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How the American right became aligned with Hungary and its authoritarian leader

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?" That's the title of a New Yorker article by my guest, Andrew Marantz. He writes, quote, "American conservatives recently hosted their flagship conference, CPAC, in Hungary, a country that experts call an autocracy. Its leader, Viktor Orban, provides a potential model of what a Trump after Trump might look like," unquote. Orban's administration has rewritten parts of the constitution, appointed judges who will do his bidding, created voting rules that favor Orban's party and make it hard for them to lose and has control over most media outlets. What many liberals fear is a leader who, like Trump, would be able to fire up voters through fear, racial dog whistles, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and disinformation but, unlike Trump, would not only know how to weaken civic institutions and shatter norms, but would also have a strategic political plan to maintain power and pass legislation instead of spending so much time watching TV and worrying about his media profile.

The next domestic conference organized by CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, will be held next month in Dallas. One of the guest speakers will be Viktor Orban. Andrew Marantz previously joined us in 2019 to talk about his book, "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation." It was based on several years of reporting on the far-right's use of social media. We recorded the interview we're about to hear yesterday. Let's start with a clip from Tucker Carlson's Fox News show. He's expressed his admiration of Viktor Orban and Hungary. Last August, Carlson hosted his show from Budapest, Hungary, for one week while he also filmed a documentary about Hungary. Here's how Carlson opened his episode from Hungary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: Good evening, and welcome to "Tucker Carlson Tonight." Of the nearly 200 different countries on the face of the earth, precisely one of them has an elected leader who publicly identifies as a Western-style conservative. His name is Viktor Orban. He's the prime minister of Hungary. Hungary is a small country in the middle of Central Europe. It has no navy. It has no nuclear weapons. Its GDP is smaller than New York states'. So you wouldn't think leaders in Washington would pay a lot of attention to Hungary. But they do, obsessively. By rejecting the tenets of neoliberalism, Viktor Orban has personally offended them and enraged them.

What does Viktor Orban believe? Just a few years ago, his views would have seemed moderate and conventional. He thinks families are more important than banks. He believes countries need borders. For saying these things out loud, Orban has been vilified. Left-wing NGOs have denounced him as a fascist, a destroyer of democracy. Last fall, Joe Biden suggested he's a totalitarian dictator. Official Washington despises Viktor Orban so thoroughly that many, including neocons in and around the State Department, are backing the open antisemites who are running against him in next April's elections in Hungary. We've watched all of this from the United States. And we've wondered if what we've heard could be true. So this week, we came to Hungary to see for ourselves. We sat down with Orban for a couple of long conversations, including one this morning. In a moment, we'll show you some of that. And you can make up your own mind about it.

GROSS: OK. That was Tucker Carlson broadcasting his Fox News show from Budapest, Hungary. Andrew Marantz, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ANDREW MARANTZ: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Tucker Carlson says Orban has been vilified as a fascist and a destroyer of democracy. And Carlson says he's been, you know, wrongly vilified. What is Orban's relationship to democracy? He was elected. There's still a parliament. There's still a constitution.

MARANTZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's kind of amazing listening to that Carlson clip. Obviously, I think he's being disingenuous there when he says that Orban is vilified for saying things like countries need borders and families are important. That's not what Orban's critics are worried about. They're worried about the things he's done in power to rig the game to keep himself in power. So he doesn't just say countries need borders. He has violated the Geneva Conventions and turned away asylum-seekers in his country. And he's then used that as a political cudgel to drum up votes. He has also done a lot more subtle things to maintain power, like tweaking election laws. As you say, he hasn't done any of this in a way that is, per se, illegal or unconstitutional. But what his critics say is that he hasn't had to do anything illegal or unconstitutional because he has simply changed the laws and changed the constitution to give him permission to do what he wants before he does it.

GROSS: What's an example of how he's changed the constitution and changed the law?

MARANTZ: It's really interesting and subtle. And I think this is part of why, as you said earlier, a lot of American conservatives look to him as a potential model for a Trump after Trump, because what Orban has been able to do is to kind of move slowly and technically enough and use the fine print to kind of fly under the radar of international censure, at least for a long time. So the kinds of things he would do - you know, he didn't come into office and overnight, you know, pass sweeping edicts saying, there's no more judiciary. But what he did do was he had a supermajority in parliament. His party, Fidesz, had a supermajority in parliament, which enabled them to amend the constitution. And so in their first year in power in 2010 - this is actually after Viktor Orban returned to power. He had been there once before, which we can talk about. But that was kind of before his turn toward autocracy.

But when he returned to power in 2010, they started amending the constitution - some sweeping amendments, some smaller amendments. Then when that didn't give them enough latitude, they just, basically, rewrote the whole constitution. And the kinds of things they would do is, as you said, they would keep the institutions in place, but they would kind of hollow them out from the inside. So they might restructure the courts in a way that's a little bit technical, frankly, a little bit boring, so it doesn't make for good news copy. But, you know, he could do sort of court shopping, where he could push cases toward judges that were more likely to be friendly to him. And I think it maybe goes without saying that we're seeing something similar happening here where we still have a judiciary, but it's just more and more and more partisan over time. And it's less and less of a mystery which way things will come out based on the parties involved. And so it would be that kind of thing where unlike a kind of strongman or tyrant, who would just step into office and say, there is no more court, he would just kind of tweak it.

Orban is a lawyer. He's very diligent. He's very patient. And so he was able to, over the last 12 years he's been in power, just sort of subtly reorganize things. I mean, another example in terms of the administration of elections would be - he still holds elections, but he has extremely gerrymandered the districts. That, again, should sound familiar to Americans. He's also done things like allowing ethnic Hungarians, people who have Hungarian ancestry but don't live within the current borders of Hungary - they might live in Romania or Bulgaria or another neighboring country. He's allowed those people to get dual citizenship so that they can vote in Hungarian elections. And those people are likely to be fans of his. They're likely to be part of his base.

So he allows them to vote. And he makes it easy for them to vote. They can vote by mail. And he makes it convenient. People who are Hungarian expats, who are less likely to be sympathetic to him - you know, maybe urban intellectuals who have left Hungary under his reign - he makes it harder for them to vote. So they have to vote in person. They have to go to an embassy or a consulate. So it's - there are hundreds of rule changes like this where, again, you can't point to them and say, Hungary doesn't have elections. They do. But he's sort of changed it so it's not a level playing field.

GROSS: This kind of like the definition of illiberal democracy. It looks like a democracy from the outside. There's voting. There's courts. There's a parliament. But if you look at the details, one party runs it, one man runs the party, and it's pretty authoritarian.

MARANTZ: Exactly. And it doesn't have that immediate, clear, sort of slam-dunk, strongman feel to it, right? It's not like looking at Putin's Russia or, you know, even looking at Saudi Arabia or China, and, you know, you can just sort of glance at it and say, yes, this is not a democracy. The way he's done it is more subtle, and that gives him a certain amount of maneuvering room and plausible deniability such that people who want to be apologists for his regime can just deny to your face that there's anything undemocratic about it. They can say, well, what do you mean? He has elections. He's popular. He has a democratic mandate. And you just don't like the results of it. And I think you have to ignore a lot to get to that conclusion, but it's at least, on its face, somewhat plausible.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?" We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "M79")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Andrew Marantz, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?"

So there seems to be a growing number of American conservatives, activists on the far right, Republicans who admire Orban, who will admire what he's done in Hungary, and would like to use that as a model. One of those people is Tucker Carlson, who we just heard a clip from. And Tucker Carlson said, as we heard, that Orban thinks families are more important than banks. Does that mean - when he says families are important, does that mean that Orban has passed anti-LGBTQ laws?

MARANTZ: Definitely, yeah. It's a very particular kind of family that he means to protect. And when he says borders are important, I think a lot of people reasonably hear that as a dog whistle to say that he's preserving an ethnically homogenous nation. So people in Hungary will sort of come out and say these things. They will come out and say, we only believe that, you know, parents should be a man and a woman. And if you are a same-sex couple, we won't allow you to get married or adopt children.

In the United States, that ship has kind of sailed - at least, I hope unless we (laughter) really start, you know, turning back the clock. But, you know, Americans can kind of gesture toward a country where these kinds of things are still - these kind of traditional - I think reactionary (laughter), in my view - values are still upheld. And they can just point to that and say, see, it's possible. You know, don't despair if you're a traditionalist, you know? We, too, can have our version of that.

GROSS: In your article, you mentioned that Hungary passed a law banning sex education involving LGBTQ topics in schools. Nine months later, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Don't Say Gay bill banning discussion of LGBTQ issues of any sort in K-3 public schools. Coincidence?

MARANTZ: I don't think it's a coincidence. And in fact, if you listen to reporting about the press secretary for Ron DeSantis, apparently - I mean, she didn't say this to me, but reportedly, she has said that when they were writing that Florida law, they were modeling it on the Hungarian law. And you could argue that the Hungarian law was modeled on the Russian law. So there are these ways in which these ideas kind of cross borders. And I think especially between Hungary and places like Florida that are really becoming laboratories for illiberalism in America, the connections are quite clear.

And, you know, people will express their admiration pretty openly. I mean, J.D. Vance, who is a Senate candidate from Ohio, has openly expressed admiration for Orban's family policies. Tucker Carlson, who is obviously a leader of American conservative thought, for better or worse, has expressed admiration. So, yeah, these are open connections. And I spoke with a lot of the people who are kind of forming the connective tissue between these places. Sometimes, it's at a distance, but sometimes, it's, you know, face-to-face. I mean, arms of Orban's government have hosted Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, several former...

MARANTZ: Steve Bannon.

MARANTZ: Steve Bannon, yes, Milo Yiannopoulos, who I wrote about in my book. So it's a small world when you start getting down to it. And, you know, there are differences in policy. Hungary's abortion policy is very different from ours. You know, they're - not everything is a 1-to-1 comparison. But when they find something that really works, by their lights - you know, like this LGBT education stuff, by their lights, has really worked because it lights people up. It excites the base. It increases turnout. It increases division and fear and polarization.

When they find something like that that works, that sort of gets replicated. That's why, you know, the sort of laboratory metaphor, I think, is useful. And in fact, when Orban spoke at CPAC Hungary, that was a metaphor he also used. He said, we have perfected the recipe here, and we want to give it out to the rest of the world's conservative parties for free.

GROSS: Does Hungary have a word for wokeness? Is there a Hungarian word for wokeness...

(LAUGHTER)

MARANTZ: They'll say it just in English.

GROSS: ...That they can use as a buzzword in the same way that Republicans are using it?

MARANTZ: They will often just say woke in English. And in fact, when I was at CPAC Orlando, which happened before CPAC Budapest, there was a delegation from Budapest. And the head of the delegation gave a speech from the main stage in Orlando, and he used the word wokeness many, many times. Woke totalitarianism was another phrase he used. And so they've set up this existential battle. You know, one thing that Orban and sort of illiberal populists in that mold really, like, feel that they have to do is set up an existential battle to the death between, you know, themselves and some big enemy. And so they have to be constantly the one vanquishing the enemy.

And traditionally, for Orban, it was globalism or multiculturalism as personified by someone like George Soros. These days, that's still there, but the emphasis is really on this totalitarian wokeness that is creeping through the world. And that is such a useful concept for them because it can be tied to anything you want. It can be tied to public school teachers. It can be tied to drag queen story time. It can be tied to Disney, you know, woke capitalism. You know, it's so amorphous that it can be kind of anything that you want to turn into your political foil, and that's routinely what they do.

GROSS: So I want to get back again to what Tucker Carlson said. He said Orban believes that countries should have borders. So let's talk about Orban's border policies. What has Orban said about how Muslim immigrants might outnumber Christians and how Hungary would lose its Judeo-Christian identity if they continue to allow in Muslims?

MARANTZ: Yes. So he came to this as his political strategy when he returned to office. So he was first in office 1998 to 2002. And back then, he really fashioned himself as a sort of centrist liberal democrat. He visited Bill Clinton in the White House, and he was part of the sort of opening up of the region, the post-Soviet bloc. And when he returned to power, he changed his tune, and he realized that he had to play the role of the kind of embattled vanquishing hero.

And his strategy for doing that was to say, I alone can save Hungarians from the onslaught of immigration. And especially in 2015, when there were waves of immigration, mostly from Syria and from other parts of the Middle East, other European heads of state said, we have to let in the refugees. And Orban said, no, I'm not letting in any asylum-seekers. And even though that was against international law, he did it anyway. And so he really became known for a kind of militarized border. And that's another thing that American conservatives point to and say, see, you know, we have this sort of bleeding-heart immigration policy, but you could just do what Orban did and just close off the border. And if he can do it, why can't we?

GROSS: And when you were in Hungary, trying and kind of failing to get into the CPAC conference there - they wouldn't let you in - Orban gave a speech describing Hungary as the last Christian conservative bastion of the world. And he said if other Western countries continue to implement policies like lax border control, the result would be, quote, "the great European population replacement program, which seeks to replace the missing European children with migrants, with adults arriving from other civilizations." That's replacement theory. That's, like, basically, you know, a white nationalist replacement theory that also resonates in Europe. I mean, it's kind of, like, Nazi talk.

MARANTZ: Yeah. Yeah, that is raw, uncut replacement theory. And that's the kind of thing that, when I was reporting my book, would have been considered a shockingly fringe viewpoint. And now, as we've watched these things become normalized, it remains shocking, but it's no longer surprising, because heads of state are saying it in Hungary, and Tucker Carlson is saying it, and members of Congress are saying it. So, yeah, that is really, really extreme stuff. It's just unfortunately become normalized.

GROSS: So Viktor Orban, the increasingly authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, talks about Hungary's Judeo-Christian heritage and why it's important to, like, keep out people who don't fit with that heritage so that true Hungarians aren't replaced by people of other civilizations. When he says Judeo-Christian heritage, most of the Jews in Hungary fled or were exterminated during the Holocaust. I mean, what's really left of the Jewish population and Jewish identity in Hungary?

MARANTZ: Yeah, it's kind of hard to say because of the way that assimilation and forced assimilation happened. So no one really knows, actually. But there are not as many Jews left as there clearly were before the war. And yeah, I think when Orban talks about Judeo-Christian heritage, it's pretty clear that he's mainly talking about Christian heritage, and often he will just drop the Judeo. I mean, you see this in the American context, too, where people will say Judeo-Christian values, but when push comes to shove, it's pretty clear which half of that hyphen they're emphasizing. And so he has, in other contexts, just talked about Christian democracy or Christian values.

And this is another thing that, you know, one of his top advisors told me flat-out. This is a guy named Balazs Orban, who's not related to Viktor, but they have the same last name. And Balazs Orban just told me - you know, I asked him, what are American conservatives coming here hoping to find or hoping to emulate? And he said, well, look, I don't know, but I think that a big part of what they like is that here in Hungary, we can just say things like, we want to preserve our ethnically homogeneous heritage. We want to preserve Christian and white European heritage. And, you know, they can't come out and say that in an American context, but if they want to point to us saying it and have us, you know, be their voice, we're happy to do that. So, I mean, that was his view on what Americans are seeing when Orban talks about Judeo-Christian values or just Christian values. They see it as really just a code word for white European heritage.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?" We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FOOTPRINTS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz about his latest article titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?" He writes, American conservatives recently hosted their flagship conference, CPAC, in Hungary, a country that experts call an autocracy. Its leader, Viktor Orban, provides a potential model of what a Trump after Trump might look like.

Orban has used George Soros as a major target, and Soros is a Hungarian-born, Jewish financier and philanthropist. Soros is also a target of the right in the U.S. How did Soros become one of Orban's chief targets? I should mention, Soros does fund a lot of, like, liberal causes and humanitarian causes as a philanthropist.

MARANTZ: Yeah. Yeah. So it is true that George Soros is a rich, international elite who funds a lot of left-leaning causes. That part of it is definitely true. The part that has been sort of spun up and exaggerated over the years is that Soros is somehow this international puppet master who controls all things, who sends surges of migrants across borders and, you know, sends protesters to, you know, protest the murder of George Floyd. I mean, the myth of George Soros has become really multichanneled over the years.

But what Hungarians told me is that this was really sharpened and, in some sense, pioneered by Viktor Orban and one of his political consultants, actually an American guy, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn named Arthur Finkelstein, who had a career as an American political consultant and, you know, worked with Roger Stone and a whole bunch of names that people would know here, helped elect Ronald Reagan, helped elect Strom Thurmond, helped elect George Pataki - many, many people - and then, later in his career, went over to Israel and worked with Benjamin Netanyahu. And then, Netanyahu apparently introduced his friend Viktor Orban to this guy, Arthur Finkelstein.

And according to the lore, it was Finkelstein who came up with the idea that, you know, instead of running against these big ideas, like globalism or multiculturalism or migration, Viktor Orban should run against a person, a face. And he decided to make the face of all that be George Soros. And...

GROSS: Yeah, Finkelstein said, you don't attack the Nazis. You attack Adolf Hitler.

MARANTZ: Exactly. Exactly. That's how you get it done. So - and in the Hungarian context, it really wasn't clear who the hate figure was going to be, right? It wasn't obvious. And it took a little bit of brainstorming. But eventually, they hit on George Soros. You know, he's perfect. He's this shadowy, rich guy who, you know, is hated on the left, hated on the right. He's Jewish, which allows you to say a lot of dog whistle-y things about him as an international puppet master without quite coming out and saying them. So yeah, they really hit that hard and, they put billboards of his kind of nefariously smiling face all over. And, you know, they had a referendum called the Stop Soros referendum. So they really, really used that as a political cudgel for many years.

And it extended as far as - you know, Soros had done things. You know, he hadn't lived in Hungary for a long time, but he was still interested in propping up civic institutions there 'cause it's where he's from. And so he built this university called Central European University, which was kind of the most prestigious university in the country. And Orban basically kicked that university out. There's still a sort of vestigial presence there, but it really exists now in Vienna because the Orban regime wanted to get rid of it partly because it was a liberal arts university and partly because it was associated with George Soros. So this foil relationship really has continued to this day.

GROSS: If Trump does not run for office or if he does not win a Republican primary, where we stand now is that the likely Republican candidate for president in 2024 would be Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, who is pretty far to the right. Is there any connection that you can see between DeSantis and Orban?

MARANTZ: Oh, definitely, yeah. I mean, as we've discussed, the DeSantis administration in Florida has said that they patterned some of their legal strategies, some of their lawmaking, on Hungarian laws. And more broadly than that, you know, there is a way in which - yes, he is far to the right, but there's a way in which that almost doesn't capture what he's up to. Because right and left traditionally, that spectrum doesn't capture whether you just are really devoted to the rules of the game as they stand, you know? So in theory, one could be very far to the right in many ways - you know, want as little restriction on free market enterprise as possible, you know, want this or that policy outcome - but still be devoted to the rules of the road, you know, not warping constitutional norms beyond their breaking points.

And I think what someone like DeSantis shows is he seems to be taking inspiration from Orban not only in terms of the policy outcomes they want, but in terms of how you get there. So, you know, not allowing for your enemies to have power if there's anything you can do within the law to restrict that power - you know, something like lashing out at Disney as a corporation, I think, would not be considered a traditionally conservative thing to do at all. That's usually - the conservatives are the ones who want to let - leave companies alone and be laissez faire. And I think it's a bit of a illiberal populist move to, you know, reach in and restrict what businesses can do. And I think you can make arguments for or against that as a general matter. But it's clearly a departure from what the Republican Party has done in the past.

GROSS: Let's go back a bit. How did Hungary first become something of a model for the right in America?

MARANTZ: So there is this concept of liberal democracy, which, I think, you know, is worth defining a little bit. And, you know, you mentioned the title of the piece is "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?" In print, there's a shorter title, which is "The Illiberal Order." And I think this word liberalism, it gets thrown around a lot, and it can sometimes just mean liberal as opposed to conservative, you know, in our common parlance. But in political science terms, it really means something broader and deeper. It means kind of the whole post-Enlightenment tradition of freedom of speech, freedom of contract, you know, all of these sort of individual liberties. And there are philosophical and political science arguments for and against this liberal tradition.

But what Hungary and Orban have done is show a way to enact illiberalism. And Orban is very clear about this being his idea of what he himself is doing, where you sort of enact it from the top down. So you don't make the argument to the voters and say we should change our basic system of government. You kind of just start doing it. So instead of saying, well, liberal norms would dictate that, you know, you put up a judicial nominee. And then you have the Senate vote on it. And then you see if they win or lose. And then you seat the nominee or don't. That would be the kind of traditional, constitutional way of doing it. The more illiberal way, or the more kind of bending-the-rules kind of way to do it, would be to say, well, if we have the power in the Senate, we will put up our judicial nominees, but we won't let the opposition party do it. And tough if you don't like it. We have the votes, and you don't. And obviously that's...

GROSS: That sounds very familiar, doesn't it?

MARANTZ: (Laughter) Yeah. I was wondering if that would ring a bell. So this is the kind of thing where, often, we talk in terms of future, hypothetical speculation. And that's obviously mostly the mode in which I've written and in which we are talking. But some of this stuff has already happened. And simply by virtue of the fact that it has happened, it can kind of become normalized. And it can become the water we're swimming in. But, you know, I think, to sort of mix metaphors, if the water we're swimming in is getting hotter and hotter and hotter, then, eventually, the proverbial frog gets boiled. And you don't really notice it until it's too late, sometimes.

GROSS: What's in it for Orban, his party in Hungary, to have Americans like Tucker Carlson advocating for them and dittoing their views and trying to follow their playbook?

MARANTZ: Oh, I think for someone like Orban, it's all upside, right? I think, one thing you hear from his chroniclers and biographers and stuff is that he has these really outsized ambitions. And he feels that he was born in too small a country. He wants to be a big player on the world stage. And he says, oh, if only I weren't born in this small country, I could be an even bigger deal. And so I think when you have people coming over and praising him, like Tucker Carlson, like Donald Trump, it just adds to his stature and his cachet. So you know, he wants to be a big deal.

And, you know, American media, at least for now, remains the biggest show in town. So why would he not want to be in the spotlight? I mean, if you're an illiberal populist and you want to reinvent the liberal order, there's only so much you can do yourself. You kind of need international alliances because your project is so big. You're not just trying to hold on to power. You're trying to change the rules of how power works. And so people like Orban are always looking for allies in other places who can get their back. And he obviously wants Americans who can do that.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. And his latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?" That's the title online. It has a different title in the actual print hard copy. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Andrew Marantz. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?"

I want to get back to Tucker Carlson because he has such a popular program. And he's so influential in America. And he's such an advocate of Hungary and the Orban administration. So I want to play another clip from Carlson's Fox News show as an example of how he really thinks Hungary is going in a much better direction than the United States is. And it's more of a model of what a country should be. So here's Tucker Carlson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

CARLSON: Even if you understand that the American news media lie, it is always bewildering to see the extent of their dishonesty. Nothing prepares you for it. We've read many times how repressive Hungary is. Freedom House, an NGO in Washington that's funded almost exclusively by the U.S. government, describes Hungary as much less free than South Africa, with fewer civil liberties. That's not just wrong, it's insane. In fact, if you live in the United States, it is bitter to see the contrast between, say, Budapest and New York City.

Let's say you lived in a big American city and you decided to loudly and publicly attack Joe Biden's policies, his policies on immigration or COVID or transgender athletes. If you kept talking like that, you would likely be silenced by Joe Biden's allies in Silicon Valley. If you kept it up, you might very well have to hire armed bodyguards. That's common in the U.S. Ask around. But it's unknown in Hungary. Opposition figures here don't worry that they will be hurt for their opinions, neither, by the way, is the Prime Minister. Orban regularly drives himself with no security. So who's freer? In what country are you more likely to lose your job for disagreeing with the ruling class' orthodoxy? The answer is pretty obvious. Though, if you're an American, it is painful to admit it, as we have discovered.

GROSS: OK. That was Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show. Andrew Marantz, what's your interpretation, reading between the lines and just reading the lines, of what we just heard Tucker Carlson say?

MARANTZ: Well, I'm surprised that we heard him say it at all because, you know, he said that critics of Biden's policies are routinely silenced. And yet, he is on TV every night criticizing Biden's policies, so it doesn't seem to hold up. But, yeah, I think, look; there's two things I would say. One is, it's just - you know, you can kind of feel yourself getting sucked into this very disingenuous framing, this kind of, you know, sophist, high school debate club trick where, you know, someone makes these outrageous claims that are obviously untrue. And then you sort of feel that you have to debunk them. But by the time you're doing that, you're already accepting their framing.

So this was something that's very familiar to me from covering trolls and online extremists back in the day. They'll say something obviously facially untrue, like Hungary is more free than the United States because I know a guy who got criticized one time. And that - you know that's not true. But yet, you're tempted to just almost kind of move past it because you don't want to get sucked into that framing. And yet, it is important to rebuke it, so it kind of sets this impossible trap.

Now, I think part of what people like Tucker Carlson are trying to do is shift the potential - what it's possible to say and think in public. So it's so absurd to think that Hungary is, in any meaningful sense, a freer country than the United States. But yet, if you use a really loud megaphone to say it over and over again, you can kind of make it a plausible thing to say just by sheer force. And that's something that we've seen Trump do and Bannon do, you know? You just kind of say something again and again. And then it becomes part of the discourse. And people can agree or disagree with it. Now, I mean, getting down to the finer points of it, it is true - I will concede Tucker's point that you can sit in a cafe in Budapest and criticize the government. And I think that's something that surprises people when they think of a classic sort of strongman dictatorship. They think of "1984," where if you, you know, say anything critical, the secret police will haul you away. That is not my experience of Hungary. And it's not the experience of the people I spoke to.

So it is true that he's not - Orban is not playing out of the classic autocrat playbook of the 20th century. He's reinventing the playbook. He's doing a 21st century autocracy playbook. And in many ways, that's comforting because he doesn't constantly, you know, jail or kill his dissidents. In many ways, it's disquieting because he's reinventing the format to make it more effective and more long lasting.

GROSS: Yeah, just one thing I want to say about what Carlson said. He said, like, if you live in a big American city and loudly and publicly attack Biden policies on COVID, immigration, transgender athletes, you'd be attacked by Biden's Silicon Valley allies. And you'd have to hire bodyguards.

In my experience, talking to a lot of people on our show and reading the newspapers and watching other media, a lot of the people who have to hire bodyguards have to do so because they've spoken out in ways that the right doesn't like, that Trump, when he was president, would speak about these individuals. And basically, Trump - you know, a lot of extremist Trump supporters would go after those individuals who disagreed with Trump. And they would have their lives threatened. They'd have their families' lives threatened. They'd sometimes have to move. So it's really, like, distorting the reality of who has to have bodyguards in the U.S.

MARANTZ: Yeah. And not to mention the threats to free speech that are, you know, classic First Amendment threats, where it's actually the government imposing speech restrictions. You're much more likely to find that in states like Florida, where teachers aren't allowed to teach about racism or sex education. And that's imposed as a speech restriction by the government. So yes, I agree with you. And yet, again, you can sort of feel how being sucked into that framing, you're almost - you know, my worry, often, with this stuff is that you feel like you're getting sucked into a pre-existing food fight, you know, where, you know, one side says you're repressive. And the other side says, no, you're more repressive.

And it turns into this tit for tat thing when actually, you know, I feel uncomfortable as a reporter, you know, going into a piece like this and saying, what's really bad is the Republican Party, because it feels partisan. It feels like I'm, you know, by implication, you know, sticking up for the Democratic Party, which is not something I want to do. And yet, when these overreaches are so egregious and when there are people who are saying things like, everything Orban does is perfect and the only problem people have with it is that he's standing up for families, you know, then you feel like you have to enter into the food fight a little bit because they're just being so egregiously distortive that you feel like you have to enter into that dispute even though it's uncomfortable.

GROSS: And then, of course, Tucker Carlson is very influential when he praises Orban. I'm sure a lot of his listeners - viewers, I guess I should say, think, well, Orban must be great.

MARANTZ: Oh, yeah. I think Tucker Carlson is the most influential person on the right these days, I think, bar none. And I think, you know, as you were saying, where things stand now, it looks like DeSantis might be a successor to Trump. I think Tucker Carlson is waiting in the wings as a possible successor as well. And...

GROSS: Do you really think he might run?

MARANTZ: Oh, yeah. I think he - I mean, he denies it, of course. But I think he's a more plausible candidate, in many ways, than DeSantis. I just think he has more media chops. I think he's a more talented rhetorician. And I think he's, in many ways, more fluid at coming up with new ideological combinations. And a lot of what you see when you look at - you know, that's why we called the piece "The Illiberal Order" in print. I actually wanted to call it The Illiberal Imagination. But the - that - I think part of what you're going to see and you're already seeing is people who are willing to experiment with radically new ideological formations, people who are willing to depart with years of precedent, both within their own political coalition and within the constitutional order itself. And I think someone like Tucker Carlson has proven himself more than willing to experiment with that.

GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Marantz, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?" We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Andrew Marantz, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?"

You write at the end of your piece in The New Yorker that what you're most worried about isn't Trump himself but a party that increasingly resembles Viktor Orban's party. Can you elaborate on that?

MARANTZ: You know, it's very easy to get distracted by a personage like Trump. I mean, that's almost his job - right? - to be a big, flashy object that distracts us with the insane or vulgar or, you know, outrageous thing he's just said. And, you know, I think those are obviously worth paying attention to if - given his power. But I think the structures around him, the party apparatus, the media apparatus, the business relationships - you know, what he does is more important than what he says. And that's true of whoever the Trump after Trump might be. That's true of Viktor Orban. And that was really the feeling I kept having being in Hungary, is, yes, Viktor Orban is a very gifted politician, but he's not a flashy reality star in the same way.

And so it's much easier to look at someone like him and say, OK, what are the structures propping him up? And what it really is, is the ability to chip away at and hollow out institutions to perpetuate your own power. And that's really what you see - I mean, I hate to say it this nakedly - but that really is what you see from the Republican Party. It's uncomfortable for me to say it, but it's true. You see, you know, just total violation of basic precedent and fairness in terms of, you know, the independence of the judiciary, you know, the way that congressional districts are drawn, the way elections are administered. You just see sort of naked power grab after naked power grab. And yes, you know, Donald Trump has his own (laughter) way of doing things, but the party that has enabled him and has, in many ways, outpaced him now is really, to me, the more worrisome thing.

GROSS: Could you talk a little bit about the challenges you think you face as a journalist who always tries to stay out of the political game and not take sides but, at the same time, is seeing signs that America is moving toward authoritarianism in a manner similar to how Hungary did it and that is alarming to you? So I know this is a problem a lot of journalists are facing, seeing things that they think are very disturbing and trying to figure out how to write about it while maintaining the kind of impartiality that they want to maintain as a journalist.

MARANTZ: Yeah, it's really tricky. And, look; I've never been so devoted to the norms of impartiality that I've felt that I don't have any personal views. I mean, it's - you know, obviously I'm a person, and I see the world around me. And yet there is something uncomfortable, as you say, about writing a piece where, you know, you say one party is the bad guy, and therefore, you know, I guess implicitly the other party would be the good guy. That feels - that doesn't feel like journalism. That can feel like puffery or like cheerleading. And that is an uncomfortable place to be.

And yet, you know, it's just - it's hard because, you know, it's like - I've been thinking recently, like, if you're a sports journalist and you are covering a basketball game and, you know, one side's winning, one side's losing and then, you know, one team goes to the refs and says, we don't believe that three-point shots are a thing anymore, and we've never believed in the legitimacy of three-pointers, and we want you to change the score to reflect that, and if you don't, we're going to, you know, turn the table over and, you know, (laughter) show up with weapons or something - I mean, you know, at that point, you kind of have to say, there's a team that's really kind of going off the rails here.

And, you know, then it raises all sorts of questions about - were we ever really a democracy? And, you know, was - were the roots of this kind of illiberal or reactionary politics kind of there to be seen all along? And I think those are really interesting academic questions, but I think the first step is just to see what is before our eyes and to say that even though these things seem so on the nose, so glaring, so kind of impossible, they are often just what is happening. And I think we have to start there, even if it feels uncomfortable, even if it feels like cheerleading, even if it feels kind of corny or, you know, makes you feel like you're in some cheesy Hollywood movie to talk about the end of American democracy. I think we just have to try to say what's in front of our faces and then take the analysis from there.

GROSS: Andrew Marantz, thank you so much for talking with us and for writing the article. It's really fascinating.

MARANTZ: Thank you. This was great.

GROSS: Andrew Marantz is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Does Hungary Offer A Glimpse Of Our Authoritarian Future?"

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Chrysta Bilton will talk about growing up the daughter of a lesbian mother who asked a man she'd just met to be her sperm donor and promise to never be a donor for anyone else. This was in the early '80s when sperm banks were relatively new. But after fathering Bilton, he made a living for years as a donor. Bilton has met many of her half-siblings. She's written a new memoir called "Normal Family." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FRESH CUT ORCHESTRA'S "THE MOTHERS' SUITE, MOVEMENT III - RITUAL OF TAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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