The American Face of Authoritarian Propaganda
Category: Op/EdVia: hallux • 2 months ago • 8 comments
By: Anne Applebaum - The Atlantic
“Axis Sally” was the generic name for women with husky voices and good English who read German and Italian propaganda on the radio during World War II. Like the Japanese women who became collectively known as “Tokyo Rose,” they were trying to reach American soldiers, hoping to demoralize them by telling them their casualties were high, their commanders were bad, and their cause was lost. “A lousy night it sure is,” Axis Sally said on one 1944 broadcast : “You poor, silly, dumb lambs, well on your way to be slaughtered.”
Tucker Carlson, who also repeats the propaganda of foreign dictators while speaking English, doesn’t have anything like the historical significance of Axis Sally or Tokyo Rose, though his level of credibility is similar. This is a man who famously wrote texts about his loathing of Donald Trump, even while praising the then-president in public; recently, the former Fox News host kept a straight face while interviewing a convicted fraudster who claimed to have smoked crack and had sex with Barack Obama. But when Carlson speaks on behalf of Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin, his words are repeated in Hungary and Russia, where they do have resonance: Look, a prominent American journalist supports us . I don’t know what Carlson’s motivation is—he did not respond to a request for comment—but his words also circulate in the far-right American echo chamber, where they are sometimes repeated by Republican presidential candidates, so unfortunately they require some explanation.
Carlson’s hatred of American institutions, and of many Americans, is the starting point for many of his diatribes. Recently, for instance, he appeared at an event in Budapest, organized by a Hungarian-government-funded organization, where he called the U.S. ambassador to that nation a “creep,” said he was “embarrassed that I share a country of birth with a villain like this,” and apologized for American foreign policy in Hungary.
But what is American foreign policy in Hungary? I asked the ambassador, David Pressman, to describe it to me. Pressman, who is gay, told me that when he first arrived in Budapest, his counterparts smirked at him during their meetings and asked if he wanted to talk about gay rights or other progressive causes. No, he told them. He wanted to talk about Russian and Chinese espionage and influence operations in Hungary, which are considerable.
Some examples: The most important Russian investment in Hungary is a nuclear-power plant whose financing is kept secret by law, presumably because the ruling party doesn’t want to reveal who is benefiting. Chinese interests are also financing a distinctly untransparent railway project in Hungary, have made an opaque investment in an environmentally unfriendly battery-manufacturing plant, and, a couple of years ago, with the help of the Hungarian government, tried to open a university in Budapest too. In 2019, Hungarian government officials also arranged for the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank, an institution set up in 1970 by the Soviet Union and its satellite states, to move its headquarters to Budapest, even throwing in a 10-million-euro subsidy as encouragement. The Hungarian government, which rejoined the bank in 2015 (having left it after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.), owned about a quarter of the shares of the IIB; the Hungarian deal with the “Russian spy bank,” as it is known in Budapest (it was once described by a group of U.S. senators as “an arm of the Russian secret service”), also freed the bank from Hungarian financial supervision, exempted it from taxes, and allowed bank employees to have diplomatic status and immunity in Hungary, an arrangement that could in theory help Russian spies enter the country and from there the rest of the European Union.
The bank was dodgy enough to raise American concerns even during the Trump administration, which was otherwise more indulgent of Hungary’s autocratic ruling party. After Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the Biden administration told the Hungarians, who remain NATO allies, that the bank was a major problem for the alliance. Orbán resisted this pressure until April of this year, when Pressman announced sanctions against the bank and three of its executives, two Russians and one Hungarian. “We are concerned about Hungarian leaders seeking ever-closer ties with Russia, despite its brutal aggression,” he told Hungarian journalists. A few days later, Orbán caved, and withdrew Hungary’s investment. The bank announced that it would leave Budapest.
This was unsurprising. Although Orbán likes to portray himself as a leader who cannot be influenced, a man tough and immovable, in fact he often gives in at the last minute—he is famous in the European Union for doing so. But he needs to tell a different story to his voters about what happened. The invitation to the disgraced former Fox News pundit does that: While in Budapest, Carlson channeled Orbán’s anger and dislike of the United States and its ambassador, while studiously avoiding the real reasons for what is indeed an extremely poor moment for American-Hungarian relations.
During his comments, and during his interview with Orbán, both broadcast on his social media, Carlson stayed well away from banks and Russian spies. He didn’t mention Hungary’s refusal to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership , or Hungary’s repeated vetoes of European sanctions against Russia . Instead, he denounced the United States for “the imposition of boutique sexual politics” on Hungary. Officials in the Biden administration, Carlson claimed, “hate Hungary not because of what it’s done but because of what it is. It’s a Christian country, and they hate that.” He made what sounded like several references to trans-rights activism, praised the Hungarians for their resistance to the degenerate West, and won applause.
This rant was based on a false premise, for there is no U.S. war on Christianity in Hungary. If American officials are angry at Hungary, that’s not because of what it is, but because of what it’s done. Once again: The conflict between Washington and Budapest over the past several years is about Hungarian corruption, especially corruption in the ruling Fidesz party, and Hungary’s deep ties to other autocracies. (These are, of course, related issues : A major purpose of the deep ties with autocracies is for Fidesz to make money off them .) But Orbán doesn’t want his voters to pay attention to his corrupt links or his autocratic friendships, and he doesn’t want Americans or Europeans to know about them either. And so he hides them behind the veil of a culture war. Carlson is useful to Orbán because his words can help hide Orbán’s agenda at home— look, a prominent American journalist supports us —and abroad. By pretending that this is a culture war rather than a conflict over money and espionage, Carlson helps Orbán escape the consequences of his actions.
Orbán is hardly the first autocrat to use propaganda this way. Vladimir Putin has been directing his citizens away from reality and toward imaginary culture wars for more than a decade. In September 2022, when the Russian president held a ceremony to mark his illegal annexation of southern and eastern Ukraine, he did not speak of the people he is torturing or holding in concentration camps, the children he has kidnapped and deported to Russia, or even the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who have died in his unnecessary war. Instead, he used the occasion to talk about the “satanic” West, claim he was defending Russia from “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction,” and again replace the real war, in which real people are killing and being killed, with a fictional culture war that exists in his head.
Carlson frequently uses Russian propaganda lines too, promoting fake stories ( Ukrainian “bio-labs” ), repeating Russian justifications for the war , and calling the Ukrainian president a “dictator.” He began doing this when he was still at Fox News, and now he does it in the videos he promotes on social media. Clips of these performances are frequently shown on Russian television, both when he attacks the U.S. and when he amplifies Russian propaganda about Ukraine or about the war. But many of these stories are nevertheless told as part of a larger one: the fake battle between a weak, degenerate America and healthy autocracies with “traditional values.”
None of this might matter very much, except that, again, a large part of the American far right has learned this rhetorical trick from Putin, from Orbán, from Carlson, and from other propagandists. Ignoring the real world in order to fight the culture war is now common practice. Although Trump was wholly ignorant of economics and foreign policy, his supporters didn’t care, because he got them excited about owning the libs. Ron DeSantis still seems to believe that a “war on woke” is more likely than a comprehensive health-care plan to help him get elected president, and he might be right. A wide range of senators who should know better—including Ted Cruz, J. D. Vance, and Josh Hawley, who used to talk a lot about real issues—have now abandoned policy debates in order to fight the culture wars and attack “elites,” despite their own Ivy League pedigrees.
You can see why. The real world is full of difficult, hard-to-explain problems; even the best solutions might require difficult trade-offs. Once, Americans did have at least a few politicians who nevertheless sought to find these solutions, and our political system seemed to allow us to have arguments about them. Authoritarians, by contrast, seek power in order to hide the problems, steal money, arrange favors for their friends, and manipulate the political system so that they can’t ever lose power. That’s what Putin did, and that’s what Orbán does too. Carlson is simply the American face, and the English-speaking voice, of that confidence trick.