The Republican infatuation with Italy’s new right wing
The far right is eager to broker ties with the new Meloni goverment.
Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass. Congress is out this week, so today we’re looking at something a bit different—how MAGA-inclined Republicans, who developed warm feelings for Brazil under its former leader Jair Bolsonaro, are now transferring their affections to Italy, where a new right wing is on the rise.
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Conservatives’ friendship ended with Brazil
In no small part because Donald Trump saw something of a kindred spirit in Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right Brazilian leader with a small but highly loyal following who became the country’s president in 2019, the U.S. government and the Republican party both had friendly relations with Brazil over the last few years.
During Bolsonaro’s reign, Brazil saw itself elevated to non-NATO ally status and benefited from the close ties to the Trump White House. And the Brazilian right forged close connections with MAGA world, too. In particular, Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of the president, became very friendly with Trump, Steve Bannon, Jason Miller, and others.
The Bolsonaro/Trump alignment became even more striking after Brazil’s election last October. Jair Bolsonaro lost in a close runoff, and in the weeks that followed, Eduardo Bolsonaro huddled even more tightly with some of the architects of Donald Trump’s post-2020-election strategy.
Bolsonaro’s successor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known simply as Lula), had immediately to deal with the fallout of Bolsonaro’s years of spreading propaganda, not to mention Bolsonaro’s election-denying lies. Like Trump, Bolsonaro refused to admit his defeat by attending his successor’s inauguration; instead, like Trump, Bolsonaro flew to Florida. And he was in Florida last week when his followers, like Trump’s followers, marched through the capital in a January 6th-style insurrection, ransacking the site of the presidential office, the National Congress, and the Supreme Federal Court.
While Trump stayed mum about all this, his allies were quick to regurgitate the same talking points.
Tucker Carlson repeated the line about a “rigged election” after the Brasilia attack, adding, “Millions of people in Brazil understand exactly what happened. They know their democracy has been hijacked possibly forever.”
Among elected Republicans, few condemned the attack. Most Republican leaders, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, were silent in the attack’s aftermath and have yet to issue any kind of condemnation or show of support for Lula. (To be fair, congressional Republicans have been preoccupied by their own political goings-on this month.)
This past weekend, Bolsonaro’s top ally was immediately arrested upon returning to Brazil from Florida. Now, there is mounting pressure for Bolsonaro himself to return to Brazil, which has prompted calls from some Democrats to have him booted from the Orlando suburbs where he’s been on vacation. The Biden administration has not reported receiving any request for extradition, although Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Politico last week that he “would not be surprised” if Brazil demands Bolsonaro be extradited.
Now Italy is their best friend
Led by recently elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) is descended from Italy’s post–World War II neo-fascist movement, and its policy positions are comparable to those of other groups in the constellation of Europe’s populist far right. The party’s members are not known for discretion about their views: One member was suspended after reporters uncovered a Facebook post praising Hitler. Meloni herself has insisted that migrant-rescuing boats should be sunk after their crews have been arrested and passengers repatriated.
The Fratelli have typically been backbenchers in Italian politics. Their fortunes changed dramatically last year following a series of events that culminated in the victory of Meloni’s coalition and her election to the prime ministership in the country’s September elections. When Meloni came to power, Republicans in the United States were elated:
“I’m so excited,” said Kari Lake, the election-denying failed Arizona candidate for governor, in an appearance on Tucker Carlson. “This is someone I can relate to.”
Former Trump confidant Roger Stone listed Meloni on his annual best-dressed list, saying the PM is “not a fascist; she's a fashionista.”
Since then, and in spite of her assurances that her party is more Tory than fascist, Meloni has played to the right. In November, she targeted a journalist with a defamation lawsuit for criticizing her immigration stances.
And Meloni is not the party’s biggest ideologue—just its biggest name. Her deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has brought a further lawsuit against the same journalist for referring to him as a “minister of the mob.”
“This is a party that’s rooted in the fascist tradition . . . the entire galaxy of the extreme right feels protected and galvanized now,” Italian journalist Paolo Berizzi said of the Brothers of Italy in an interview with the Intercept. Salvini belongs to the League, another far-right party with a history of xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies. (Worth noting: The League began as the “Northern League,” and originally had one overriding political goal: northern Italian secession and independence.)
There is every reason to believe that Republican enthusiasm for Italy’s new conservative leaders will continue to grow. South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, longtime member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and who gained national notoriety after shouting “You lie!” at then-President Barack Obama during a speech, told me he is planning a trip to Italy with his fellow lawmakers this year to strengthen their relationships with the Meloni government.
Wilson added a caveat: “I would obviously be selective in who I visit with.”
There is at least one Republican who is not feeling the sudden love for Italy’s far right. White House doctor–turned-right wing congressman Ronny Jackson—who recently served on the Foreign Affairs Committee and has actually lived in Italy—mistook Meloni for a man when I asked him about the country’s first woman prime minister.
“I honestly don’t think I’m going to be on Foreign Affairs [in the 118th Congress],” Jackson said. Maybe that’s for the best.
The brokering of ties between U.S. elected officials and international activists is nothing new. Recently, the Logan Circle Group, a consulting firm with ties to Matt Gaetz and other MAGA political candidates, retroactively registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for a range of activities on behalf of Identity and Democracy, a European Parliament group consisting of of several of Europe’s far-right, anti-immigrant political parties, including Salvini’s League. The Logan Circle Group is run by Harlan Hill, who previously made headlines for being dumped by Fox News after calling Kamala Harris “an insufferable lying bitch.”The French arm of Identity and Democracy Group paid Hill’s firm to establish ties with Republican politicians and make introductions at Matt Schlapp’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
These activities reflect a growing trend in American conservative politics, as a number of U.S. right-wing personalities have conducted paid work for Europe’s far-right governments, including those of Hungary and Russia. These days, the Republican party is open for just this kind of business. So don’t be surprised if more far-right organizations come calling, including those based in Italy, birthplace of fascism.