BUDAPEST — It’s been a meeting of conservative fellow travelers: a jovial host — who heads an authoritarian government bent on targeting liberal institutions, including universities, the judiciary and the media — and his American guest exchanging grins.
In a week in which he broadcast nightly from Budapest, the American talk show host Tucker Carlson posed for pictures with and interviewed Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, and took a helicopter to inspect a Hungarian border fence designed to keep out migrants.
The visit by Mr. Carlson, the top-rated host on Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News, bolsters Mr. Orban’s mission to establish Budapest as an ideological center for what he sees as an international conservative movement.
For Mr. Carlson, the Hungary trip was an opportunity to put Mr. Orban, whom he admires, on the map for his viewers back home, a conservative audience that may be open to the sort of illiberalism promoted by the Hungarian leader. On Wednesday’s show, Mr. Carlson praised Hungary as “the small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.”
Mr. Carlson’s Fox News program espouses some hard-right views, especially on immigration, where he and Mr. Orban share common ground. The host has held up Hungary’s hard-line policy on rejecting asylum seekers as a model for an American immigration system that he believes is too lenient and has weakened the power of native-born citizens, an argument that Mr. Carlson’s critics say overlaps with white supremacist ideology.
A one-time foreign correspondent for American magazines, Mr. Carlson is also an instinctive television showman with an ear for provocation. His friendly interview with Mr. Orban has prompted a raft of think pieces in the English-speaking media that, while mostly critical of Mr. Carlson, have given the Hungarian leader a fresh round of international press coverage.
In the United States, Fox News viewers are tuning in: This week’s broadcasts of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” attracted roughly 3 million viewers a night, handily beating the competition on CNN and MSNBC.
Mr. Carlson’s visit comes at as the populist Mr. Orban has become increasingly isolated and is in a precarious position, at home and abroad, over his government’s backsliding on democracy and his administration’s poor handling of the coronavirus epidemic.
Mr. Carlson’s positive outlook on Hungary is not shared by many across the European Union, where Mr. Orban is often regarded as a far-right strongman who has badly weakened democratic institutions, cozied up to Beijing and Moscow, and steered public assets into foundations controlled by his allies.
Mr. Orban’s party is now being challenged by a six-party opposition coalition in elections scheduled for next year.
In an interview with Mr. Carlson that aired Thursday, Mr. Orban said he expected an effort by the “international left” to oust him next year.
To rally support from his conservative base, he has immersed himself in the culture wars that have roiled politics in the United States, and in which Mr. Carlson has also been an eager participant, regularly railing against liberals.
Mr. Orban’s party recently adopted a law restricting depictions of homosexuality; critics said it was being used to target the country’s L.G.B.T.Q. community. And the government-aligned media regularly rails against the destabilizing effect that Western “woke” culture has on traditional society.
By moving billions of dollars worth of cash and assets into quasi-private educational foundations controlled by his allies, analysts say, Mr. Orban is setting up an ideological control center, bolstered by paid conservative thinkers from Europe and North America living in Budapest.
Several European and American conservative public intellectuals have already answered Mr. Orban’s call.
The American author and journalist Rod Dreher, who writes for The American Conservative (Mr. Carlson sits on its advisory board), has been in Hungary since April, thanks to a paid fellowship at an institute funded by Mr. Orban’s government.
He said he had been inspired by the Hungarian leader when he first met him along with a group of visiting conservatives in 2019.
“Here was a leader who was not the thuggish strongman of media caricature, but an intelligent man who had obviously thought deeply about political and cultural issues,” Mr. Dreher said.
Hungary was also a focus for another American conservative, Stephen K. Bannon, President Donald J. Trump’s former adviser, who traveled to Europe to work with Mr. Orban and other nationalist populist parties ahead of the 2019 elections for the European Parliament. Mr. Bannon’s efforts fizzled, partly because of the difficulty reconciling competing national priorities among the continent’s different nationalist parties.
Mr. Carlson himself has a family connection with the Hungarian leader — his father, Richard Carlson, is listed as a director of a Washington-based firm that has lobbied for Mr. Orban in the United States.
In 2019, the firm, Policy Impact Strategic Communications, disclosed in a lobbying filing that it “coordinated an interview of Minister Szijjarto on the Tucker Carlson show,” referring to Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s minister of foreign affairs and trade.
William Nixon, the firm’s chairman and chief executive, said in an interview that Mr. Carlson’s father — a former journalist, media executive and American ambassador — was not involved in arranging the interview with the foreign minister, and is neither an investor nor an employee of the firm. A filing shows that the firm’s contract with the Hungarian government ended in late 2019.
Mr. Nixon said the firm had no role in arranging Mr. Carlson’s trip this week to Hungary. Fox News said Mr. Carlson’s father “is retired and had nothing to do” with the visit or the meeting with Mr. Orban. “Tucker and his team booked the interview and the expenses were covered by Fox News,” the network said in a statement.
On Wednesday, Mr. Carlson rode a military helicopter to Hungary’s southern border with Serbia to inspect the chain link fence Mr. Orban’s government erected in 2015 to keep migrants from entering the country. He praised the government’s efforts.
Mr. Carlson was also slated to speak at a youth event Saturday hosted by a “talent management” institute on which Mr. Orban’s government has lavished billions. And he is filming a documentary about Hungary during his stay there, which is slated to air on Fox Nation, Fox News’s subscription streaming service.
Even as Mr. Orban is increasingly shunned by many European conservatives, Mr. Carlson has been effusive in his praise, depicting the Hungarian leader as a virtuous champion of family values and a model for America.
Since the deadly riot in Washington on Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, Mr. Orban’s appeal has increased among American conservatives, who have increasingly found common cause with authoritarian governments, said Dalibor Rohac, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.
Traditionally, he said, “the conservative disposition was a distrust of power and imposition of checks and balances. That’s been eroded in Hungary.”
Benjamin Novak reported from Budapest and Michael M. Grynbaum from New York. Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting from Washington.