Since taking office, President Donald Trump has eagerly embraced foreign autocrats, portraying brutal dictators as allies to be courted and celebrated. He has backed Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite evidence that he ordered the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; praised North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as a “tough guy” with whom he has “very good chemistry”; congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on successfully pushing through a referendum that granted him vast new powers; applauded Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for waging his bloody drug war “the right way”; and, of course, repeatedly said that he’d welcome a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, Trump has shaken America’s longstanding alliances with Western European nations like France and Germany, spurning the idea of global cooperation in favor of a rising nationalism that threatens to overturn the liberal democratic order. “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist,” Trump famously told supporters at a rally in October. “Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”
For all the attention that such outbursts garner in the media, the alignment of Republican support behind autocratic right-wing leaders across the globe long predates Trump’s elevation to the presidency, an investigation in partnership with Type Investigations reveals. For years, Republican members of Congress, lobbyists, and political consultants have worked to forge bonds with far-right leaders across Europe—in Hungary, Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Macedonia, and beyond. You might call this loose federation of fellow travelers for the nativist global right the strongman caucus.
Sometimes these alliances have taken shape off the public radar. In other cases, though, U.S. Republicans have paraded their connections to far-right political figures, inviting them to meetings with lawmakers; major conservative events, including the Republican National Convention; gatherings at influential think tanks like the Heritage Foundation; and agenda-setting confabs such as the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The lines of influence run both ways. Republican political consultants have exported their battle-tested campaign theme of liberalism as an elite assault on traditional values to European far-right candidates. Powerful K Street lobbyists, including Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager and convicted felon, have made their fortunes by burnishing the images of strongman leaders in the eyes of Washington policymakers. Some Republican lawmakers, including diehards of the party’s right flank, such as Dana Rohrabacher of California, Steve King of Iowa, and Louie Gohmert of Texas, have openly forged alliances with leading figures in the European far right.
All these unsightly charm offensives might have escaped sustained public notice had Trump not swept into power and lent them the tacit legitimacy of the nation’s highest office. The inner workings of a lobbying firm like Manafort’s might have remained obscure had special prosecutor Robert Mueller not swept him up into his two-year probe of the Russia-Trump nexus. Indeed, for the most part, Republican leaders in Congress have been passive enablers of the strongman caucus, standing by as Trump demolishes global alliances and the infrastructure of U.S. diplomacy, unraveling America’s commitment to promoting human rights, democracy, and civil society—however imperfectly—in the young, postcommunist democracies of Eastern and Central Europe.
The End of the City on a Hill
Read more about how a burgeoning alliance with Europe’s far right is radically altering the American Christian right’s view of American democracy.
Following their sweeping gains in the midterm elections last fall, Democrats in the House of Representatives are now in a position to hold Trump accountable—at least to a degree. Democratic lawmakers are preparing to launch investigations into everything from Trump’s dealings with Russia to his family’s business affairs to his tax returns. In Orange County, California, Rohrabacher was voted out of office—a rebuke of Trump’s agenda and a sign of how the demographics in former conservative bastions are shifting. These Democratic gains, however, will not erase the rightward drift of the GOP in foreign affairs. These are dangerous, potentially calamitous changes—changes that began to emerge long before Trump entered office and, no matter how vigorously Democrats oppose him, will likely continue long after his presidency ends.
While he’s no longer in Congress, Dana Rohrabacher was a driving force behind the strongman caucus. In November 2015, Rohrabacher—a 15-term lawmaker—convened a hearing of the Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to address the growing refugee crisis in Europe. Over the preceding ten months, nearly one million migrants and refugees had crossed into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other war-torn countries—a fourfold increase over the previous year. That September, the image of a young Syrian boy’s dead body washing ashore in Turkey after a failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean served as a rallying cry for officials who sought to provide relief. “This is a defining moment for the European Union,” said the head of the U.N. refugee agency. “Europe cannot go on responding to this crisis with a piecemeal or incremental approach. No country can do it alone, and no country can refuse to do its part.”
Yet Rohrabacher, long one of the Republican Party’s most outspoken critics of undocumented immigration, viewed the influx of migrants into Europe as an existential threat. “Clearly, what we have seen over the past few months is unsustainable, and if not checked, will change the fundamental nature of European countries, which are now being inundated,” Rohrabacher told the subcommittee. “What we are witnessing is the destruction of Western civilization, not by an armed invasion, but instead, through envelopment.”
Rohrabacher’s hearing, convened at the height of the refugee crisis, did not draw much public attention. But it serves as a vivid reminder that extreme right-wing lawmakers like Rohrabacher were working to advance nationalist views at a time when Donald Trump was still best known as a reality TV star. Rohrabacher argued that the best response to the refugee crisis was not taking place in Germany, which had welcomed more than a million refugees, but in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was intent on turning them away. “Europe’s response is madness,” Orbán wrote that September in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims…. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?” Two weeks later, Hungary closed its border with Serbia, and in mid-October, it shut its border with Croatia as well.
The Obama administration viewed Orbán’s demonization of refugees as part of a larger anti-democratic campaign to silence political opposition, stifle the free press, erode the independence of the judiciary, and scapegoat supposed outsiders as conspirators against Hungary’s sovereignty. A few days before Rohrabacher’s committee hearing, Colleen Bell, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary, delivered a public condemnation of Orbán’s open xenophobia. “Every sovereign nation has the right to protect its borders,” Bell said. “But every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety. Words of intolerance and xenophobic characterizations of refugees—some of the world’s most vulnerable people—as invaders and antagonists have no role in our efforts to find a solution.”
That line of criticism did not sit well with Rohrabacher. At the committee hearing a few days later, the congressman thanked Hungary’s then-ambassador to the United States, Réka Szemerkényi, for attending. The right-wing lawmaker then praised Hungary as a “tremendous friend and asset to the peace and stability of the world.”
“I am personally upset,” Rohrabacher continued, “that our administration has sought to find out and try to complain about every little thing they disagree with, with Hungary. Hungary has every right to set their own policies, and I am pleased that Hungary has a track record of doing good things with the United States.”
At the time, Rohrabacher’s support for Orbán placed him outside the political mainstream in the United States. Obama White House officials weren’t the only public figures calling out Orbán’s strongman rule; Republicans were as well. In 2014, Arizona Senator John McCain called Orbán “a neofascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin” and accused him of “practicing the same kinds of anti-democratic practices” as the Russian president. And in the years immediately following Hungary’s admission into nato in 1999, the George W. Bush administration also confronted Orbán when he departed from basic commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—criticism that Orbán believed cost him his bid for reelection in 2002, and that fueled his animosity toward the United States.
This broader consensus on authoritarian rule in Hungary rendered Rohrabacher a bit of a pariah among some of his Republican colleagues, the foreign policy heavyweights. “There’s a lunatic fringe in every organization,” McCain said of Rohrabacher in 2016. But while Rohrabacher may have been on the outs with some Republicans, he made fast friends with like-minded politicians across the Atlantic. And when figures like Orbán looked at Rohrabacher, they saw a kindred spirit.
Other Republican lawmakers associated with the strongman caucus embraced Europe’s far-right nationalists long before Trump’s election. In April 2015, King, the Iowa Republican known for his virulent anti-immigrant diatribes and racist tweets, invited Geert Wilders, the founder of the Netherlands’ far-right Party for Freedom, to speak to a weekly breakfast gathering of House Republicans. There, Wilders issued a call to arms. “Our duty is clear,” he told the lawmakers. “We have to stop mass immigration to the West from Islamic countries. And we have to get rid of the cultural relativism.”
King was eager to spread the word. “Geert Wilders speaking now before Members of Congress & national security experts,” he tweeted. “Islam will not assimilate. Western culture is superior.” The next day, the congressman called a press conference on the Capitol grounds. Flanked by fellow Republican Representatives Gohmert and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, King argued that the United States needed to form tighter bonds with Europe’s nationalist leaders. “It’s important for us to expand and build our networks across the ocean, and to tie together the anchor that is Western civilization,” he said. In 2016, Wilders secured an invitation to the Republican National Convention.
- ‘Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims…. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?’