Hungarian nationalism is not the answer

Keep America great

I only made two promises when I started Slow Boring — one, to Substack, was to post at least once a week, and it’s been easy to keep. The other was to a friend who begged me to not turn this into the kind of publication that lectures liberals about how they should embrace patriotism. That one’s been harder to stick to!

But what I do think I can talk about is the current of reactionary thought on the American right that’s so displeased with social and cultural change in the United States that it’s turned against the country.

One very prominent strand of this, most recently exemplified by Tucker Carlson’s jaunt to Budapest to take in the wisdom of Viktor Orbán, involves a kind of showy nostalgia for the ethnic homogeneity of smallish Central European nation-states. But it actually gets quite a bit more deranged than the occasional foreign junket. There is an actual bimonthly magazine available online and in print called “Hungarian Conservative” which is dedicated to bringing the wisdom of Magyar nationalism to the English-speaking world. A number of senior officials in Orbán’s regime, for example, have been caught up in various sex scandals, so the Hungarian government passed a law that increases penalties for sex crimes but also arbitrarily cracks down on media depictions of homosexuality. In Hungarian Conservative, you can learn about how despite what you might hear in the West about this being bad, actually a bunch of other Central European right-wing countries like it.

Rod Dreher, an American contributor to the magazine, explains that everyone from Disney to the CIA to the military has embraced left-wing cultural values, and “there is no place to hide from it.” Except, I guess, Budapest.

It actually gets stupider than this

Meanwhile, over in American Greatness, there’s a piece by Christopher Roach arguing that Dreher is a wimp and conservatives ought to embrace what he calls “the Salazar option.”

This is a reference to a kind of obscure hipster fascist, Antonio Salazar, who came to power after a coup in 1926 and ruled Portugal for decades.

Roach’s view is that Salazar is a big hero who shows that the left can be beaten if you’re willing to be forceful enough. The U.S. conservative movement has long had a soft spot for southern European authoritarians — praise of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain has been a National Review staple forever — but the conventional discourse about this is to limit it to the peculiar circumstances of these foreign countries. The idea that we might want to import dictatorial methods to the United States in order to combat the leftist juggernaut is pretty new.

Salazar is also just a weird pick because there’s nothing very successful about him. The economic policies that the Estado Novo followed for its first three decades or so were a huge failure, and Portugal didn’t start converging with the rest of western Europe until they changed course in 1960. Millions of people left the country to seek better opportunities, whether in France or the United States or elsewhere. The big thing of the later Salazar years was to fight massive colonial wars in Africa while France ad Britain were giving up on colonialism. This cost Portuguese people a lot of money and lost lives, brutalized a few African nations, and accomplished nothing at all.

Eventually, a new coup overthrew the Estado Novo in 1974, and sensible people never really thought much about it again.

America is better than this

It’s smart to look abroad for policy models and policy ideas.

Budapest (and Prague, for that matter) is a great example of how to generate high transit ridership in smallish cities by really aligning route design with land use in an effective way. Budapest Metro has significantly higher ridership than the much larger system in the much larger city of Los Angeles, for example, and it’s worth looking at that.

But Dreher and Roach aren’t looking for specifics. They’re so down on American culture and society writ large that they’re pining for these second-rate countries wallowing away in illiberal obscurity.

The reality, though, is that America has a lot going for it.

Elon Musk (an immigrant) has made these reusable rockets. We have the most Olympic medals. We played a leading role in the development of mRNA vaccines. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with Hungarian people; it’s just a small country that doesn’t accomplish that much. But beyond that, Hungarians actually also played a key role in the development of mRNA vaccines. However, Karikó Katalin did her important work in this field in the United States of America.

And nobody is surprised to learn that crucial research was done by a Hungarian-born person living in the United States rather than vice versa. The world’s most talented and ambitious people tend to try to come to America, and nobody tries to go to Hungary. Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner are some of the most important figures in 20th-century physics, and they’re all from Hungary but were driven out by antisemitism and helped the United States develop nuclear weapons. Andy Grove, the legendary CEO of Intel who established America’s global leadership in computer chip manufacturing, used to be András István Gróf — but he came to America to make his mark.

The biggest company in Hungary is some no-name oil and gas outfit called MOL, “followed by German carmaker Audi’s Hungarian subsidiary and GE Infrastructure CEE Holding.” By contrast, the Hungarian-American immigrants Charles Simonyi, George Soros, Thomas Peterffy, and Steven Udvar–Hazy are all billionaires who’ve founded important companies.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Hungary, of course. Budapest is a beautiful city that used to be the secondary metropolis of a vast cosmopolitan empire — a sort of Habsburg Los Angeles. And in those days, Hungary was an open society that assimilated Slovenes and Ruthenians and Romanians to Hungarian culture. But the legacy of European ethnic nationalism has been felt very strongly in Central Europe — it sparked multiple world wars, multiple genocides, rounds of ethnic cleansing, and now we have lots of itty-bitty, fairly homogenous countries there. And of them, Hungary is the most overtly gender traditionalist and xenophobic, and that’s what some American conservatives have decided they envy.

Cosmopolitan America is very successful

The problem with this is that the parts of America that the populist right has decided it hates are precisely the parts that make the United States richer than Hungary.

Our big tech companies dominate the global market capitalization listings. Our entertainment industry dominates global popular culture. Our universities dominate global higher education rankings. The foreign-born scientists and entrepreneurs are coming here, not Hungary. And it’s not just immigrants from the non-shithole countries that Donald Trump approves of — Steve Jobs’ biological father was a Syrian Muslim and Jeff Bezos’ adoptive father was a refugee from Cuba.

There are a lot of perfectly reasonable critiques one could make of existing immigration policy in the United States.

And if you want to argue for changes to the asylum system or for a reduced emphasis on family ties and more on labor market skills, that’s fine. But you don’t see Tucker Carlson making pilgrimages to Ottawa to meet with Justin Trudeau, and nobody is publishing Canadian Conservative magazine here in the United States. That’s too bad, though, because Canada is actually an example of a successful country, all things considered. And Stephen Harper probably could teach American conservatives some useful lessons in how to have less ridiculous opinions about healthcare policy.

What makes you reach for Hungary as an example is a desire to live in a country with very few immigrants of any kind, very little internal ethnic diversity, and lots of overt hostility to people with non-traditional ideas about gender roles.

But it’s worth saying that the United States already has places like that, and there’s nothing stopping anyone from moving there. One reason the non-diverse, non-cosmopolitan, highly traditionalist parts of the United States are much wealthier than rural Hungary is that they are connected to and subsidized by the much richer and more successful parts of the United States where you can find drag queen happy hour at the public library and the headquarters of big multinational corporations.

I don’t necessarily want to make a strong causal argument that if the United States adopts reactionary authoritarian policies it will kill the golden high-tech goose. But particularly in a world of increasing remote work, I would not entirely count out the possibility that the innovation moves to Vancouver or Amsterdam or wherever else. Mostly, though, I’m just saying that on an aesthetic level, the parts of America that conservatives have decided they hate are the parts that make us rich and successful.

Maybe don’t line up behind a huge scumbag?

This overall sense of despair has an incredible odor of giving up after trying nothing.

Like, maybe conservative populism would have better prospects in the United States if its leader weren’t a louche, corrupt fraud who rambles nonsense all the time? I mean, we’re talking about a guy who got up on a podium and suggested we could cure Covid by shining ultraviolet light into people’s lungs.

I often hear progressives look at the Trump shitshow in total belief and despair as to how anyone could vote for that clown. I don’t find it puzzling at all; the basic ideas of “cops and troops are good, we should have less immigration and wave little flags a lot instead of obsessing over racism” just have a lot of appeal.

But the populist right looked at a sample of two, saw that Trump narrowly won in 2016 while Romney narrowly lost in 2012, and concluded that Trump was a political genius. The fact that Trump then lost in 2020 hasn’t caused them to revisit this at all. But recall that Romney wasn’t just running on the little flags; he also vowed to privatize Medicare. You could just drop that without also having a leader who can’t deliver a coherent answer to any policy question because he’s too busy spending weekends lining his own pockets with public funds.

Then when Trump was president, right in the middle of this supposedly apocalyptical cultural battle, what do Republicans do? They try to kick millions of people off their health insurance. Then they follow it up with a toxically unpopular tax cut for multinational corporations. Maybe before you decide that Portuguese fascism is the answer to conservatism’s problems, you should just try to do basic politics in a halfway competent way?

Progressives should embrace patriotism

Okay, I broke my promise. But for roughly the same reasons that conservative Orbán-mania is dumb, I do wish progressives would spend a little more time embracing America as an instantiation of certain progressive values.

Not all progressive values, mind you. In particular, I think we fall down a bit in terms of taking care of each other. If we manage to improve and extend the new Child Tax Credit, though, we’ll make a huge dent in our scandalous child poverty problem. But making that happen is all about fostering a spirit of solidarity, and taking pride in national symbols can be helpful for that.

The bigger error is that I think many social justice activists have convinced themselves that the United States is an unusually racist society without really doing any comparative work on that. When Orlando Patterson surveyed the evidence he found the opposite — not that there’s no racism in America but that there’s less than in other majority-white countries. Americans are more open than Europeans to living next to a neighbor of a different race. We have a sharply rising level of intermarriages.

Race and racism are a big deal in American politics because America is more diverse, so these issues get a more thorough airing.

We know there’s a tradition of Black American artists seeking refuge from Jim Crow in France, but America has repealed those laws, and as France has become more diverse over the past 40 years, racial tensions have become more evident there. There’s no French Barack Obama or Kamala Harris. The people who looked at Obama and were like “aha, America is post-racial now and we should never talk about racism again” were being dumb, but it’s also dumb to deny that America has had some real success in building a diverse democracy.

Haters gonna hate

Notice here that I have not been dwelling on complaints that Orbán’s illiberal politics bleed over into outright authoritarianism and attacks on democracy. That’s not to say we shouldn’t take such concerns seriously, but I’m not personally very knowledgeable about that and I think it gets a lot of attention elsewhere.

So much attention that I think it crowds out the important point that a lot of contemporary conservatives just look at small, poor, backward, insular Hungary and think to themselves “this is great, this is better than living in Austin and having food from all over the world and a vibrant music scene and a world-class university and all these tech companies.” You get this paranoia that the arrival of foreign-born people is an existential threat to the native stock, so anything would be better than letting that continue.

And I really do think we should all stop and ponder how un-American and wrong that is. The nice lady from Mexico who sold me some breakfast tacos in downtown Kerrville this morning did not replace anyone, nor did the second-generation Vietnamese guy who was born in Houston and moved here to open a Chinese restaurant. Donald Harris taught at Stanford and his daughter became vice president. That’s a great American story. And the people who think it would be better to live in a country where that kind of thing never happens — a country like Hungary — are nuts.