Tucker Carlson on Wednesday aired the latest episode of his Fox Nation documentary series, a 25-minute film titled “Hungary vs. Soros: The Fight for Civilization.”
It’s about what you’d expect.
Tucker travels to Hungary to investigate its traditional, Christian, family-oriented culture, emphasizing the country’s robust incentive program for large families and extremely strict immigration policies, which he credits to the strong leadership of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán’s party has dominated Hungary’s parliamentary system since 2010, and in the run-up to its latest victory in 2018 embarked on an aggressive smear campaign against Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. The campaign often used anti-semitic stereotypes to cast Soros as a boogeyman attempting to force a liberal, globalist, open-borders agenda onto Hungarian society.
Carlson’s film heavily emphasizes the Orbán regime’s response to the European refugee crisis in 2015, during which Hungary constructed a heavily militarized border wall to stop refugees entering the country, bucking the lenient asylum policies of the wider European Union. As in the U.S., border control was a core issue of Orbán’s party’s electoral campaigns, which seized on Soros’ support of pro-immigration policies and won a broad majority in the Hungarian parliament in elections in 2015 and 2018. The next parliamentary elections will be held this April. Trump has already endorsed Orbán and his party.
Soros is a common target of the American right, which has clearly influenced — and been influenced — by Orbán’s movement in Hungary. To add context to the claims and spin Carlson makes in his latest film, Rolling Stone talked to Szabolcs Panyi, a Hungarian investigative journalist who has reported extensively on the Orbán regime’s ties to far-right movements in the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere. In 2021, Panyi discovered that the Orbán government had used a secretive Israeli spyware called Pegasus on his personal cell phone, as well as the phones of several other journalists, in an attempt to find their sources inside of the government.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So first, tell me a little bit about your work. What is it like being an investigative journalist in Hungary? What risks do you face because of how the government treats the press?
So Hungary is an E.U. member state. The government is not putting journalists in jail, we’re not getting beaten up or killed. But at the same time, they are trying to spy on us with, for example, Israel’s spyware Pegasus. I was surveilled for a seven-month period back in 2019. The Hungarian security apparatus tried to find my sources, because I was working on stories related to Russian influence, Chinese influence, and U.S.-Hungarian relations including arms deals between the Trump administration and Hungary. National security and foreign policy-related stories.
The biggest obstacle is that it’s very hard to get information. The whole government is centralized. Every state institution is not permitted to talk to journalists, and there’s spyware to try to track down our sources and possibly fire them. The government is using cronies, pro-government businessmen, to buy up the remainder of free media in Hungary and then turn us into Fox News-style propaganda outlets.
It’s interesting you say that, because I think to a lot of people in the U.S. that [surveillance of journalists] will seem foreign to them. But we’ve already seen that the Trump administration secretly seized phone records of journalists to do essentially the exact same thing, find out their sources inside the government.
Tucker’s focus is very much on George Soros. Conspiracy theories have surrounded him for years in the U.S., and really became mainstream during Trump’s presidency. How has Orbán used Soros conspiracies to sort of solidify his control over the politics of the country?
It’s a very complex and long story. George Soros is of Hungarian origin. In the early ‘90s and late ‘80s he supported the opposition to the communist regime, including Victor Orbán and his Fidesz party members. They received money and photocopiers so they could print their leaflets and stuff. But already back then, the far right started to portray Soros as like this Jewish billionaire, and these conspiracy theories were right from the start, anti-Semitic.
The way it was mainstreamed is there’s this guy, Arthur Finklestein, who died a few years ago. He was a Republican spin doctor working for various congressmen and senators’ campaigns. He was Jewish, and gay, but he really spearheaded negative campaigning, accusing the opponent of being too liberal and stuff like that. He and his associates started working for [former Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu in the ’90s. Through Netanyahu he was recommended to Victor Orbán, and he essentially invented painting Soros as this boogeyman throughout various countries — from Israel, to Hungary, to the U.S. They sold the same political marketing strategy of creating this boogeyman and a puppet master behind liberal politicians to a lot of people. In Hungary it’s been quite successful in recent years.
How far has this image permeated through Hungarian society? Would the average voter that you talk to know who Soros is and have an opinion on him?
He’s been quite well known in Hungary, not just on the fringes. He’s been very supportive of civil society and liberal causes — integration, supporting disabled people. In the early ‘90s, when poverty was still a problem he supported schools to hand out free milk and food to children. His image as this evil mastermind only lived in the fringes, and it became more mainstream thanks to the campaigning of Viktor Orbán. Now, basically everyone knows him. The government put his face on billboards and the text under it was “Don’t let him have the last laugh,” or something.
How much influence does Soros actually have in Hungary? In the U.S. he’s talked about constantly, but outside of his nonprofit work he’s not really pulling any more strings here than any of the dozens of billionaires we have lobbying for access.
Yeah, it’s pretty funny because his foundation was pouring much more money into Hungarian civil society in the ‘90s and also in the ‘00s. But then he gradually withdrew not just from the country, but from the whole region. It’s very ironic that by the time Orbán started campaigning against Soros’s influence in Hungary, Open Society Foundations was already focusing on the so-called global south.
So, there’s no Soros network. There are a bunch of people and organizations applying for different grants, which they receive, but there are no strings attached. They spend mostly on really innocent and non-political things, unless you consider helping the disabled or, I don’t know, campaigning for women’s rights political. There’s a good book that was recently published, The Influence of Soros, by Emily Tamkin. She uncovered how complex the issue really is, because he did have some influence and he did try to influence stuff in some parts of the world, but mostly he was unsuccessful.
Orbán started building this private conspiracy in his government that all this stuff was linked as part of this political strategy that he was doubling down on. Do you think Orbán himself came to believe some of these things? Do you think that he actually believes that the CIA and the independent press are working against him with Soros?
OK, well. I do believe that he thinks that the CIA is trying to stage some coup against him. I very well know that this belief is shared in his inner circle. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t believe that Soros is behind anything. Soros is just a very old man, and it’s pretty obvious that this is a political marketing strategy to elevate someone in the position of a boogeyman.
Orbán has been dominating Hungarian politics so much that there isn’t really a credible enemy. And his strategy is he always needs someone to fight against just to keep the core base fired up.
Right. I mean, it’s very obvious for anyone who watches a lot of Tucker Carlson and the far right that Tucker does not believe almost anything that he’s saying.
Right, of course.
I’m sure Trump has, but has Tucker and some of these other far-right wing figures in the U.S. entered into the public eye in Hungary?
Carlson is not super well known. I mean, devoted Orbán fans probably know his name, but he doesn’t have high name recognition. I think the whole Orbán-Carlson bromance is more about the U.S. public than the Hungarian public. It’s more about trying to gather support from the Republican side and trying to use the Republicans to prevent any kind of retaliatory measures against Orbán from the Biden administration because of his pro-Chinese, pro-Russian policies.
I think it’s very important to mention that Tucker Carlson’s father is or was a director in a company that was hired to lobby on behalf of Hungary. The company was a registered foreign agent of Hungary. His father’s company actually received payments from the Orbán government, for lobbying.
Tucker kind of ends the documentary by saying there are elections in Hungary in 2022, and basically playing up that there’s a chance Orbán could lose. He uses that as evidence that Orbán is not an autocrat. But then Tucker immediately pivots to ask Orbán if he “suspects there will be foreign election interference,” implying Soros and the CIA and global liberals will try to influence the election. Do you think there’s an actual chance that Orbán could lose, or is this just paving the way to make sure that he can consolidate his power no matter what the initial results of any election say?
So, already our last election in 2018 was regarded as “free but not fair” by the OSCE. By law we have elections and the opposition can compete, but the line between the state and the governing party is absolutely blurred. So the governing party can use all the state’s resources for campaigning, including public media and everything. So the playing field is so uneven.There has also been a lot of gerrymandering. Of course, that’s pretty familiar to a U.S. audience. I would say that the opposition would have to win the popular vote by, I don’t know, four or five percent to have a mandate, to have more seats in parliament. There’s a projection that the opposition can actually win the popular vote but still lose the election, just as Trump did.
The Hungarian right is learning and implementing a lot from the Republicans. I mean, CPAC is going to be in Hungary, on March 25-26. There’s a rumor that Trump may appear, either at CPAC or to campaign for Orbán. [The Hungarian right] is always there at the Republican National Convention, and they’re working with Republican strategists, and they are eager to look at all the voter suppression and new campaign techniques that the Republicans are using. So in that regard, the country faces a very similar challenge as the U.S., in that formally it’s a democracy, but the laws are twisted.