Jordan Klepper sees the future of GOP: “Conservatives look to Hungary as a conservative wonderland”

Jordan Klepper, correspondent on “The Daily Show,” has made a name for himself going to Trump rallies in recent years and cleverly getting Trump supporters to share their unintentionally comedic — and even alarming views. Now Klepper is traveling to the ghost of autocracy’s future as he heads to Hungary in his new TV special for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” In “Jordan Klepper Fingers the Globe: Hungary for Democracy,” premiering Thursday, April 21 at 11:30 ET/PT on Comedy Central, he explores the alarming connection between the increasingly autocratic government there and our own budding autocratic movement known as the GOP. In fact, America’s Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) is holding a conference in Hungary this May. 

As we discussed on our “Salon Talks” episode, which you can watch below, Klepper first became aware of this unholy love affair between America’s right and Hungary’s autocrats when he covered the most recent CPAC convention in Orlando for “The Daily Show.” That event surprisingly featured Hungarian politicians who served up all the typical GOP red meat including saying, “Let’s Go Brandon,” which is code for “F**k Joe Biden.” As Klepper explained, “It turns out conservatives look to Hungary as a conservative wonderland.” 

Why? Simply, Hungary’s right wing prime minister Viktor Orban is passionately anti-immigrant, has demonized Muslims, passed vile anti-LGBTQ laws, controls the media, rigged elections, banned topics in school he doesn’t approve of and has made George Soros his number one enemy. Sound familiar?    

Klepper warned of “Americans’ lack of imagination as to what can happen to our own democracy.” He aptly noted that the backsliding of democracy happens slowly. “It’s the frog that’s boiling in a pot of water.” That is what happened in Hungary and appears the trajectory the GOP wants to take the United States. 

Klepper also shared his view on why people like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin fear comedy at their expense. “Sometimes you just need the clearest way of calling BS, and a joke is often the fastest way to that.”

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You’ve got this new special about going to Hungary, “Jordan Klepper Fingers the Globe: Hungary for Democracy,” and it speaks to all different levels about what’s going on in our country. You go to Trump events for “The Daily Show” and have sincere, earnest conversations with people, even though you’re being playful. How do you get them just to have a normal conversation and not say “fake news” and that kind of garbage?

Trust me, I go to some rallies and I’m getting yelled at by folks who do say “fake news” and do want to cause a ruckus, but more often than not people want to engage at a rally. People are there to scream for Donald Trump or whoever’s in front of them. And so the idea of engaging with somebody and screaming in front of a camera is appealing to many of them. 

You either get the folks who see it and are like, “screw you” and walk off, or you get the folks who say, “Screw you. I want to heckle you for the next hour and a half,” or you get the folks who say, “I know exactly who you are and that makes me want to engage,” so we can go back and forth. Or you get people who have no idea who you are and just want to talk. They want to get their opinions out there in the public. More often, they’re not ready for the follow-up to understand what’s behind that opinion because a lot of these opinions are just plucked from a man who is making it up on the spot and he doesn’t get a follow-up. I luckily get that follow-up and we start to see the gaps in information.

When you talk to some of these people, forget politics, do you get a sense that some of them just want to be a heard? And for some reason, in the case of Donald Trump, they feel that finally someone listens to them or sounds like them?

Well, I think the very human side of all of this, especially when you look at rallies, people want a community and a sense of belonging. I think you go to a rally where you’re surrounded by 10,000 other people in a small town, it’s a great event, it’s why I go tailgating. It’s why people join improv groups. It’s a community.

They want a sense of meaning. And guess what? When the former leader of the free world says, “You are a patriot. These are the bad guys. Do what you can,” you suddenly have meaning, you have meaning and community. I think a lot of these people feel empowered and I think that’s very human. That’s the most human thing there is. We all need this in our lives. When I engage with those folks, I think they are in a sweet spot where they feel like they are loved, they are part of something, and they are energized to speak truth to power. And also they want to try it out. 

“A funny story about Trump events is they’re poorly organized.”

But for what it’s worth, I think a lot of these people are engaging in the political world for the first time. I think that’s also some of the issue, is it becomes all politics and governing completely gets left aside. So the actual issues that we engage with, those are just tools to talk about the politics. They’re more interested in the “this did it wrong; that did it wrong – rah-rah” portion. The governing part, the thing that actually matters, that’s something people are less versed in. And so that hasn’t been thought through. I think you’re starting to see people who are like, “Let me engage in this political argument. I am now a part of this. I’ve watched enough talking heads that I can talk about this thing, let’s go. Oh s**t, you’re still asking why I think that. Now we have a problem.”

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You mentioned some people heckle you. Have you ever felt concerned for yourself? 

It definitely gets contentious. I saw a real shift after the election. Going out to rallies beforehand, people were confident because Trump was in office. He had won, and they felt very good about the election. After the election took place, even though the narrative was that they had won, people were wounded and they were angry. We were traveling with three or four security guards each place we went, and the Million MAGA March was the first time there was, I think, really palpable danger there. I was interviewing people and what happens when you interview people who are around other people who are bored, what you start to find is people are looking for things to do. 

“This isn’t all just fun and games”

A funny story about Trump events is they’re poorly organized. A the Million MAGA March, there were two stages a mile apart, with speakers. And what they didn’t do was invest in a good speaker system. So if you were there to listen to the speakers, you had to be within 30 yards of the stage to actually hear it. And so what that meant is you had 40,000 people there and 39,000 of them couldn’t hear any of the events so they were just milling about. And when you see a guy from “The Daily Show” starting to interview people, everybody gets activated. 

Talking to one person became talking to five people, which became 30 people. And I have to be taken away because people start to charge at me. I’m brought down an alley by security, and they have to create a distraction to get away. And that was the first time it was like, “Oh things are getting palpably angry.”

And that’s called radicalizing people.

It is.

RELATED: Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper takes down anti-mask protesters at North Carolina school board meeting

That’s interesting for you that it gets real where you actually have to fear for your own safety. How does it affect the way you process it personally? Do you think, “I’m doing the comedy segment, but there’s something deeper that’s really troubling in our society going on”?

I love what I get to do. I think to go out and engage with people and hear what actually the narrative is on the ground. And more often, we walk out the door assuming one thing, but more often than not it’s something else and actually this is what people care about, this is where their mind’s at, this is the conspiracy that we hadn’t read on the internet. But when you get there, somebody’s going to talk to you about social distancing and the reason that it’s six feet is because that’s the sign of the devil. And you’re like, “Oh, well, I guess I had to go there in person to understand the depth of these conspiracies.” We’d like to reflect that in the pieces that we do.

“Satire heightens the BS and the blind spots that we see in society, so that it’s palpable and understood in the quickest, biggest, possible way.”

I love finding the comedy there and I think the satire is really important to me, but I think it’s also reflective of what’s happening in this society. People don’t get to see the conversations people are having out in the middle of America. So wherever we can bring some of that energy to the internet and to the show so people get to see, this is the conversations, this is the logic, this is sort of the anger that is there. We don’t want to glorify people attacking a foe journalist, so we’re not going to make heroes out of these people who are charging at me because I want to continue to have a job, but we also want to show that this isn’t all just fun and games.

With this special, for example, we get a little bit more time to show what else is happening outside of here. Or even the last special I did where we showed what happened on January 6th, where you’re like, “Yes, we find humor in the blind spots of Americans.” I think there’s also a lot of sadness in the way that it’s weaponized, but there’s also a lot of danger. When we can show all of that, then we’re giving more complete picture.

In your special, you travel to Hungary. Before we talk about that, I wanted to mention President Zelenskyy, who we all know was a comedian, was interviewed by the Atlantic and said over the weekend that Vladimir Putin, he fears comedy because it’s accessible and it’s a tool that cuts through things. It’s a shortcut to telling the truth. And I thought, what a great definition of it. Here we have seen Donald Trump literally call for “Saturday Night Live” to be canceled, as a candidate, and as President called for the FCC to investigate “Saturday Night Live.” And he lashed out against the late night hosts and even before that, he went after Jon Stewart and Bill Maher and other comedians. Do you think there’s a connection to the idea that Putin, according to Zelenskyy, fears comedy for his own reasons, and that Trump, a wannabe dictator, objectively fears comedy for similar reasons?

Look at Donald Trump, part of the reason he may have gotten into this whole thing in the first place was getting made fun of at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. That guy reacts more to jokes aimed at him than he does images of immigrants on the border, families separated, or COVID death tolls. Those seem to wash over him, but an “SNL” joke, that’s going to haunt him for days. So there’s something to it. One, he’s a baby. That’s what a child does. A child with no empathy reacts more to the jokes aimed at them, than they do the human suffering that he has a hand in affecting. That aside, I think it’s emblematic of how effective humor can be. Laughter is a response of recognition and when you see a bunch of people laughing at a joke on “SNL” about Donald Trump or supporting that, it’s because people see that BS that they see in Donald Trump and they recognize it. And it’s a democratic response to bulls**t. Donald Trump isn’t immune to that democratic response, as much as he tries to affect it in other ways.

Comedy is scary. It’s also the language of the people. People understand comedy. Satire heightens the BS and the blind spots that we see in society, so that it’s palpable and understood in the quickest, biggest, possible way. And in a media landscape where you’re in your own bubbles, it can get overwhelming by the influx of information. Sometimes you just need the clearest way of calling BS, and a joke is often the fastest way to that. So, it depends on how you wield that, but I have no doubt. I understand why for giant men in power, whose power is based on the way in which they can control the narrative and control the people who hear that narrative, comedy is a great way to disrupt that narrative. And they should be freaking scared because these jokes are sharp, Dean, sharp.

They’re sharp. Look, I have performed comedy in the Middle East and you cannot do jokes with the leaders of those countries. And not all want to truly be feared, but they understood that if you become a punchline, people might not take you as seriously. Instinctively, Trump is cut from that cloth. In Russia, there have been comedians who have been forced to leave the country. They canceled what was equivalent to almost like their “SNL” show. It’s a puppet show, but it’s well known. These guys don’t like being laughed at.

It’s power. These people are elevated by power, but it’s the emperor has no clothes. And if you’ve created this world where you’re like, “I am invincible because of all of these things that are mostly projections I put out onto the world, you shouldn’t be able to criticize my position. I have reached this status.” Why did you reach that status, Donald Trump? It’s not out of things that you’ve earned or intellect. You reached that status because you were given money in a privileged society and allowed to fail and continue to fail up, and then bolstered by people who had other more moneyed interests and wanted you to play off of the fears of others to get into that position. 

That’s not earning something. That’s a bulls**t institution that you’ve definitely benefited from. And so, you don’t want people to point that out. You want people to treat you with the respect of somebody who’s achieved something. But when you’ve achieved nothing, well then jokes are going to cut at that and point it out. And so, I don’t think he’s the smartest guy in the world, but he’s smart enough to understand that that emperor is nude as all hell, and it ain’t a pretty sight and it’s not very big either.

That’s just a horrible mental picture. So before you headed to Hungary for this special, you were at CPAC in Florida and you pointed out there were politicians from Hungary there, who were saying the same things. Even the “Let’s Go Brandon” chant at the event. Why were politicians from Hungary at CPAC in America?

This was shocking to us and why we went to Hungary. It turns out conservatives look to Hungary as a conservative wonderland. They’ve gotten a lot of things done that I think many conservatives in America wish they could get done here. Viktor Orban, their prime minister, has been called a competent Trump. Steve Bannon called him, “Trump before Trump.” And I’ll be honest, I knew very little about the politics of Hungary, but once we heard that CPAC was going there, we started to look into it more. We started to talk to people about it. Tucker Carlson suddenly does a special about Hungary. Donald Trump, endorses Viktor Orban. Viktor Orban, who in February, was hanging out with Putin, trying to get his endorsement for the election. And so a lot of red flags go off. What is it about this country? What is it about this guy that conservatives see as something to emulate?

“When we look at what could happen in America, Hungary is a very fascinating place to look. What you see is things like gerrymandering, keeping people in power.”

Jordan Klepper goes to Hungary to find out why American conservatives are obsessed with the Hungarian right-wing government. (Joel Sadler/Comedy Central)

Is there anything that you took away about where the GOP might be going?

Well, I think Americans lack imagination as to what can happen to our own democracy. I think it often gets hyperbolic and people will talk about the fall of democracy and imagine perhaps there’s a militarized state and an overthrow. And that’s hard for people to grasp, or it feels so far away that people don’t engage with that as a real possibility. I think looking at Hungary is a great example. It’s the frog that’s boiling in a pot of water. It’s part of the EU. It’s a democracy, that you can vote. They have a free media, but like you just said, they’ve just been downgraded to a partly free society. And what that looks like is, smart little moves to keep people in power, in power. It means vilifying segments of the population as a way to one, push them out, two, change the constitution, and three, keep those people in power, continue to stay in power.

And so I think, when we look at what could happen in America, Hungary is a very fascinating place to look. And I think, what you see is things like gerrymandering, keeping people in power. You see, once Viktor Orban got in power and his party Fidesz got two-thirds, they started changing the constitution. They started to change what the definition of marriage looked like. So it’s between a man and a woman. And that then means that there’s no adoption for any kind of gay community there. They started to write vague LGBTQ laws that were vague enough to make essentially it illegal to put any kind of positive gay characters on television, because they start to conflate sexuality with pedophilia.

We start to see this game plan happening in America. I think what we saw with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, and what’s happening now in places like Ohio and Georgia. This is starting to build a narrative that one, gets people scared and upset. Two, politicians start to run on. And also when it comes to immigration, Orban with Syrian refugees basically came up with the blueprint for what Donald Trump did with our border crisis during his tenure.

So I think, it’s a really interesting country to look at and it is effective. And what you have is, you have a guy who’s been in power for I think 12 years now, who just won reelection, is going to continue to stay in power. And you have these folks who are dissenters in what is happening in their country, losing more in power every election, because they’ve codified ways in which that party can stay in power. And those people who are part of minority communities have less and less say.

RELATED: Banning math books and attacking libraries: Republicans ramp up their mission to spread ignorance

You visited essentially the ghost of autocracy future for America. 

Well, I think as far as the culture wars go, the LGBTQ community is fascinating, and we’ve talked about how they’re vilifying that. And I think it’s vague laws that make it harder for people to know how to engage with culture without being penalized. They kicked out a university called Central European University. And that is, again, part of this whole woke war, is a George Soros-funded university. Guess what? Also a bad guy in Hungary, perhaps their original bad guy. And now that university, which is a progressive university, it’s a global university, it’s a giant campus in the center of Budapest; empty. It’s completely empty right now. It’s been kicked out and now it’s in Vienna. 

Why? Well, because when you have people in power, you can write very specific laws into your constitution that create ways in which that cultural institutions in your country, well, they can no longer be there anymore. So now they have to go overseas. And so I think they’re effectively waging the war on higher ed. They’ve essentially banned the term gender in a way that has affected the culture and made it really difficult for people to protect those in need.

You start to see things like this, you’re like, “Oh, this could happen with America.” And again, it doesn’t look like something on the surface. “What happened with CEU?” Well, when you get into the weeds about it, it has to do with accreditation, it having international status in America and what have you. And you’re like, “Oh, OK. This is just a weird accreditation battle. That’s going to happen with some colleges.” Well, when you look a little bit deeper and what it is, is it’s a progressive institution in the center of Budapest, and now it’s no longer there, making way for more and more conservative ideologies. And so, I see that on the horizon in a country that finds effectiveness in its bureaucracy. You get somebody like a Ron DeSantis in office or a more competent Trump, and I think you put people in power who can control those decisions and they can affect culture in that way.

“What you’re seeing in Hungary is not an autocracy, but it’s a slide away from democracy and that’s the dangerous place to be. “

It’s not enough now with the critical race theory bills, the next step would be closing down state universities or private universities that dare teach things that these leaders don’t like. And that’s the future.

Tucker Carlson goes there and they showed Budapest, which is a beautiful city. This is also when you imagine this like, “Oh, do I go to Hungary?” And it’s this rundown spot. Budapest is a gorgeous city. And they applaud how, “Look there’s very little homeless population in the downtown.” And then you look into it and guess what? They’ve essentially made being homeless a crime. And what happens when you go to jail in Hungary? Well, they can put you to work, doing things like building a wall on their border. And suddenly you’re like, “Oh, when you’re criminalizing homeless people and now they’re building your wall? Feels a little bit like slavery. Oh, yikes. Oh, these are blueprints we don’t want getting out.”

And that’ll be in the 2024 GOP platform.

The crazy thing about that is you’re right. Hungary has found sneaky ways to do it. I think the GOP platform in 2024 is just going to tell you, “Homeless people will build our wall for free.” And if you can get that into a nice, concise, clever chant, that thing will be successful at whatever rally you go to.

It’s remarkable to see the GOP, instead of having a conference like CPAC in America to bring revenue to American city, has brought it to Hungary because they’re getting the access power to get there. This is like fascism. This is not the same as Germany and Italy under Mussolini and Japan, but we’re getting close.

I think people have a hard time thinking of what does autocracy look like. Those ideas are so hard for us to grasp. What you’re seeing in Hungary is not an autocracy, but it’s a slide away from democracy and that’s the dangerous place to be. That’s what Americans need to be super vigilant about, because that’s a scary, scary territory where things get dangerous.

Watch more “Salon Talks” with Dean Obeidallah:


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