The Policies Are Immigrating: Eastern Europe and the American Right

By Ezana Tedla


Every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk,” Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, said describing his view of migrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East during a 2016 press conference in Moskow. But this demeaning and fearful sentiment toward refugees is not only felt by the Hungarian government. The migrant crisis of the last decade has continued to be one of the main threats to the unity of the European Union. Poland, Hungary, Greece and other countries in Southern and Eastern Europe have been reluctant to welcome more migrants. 


The American right wing stance over immigration has shifted in the past twenty years, as differing factions have fought over migration to the US. The immigration rhetoric of Bush-era Republicans has become alien to the now post-Trump line on what to do on the border. The centrality of migration and who constitutes a “real” American is a newer trend in the ideologies of the US right wing. However, focusing solely on American politics leads to a myopic conclusion about this change. Instead, we ought to consider a broader question: how has the framing of immigration in Eastern Europe influenced the American right wing? 


To be an hegemonic power implies that one’s domestic politics have significant implications on peripheral spheres. The US has been projecting its power in this fashion for nearly a century. However, this aspect of American influence can leave us with a unidirectional view of political change. Agency in global affairs, in this view, is largely held by the US. For example, the idea that regime change only occurred because of American politicians’ decisions to invade Iraq. American media certainly perpetuates this view of international agency. But it is a mistake to portray our domestic politics as if there were only Americans coming up with American ideas to debate with American politicians. Regardless if we like it or not, and as much as the US and its people shape the course of international affairs, we are also shaped by them. 


The course of right wing politics and populism has had similar, broad shifts since the Great Recession over a decade ago. Largely, this ideology has been the common convictions around hostility towards immigration, a rise in nationalism and skepticism of the globalization of the past quarter-century. Over the past ten years, Orban, Trump, Bosonaro, and other right wing populists have risen to power due to this appeal. Yet, the right wing in the United States has not been the origin of all these changes. In immigration, the governments of Poland and Hungary have been at the forefront of this shift. In those countries, there is a construction about what it means to be a part of a nation that has inspired the American right. 


Immigration is central to this nationalistic worldview. Within the countries themselves, it marks the difference between those who are truly a part of the culture, language, and tradition and those who are not. Orban, again is upfront about this, stating, “western Europe had given up on … a Christian Europe, and instead experiments with a godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration and open societies.” Central to this ideology is an idealized portrayal of Europe as pure, homogeneous, and Christian. Those who do not fit into that mold are excluded from their national projects. 


The Hungarian government, led by Orban and the ruling Fidesz have taken the most extreme reaction to migrants. One of their laws to combat migration, the ‘Stop SOROS’ Act, punished those who would give aid to migrants. Beyond the immediate impact on refugees and migrants seeking asylum and shelter in Hungary, and in parts of Eastern Europe, these actions are part of a larger ideological assertion. The leaders of these right-wing parties are asserting what the composition of the country ought to be. Broadly, they have justified their demographic goals with their increasingly ethno-nationalistic narratives. Homogeneity and conformity is the goal, and anything that can taint that must be avoided in this worldview. These governments are pretty explicit about this attitude. In Poland, fomenting the fear of migrants is central to the strategy of the ruling Law and Justice party. This past summer, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki appealed to his base by stating he would protect “holy Polish territory” against thirty Afghan refugees trapped between Poland and Belarus. The ambition of these governments to create a homogenous population chases a past glory that never existed. 


In real time, this distinction is revealed in the differing responses most European governments have had to migrants from Ukraine. The European Union was able to enact an immediate amnesty policy for Ukrainian cities and migrants fleeing. This reaction, of course, is in sharp contrast to the fractured responses in Eastern and Southern Europe to migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Poland in particular has been aggressive in accepting Ukrainian refugees displaced from the Russian invasion. Their treatment, unlike the one given to Middle Eastern and African immigrants, is one of solidarity as millions of Ukranians have to uproot their lives. The leaders of the countries with a large influx of Ukrainian refugees, justified these differences because of common European and ‘Christian’ identity. They are drawing the line between ‘legitimate’ migrants and the alien other. 


Resistance to immigration in the United States is driven by issues independent of the ones in Eastern Europe. Historically, this resistance played a significant role in shaping the development of American politics. The Know Nothings, of the mid-19th century, were the most upfront in xenophobia being foundational to their poltical ideology. But the role of Eastern Europe in the American discourse is twofold. Firstly, Hungary, Poland, Greece, and other similar governments provide a blueprint for ethno-nationalist justifications of anti-immigration policies. Secondly, elements of populist right-wingers themselves acknowledge being inspired by those countries. 


Tucker Carlson, the widely watched right-wing populist commentator, even went so far as to produce a film about Hungarian politics. His film, “Hungary vs. Soros: Fight for Civilization” was a right wing American summary of the ideology of the Hungarian government. Carlson’s film emphasised the fence Hungary built on its borders to dissuade migrants from entering the border. Above all, the film portrayed Hungary as a conservative aspiration: homogenous, secure, and structured. It provides a not-so-hidden message: the United States should emulate their policies. In the government as well, the language of former President Trump on immigration reflected something close to envy held for the immigration policies of Eastern Europe. Trump’s speech at the UN, written by Stephen Miller, commended the Polish government and people for “standing up for their independence, their security, and their sovereignty.” 


The policies passed by these Eastern European right-wing continue to inspire the American right. Framing the development of American conservatism in an international context is vital to understanding the course of American politics. As the rise of such nationalism occurs in the United States, we are left with an incomplete picture if we refuse to acknowledge the influence behind our discourse.

Ezana Tedla is a first-year in Jonathan Edwards college and can be reached at