This article was written by Chief Organizer Maria Stephan and was first published on Just Security.
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban sparked widespread outrage a year ago with a speech to members of the Hungarian minority in Romania in which he said Europeans should “not want to become peoples of mixed-race.” Days later, he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas. The defiant leader denounced gay marriage and immigration, receiving raucous standing ovations from the room of U.S. Republicans.
The CPAC gathering illustrates a troubling global trend. Namely, authoritarian leaders around the world are cooperating and learning from one another, with the apparent aim of consolidating their grip on power and enriching themselves and their allies. Working through networks of security actors, propagandists, and kleptocratic financiers, autocratic leaders are bolstering one another while subverting democratic norms and institutions at home and abroad. It’s a transnational network that award-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, a traditional conservative who has become highly critical of the GOP’s far-right tilt, calls Autocracy, Inc.
While this global autocratic alliance includes members from across the political and ideological spectrum, such as China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, it’s the far-right ties that are having the most corrosive effects on U.S. democracy. The alliance among far-right autocratic leaders, including influential members of the GOP, has emerged as a significant threat to U.S. democracy, one that has only expanded since Donald Trump’s presidency. These leaders’ actions often reflect what’s frequently referred to as the authoritarian playbook: politicizing independent institutions, spreading disinformation, aggrandizing executive power when it is in their interest, quashing dissent, marginalizing vulnerable communities, corrupting elections, and stoking violence. The effect is to undermine democratic institutions such that meaningful political opposition becomes more and more difficult, and to use state power to exert control over historically excluded groups.
This far-right autocratic network is extensive, but it is by no means invincible. Past struggles against authoritarianism show that even the autocrats who seem most powerful are vulnerable to strategic, organized nonviolent action against them. Thus, the strongest way to weaken Autocracy, Inc. is by expanding learning and collaboration among pro-democracy organizations and individuals inside the United States and in other countries.
History of Far-Right Collaboration
Close cooperation between far-right leaders is not new. Perhaps the most infamous example involves the collaboration between the antisemitic America First Committee, which included 20 members of Congress, and Nazi party officials in Germany during the 1930s and early ‘40s. Working alongside the America First Committee, the far-right movement in the United States at that time included radio propagandists, prominent religious leaders, and even Hollywood studios. German Nazi officials, for their part, took inspiration from the U.S. system of Jim Crow racial apartheid.
During the Cold War, the United States famously backed right-wing dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines with military and intelligence support, until both leaders were removed from power following mass popular uprisings. Of course, this was happening in a Cold War context where communist dictatorships, like the Soviet Union, were similarly conspiring across borders to suppress fundamental rights and freedoms. Since the end of the Cold War, however, right-wing autocratic alliances have taken more subtle forms. Their actions now rely less on military coups and tanks in the streets – though there are still too many of those, too — and more on the gradual evisceration of democratic norms and institutions by democratically elected leaders skilled in the art of divide-and-rule.
The alliance of far-right “elected autocrats” is the most prevalent and problematic today. The GOP and its MAGA faction have become particularly close with Orban, Hungary’s elected leader who originally came to power through democratic means, but has subtly eroded institutional checks on his power, such as the courts, electoral bodies, and the free press, while scapegoating and stripping rights away from historically excluded groups including the Roma, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. Many of Orban’s anti-democratic moves have technically been legal since he has simply changed laws and the Constitution to weaken the opposition and tighten his grip on power. The European Union, meanwhile, has struggled to come up with ways to counter the anti-democratic slide in Hungary and neighboring Poland, making it easier for both countries to push the envelope of what’s tolerated without facing meaningful consequences.
Across the Atlantic, former Fox News host and far-right propagandist Tucker Carlson has lionized Orban, praising his brand of culture war conservatism. Carlson hosted his show in Budapest, Hungary, two years ago while producing a documentary about Orban entitled “Hungary vs. Soros: Fight for Civilization.” Attacks on George Soros, a wealthy philanthropist who supports human rights defenders around the world, have become an established part of the far-right authoritarian playbook with antisemitic overtones. Addressing the CPAC conference in Dallas last year, Orban referred to a “clash of civilizations” between liberals and conservatives and called for greater conservative coordination across the Atlantic to “take power back.” The day before the CPAC conference, Orban met with Trump and expressed his hope that Trump would be president again.
Far-right leaders commonly appeal to traditional “family values” to mobilize fear and resentment toward those who they consider to be outside their own traditional conservative norms. The LGBTQ community is often in their crosshairs. Orban’s anti-LGBTQ legislation inspired Florida Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and there are ties between the DeSantis and Orban administrations. The president of Hungary, Katalin Novak, a close ally of Orban, has met with DeSantis and a Hungarian-born top donor. Leading conservative thinkers like Rod Dreher are based in Hungary and have actively connected Hungarian leaders to U.S. leaders.
The normalization of political violence, and the lies and hate-filled rhetoric that fuel it, is a particularly worrisome element of the far-right autocratic alliance. The relationship between the U.S. far-right and Brazil’s far-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro, has included efforts to violently overturn free and fair elections. On Jan. 8, 2023, in a scene eerily like the January 6th, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, Bolsonaro supporters violently attacked government buildings and police, and called on the military to launch a coup. Rioters claimed that opposition leader Lula da Silva had stolen the presidential election. Bolsonaro, like Trump, had spent months predicting mass fraud and then refused to concede defeat after losing.
The spinning of shared narratives across borders has strengthened far-right authoritarians’ grip on power while fueling a global ecosystem of disinformation. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, whose right-wing “War Room” podcast drives much of MAGA messaging, declared that the Brazilian election “was stolen” and later referred to the rioters as “Brazilian freedom fighters.” Carlson similarly supported Bolsonaro’s claims of voter fraud on his Fox News show. In the lead-up to the election, Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, met with MAGA leaders, including Bannon and corporate backer Mike Lindell (the “My Pillow” guy), to discuss the possibility of mass fraud in the Brazilian elections. Researchers at the University of South Florida found that the most extensive social media amplification of the Jan. 8 Brazilian insurrection and attempted coup occurred in the United States, Russia, and Brazil, with the top account listed in Orlando, Florida.
Misogyny and the weaponization of male grievance, which often includes support for policies and practices that seek to expand state control over women’s bodies, is another key element of the far-right transnational alliance. These are core elements of “The Movement,” a loose grouping of nationalist and populist forces in Europe, Asia, and Latin America founded in 2017 by Belgian right-wing politician Mischael Modrikmen that includes Steve Bannon. The real extent of Bannon’s influence in Europe is questionable, and his efforts to mobilize conservative Catholics and build an “academy for the Judeo-Christian West” in Rome have faltered. However, Bannon’s efforts to recruit “incels” (an abbreviation of “involuntarily celibate” describing men frustrated by a lack of sexual experience who blame – and lash out at — women for their situation) and his and the MAGA faction’s close association with white supremacist groups, continues to pose a significant threat to U.S. democracy.
Countering the Right-Wing Autocratic Alliance
Given the far-right’s common strategies and collusion, democracy advocates must step up their own transnational learning and solidarity. Investing in peer learning and training that draws on experiences in other countries has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to support pro-democracy movements. Learning about strategies and tactics for countering far-right disinformation and propaganda, while building movements that draw on diverse social foundations, would help democrats across borders develop their own playbook. That means joining forces (non-violently) to understand what is working where and supporting each other’s narrative, organizational, and tactical infrastructure in the same way that authoritarians do.
Efforts to operationalize democratic solidarity should include U.S. and international activists and organizers, along with faith leaders, captains of business, union leaders, veterans’ groups, journalists, and entertainers. Their skills and capabilities are necessary to counter the most dangerous aspects of a global authoritarian alliance while building inclusive democratic futures. These key pillars provide the social, political, economic, financial, and moral support that authoritarian leaders need to consolidate and expand their power. In the United States, although companies like Disney and Bud Lite have recently faced far-right blowback for the positions they have taken, like opposing anti-LGBTQ legislation, the business community played a key role in ensuring a democratic transition after the 2020 election. Organizations like Check My Ads, which targets digital advertising companies that are promoting hate speech and disinformation, use lessons from successful campaigns such as “Sleeping Giants,” to cut off a key source of authoritarian power.
Organizations like the Horizons Project, where I work, as well as the pro-democracy group Keseb, the Social & Economic Justice Leaders Project, and United Vision for Idaho are creating opportunities and initiatives for democracy advocates in the United States and from other countries experiencing democratic backsliding to learn from each other about effective narratives, strategies, and tactics. That includes Keseb’s Democracy Fellowship, UVI’s national training hub, and Horizons’ efforts to support a multi-disciplinary cohort of trainers and facilitators from across the United States and globally who are sharing skills, tools, and approaches for countering authoritarianism and strengthening democracy.
Next month, another civic group, the 22nd Century Initiative, is hosting a major public conference in Minneapolis focused on countering authoritarianism and strengthening democracy, which will bring together hundreds of organizers, bridgebuilders, and democracy advocates to meet, build relationships, and organize. Networks of creatives and social change leaders, such as the Impact Guild and Color of Change, and faith-based groups like Sojourners, Faith in Action, Faith for Black Lives, the Kairos Center, and NETWORK are similarly drawing on international insights and networks to inform their work to counter racism and strengthen democracy.
At a time when global authoritarianism and a well-resourced “Autocracy Inc.” is expanding its reach, and in a context where U.S. states have become laboratories of democratic backsliding, it is imperative to double down on efforts to strengthen democratic solidarity within the United States and across international borders. That means sharing analyses and resources, and investing in mentoring relationships between pro-democracy trainers and facilitators in the United States and those in other countries. And it means creating opportunities for organizers and bridgebuilders to learn from each other about effective strategies and tactics to resist autocracy while building inclusive democracies.