Right-wing populists are thriving — even when they’re friends of Putin

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban leaves a polling station in Budapest after voting on April 3. Orban, a right-wing nationalist, was reelected. (Akos Stiller/Bloomberg)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban leaves a polling station in Budapest after voting on April 3. Orban, a right-wing nationalist, was reelected. (Akos Stiller/Bloomberg)

When Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, a wide variety of commentators believed there was at least one silver lining in this catastrophic cloud. Vladimir Putin’s assault on the liberal order, they hoped, would expose and delegitimize the illiberal, populist forces that have been surging for years. One speculated that the war in Ukraine could end the age of populism. Another, the scholar Francis Fukuyama, saw it as an opportunity for people to finally reject right-wing nationalism. Alas, six weeks into this conflict, such notions look like wishful thinking.

In Europe, two pivotal elections — in Hungary and France — tell the tale. As recently as a few days ago, it was possible to suggest, as an essay in the Atlantic did, that the Ukraine war was “upending European politics” by highlighting the illiberal and pro-Putin records of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Experts were quoted saying that Orban was “desperately trying to reframe the events" around the war and predicted the French would now see President Emmanuel Macron as “probably the only person … who can lead them through this crisis”.

In fact, Orban has just won reelection — and a fourth consecutive term in office — by a handy margin, with his coalition getting about 53 percent of the vote compared to the opposition coalition’s roughly 34 percent. The same day, voters in Serbia reelected a populist, staunchly pro-Putin president by a landslide. In France, where the first round of the presidential election is set for April 10, polling suggests that Macron’s lead has been evaporating and that Le Pen has surged significantly. As a New York Times headline says, “Even Before France Votes, the French Right Is a Big Winner”. In Europe, at least, right-wing populism continues to thrive.

It’s not that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are popular, but they don’t dominate people’s worldview. The reputations of pro-Russian politicians have not suffered from the war as many expected. Frustrated by the Hungarian leader’s cozying up to Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky took a gamble and actually denounced Orban, calling him “virtually the only one in Europe to openly support Mr. Putin”. It didn’t work.

In the United States, one sees similar forces at work, though they are not as strong. In the first weeks of the war, the Republican Party seemed to revert to its historic hawkishness on foreign policy. Many of its older guard are vociferously anti-Putin and pro-Ukrainian.

But that would not describe the position of the man who is still the party’s most popular leader, Donald Trump, who has praised Putin since the invasion. Fox News’s highest-rated anchor, Tucker Carlson, who over two years ago declared that he was on Russia’s side in its battle against Ukraine, has recently taken to repeating Russian propaganda about alleged U.S.-sponsored bioweapons labs in Ukraine.

It’s worth noting that there are some mitigating factors. Orban has manipulated Hungary’s democracy in ways that give him structural advantages. In 2010, he moved to give citizenship to 2.4 million ethnic Hungarians living abroad and portrayed himself as the only defender of their rights, which gained him massive support from these newly minted voters. He has quashed the independent media. The government actively promotes Orban, sending out publicly funded posters with his image. These kinds of practices have led Freedom House to rate Hungary as the only European Union country that is “partly free”.

Even so, right-wing populism in Hungary and elsewhere is genuinely popular. While Le Pen has taken advantage of rising inflation, castigating Macron’s government for price hikes of all kinds, her fundamental appeal comes from her strident cultural nationalism. Orban, Le Pen and others on the right constantly rail against immigrants, multiculturalism, LGBTQ rights and “le wokisme”, a new phrase that has cropped up in France.

At the same time, these leaders have cast aside much of the free-market economics of the old right. Le Pen has denounced many of Macron’s neoliberal reforms and embraced the old statist policies of the French left such as the 35-hour workweek and early retirement. She has publicly speculated that she might bring in members of the left who agree with her ideas on protectionism and industrial policy. Orban has long practiced a kind of populist statism that doles out generous state subsidies to groups his party favors.

In America, Carlson spends little time on the Ukraine war, focusing his program instead on a daily diet of outrage about woke politics and cancel culture. Leading Republicans such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis do the same. If you were to listen to the American right, you would think that the most pressing issues in the world today are school boards that are indoctrinating children with ideas about gender fluidity.

It’s true that these ideas appeal to only part of the electorate — especially those who are older, more rural and less educated. But by now it should be clear that these voters are numerous enough and passionate enough to win elections — on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for the Atlantic.

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