Experts tell Hatewatch that conservative blogger Rod Dreher should register as a foreign agent for far-right Hungary under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a 1938 law that regulates advocacy for foreign governments in the U.S.
Rod Dreher, a conservative writer whose columns have appeared at right-wing outlet The American Conservative for 12 years, should register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for his work with a Hungarian think tank funded by Hungary’s far-right government, according to two experts who reviewed Dreher’s contract.
Hatewatch obtained Dreher’s contract with the Danube Institute, a Hungarian think tank maintained by the Batthyány Lajos Foundation (BLA), through a Hungarian public information request. The Danube Institute receives funds from the Hungarian government. The contract refers to Dreher as an “agent” who will “write articles about his experiences in Hungary in the America media.” This agent activity “is executed in a manner that advocates the achievement of Principal’s [the Danube Institute’s] goals.”
Dreher, a U.S. citizen who is currently based in Hungary, authored a blog at The American Conservative for 12 years. He penned his farewell post in late February, though he kept authoring posts until early March. The blog focused on his views on the conservative movement and Christianity’s role therein. Some of his posts are odd, and The Washington Post called them “combative” and “oversharing.” Dreher claimed over a million monthly readers in 2018.
The Hungarian government has long paid U.S. right-wing and far-right ideologues to speak in Hungary. These include far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative radio host Dennis Prager and Steve Bannon, former adviser to former President Donald Trump. All lauded Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for his anti-migration, ultra-conservative policies in service of building what he calls an “illiberal” democracy.
Orbán’s critics have accused him and members of his Fidesz party of ending Hungary’s democracy by using state funds for re-election bids, packing courts and nationalizing journalistic outlets to clamp down on critical media. He also faces accusations of antisemitism and racism in relation to Hungary’s anti-migration policies.
Hungarian experts say the government’s courting of hard-right and conservative ideologues is an attempt to soften and mainstream Orbán’s views and his role as the leader of the international right-wing movement.
Unlike Dreher’s agreement, none of the aforementioned contracts directed these figures to air their opinions about their experiences in Hungary in U.S. media. Dreher has written dozens of blog posts with glowing praise of Hungary and Orbán for The American Conservative.
Josh Rosenstein, a member of D.C. law firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, P.C., specializes in FARA and reviewed the contract. “If this were someone I was representing,” Rosenstein said in an interview, “I would recommend prophylactic registration.”
Neither The American Conservative nor Dreher responded to a request for comment.
Principals and agents
FARA is a 1938 law that requires “agents of foreign principals” that engage “in political activities” to publicly disclose their “relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities,” according to the Justice Department (DOJ) website.
The DOJ includes the FARA Unit, which oversees and investigates FARA registrations.
“To be regulated, the activities would generally need to be considered ‘political activities,’ defined broadly as any work which the agent ‘believes will, or that … intends to, in any way influence’” the public or the U.S. government to its benefit, Rosenstein said, quoting the definition.
Dreher’s contract requires him to write at least two articles for the Hungarian Conservative or for the Hungarian Review, two government-aligned outlets also maintained by the BLA.
The BLA is a foundation that former Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall founded in 1991. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won his first supermajority in 2010, the BLA was nearly defunct, according to Hungarian media reports. But Orbán’s government began funding the BLA.
In 2021, the BLA received 3,758,819,000 Hungarian forints from the government’s central budget, according to tax records. That is roughly $11 million at current exchange rates.
Dreher’s fellowship with the Danube Institute started in 2021, according to the organization’s website. The institute lists Dreher as the “director of Network Project.” Dreher’s current contract, the only one Hatewatch obtained, lasts from January to June 2023. The Danube Institute did not respond to requests regarding possible differences between Dreher’s contracts since 2021.
FARA has no bearing on the contract’s provisions regarding Dreher’s activities inside Hungary, Rosenstein explained. However, Dreher’s requirement to write about his experience in U.S. media could be regulated under FARA.
In July 2022, Dreher pitched an “American Orbanism” [sic] in The American Conservative, saying “Orban [sic] knows that he’s fighting to save what’s left of our civilization from the postliberal liberals who are tearing it apart.”
The remarks comport with an international narrative that holds Orbán as the figurehead for traditional, far-right movements. Orbán has cultivated this narrative.
Ahead of the 2014 Hungarian national election, Orbán began singling out Hungarian-American billionaire and liberal financier George Soros, who is Jewish, for attempting to change Hungary’s ethnic makeup with migration. This conspiracy theory is a variation of the white nationalist “great replacement” narrative.
Orbán’s party, Fidesz, passed “Stop Soros” laws in 2017 and 2018. These laws forced NGOs with foreign funding to register and placed a 25% tax on funds to civil society organizations from foreign donors that totaled more than $24,000.
The prime minister has also made racist remarks regarding migration. Orbán said in 2018: “We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others.” In 2022, Orbán cited the racist French book The Camp of the Saints in anti-immigrant remarks during a speech.
Dreher defended Orbán’s 2022 remarks in his American Conservative blog. Dreher, who does not speak Hungarian, claimed that his “Hungarian friend” explained the Hungarian word for “race” can also mean “nation.” He acknowledged The Camp of the Saints is racist, however.
Dreher’s defense of Orbán is likely genuine. The blogger has long held roles at conservative news outlets including the Washington Times and the New York Post. In a 2019 post at The American Conservative, Dreher called the fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s victory in Spain “necessary” as a bulwark against “modernity.”
But whether or not he believes what he writes does not matter under FARA, according to Benjamin Freeman, a research fellow and FARA expert at the realist Quincy Institute think tank.
Freeman explained, “A person’s beliefs can matter when it comes to establishing a principal/agent relationship,” but “that’s really only when money doesn’t change hands and there isn’t a document that literally says you’re an agent of a foreign principal.”
Dreher’s contract shows the Danube Institute pays him $8,750 a month, or $105,000 a year. The average Hungarian annual salary is roughly $17,480, according to Trading Economics.
Freeman said he believes the FARA unit would consider Dreher’s relationship with the Danube Institute “a principal-agent relationship, as defined in the statute.”
Given the tone of Dreher’s articles about Hungary under Orbán in The American Conservative, “This certainly seems to me like a relationship that would require registration under FARA,” Freeman said.
Dreher’s blog with The American Conservative ended in late February. Vanity Fair reported that one of Dreher’s posts that discussed in “unsettling detail” Dreher seeing “a Black classmate’s uncircumcised penis” contributed to its end. The report says that “Howard Ahmanson Jr., the heir to a California banking fortune and the sole benefactor of Dreher’s six-figure salary” at The American Conservative, found Dreher’s blogs to be “too weird.” Ahmanson thus decided to stop funding Dreher’s role at the outlet.
The decision came after not only years of odd posts, but also Dreher causing controversy when he published off-the-record remarks Orbán made about Russia’s war in Ukraine. Orbán said NATO was at war with Russia and he wanted to leave the European Union, Dreher posted. Dreher later amended his post when became aware of the mistake, Vanity Fair said.
Dreher will remain an editor-at-large and move his blog to Substack, he said in his final American Conservative post.
His contract with The Danube Institute says he will reach out to “a circle of Christian-conservative contacts, within the framework of which Agent organizes at least one conference. … The task of the Agent is to find and nominate at least 7 thinkers who are ready to cooperate with the Principal by May 1, 2023.” The “thinkers” will participate in a conference named “The Future of Christianity in the West,” according to the contract.
The contract sets a deadline of May 1 for the conference. The Danube Institute has not yet listed information for the event on their website.
Rosenstein said the details of Dreher’s contract and his posts construct “the type of fact pattern that the FARA Unit would do well to look into via their Letter of Inquiry process,” which is the first step of investigating whether registration is necessary.
If the FARA Unit determines registration is necessary and Dreher fails to do so, it could potentially result in criminal charges or a civil injunction. These rarely happen, though.
Rosenstein “would recommend [Dreher tread] very carefully.”
Photo illustration by SPLC