America First is Democracy Last
The foreign and domestic right-wing political figures on display at the recent New York Young Republican Club event are part of a growing anti-democratic movement, the Illiberal International.
In analyzing the individuals who got together for the recent event hosted by the New York Young Republican Club last weekend, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch reviewed the right-wing domestic extremists in attendance. As they noted, the rather vocally pro-Trump Republican cast appeared to make common cause with domestic extremists that night. The presence of white nationalist Peter Brimelow of VDare was notable considering he was seen taking a selfie with Steve Bannon and generally hobnobbing among the rest of the featured speakers and prominent guests at the event. What SPLC also noted was the presence of a foreign contingent, primarily of members of the Austrian Freedom Party and the Alternative for Germany or AfD Party, but their article was primarily focused on the American political operatives at the event. So, I decided to look into the foreign contingent myself.
In combing through publicly available information, including other reporting and public social media posts, I was able to find more international attendees at the event than were initially reported. These included far-right politicians in additional EU countries as well as Hungary’s ambassador to the United States. In piecing this group together, I wanted to highlight what common goals and characteristics these individuals shared. Some have overtly and undeniably advanced the Russian government’s agenda, but this was not universal. When looking at their various goals, including those currently being worked towards by dual Polish and U.S. citizen Matthew Tyrmand, their efforts in places like Brazil are less overtly pro-Kremlin and more obviously illiberal—explicitly authoritarian or anti-democratic in nature. Tyrmand is an advocate for the Brazilian military to intervene on behalf of recently defeated President Jair Bolsonaro. A military coup in Brazil would not be an obvious win for Kremlin interests in the country, but it would be a strike at the heart of the liberal, democratic world order. I think, more than anything else, the foreigners in attendance at the NYYRC event have a shared interest in that goal. They’re desperate for power, and they feel increasingly unconstrained by morality, decency or the laws which stand in their way.
American illiberalism meets funding for Ukraine
From Jack Posobiec to Marjorie Taylor Greene to Steve Bannon to Rudy Giuliani to Roger Stone and a variety of other MAGA guests and headliners, the promoters of Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election were on full display at the NYYRC event. The SPLC’s decision to label this group as fascistic is not overstatement. These are people who want power at any cost. They pick enemies. They name those enemies. They work to destroy those enemies. As NYYRC president Gavin Wax said at the event, as covered by Hatewatch, “We want to cross the Rubicon. We want total war. We must be prepared to do battle in every arena. In the media. In the courtroom. At the ballot box. And in the streets.”
These are the words of a budding authoritarian right-wing movement, full stop. What they’re also cultivating now is a foreign contingent, an international cohort that I’m calling the Illiberal International, a Cold War 2.0 coalition shockingly similar to the Communist International which existed throughout the first Cold War. As did its predecessor, this new Illiberal International presents similarly questionable effectiveness but nevertheless dangerous intentions. Throughout the Cold War, efforts to export Communism abroad were rarely as successful at swaying hearts and minds as they were at squabbling and pointless infighting amongst fringe figures of the movement. The far-right figures at the NYYRC appear to be similarly minor figures of dubious relevance back home.
Nevertheless, their rhetoric and positions on foreign issues mirrors that of the right-wing U.S. figures seen at the event. For instance, Marjorie Taylor Greene has spoken out in favor of halting all financial aid to democratic Ukraine in its ongoing war with authoritarian Russia. Her fellow headliner at the event, Jack Posobiec, agrees with her stance and has gone even further to support pro-Kremlin disinformation efforts—including involvement in “Macron Leaks”, sharing articles from SouthFront, or promoting the SVR-created Seth Rich conspiracy theory. Their position on funding Ukraine, however, is at least not presented as specifically pro-Putin or pro-Kremlin. If forced to defend their stances, this group would not argue they mean to “help Russia”, instead they are simply adhering to their stated “America First” isolationist goals. They claim they’re simply putting Americans first, and if Putin gets helped in the process, that has nothing to do with them. It’s certainly a position that’s much easier to justify given the alleged war crimes and devastation wrought by Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine.
However, it’s worth noting that several attendees at the NYYRC event are more overt in their support to the Russian government. Take Harald Vilimsky, who was photographed alongside frequent Bannon guest Matthew Tyrmand at the event. Vilimsky is a high-ranking member of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). The FPÖ are known for signing a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party in 2008 during a visit to Moscow with then-FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache. For his part, Strache unceremoniously resigned as head of the FPÖ in 2019 after the "Ibiza Affair" broke in the press, so-called because leaked video of Strache at a 2017 meeting in Ibiza with a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. The supposed niece claimed she wanted to buy the influential Austrian newspaper, the Krone Zietung. Strache claimed there would be no opposition to this effort and suggested government contracts would be awarded to the Russian investors. In return, the FPÖ was told by the “niece” that the party would receive favorable media coverage from the Krone Zietung under its new ownership, and there was talk of the Russian political donations through an FPÖ cut-out in the future as well.
Another attendee at the NYYRC event was Gerald Grosz, a member of the Austrian Freedom Party who went on Russia Today (RT) in July 2022 and said sanctions against Russia enacted by the EU after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine needed to be immediately lifted. There were also two Alternative for Germany (AfD) members at the NYYRC event, Nicolaus Fest and Maximilian Krah. Both men voted against labeling Russia as a state-sponsor of terror in a EU resolution approved by the body in late November of this year. While the vote was largely symbolic, they were joined in opposing the measure by a number of other apologists for the Kremlin, most especially from members of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party. Harald Vilimsky, like Le Pen’s French allies, participated in the sham referendum in Crimea after Russia’s illegal annexation of the territory. This was done to lend legitimacy and present an illegal act as a democratic one, which is an excellent example of the kind of democratic acts many in this group support—the ones where they control the outcome. Similarly, members of the AfD have made several trips to eastern Ukraine and illegally occupied Crimea in recent years, including after Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Brazil’s version of “Stop the Steal” was well represented by the NYYRC
Many of those present at the NYYRC—including leaders of the group—event have pushed lies about a supposed “stolen election” in Brazil in 2022 closely mirroring the rhetoric we witnessed from Trump supporters after the 2020 U.S. election. This activity raises the possibility of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and/or his supporters to stage a military coup reminiscent of January 6, 2021 in this country. Matthew Tyrmand has been headlining the Brazilian “Stop the Steal” coverage on Steve Bannon’s War Room recently and both men were present at the NYYRC event. As Michael Hayden and Hannah Gais wrote for the SPLC’s Hatewatch:
Hatewatch observed Project Veritas’s Tyrmand sitting at table #4, the one closest to the center of the stage, alongside Trump-world power players Steve Bannon and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. A recent New York Times report named Tyrmand and Bannon as key U.S. figures in an effort to depict Brazil’s November presidential elections as being fraudulent, after voters in that country pushed hard-right favorite Jair Bolsonaro out of office. Tyrmand, who is known for his ties to the global radical right, took the stage and lauded the ultranationalist European leaders in attendance.
“This is an all-star room, and I urge all of you to meet everybody here and continue to spend time together, getting to know each other, so we can fight the battle, arm in arm,” Tyrmand said of the European extremists, including the contingents from Austria and Germany.
However, Tyrmand was not the only attendee at the NYYRC event to have expressed Bolsonarista support recently. The official Twitter account of the club, @NYYRC, quote tweeted the club’s president Gavin Wax regarding the results of the Brazilian election and called for President Jair Bolsonaro to “send in the tanks” after he lost his re-election bid to Lula da Silva. Vish Burra, former Bannon’s War Room producer and later a VP at the NYYRC, has been on Bannon’s show to amplify his Brazil coverage and expressed support for Bolsonaro’s “stolen election” claims on Twitter.
In truth, their claims are practically identical to those made about the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and perhaps we should not be surprised. As the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) wrote about the Austrian Freedom Party:
In the autumn of 2016, an FPÖ delegation featuring Strache, Vilimsky, Krauss, Georg Mayer MEP and two regional leaders of the FPÖ, Mario Kunasek and Marlene Svazek, went to the US in the run-up to the US presidential election. During their trip, they met with a number of officials, politicians and activists, but no details about these meetings have been made public. Some members of the FPÖ delegation, excluding Strache, reportedly met with Michael Flynn, then a national security adviser to Donald Trump as part of his 2016 presidential campaign. They later celebrated Trump’s victory in Trump Tower in New York.
SCEEUS goes on to add in the same post that NYYRC event attendee Harald Vilmsky participated in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in the U.S. in 2016 and February 2017 where then-President Donald Trump spoke. Vilimsky posted "a picture of himself on Facebook with Trump giving a speech in the background, and describing the controversial US president as ‘a great politician challenging corrupt leftist political networks and the international fake news media.'" In many ways, CPAC has led the charge in the right-wing international movement, and we’re seeing the results of that effort showcased at this recent event.
CPAC, Hungary and international illiberalism
In the age of Trumpism, CPAC began hosting events internationally, perhaps most notably with CPAC Brazil and CPAC Hungary. In fact, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was a speaker in May of this year at CPAC's event in Budapest. Other speakers at that event included Eduardo Bolsonaro, Candace Owens, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Jack Posobiec. The presence of the Brazilian president's son at an event headlining with the Hungarian Prime Minister's speech would not have made much sense ten or perhaps even five years ago. At that time, it’s hard to imagine many in Hungary knowing the name of the Brazilian President, much less one of his sons, but perhaps one underappreciated result of the global economy is the global information space. Eduardo Bolsonaro has become important in right-wing illiberal circles that travel to events together in Brazil, in Hungary and in the United States. In fact, Eduardo Bolsonaro was in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, the day of the insurrection. These frequently overlapping figures can now share tweets and interview each other on their alternative media platforms. They may be obscure to you and I. Some of them, even the elected officials, may be relatively insignificant in their own country’s political environment. That doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant in the information space. It doesn’t mean they can’t be used to grow the Second Cold War’s right-wing international. That mostly requires an ability to stay on message, which frankly isn’t very difficult at all.
While Russia’s military failures in Ukraine have seen Putinism lose some of its appeal to the global right-wing movement, there remain those in the information space who see the value of the Kremlin’s increasingly right-wing authoritarian leader, even if the mystique is not as strong as it once was. Those who still admire him or receive funding from him will continue singing Putin’s praises. They will stay on message. They will hope to stop aid flowing to Ukraine and see a victorious Putin in Kyiv one day, and they will hope useful idiots like MTG make that easier for them. In the meantime, they will look elsewhere for illiberal champions of their cause. They will search for those who, like Viktor Orban, can claim a level of legitimacy while still flexing their illiberal muscle. As Creede Newton reported for SPLC's Hatewatch, Szabolcs Takács, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States was also in attendance at the NYYRC’s recent event and received an award on behalf of Orban. Takács spoke of Hungary's shared fight with those in attendance against the "liberal dicatorship" and the threat of “communism” in the world. He added, “You have to take back your universities, you have to take back your media, you have to take back the future of your children, and you will rest assured that free Hungarians are there for you.”
In an election that was described by Freedom House as neither free nor fair, Viktor Orban was re-elected to the office of Hungarian Prime Minister once again earlier this year. It’s a position he has held since May of 2010. In a statement shortly before the election posted on their official website, the New York Young Republican Club strongly urged "all voters in Hungary to help preserve Western Civilization by re-electing Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister of Hungary." It was the group's first international endorsement, but it was, as they wrote, "a natural one." It surely won’t be the last of its kind.
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Point: SPLC has become extreme from the left, defining people and organizations as far right when they're actually center right and always have been. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2018/11/08/feature/is-the-southern-poverty-law-center-judging-hate-fairly/