The Right’s Bizzaro Definition of Freedom

I’m finding The Bulwark interesting, even though it’s written by a lot of reformed wingnuts. See, for example, How Rod Dreher Caused an International Scandal in Eastern Europe by Balázs Gulyás. Rod Dreher is a long-time writer for The American Conservative who “has played a key role in encouraging other members of the American conservative movement to engage with Hungary and to look toward Orbán’s political strategy and governance as a model,” it says here.

“In 2022, speaking to Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker he said, ‘Seeing what [J.D.] Vance is saying, and what Ron DeSantis is actually doing in Florida, the concept of American Orbánism starts to make sense. I don’t want to overstate what they’ll be able to accomplish, given the constitutional impediments and all, but DeSantis is already using the power of the state to push back against woke capitalism, against the crazy gender stuff.'” I like the part about “constitutional impediments.”

Anyway, back to The Bulwark.

Dreher’s stay in Hungary is apparently financed, at least in part, by the Hungarian taxpayers. Last year, he was a visiting professor at Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), an institution engaged in training future government cadres that operates from public funds provided by the government of Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian edition of Dreher’s most recent book, Live Not by Lies, was published by the MCC Press. And this year, Dreher is a visiting research fellow at the Danube Institute, a conservative think tank founded by the Hungarian government.

These days Dreher has been attracting attention as something of an apologist for Prime Minister Orbán, who, Dreher claimed in a tweet last Thursday, has made Hungary “more free than many western liberal democracies that have surrendered to the dictatorship of woke.”

But later that same day, something else Dreher wrote caused a whole lot of trouble for his hosts in Hungary.

Last Thursday evening, Orbán invited the friendly foreign press to his office on the Castle Hill, perched high above the Hungarian capital. In keeping with what has become the accustomed practice in the Orbán era, the prime minister chose to share his ruminations about the current state of the world exclusively with reporters who would never dare to criticize him, but only nod with enthusiastic agreement instead. (This happy group included, in addition to Dreher, Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, Roland Tichy, Boris Kálnoky, Ralf Schuler, Javier Villamor, and Jorge González-Gallarza Hdez.)

Dreher returned home to his apartment Thursday night and wrote down what he heard, publishing it in his American Conservative blog. Since Rod Dreher grew up in the United States, he didn’t know that in an autocratic country like Orbán’s Hungary, friendly agents in the media (I’m intentionally eschewing the word “journalist”) are not allowed to write down and publish exactly what they heard if it goes against the interests of their politicians/employers. (Such a blunder could never happen in a Hungarian paper controlled directly by Orbán. Even if a Hungarian equivalent to Dreher wrote an article that would be damaging for the Orbán government, editors working for the party-state would never let it see the light of day.)

Apparently Orbán made some off-the-cuff remarks that the Hungarian journalists understood were not for publication, but Dreher didn’t understand the rules. He assumed he enjoyed the same freedom of the press as in the oppressively woke United States. He was wrong.  For example,

Dreher quoted Orbán’s words: “We are in a war with Russia. That’s the reality. . . . Every day we are moving further in.”

Someone asked the prime minister if he wanted Hungary to stay in the EU. “Definitely not!” he said, adding that Hungary has no choice, because 85 percent of its exports are within the EU.

With respect to Ukraine, Dreher quoted Orbán as saying that “It’s Afghanistan now,” “the land of nobody” …

And so on. These remarks created an uproar within and without Hungary. Agents of the Hungarian government must have gotten to ol’ “Freedom First” Ron, because he quickly revised his published article.

So Rod, employing a solution not uncommon in autocratic countries, rewrote the article to change its meaning. The original headline: “Viktor Orban: ‘We Are In A War With Russia’” was changed to “Viktor Orban: West Is ‘In A War With Russia,’” and Orbán’s lines about wanting to take Hungary out of the EU were replaced by the exact opposite. …

… Then, after changing the blog post, Dreher and the Hungarian government started brandishing the new version about, shamelessly claiming that “the Left media in Hungary distort what the PM actually said.” Because, of course, the “Left media in Hungary” is also following and quoting Dreher. (By the way, “Left media” as Orbán uses that term, refers to what remains of the independent media in Hungary. Dreher has learned this usage quite quickly.) 

And will this episode cause anyone on the Right to reflect on the deeper meaning of “freedom”? Of course not.

To most of us, the word freedom connotes stuff like the absence of coercion or restraint by a government or others in our choices of action. This includes freedom from government goons demanding one rewrites a published news story. But that’s not what “freedom” means to a wingnut. I wrote back in 2012 that “Today’s conservative is someone who confuses freedom with feudalism. Or, put another way, he is someone who wears a ‘liberty or death’ T-shirt while marching in support of oligarchy.”

If you look deeper, though, you see that the iconic imagery and language of the American Revolution represents something profoundly reactionary to today’s conservatives. These icons speak to the mythic origins of American national identity, developed in 19th century textbooks and handed down in popular fiction and Disney movies. That the myths bear only superficial resemblance to what actually happened doesn’t register with them.

American mythos congeals into a kind of tribal identity in the rightie mind. It is this tribal identity that prevents them from seeing anyone who doesn’t look and think like them as “real Americans.” The protection and preservation of the tribe is the beating heart of today’s American right.

To a wingnut, “freedom” doesn’t mean “slavery,” exactly. But it does represent a kind of unquestioning allegiance to the 21st-century version of feudal lords — the Koch Brothers, Christian institutions, corporations and the wealthy generally. These are their tribal elders, after all.

The reactionary Right has not only claimed exclusive rights to patriotic icons like the flag and tri-corner hats; they also have adopted the language of the Left about rights. But “rights” to a rightie are not about standard civil liberties, but about their childish desires to deny equal rights to “others” who are different from them. So they call for the “right” to discriminate as they see fit.

So we shouldn’t have been surprised — and I doubt many of us were — by January 6 insurrectionists trying to overthrow the Constitution and representative government while hollering “1776!” See also When Freedom Is Dictatorship from 2011.

So what does wingnut “freedom” look like in action? Today Gym Jordan’s House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed FBI Director Christopher Wray compelling him to “turn over documents and communications related to the FBI’s ‘misuse of federal criminal and counterterrorism resources’ to target parents at school board meetings.”

Y’all might remember this nonsense from 2022, I think. Seems like a long time ago now.

In Gym Jordan world, the people in the video above are just concerned parents exercising their constitutional rights, and asking the FBI to look into violent threats against school board officials is “weaponizing government.” The hypocrisy is strong with these people. This is from a May 2022 Politifact column.

Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears recently said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland “sicced police” on parents who spoke out at school board meetings.

Her statement came at the start of a May 12 television interview on “Fox & Friends.” Earle-Sears, a Republican, was asked why Virginia was “tolerating” protests outside the Fairfax County homes of three U.S. Supreme Court justices who endorsed a draft ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

“We’re not tolerating it,” she replied. “In fact, our governor has had the state police outside of their homes this whole time since the very first time it started.

“What we need now is for Merrick Garland to go ahead and do his job,” she continued. “You saw that he sicced the police on parents when they were at the school boards simply trying to be heard for the safety of their children.”

Earle-Sears said Garland should be enforcing a federal law that bars protests near a judge’s residence that are aimed at influencing the “discharge of his duty.” She accused Garland of “selectively enforcing the laws” and offered his actions on demonstrations at school board meetings as an example.

So, according to this, people protesting peacefully outside the homes of Supreme Court justices for ending Roe v. Wade should be arrested, but physical threats against local school officials must be allowed because freedom? The FBI got involved with the school board threats because Merrick Garland “directed the FBI to meet with local governments and law enforcement to discuss strategies for dealing with increasing threats to teachers and school board members spurred by a conservative backlash against discussions of race in public schools,” it says here. The feds didn’t personally show up at school board meetings to arrest parents. But this is the kind of nonsense Gym Jordan plans to go on about.

In Gym Jordan’s America, only people who think and look like him get to be “free.”