When Tucker Carlson espouses a geopolitical opinion that seems off, it is worth wondering why he thinks that way. As ever, we must follow the money.
Tucker Carlson is not one to shy away from controversy. It’s part of his business model. His recent sacking from Fox News has seen him embraced by fellow courter of contention Elon Musk, as Carlson now has an online show on Twitter…sorry, X.
A number of his guests have been controversial, such as Andrew Tate, then his brother. But one subject that has surfaced with poignant regularity is the war in Ukraine. Carlson has recorded an episode alluding to President Zelenskyy being a dictator (fact-checked here), has interviewed Putin-supporting Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban, and has discussed the war with retired Colonel Douglas MacGregor—another shill for the Kremlin. The recent interview with MacGregor infuriated me, as an analyst of the Ukraine war, because virtually every claim the Colonel made is easily debunked. Many have claimed that the lowness of his rank has allowed him to get away with spouting insane conspiracy theories. Indeed, former serviceman Ryan McBeth has destroyed the credibility of the interview, though the damage will have already been done:
Carlson has also recorded a meeting with the Serbian President at the Serbian Embassy in Budapest—an odd choice, as Serbia is not in the EU and has a complicated relationship with the bloc, preferring to flirt with Russian influence and sympathy.
It could be that Carlson wasn’t the one choosing to meet Vucic but was the one chosen. Carlson appears to have been a useful tool for the pro-Russian Serbian President and his agenda, with Carlson being played like a fiddle:
During a public sit-down with Viktor Orban, he spouted long-debunked claims about the US being behind the Nord Stream pipeline explosion: “The Biden administration blew up Nord Stream… It was the biggest act of industrial sabotage in history, the largest manmade CO2 emission in history, and an attack on Germany.” (German media have recently concluded differently.)
Tucker Carlson had already repeatedly extolled the virtues of the Hungarian leader to millions of viewers on Fox News from his privileged seat. The geopolitical positions he sounded both there and since have very much rhymed with appeasement positions seen in certain circles at the early stages of World War II.
Why not have peace with Putin? Because such an approach hasn’t aged well.
The question is why Tucker Carlson is so interested in Orban, Serbia, and peddling Putin talking points. We are used to him being contrarian, but why choose this issue, and take these sides?
To answer this, let us take a journey on the gravy train, with stops at the Heritage Foundation and CPAC en route to the Kremlin.
The tree from which the Tucker nut fell
In 2022, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC, the annual political conference attended by American conservative activists and elected officials) took the rather bizarre and unexpected decision to set up shop, not in Pennsylvania or Texas, Ohio or North Carolina, but in Budapest, Hungary. This was bizarre for some fairly obvious reasons, meaning that “leading American conservatives who are supposedly deeply committed to the ideals of personal liberty, limited government, free markets, human dignity, and the like will be joining forces behind one of the most authoritarian and antisemitic heads of state in the world. “
It was a match made in heaven, and in 2023, the conference returned.
This year, CPAC Hungary’s gateway arch featured emblazoned above it the catchy slogan, “No Woke Zone,” with recent conferences restricting access to many reporters, calling them “fake journalists.” So much for the First Amendment and the sanctity of the Constitution. Politico’s Jacob Heilbrunn wrote recently about Hungary’s appeal to the conservative right:
Hungary is now the global epicenter of the new right’s crusade against liberal democracy. It serves as an alluring model for many conservatives — a country that’s successfully neutered the media and the judiciary as well as passed an anti-LGBTQ law that’s supposed to protect the traditional family. And don’t forget Orbán’s reluctance to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s brutal invasion.“Letter from Hungary: I Was Banned From Entering CPAC Hungary’s ‘Woke Free Zone’,” Politico,
The Republican Party had already spent some considerable time and effort cozying up to Putin over the years, including having incredibly insidious connections to the Trump administration through Paul Manafort and others (see the excellent documentary Active Measures on Amazon Prime or Hulu).
Budapest is a place with strong connections to Putin’s Russia, as author Craig Unger points out:
…Dr. András Göllner in the Hungarian Free Press notes that Budapest is home to approximately 1,000 members of the Russian secret service, many of whom are allowed “to work and travel without any restrictions within the EU, and more importantly, to travel to the USA without a visa.” …
Such security vulnerabilities are compounded by rampant corruption in Hungary, which will now provide a place for CPAC political operatives to mix with intelligence assets and the criminal class of Hungary and Central Europe. “It’s mind-blowing,” Göllner told me. “It’s almost as if the FBI or the Department of Justice decided to hold a bash in a village in Sicily that is the home of organized crime.”
There were other alternatives. “Paris is a nice place,” Göllner said. “London is nice. Why did CPAC choose to have the conference in the center of criminal activity? Because they can make financial transactions with the criminal class of Central Europe for funding that provides the leverage to gain political influence.”“Why Is CPAC Having a Conference Next Month in Budapest?”, The New Republic
The connections of the GOP to Hungary, and therefore by extension to Putin and Russia (for example, Orban’s links to the Russian mafia go back to 1994), are quite established now, but can be traced to the GOP political consultant Arthur Finkelstein who secretly helped get Orban elected. The mercenary attitude of the late Finkelstein was such that, as a Jewish gay, he had no issues supporting an anti-semitic, homophobic political project. And it started with the vilification of George Soros, a move that has seen Soros be the bogeyman of the conservative right in US politics ever since. It is worth reading The Insider’s piece “A suitcase full of cash from the Solntsevo Mafia: Does Putin have a video kompromat on the Hungarian leader?” because it is safe to say that, after 2008, the Hungarian leader, and thus Hungary, have suspiciously answered to the beck and call of Putin.
Richard Carlson, father of the aforementioned Tucker, is very much a part of this journey and key to understanding the connections between nefarious entities. He is on the board of a lobbying firm called Policy Impact Strategic Communications, a registered lobbyist for Viktor Orban. The New York Times was aware of this in 2019, reporting:
Former Vice President Mike Pence turned up in Hungary in September to speak to a conference on conservative social values hosted by the far-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, was another recent visitor. Tucker Carlson did his Fox News show from Hungary for a week last summer. The American Conservative Union is planning a version of its CPAC gathering in Budapest in early 2022….
But Policy Impact helped lay the groundwork. The firm introduced the younger Mr. Carlson to the Hungarian ambassador, arranged an interview on Mr. Carlson’s show in 2019 with Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, and helped to arrange meetings with Hungarian officials for a Fox News producer who traveled to Budapest in 2019 to research Mr. Orban’s agenda.
Asked about the lobbying firm’s efforts, Mr. Carlson said in a text message that “none of this is relevant to anything,” adding that he interviewed Mr. Orban because he was impressed by the Hungarian leader’s immigration policies.
Another organization that has received funding from the Hungarian government, the Danube Institute, has provided fellowships for Western conservatives and also arranged and paid for a speech in Budapest in September by Mr. Sessions, who said he was promised a modest fee.“Hungary’s Leader Fights Criticism in U.S. via Vast Influence Campaign,” The New York Times
The Hungarian influence has reached much further into the content of Tucker Carlson’s output, as Craig Unger points out:
Then, last August, Carlson spent a full week broadcasting his nightly Fox News show from Budapest, replete with fawning interviews with Orbán and gushing voice-overs about how Hungary was a “small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.”
Earlier this year, Carlson went even further, releasing a “documentary” called Hungary vs. Soros: Fight for Civilization, which portrays the country as a rightist utopia that has conquered illegal immigration thanks to its supposedly impenetrable border fence. Not one to shy away from antisemitism, Carlson depicts Soros as a villainous Jewish financier pulling the strings of the world leaders, directing a global conspiracy to keep borders open, and serving the interests of leftist ideologues through his support of civil society groups. “It’s appalling to see Tucker Carlson and FOX invoke the kind of anti-Semitic tropes typically found in white supremacist media,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “There’s no excuse for this kind of fear mongering, especially in light of intensifying #antisemitism.”
Is there any surprise that Tucker Carlson is spreading a pro-Russian narrative to his adoring followers? Absolutely not. Follow the money—and it goes through his family.
The strange, sudden pivot of the Heritage Foundation
Yet the links are bigger than the Carlson connections.
Coming to prominence during Reagan’s presidency, the Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank of some renown and influence. If you were to create a right-wing talking point checklist, they would have a full house across the board (BLM, trans issues, climate science denial, critical race theory, election lies, and so on).
But it gets most interesting on the topic of Ukraine.
The GOP of old would have been very hawkish about the invasion of Ukraine by the autocratic, imperialist, former Soviet Russia, with its restriction of press freedom and anti-free-market oligopolistic kleptocracy. But large swathes of the modern-day Republican Party evince an awful lot of support for Russia, and a distinct lack of appetite for supporting Ukraine. As the conservative National Review has stated about them, “Once a bastion of hawkish, Reagan-style foreign policy, Heritage has over the past year and a half executed a pivot toward what its top executives bill as a third-way foreign policy that is neither interventionist nor isolationist, roiling the conservative policy world.”
Indeed, in the early days of the war, “Heritage’s policy experts argued in favor of an aggressive American role in the conflict, including huge amounts of aid. One report said that the United States ‘must ensure that its massive humanitarian aid response helps the Ukrainian people to survive Russia’s war of aggression.'” An April 2022 report declared that a “sovereign Ukraine is necessary for overall European stability, which is in US and NATO interests. In many ways, the long-term stability of the trans-Atlantic community will be decided in Ukraine. The US must act accordingly.”
My, how things have changed. Heritage Action, the political activism arm of the organization has now publicly announced opposition to US assistance to Ukraine. And, rather suspiciously, Luke Coffey (the foreign policy director at the time) has declared he was ordered by the organization to retract his earlier statements supporting aid to Ukraine. Coffey subsequently left The Heritage Foundation. Recently, a highly controversial op-ed by Heritage’s president Kevin Roberts, claimed that Congress was holding victims of the 2023 Hawaii wildfires hostage “in order to spend more money in Ukraine”.
The public messaging to this piece was dubious enough to inspire some “community notes” fact-checking on Twitter:
Heritage vice president Victoria Coates then tweeted, “It’s time to end the blank, undated checks for Ukraine.”
This caused the director of their Center for National Defense, Lt. Gen. (Ret) Thomas Spoehr, to submit his resignation. Good to see some morality on show there.
But when Heritage’s president acknowledges an “evolution in the movement” such that they are “open[ing] up the movement to fresh American air and to the people we seek to serve,” one wonders whether it is the American people they serve or autocratic wannabe dictators.
Family values and that old-time religion
The Heritage Foundation and Hungary are connected in similar ways to Carlson: the same people and the same circles. In November 2022, Heritage’s President Kevin Roberts met with Viktor Orban, with agreement on the issues of family values and the importance of religion.
Importantly, such agreements can also easily be found with Conservative Poland’s ruling Justice and Law Party. So why did CPAC not choose to set up in Warsaw, another Eastern European destination? Hungary has objected to military aid to Ukraine and is furthermore spending less than 1% of its GDP on defense, something that is the polar opposite to Poland, a country easily fulfilling Donald Trump’s imploring of Europe to pull their NATO weight. CPAC would certainly have had to endorse a very different approach to Russia if they were in Poland, since the nation remains one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine to date. It’s pertinent that Poland is actually a much more religious country than Hungary, too (which is itself among the bottom third of countries in Europe on religious faith). This idea that Hungary is a Christian nation is a point that has led to Tucker being fact-checked again:
Yet again, we are back to following the money rather than rationality to understand why conservative America is becoming an ever-cozier bedfellow of Orban and Hungary.
When Orban spoke at CPAC 2023, he was fresh from speaking at the Heritage Foundation’s 50th anniversary celebration, also appearing on Fox News, and addressing the very right-wing New York Young Republican Club. Jacob Heilbrunn, at the Budapest event, wrote:
As I livestreamed the event, it quickly became clear that the Bálna center was functioning as a kind of mega-church for the Trumpian right. There were sermons and homilies and exhortations. There were warnings about satanic forces. And there were promises of redemption and salvation. One speaker talked about being crucified for politically incorrect views; others worshipped at the altar of Orbánism, praising Hungary as an outpost of Christianity that was beating back the infidels and heretics.
“I stand in awe,” declared Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts. GOP Rep. Paul Gosar, who has appeared at white nationalist events in the past, agreed. “Hungary,” he said, “is a beacon.”
In fact, the MAGA faithful flocked to the event to profess their admiration for the Hungarian miracle. Former Arizona candidate for governor Kari Lake recently declared on Steve Bannon’s show that “Hungary is doing things right.” One thing Orbán is apparently doing right is cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Friday morning, Lake announced at the conference that there was a simple solution to ending the Ukraine conflict — sellout Kyiv to the Russians. “The only way to stop this war,” she said, “is to turn off the money spigot. I say we should invest in protecting our borders, not Ukraine’s.”
Enter Danube, and Batthyány, and the money
But what explains the Heritage Foundation’s support of Russia over Ukraine?
In March of this year, Heritage and the Danube Institute, an organization chiefly owned by the Hungarian government, signed a cooperation agreement. It appears that this deal was the catalyst to Heritage’s volte-face on Ukraine. Some claim that, since 2013, Heritage has received most of its funding from the Danube Institute and Danube’s founders the Batthyany Foundation (which, along with the Hungarian government, funds the Danube Institute), both of whom are controlled by Viktor Orban. The Danube Institute is a conservative religious think tank that claims to be dedicated to “a respectful conservatism in cultural, religious, and social life, the broad classical liberal tradition in economics, and a realistic Atlanticism in national security policy.” The Batthyány Foundation (BLA) was established in 1991 “to support Hungarian public life based on common Christian values and democratic, representative governance.”
The lobbying and persuasiveness of the Danube Institute and the BLA have even recently found their way to the Tennessee state Senate—a very worrying and insidious infiltration into US politics:
On April 23, the Tennessee state Senate received an unexpected guest from the other side of the Atlantic. When Republican Senator Rusty Crowe was given the floor, he started by explaining how “amazing” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech had been at the conservative conference CPAC that touched on the importance of “traditional Judeo-Christian values.” He then used this as a segue into introducing István Kiss, the Executive Director of the Hungary-based Danube Institute, who was given the floor to speak. As it isn’t the norm to invite speakers from Hungary to speak on state politics in Tennessee, you could be forgiven for not understanding what the Danube Institute was, and why a Hungarian think-tank would be interested in speaking to Tennessee lawmakers.“The Danube Institute is Trying to Bring Orbánism to Tennessee,” Global Project Against Hate and Extremism
And experts have called on American Conservative writer Rod Dreher to register as a foreign agent for far-right Hungary under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a 1938 law that regulates advocacy for foreign governments in the US. The Southern Policy Law Center writes about the Hungary-based American writer:
Hatewatch obtained Dreher’s contract with the Danube Institute, a Hungarian think tank maintained by the Batthyány Lajos Foundation (BLA), through a Hungarian public information request. The Danube Institute receives funds from the Hungarian government. The contract refers to Dreher as an “agent” who will “write articles about his experiences in Hungary in the America media.” This agent activity “is executed in a manner that advocates the achievement of Principal’s [the Danube Institute’s] goals.”“ROD DREHER SHOULD REGISTER AS HUNGARY’S FOREIGN AGENT: EXPERTS,” Hatewatch, The Southern Poverty Law Center
Unfortunately, the Heritage Foundation is not required to disclose its funders. Its major foundation funders, however, can be found through a search of IRS filings, but the findings will only really turn up American interests. There are infographics available to illustrate what could well be the case:
However, “Fidesz’s [Orban’s political party] electoral victory in 2010 made a huge difference to the life of BLA. Conceived originally as a think tank, it became the conduit for propaganda, receiving large sums of money from the government. For instance, in 2019, BLA received 3.5 billion forints (about $12 million) from the propaganda ministry.”
If Heritage Foundation is directly funded by these Hungarian organizations, then the link from the dictator Putin, through fascistic autocrat Viktor Orban, to American politics is evident. But even without direct funding (something that might be hard to cast light upon), then the insidious influence is actually clearly there for the world to see anyway, moving from Russia through Hungary, and on via Heritage to CPAC and Tucker Carlson, and then onto the American public via Fox News and Elon Musk’s X.
Why do many Fox viewers and GOP politicians rail against support for Ukraine? Why does Tucker Carlson wax lyrical about European autocrats and cackle and blush in the presence of cleverly placed pretty women in the Serbian Embassy?
Follow the money.
An unexpected sidebar: Ron DeSantis
Back in March, Florida Governor and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis described the Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute” that was not of vital strategic interest to the United States. This was stated in a written reply to a questionnaire from no other than then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson. What might have underwritten this position? Reuters reported this last month:
Playing a quiet but important role in shaping the governor’s remarks was the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, America’s top conservative think tank, according to two people with knowledge of their interactions.
Senior Heritage officials had advocated for months in conversations with DeSantis’ team that he oppose policies that could move the US toward direct confrontation with Russia, the people said.“Insight: Conservative think tank emerges as force behind DeSantis campaign,” Reuters
The report details how DeSantis’s policy gamut appears to be a carbon copy of Heritage policies and states that the organization has been in contact with almost every 2024 Republican presidential campaign, including Donald Trump’s.
DeSantis’s remarks led to some vocal pushback and a change of tack, but the Heritage influence was certainly evident.
The poisoned tendrils of foreign power stretch the world and take root in many a heart and mind.
In researching and writing this article, I am reminded how compromised our electoral systems are, as are the information spaces in which we live. We must be forever vigilant. So often, we decry the ideologies of “the other side,” no matter which side of the political fence we sit. However, otherwise staunch ideologues appear to buckle at the knees to the draw of money and power. And when that money and power derives from foreign despotic regimes and is able to infect our systems, then the virus can have insidious and terminal effects. Be aware.
Tucker Carlson has spent many an episode of his shows shouting about the importance of freedom of speech, decrying the left for cancel culture (an erroneous claim itself), yet he is happy to fawn over an autocrat who has shut down free press and free speech in a one-man cancel campaign. It is a hypocrisy best explained by greed and lust for power, or perhaps even the charming smile of a cannily placed pretty woman.
When it comes to Ukraine, for example, anything other than full-blown support for the victims of the invasion will play into the hands of Putin. And he can smell weakness from across continents. Let’s try not to appease dictators. Godwin’s Law has already gotten the better of me in this piece, so I have no issues drawing further parallels with Nazi Germany. Appeasing Hitler led to the Munich Agreement and the annexation of Czechoslovakia, and that didn’t end well. i advise against similar approaches.
So when you see presidential candidates on stage debating, or on TV trying to win over the hearts of the electorate, and they espouse any position, one must cast an inquisitive eye.
Why do they think that? Where did they get that position from? Who really benefits?
Or, more simply, who has paid for it?