US right caught between confronting China and courting populist strongmen

Pandering to foreign nationalists crosses from the eccentric to the self-harming

For a masterclass in tact, see the midpoint of Tucker Carlson's chat with Viktor Orbán last week. Broadcasting from Hungary, the Fox News host commiserates with its prime minister about his infamy in the White House. Why does Joe Biden scold Orbán as a "thug" leader, he wonders, but not president Xi Jinping of China? Orbán improvises an answer that ducks the Xi point. Carlson, lest some kind of interview break out, does not press it. In other news, Hungary hosts the largest Huawei supply centre outside China.

A subtle dance, I know, but one the US right should practise. If it is going to woo foreign strongmen, there are incompatibilities it will have to work around. A difference in geopolitical orientation is the least ignorable of these. The world's loose club of nationalist leaders has shown an openness to China that Republicans would not forgive in an Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, much less a Democrat.

What China does hold out is the hope of investment and other kinds of succour without moral strings

When he was prime minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, now the head of the Five Star Movement, defied Washington to court Beijing. That his government posed as former president Donald Trump's "privileged interlocutor" in Europe did not stop it being the first in the G7 to join the Belt and Road Initiative. If that wasn't warning enough that such leaders can be more perfidious than liberals in the superpower duel, Republicans have been spoilt for others.


Spurning the US in 2016, president Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines told a Chinese audience that he was "dependent" on them. As recently as June, Orbán described an EU statement in defence of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as "frivolous". That so few of these overtures turn out to be fruitful and lasting does not obscure their intent. If the pattern is not one of outright ingratiation with Beijing, it is at best studied equidistance between the two giants.


Nor is it all that hard to explain. To the US, China is a tangible threat to its premier place in the world. It is also an ideological challenge to a certain mode of government. To a middling autocrat, it is, by definition, neither. What China does hold out is the hope of investment and other kinds of succour without moral strings. Last month, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland withheld funds from Hungary over its domestic politics. The EU is toying with something comparable. The lure of a vast and less fussy sponsor hardly needs spelling out. It would be far weirder if populist leaders did not tilt to China.

The trick is to convince some US conservatives of this reality. Because they chime with the likes of Orbán on immigration and education, they tend to infer wider agreement on foreign affairs. That, or they savour the brotherhood in the culture wars and postpone awkward questions of geopolitics altogether. Either way, you sense a cruel tryst with reality in the offing. The US right can have its confrontation with China or its indulgence of third-party strongmen. It will be a feat to run with both of these primal instincts indefinitely.


If Carlson can’t see the snag, that is no great crisis for him. A week’s worth of media coverage of his media coverage (how post-modernity spoils us) is its own triumph. The real wonder is that America’s wider conservative movement doesn’t sweat the details either. You are not long in Washington before you find that Orbán fans and China hawks are often the same people. It is the style and success of foreign populists that seems to excite. The half-understood content is beside the point.

It is an open question how many Republicans know that Orbán part-nationalised private pensions

Even without the China wrinkle, a cohesive bloc of populists was always far-fetched. Parties that define themselves by national egoism are hardly given to acting in concert. Then there is the statist economics that splits the European wing of the family from the American. It is an open question how many Republicans know that Orbán part-nationalised private pensions.

Throw in the matter of China, and the indulgence of foreign populists crosses from the eccentric to the self-harming. Attacks on Carlson for his week by the Danube, as valid as they have been, lack any appeal to cold interest. Whether Talleyrand ever described one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rashest acts as “worse than a crime, a mistake”, it remains the most effective line of argument in politics.

No Republican who is beguiled by Orbán and others like him will be deterred by moral exhortation. What might work – in a party so preoccupied with China – is a more instrumentalist case. It is plain enough what draws US populists to their foreign kin. The question to ask them is how their own country benefits.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021