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.
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.
Mainstream GOP leaders have long regarded King, like, Rohrabacher, as a loudmouth on the party’s far-right flank. In 2013, after King accused undocumented immigrants of having “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner condemned the comments as “deeply offensive and wrong” and said King’s remarks did not “reflect the values of the American people, or the Republican Party.” (Later, when King’s comments were brought up in a private conversation, Boehner reportedly replied, “What an asshole.”) Boehner resigned from Congress in 2015, however—forced out by the ascendant far-right Freedom Caucus—and the current Republican leadership was long disinclined to criticize King for his outlandish remarks, particularly as his views gained currency in Trump’s Washington. During the 2016 election cycle, Republican presidential hopefuls sought King’s endorsement ahead of the Iowa caucuses, and Ted Cruz named King co-chair of his presidential campaign. Last June, when King approvingly retweeted a well-known Nazi sympathizer, House Republican leaders remained silent. It was only in January, after King explicitly defended white supremacy in an interview with The New York Times, that House GOP leaders finally sanctioned him, stripping him of his committee assignments, a move that King’s far-right and evangelical defenders roundly denounced.
In November 2015, with the presidential primaries in full swing, and just after Rohrabacher held his hearing on the refugee crisis, King traveled to Europe to investigate the crisis himself. The trip, which went unnoticed in the national media, was recorded in the congressional record as official business of the House Judiciary Committee, on which King served. But King was the only lawmaker to go—an unusual arrangement, since taxpayer-funded congressional travel usually involves a bipartisan delegation. (King did not respond to interview requests from The New Republic.)
King provided updates from small towns along the Serbia-Croatia border via his Twitter feed. “6000 migrants/day transit through here at Adasevci, Serbia. From as far as Pakistan, mostly young Muslim males,” King wrote. From Sid, Serbia, he shared another observation: “trains bound 4 Croatia-Slovenia-Austria then Germany. 1000 people per train. 6 trains per day. No end.” He praised the fence along Hungary’s borders with Croatia and Serbia for keeping refugees at bay. Europe was committing “cultural suicide” by admitting so many Muslim refugees, King told The New York Times, and he worried that President Obama was encouraging a similar decline in the United States. “The president is determined to import to America hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who will never assimilate into the American civilization.”
The following year, in October 2016, King once again traveled alone on an official congressional trip to forge new ties with nationalist leaders—this time to France, Finland, and Austria. In Vienna, King met with members of the far right, Putin-backed Freedom Party, which is hostile to Islam and the influx of refugees into Austria, and which secured a place in Austria’s coalition government in 2017. “It’s the beginning of a friendship,” King told Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer in a video posted on the party’s web site.
About a week before the presidential election, a delegation of Freedom Party officials visited New York, Washington, and North Carolina to meet with supporters. They spent time with General Mike Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser, in Trump Tower—a meeting arranged by King, according to The Wall Street Journal. In Charlotte, North Carolina, Republican Representative Robert Pittenger hosted the politicians and said he had known them for years from meetings in the United States and Europe. In Washington, the Austrians met with supporters they knew from earlier gatherings, including the National Prayer Breakfast and CPAC, according to the Journal. Finally, the Austrians witnessed Trump’s presidential victory at an election night party in Trump Tower. “Things are changing,” Harald Vilimsky, the Freedom Party’s general secretary, wrote on Facebook that day. “And we get to be a part of it. What an honor.”
Trump’s election may have accelerated the transformation of America’s foreign policy. But just as right-wing lawmakers like Rohrabacher and King had spent years cultivating relationships with like-minded leaders across the Atlantic, so too had nationalist politicians in Europe worked diligently to make inroads in America. In 2008, still stinging from the Bush administration’s rebuke, Viktor Orbán began plotting his return to power in Hungary. To help him, he hired Arthur J. Finkelstein, the reclusive American political strategist who was an early mastermind of red-meat Republican attack ads, as a political consultant for his Fidesz party.
Finkelstein, who died in 2017, made his reputation as a major campaign player on the right by successfully recasting the word “liberal” as a pejorative in U.S. politics—and through his counsel to clients that a winning strategy was to “polarize the electorate.” Over the decades, he advised the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch, and many other Republicans, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; his many protégés, known as “Arthur’s kids,” include recently indicted Trump adviser Roger Stone and Trump campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio. In 2011, in a rare public appearance at the CEVRO Institute, a university in Prague, Finkelstein predicted that voters, provoked by cataclysmic world events, would become increasingly drawn to xenophobia and nationalism. This combustible realignment of political views, Finkelstein explained, would translate into a resurgent longing for strongman leaders throughout the world, short on specific policy proposals, but long on authoritarian swagger. “I don’t know if anybody is watching Donald Trump in the United States, but it’s mind-boggling, it’s just pure personality,” Finkelstein said, presciently.
In his work for Orbán, Finkelstein took his signature strategy of political polarization and masterminded a campaign that cast Hungary as a victim suffering at the hands of the United States, the United Nations, and other purveyors of Western liberal democracy. Finkelstein was, according to Politico, behind the anti-immigration billboards that have proliferated in Hungary over the past decade. Thanks at least in part to Finkelstein’s strategy, Orbán won his reelection bid in 2010. After winning reelection again in 2014, Orbán openly declared his intention to make Hungary an “illiberal democracy.”
Rather than court the American diplomatic establishment, which was openly critical of him, the Hungarian prime minister turned to a more pliable institution: K Street. In October 2014, his government signed a contract with Connie Mack IV, a Republican congressman-turned-lobbyist from Florida who served four terms in the House before losing a bid for the Senate in 2012. Mack was one of the founding members of the House’s hard-line Freedom Caucus and served on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He had hired Finkelstein as a consultant on his campaigns and described him as “a friend” to whom he often turned for advice.
Mack’s contract with the Hungarian government catapulted him into the top ranks of the revolving-door profiteers on K Street. In 2015, he was one of the five most highly paid foreign agents in Washington, pulling in more than a million dollars from his lobbying work for Orbán, according to an analysis by Politico of filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. (Mack also did not respond to interview requests from The New Republic.)
Mack’s job on behalf of Orbán was to craft “political messages” to deliver to the White House, Congress, and the media, in order to “have an influence on political decision making,” according to his contract, obtained through a review of his FARA filings. J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman who himself went on to develop relationships with powerful Hungarians and promote Trump’s burgeoning ties with Budapest as a national security adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign, described Mack to me as “a very effective and influential ally.”
According to disclosures Mack filed with the U.S. government, he maintains regular contact with members of Congress and their staffs, as well as with conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation. He also has ongoing contact with the Trump White House. He has communicated with Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and, before he resigned in August 2017, White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, a native Hungarian with far-right ties. Mack also distributes a newsletter, “Hungary Insights,” which includes frequent reminders of Orbán’s early support for Trump and roundups of positive news reports about Orbán, such as coverage of his friendly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (though Mack makes scant reference in this p.r. offensive to Orbán’s condemnation by human rights advocates for fomenting anti-Semitism).
On the day of another Rohrabacher hearing on mass migration in Europe, in April 2018, Mack sent Rohrabacher a packet of materials that included a letter from the new Hungarian ambassador to the United States, László Szabó, arguing that “public sentiment in Europe is largely on Hungary’s side” on the issue of migration. Rohrabacher entered the document into the congressional record.
In a November 2017 appearance on Blunt Force Truth, a podcast hosted by former Love Connection host Chuck Woolery, now a conservative celebrity, Mack explained his support for Orbán. He is “a conservative,” Mack said. “I wish that our State Department would treat him more like a friend and an ally instead of some of these underlings attacking him for things that George Soros is making up.”
Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting civil society and liberal democracy in Eastern Europe over the past three decades, has become a bête noire for Republicans and for far-right extremists; last fall, a Trump supporter from Florida allegedly mailed a pipe bomb to Soros’s home. (Type Investigations, the journalism nonprofit that is an editorial partner on this story, has received support from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros founded.) In Mack’s framing, therefore, Orbán was not an illiberal autocrat who abused human rights and destroyed democratic institutions, but rather a crusader for Western civilization whom the global left was unfairly demonizing. Orbán’s goal in working with Washington insiders was to get “the foreign policy world that could make life miserable for Hungary to think that he was just an ordinary conservative government—a garden-variety conservative state besieged by liberals,” said Kim Lane Scheppele, a Hungary expert at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.
Other nationalist politicians in Europe have employed a similar strategy. A 2017 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a transnational consortium of investigative journalists that is partially funded by the Open Society Foundations, found that between 2015 and 2017, the far-right VMRO party in Macedonia engaged in a concerted lobbying campaign in Washington, which “prompted U.S. conservatives to join in on an anti-Soros line of attack favored by Russia and Europe’s authoritarian nationalists.”
The Obama State Department had condemned the “inflammatory rhetoric” of some Macedonian politicians, which “gives license to attacks on democratic institutions.” Three days before Trump’s inauguration, however, Senator Mike Lee, the influential Republican of Utah, who chairs the Senate Steering Committee, the powerful caucus of the chamber’s conservatives, wrote an angry letter to Jess Baily, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, criticizing America’s meddling. “I have received credible reports that, over the past few years, the U.S. Mission to Macedonia has actively intervened in the party politics of Macedonia, as well as in the shaping of its media environment and civil society, often favoring groups of one political persuasion over another,” Lee wrote. This, the senator argued, was “highly problematic.” (In contrast, Lee has sought to wave away Russian interference in the 2016 election, arguing that the Mueller probe is unconstitutional. He also blocked a Senate resolution to protect Mueller’s investigation against interference by Trump.)
Two months later, Lee followed up with another letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, specifically attacking Soros-funded programs that “push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left.” Lee, along with five Republican Senate colleagues—James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, David Perdue of Georgia, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and Ted Cruz—demanded an investigation into “all funds associated with promoting democracy and governance.” The language of the letter echoed that of a pamphlet distributed on Capitol Hill by a VMRO-backed Macedonian group called Stop Operation Soros.
When countries “are getting in trouble on human rights, rule of law, the governance direction of the country,” said Heather Conley, who served in the George W. Bush State Department, they “flood Washington with funding” to lobbyists and think tanks to soften the story or make it go away. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project report, for example, Macedonia’s VMRO party spent more than a million dollars on lobbyists and p.r. firms between 2015 and 2017. “Instead of us fixing the problem,” Conley said, “they fix us.”
A high-profile example of this dynamic is the now-infamous lobbying contract that Paul Manafort signed with Ukraine’s strongman president, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2013. Yanukovych enlisted Manafort to mount a charm offensive on his behalf; from 2012 to 2014, according to the Associated Press, Manafort helped steer at least $2.2 million to two Washington lobbying firms. In a memo to Yanukovych in February 2013, buried in a court filing in his criminal tax fraud case, Manafort argued that changes in the composition of the U.S. Congress created an opportunity to “expand relationships, open minds, and demonstrate to the global community that Ukraine is a modern democracy.”
In particular, Manafort noted, Yanukovych had a dependable ally who had just been installed by the House leadership in a powerful position: Dana Rohrabacher, then the new chair of the Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rohrabacher, Manafort assured his client, is “a good appointment for Ukraine and will be open minded about key policy issues.” In contrast, Manafort noted, the Human Rights and Democracy Subcommittee will “seek to pressure the VY Government.” Therefore, Manafort wrote, “the best block of its actions is to have the pertinent SubCommittee on Europe take more positive stands. This is the strategy we are building.”
By the time Trump was elected president, the trope that conservatives were under assault by left-wing elites, as epitomized by George Soros and the Obama administration, was an article of faith in the GOP. Indeed, an infamous Trump TV spot aired widely during the last week of the campaign featured an image of Soros as a sinister, unaccountable funder of globalist interests who was seeking to sway the election on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. In April 2017, at a Heritage Foundation event, Mike Lee argued that under Obama, U.S. diplomacy “took a decidedly leftist turn,” taking up the “pet causes of a privileged global elite” such as abortion and “alternative family structures”—a reference to the Obama administration’s support for LGBT rights. Lee mocked American efforts to bolster embattled civic institutions in fledgling democracies as “the substance of a global re-education campaign, funded by American taxpayers, from whom they were hidden under the guise of innocuous sounding program titles like ‘democracy assistance,’ ‘government transparency,’ and ‘human-rights.’”
Mainstream conservative media outlets echoed and amplified Lee’s views. That spring, the American Spectator published a series of laudatory articles on Macedonia’s far right, as did other conservative outlets, including Fox News, Breitbart, and The Daily Caller—as well as Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik. In one article, the Spectator described “small but mighty Macedonia” as “the mouse that roared this year, declaring war on George Soros . . . and his U.S. Government handmaidens, who, incredibly, have financed a left-wing agenda to divide the nation and bring a socialist-Muslim coalition to power.”
In February 2017, the Conservative Political Action Conference welcomed in its exhibit hall the Europe of Nations and Freedom, a coalition of far-right political parties in the European Parliament, including Austria’s Freedom Party, France’s National Front, and the Netherlands’s Party for Freedom. A coalition representative told me that he hoped their attendance at America’s premier conservative gathering would lead to “harmonized cooperation between the United States and Europe.”
The following year, CPAC featured a speech that won wide acclaim from the event’s activist Republican audience, by a woman billed as a supporter of “school choice, private property, lower taxes, less government spending, market competition, and traditional marriage.” This was Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the granddaughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious Holocaust denier. In her nationalistic remarks, Maréchal-Le Pen embraced Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and anti-immigration policies, and decried “the development of an Islamic counter-society in France.” She criticized the European Union, calling it “an ideology without land, without people, without roots, and without civilization,” and warned that France was “passing from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam.” To the assembled Republicans, she vowed, “This is not the France that our grandparents fought for. . . . Just like you, we want our country back.” Over the course of her ten-minute address, the CPAC crowd clapped, cheered, and cried “Vive la France!” Slowly but surely, the extreme nativist views that just a few years earlier had occupied the outer reaches of the Republican fringe had become firmly ensconced in the mainstream.
In years past, seasoned diplomats and career government officials might have been able to use America’s political and economic influence to pressure European autocrats to conform to an American worldview that, however inconsistently applied, included lifting up democratic values and institutions. But Trump has hollowed out the State Department. The president has yet to name a nominee to 37 senior State posts, 38 of his department nominees still await Senate confirmation, and he has yet to name replacements for more than a dozen others. Early in his tenure, Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, signaled to his employees at State that promoting human rights and democracy abroad could often create an “obstacle” to advancing U.S. interests.
It is in fact the Trump administration’s view that America’s interests are aligned with the likes of autocrats like Viktor Orbán. Réka Szemerkényi, who served as Hungary’s ambassador to the United States until July 2017, was in frequent contact with Trump campaign and administration officials—even mingling with the president and first lady at Mar-a-Lago. In the fall of 2016, Trump campaign adviser Carter Page traveled to Budapest at Szemerkényi’s behest, he later told congressional investigators, for a private meeting with Jeno Megyesy, a top Orbán adviser. Jeff Sessions also met with Szemerkényi in April 2016 and later sent her a letter, which has not been previously reported, praising Hungary as “a global beacon for the power of freedom, democracy, and human rights.” In December 2016, Trump campaign adviser J.D. Gordon also traveled to Budapest, where he delivered a speech at the Antall József Knowledge Center, a local think tank. “We very much admire and respect Prime Minister Orbán and what he is doing to make Hungary great again,” Gordon said, according to the Budapest Business Journal. “He is one of the best world leaders, in my opinion, because he has common sense and he understands the threats from open borders.” Trump and Orbán, Gordon predicted, “will be good friends.”
In the absence of pressure from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Europe’s far-right regimes have become emboldened. In June 2018, for example, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law that criminalizes aid to refugees and migrants. Human Rights Watch condemned the measure as an attempt to silence critics and block the work of NGOs attempting to aid asylum seekers. But neither the White House nor the State Department raised any criticism, and both have called for stronger U.S.-Hungarian ties. The following month, the State Department canceled a program intended to support media outlets engaged in fact-based reporting in Hungary. The Obama administration had invited organizations to apply for $700,000 in funding that would go toward training journalists, expanding their audiences, and increasing the public’s access to “reliable and unbiased information.” Connie Mack and pro-Orbán Republicans in Congress, however, including Rohrabacher and Maryland’s Andy Harris, the co-chair of the Hungarian American Congressional Caucus, demanded that the government ax the program.
The Trump administration has continued to close ranks behind Orbán. In November, after meeting with the prime minister in Budapest, Energy Secretary Rick Perry tweeted a photograph of the pair in a warm handshake, saying he hoped it “can mark the beginning of an even closer relationship between the U.S. & Hungary.” The meeting was not covered in the U.S. press. Orbán’s office boasted that “Hungarian-U.S. relations are excellent,” and noted that the two countries “confirmed that historical traditions and Christian roots must also play an important role in modern governance.”
Even though the Democrats regained control of the House last November, the reversal of party control in one chamber will not produce any swift pushback to this rising autocratic tide. Trump has used the prerogatives of the executive branch to nearly obliterate U.S. censure of anti-democratic regimes. What’s more, the strongman caucus is continuing to accrue power on the GOP side of the aisle. Dana Rohrabacher may be gone, but many other influential members of the party’s far-right flank remain in office, including Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Andy Harris, Steve King, and Louie Gohmert.
Nationalist orthodoxy within the Republican Party has gained additional ground as more moderate voices on foreign policy, like Ed Royce of California, who long chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Bob Corker, the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have retired, leaving their party to more extreme factions. In November, Tennessee voters elected longtime Representative Marsha Blackburn to fill Corker’s seat. In 2017, Blackburn, along with King and other Republicans, met with Heinz-Christian Strache and other members of Austria’s Freedom Party.
Moreover, conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, activist groups like Judicial Watch, and conservative media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart have created a powerful opinion echo chamber that reinforces the nationalist and xenophobic positions of the autocratic right. By cheering the GOP’s embrace of autocrats—and packaging it in familiar conspiracy theories that cast Soros and other liberal donors as shadowy puppet-masters plotting against well-meaning, patriotic conservatives—they have helped convince the Republican base of the acceptability of these far-right ideas. A “Republican phalanx” has effectively dislodged Washington’s longstanding bipartisan foreign policy consensus around democracy promotion, said Scheppele, to the point that “you can’t take that for granted anymore.”
This is why future administrations will have a hard time stemming the ominous global advance of right-wing strongmen. Right-wing lawmakers, lobbyists, consultants, media outlets, and think tanks have worked for years to foment the Republican base’s opposition to “global elites.” Trump helped stoke that same anger, and won the presidency as a result. But in truth, the most significant change is not Trump’s ascension; it’s something much larger and more unsettling. Today’s conservative leaders—the voices who now make up the strongman caucus—have come of age under the conviction that U.S. policies supporting democracy, human rights, and a free press abroad are all essentially equivalent to their domestic enemy—liberalism—and therefore must be destroyed.
Additional research was done by Julia Herrnböck and Jaime Longoria.