Soros sending LGBTQ activists into kindergartens to force little children to have gender reassignment surgery.
Soros is the perfect enemy for Orbán because he prefers opponents who: one, don’t "shoot back;” two, are sufficiently distant so that the masses cannot accurately assess their real danger; three, don’t possess effective means of communication to reach people directly; four, are known by the Hungarian public just enough that government propaganda can fill in the blanks with imagined evil qualities; and, five, can be attacked without raising the ire of a power that might contemplate retaliation.
Another factor that made Soros a particularly suitable enemy was that Orbán could use him to play on anti-Semitic sentiments without appearing anti-Semitic. Soros is Jewish. But state propaganda does not actually have to identify him as such to get the point across. If Soros is referred to as a “banker,” receptive listeners hear “Jewish.” The campaign posters featuring Soros also had a clear, if coded, message for those paying attention: here’s an evil Jew trying to destroy Hungary. It’s no surprise that posters with this kind of message were often written over with anti-Semitic graffiti. Both the Israeli ambassador in Budapest and the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities protested the state campaign. (Of course, businessmen close to Orbán reaped huge profits from the billboards. Hate campaigns, the dumbing down of the population, and corruption go hand in hand in Hungary).
It is worth remembering that Orbán and his circle weren’t always so hostile to the hedge fund manager. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soros personally extended financial support to Orbán and Fidesz. Orbán’s studies at Oxford were funded by Soros — who also helped Orbán’s party purchase needed equipment for mass printing flyers. In Orbán’s telling the relationship between the two soured in 1992 over a dinner in Budapest. At the time, Orbán, who had once held a leadership role in the Communist Youth Alliance, was vice-president of the Liberal International, the international political federation for liberal political parties. According to Orbán, Soros suggested to him that conservatives had defeated the communists by joining forces with liberals, and now the next step was for the liberals to defeat the conservatives. But if this conversation led to a fall out between the two, as Orbán claims, why did he hold a warm meeting as prime minister with Soros as late as November 2010, a fact attested by published photos?
But this puzzling discrepancy wasn’t why Fidesz communication strategists began looking elsewhere for an enemy against whom Orbán could defend the Hungarian people. It was just that their campaign against Soros began to fall flat.
So a few years ago, they started downplaying Soros as the enemy and playing up LGBTQ activists. Orbán doubled down on the allegation that these activists wanted to force Hungarian children into gender reassignment surgery. Recall the criteria Orbán uses when selecting his enemies: they don’t "shoot back;” they are sufficiently distant so that the masses cannot accurately assess the real danger; they don’t possess effective means of communication; they are known just enough to serve as plausible boogeymen; they can be attacked without raising the ire of people with power who might retaliate. Hungarian LGBTQ activists match the first four items on the list. As for the last, they do have some small influence in Hungary because persecuting them brings bad international press but not enough to deter Orbán. Indeed on Election Day, Orbán's government is also holding a referendum on questions like: “Do you support the promotion of gender reassignment treatment for minors?" My wife and I are raising two small children who learned about the existence of such surgery only from the state media.
Because Hungarians were tired of Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign, Orbán had stopped depicting him as the overt leader of this campaign — just an evil, behind-the-scenes puppet master who was sending a “gay army” to invade Hungary. But then Carlson, a latecomer to the game, discovered the Hungarian government's anti-Soros campaign. And because Carlson was like a gift from heaven for Orbán, he was only happy to oblige him. Orbán has alienated practically everyone in the Euro-Atlantic world with his hard-right turn and had been trying for years to find friends other than dictators such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. (The former was Carlson’s favorite dictator too until he started bombing Ukraine — and for a while even after that). He was really looking for some major Western figure to endorse him. So if rekindling the old fire against Soros, including by accusing him of encouraging homosexuality and gender reassignment surgery, is was what it took to give Carlson a good story, why not? (How many times did I sing the words of the communist Internationale as a child: “This will be the decisive battle”? This sad part of my childhood has returned and we are at war again — against an ever-changing enemy.)
Orbán had nothing to lose by combining that campaign with anti-Soros slogans for Carlson’s benefit if this finally got him the attention and sympathy of a segment of the U.S. political elite.
By telling Carlson exactly what he wanted to hear about these twin enemies of civilization, Orbán not only got attention, he got positive adoration. The documentary repeated such pious but patently false statements like the tidbit about Orbán spending his Thursdays reading. Orbán gave Carlson an idealized fantasy picture of Hungary, and Carlson lapped it up without asking any questions. For example, there is a man in the documentary who says he’s grateful to have received aid from the Orbán government. Carlson, evidently, didn’t care that this man is actually one of the leader’s in Orbán’s party. Another person told Carlson how free the press is in Hungary. But this man worked for a government think-tank that receives millions of euros in taxpayer subsidies. (If you really want to know about the true state of press freedom in Hungary, you can check out my piece.)
It was a win-win! Orbán could boast about his influential American friends; Carlson had his biases confirmed.
To understand Orbán’s motives behind all of this, one has to realize that Orbán doesn’t have principles, only interests. When he launches a hate campaign, it’s not because he thinks that the enemy — Soros or people with different sexual orientations — are harming Hungary. He does it because this enemy would help him maintain his hold on power and avoid being held accountable for corruption if he loses. But as a Hungarian, I cannot judge whether the hatred of Soros in the American right is sincere. I’m inclined to believe it is.
It is unclear whether Carlson’s free campaign contribution is actually working for Orbán. It has certainly helped his party in rural areas where voters are less plugged in and are likely to take Orbán’s word about the importance of Carlson’s endorsement. It might also help with some swing voters who will decide the elections — although Orbán’s friend, Putin’s, invasion of Ukraine is turning them off, which is why Orbán is now distancing himself somewhat from Putin. We will find out soon enough what Hungarians think.
As for Carlson, do you recall Stalin's line about “useful idiots?” Orbán seems to have found one — and he is making a fool of Americans.
Correction: Due to an editing error, the piece originally misstated the city to which the university was moved.