In late summer 2021, media platforms in the United States were electric with news of right-wing pundit Tucker Carlson’s visit to Hungary and his televised interview with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which was subsequently lauded by former President Trump. Carlson praised Orbán’s anti-LGBTQ+ stance. The Fox News commentator also commended pro-family policies in Hungary. Journalists have been quick to highlight how American conservatives have become enamored with authoritarian leaders since Trump’s presidency. The embrace of authoritarian values is not new in the history of global politics, but it is now more transparent in the United States given our continuous digital media coverage. As a scholar who studies the transnational flows of religio-political ideology between Russia and the United States, I see this conservative preoccupation with strident, anti-democratic authority shaping up to become a despotically inclined, globalized social formation bent on deconstructing democracy.
While our nation was still grappling with the aftershocks of the Capital Siege, Carlson’s visit to Hungary and his embrace of Orbán seemed to have reified the antidemocratic spirit of the far right in the American public consciousness. Yet, Carlson is but one more actor among many on the far right who are looking outward beyond American politics for models of governance that affectively appeal to both their political philosophies and, often, their religious ideologies. Other political formations are at play as well—Christian nationalism, populism, and the America First movement—just to name a few. Yet what is striking is how authoritarianism, a long-reviled form of political power in the United States, is now being embraced by some right-wing American Christians. Perhaps they assume it will offer them a political respite from the diversity of democracy.
Carlson’s visit to Hungary would not have been possible without his persuasive associate from The American Conservative: Rod Dreher, an Orthodox public writer. Funded by a right-wing think tank with connections to Orbán, Dreher spent several months of 2021 living in Hungary, writing regularly about the sheer delights of authoritarian rule. In a recent New Yorker article, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, who interviewed Dreher about Hungary, mentions the writer’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy in passing. Yet the lack of investigatory curiosity about Dreher’s theological conversion and epistemological shift to Orthodoxy does a disservice to understanding both Dreher’s politics and those of his fellow far-right travelers. The American far right is a phantasmagoric amalgamation of groups. Its members find one another through cybernetic currents of dis/misinformation, united in their fears over declining white religious majorities, and focused on the disciplinary need to moralize the public sphere.
One small but growing constituency of the far right are American converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Historically a faith of immigrants, Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States has become a haven for converts who are looking beyond Western Christianity for what they believe is a truly traditional faith, not just in terms of piety but also in terms of politics. In Orthodoxy, particularly in its Russian diasporic formation, many believe they have found a space in which hierarchy, patriarchy, and purity are preserved in opposition to secularization, democratization, and diversification. Some are part of the America First movement, others consider themselves fascists, nationalists, traditionalists, reactionaries, and monarchists. For a year (2017-2018), I lived with Orthodox converts in the Appalachian Mountains. They were largely taken with Putin’s Russia as a geopolitical compass guiding America back to traditional social morals. This group of converts to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) saw in Russia the political reclamation of traditional social values.
Focused on social purity, fears of difference, and the rise of liberal progressivism, this community, as I have argued elsewhere, could be considered a hybrid form of religio-political fascism. While members of this group are aligned religiously with Dreher, they looked to Putin rather than Orbán as a political exemplar. Nevertheless, the ontological angst expressed in this community over liberal democracy is foundational to the worldbuilding projects of Dreher and other far-right religious conservatives, who also desire new forms of political authority, whether it be hybrid fascism or authoritarianism, that are removed from the American democratic project.
The question is why Dreher, why Americans in Appalachia, and why others, including those present at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, look to authoritarian forms of governance for the future of the United States. The answer is not populism. Over the past few years, Dreher has suggested that America is facing “soft totalitarianism” because of progressive politics. Unlike many Christians on the far right, Dreher does not want to make America great again in the Trumpian fashion; rather, Dreher is more inclined to a Benedictine world focused not on embracing difference and diversity, but rejecting these ideals through isolationist ideas. The diversity, so long associated with the American democratic project, is, for Dreher, oppressing those who resist liberalism and shun ecumenism. Much like Russian Orthodox converts in Appalachia who believed that only Russia could save the modern world, Dreher sees a potential model for America in Hungary’s authoritarian politics. While Dreher claims that Orbán’s Hungary is not the same as Hitler’s Germany or Franco’s Spain, or even Putin’s Russia, they all share a similar form of panic politics, rhetoric of fear, and systems curated by illiberal or authoritarian leaders. This combination is quite alluring for Dreher, for converts in Appalachia, pundits like Carlson, and others on the far right.
While Tucker’s interest in Hungary has more to do with ratings than it does with ideology, Dreher and other far-right Orthodox folks find Orbán, and others like him, affectively compelling. Orbán and Putin are king figures in their supporters’ narratives of religious oppression. Believing themselves to be oppressed by the freedom of democracy and denied the freedom to practice their religious beliefs openly in the United States, Orthodox ideologues take to social media to praise countries in which religious belief is employed by the state as a form of control, such as through the anti-LGBTQ+ laws in Hungary and Russia. These mechanisms of control, these disciplinary political structures, are based in an authoritarian politics of fear. At the heart of the authoritarian allure, as Anne Applebaum has noted, is the relationship between power and fear. This emotive alliance, driven by anger and a desire for the unity of sameness, is what we see expressed in authoritarian countries such as Russia, Poland, and Hungry. At the same time, as Applebaum has aptly written, drawing on the work of the late Svetlana Boym, these factors are further mobilized by the seductive allure of nostalgia, a social mechanism that feeds on publics’ need to return to something that can never be returned to despite all good efforts.
For many conservative Eastern Orthodox converts, the Christian past must be nostalgically revived in order for the United States to survive as a nation. Fears of persecution, anger at LGBTQ+ communities, and an emphasis on social purity are all affective components of their authoritarian worldbuilding project. Rather than seeing their embrace of foreign powers and leaders as potentially treasonous, they see it as patriotic, as holy, as just, as part of their sincerely held beliefs regarding the relationship between political authority and religious freedom. While the desire to have their voices heard hedges towards populism, the far-right Orthodox turn to strident models of political authority, including an American kingship for some, highlights how a politics of resentment easily slips into a desire for authoritarian rule. The allure of authoritarianism for many Eastern Orthodox converts is not just about feelings of safety or correctness, although that is part of it; it is tied largely to the need to see their political and religious beliefs as primary, as nonnegotiable for the entire social collective.
Orthodoxy has a complicated relationship with political authority. From Byzantine symphonia to tsarist Russia, the intersection of political rule and religious authority has been lauded and decried by Orthodox adherents. Recently, the emphasis on reclaiming that relationship has become palpable among the conservative Orthodox. In March 2019, Dreher was one of the speakers at the “Chastity, Purity, Integrity: Orthodox Anthropology and Secular Culture in the 21st Century” conference at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. In the collected lectures, Fr. Alexander Webster sums up the far-right Orthodox impulse towards authoritarian moralizing of the public sphere:
Consider the magnificent, providential irony if the global power of “the Russians” in the Russian Republic today (so disdained, scorned, and demonized by so many American elites across the political spectrum despite having cast off the shackles of Soviet tyranny, state atheism, and decades of persecution), with the Russian Orthodox Church headquartered in Moscow as the religious and moral force, were to furnish the ballast to keep afloat the fragile ship of faith in the post-Christian West (Webster 2020).
Webster emphasizes a radically exclusive religious worldbuilding project as the basis for American politics and daily life. To realize that vision, Webster seeks out a foreign political project that not only supports Christianity but enforces it. In doing so, he, similar to Dreher, reminds us of why those on the far right often find authoritarianism so salvific.