Donald Trump is trying to export his "America First"-style populism overseas by endorsing right-wing candidates in foreign elections.
The former U.S. president gave a boost to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in his presidential re-election campaign by recording a video endorsement on a private plane flight home from a Michigan rally, which Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo credits for his better-than-expected finish in Sunday's election, and Trump's allies said to expect more of those, reported Politico.
“The president’s endorsement isn’t just a kind of quirky ‘screw you’ to the media and global institutions, it has a big effect with grassroots voters. His voice plays largely in a lot of countries,” said Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union. “I’ve talked to him about this three or four times and I don’t know if he fully understands he has this kind of non-traditional audience in the U.S. but it is also overseas.”
Trump has been fascinated by strongmen long before becoming president, but his public embrace of authoritarians in other countries complicates the Republican Party's foreign policy doctrine, even if it helps Trump appeal to his loyal base.
“It’s real, his endorsement is looked for as much as a politician here,” said Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House strategist. “He knows these people personally whereas he doesn’t have the hangers-on at Mar-a-Lago that are getting paid to deliver endorsements to House and Senate candidates. President Trump is looked at as the leader in that movement.”
Schlapp has followed Trump's lead by holding conferences in Brazil, Hungary and other foreign nations, and CPAC invited Hungary's right-wing leader Viktor Orban to deliver the keynote address at its event earlier this year.
“When we go to Brazil, the Bolsonaro family is featured,” Schlapp said. “We went to Hungary and Orban is featured…CPAC is not usually affiliated with one politician and party and it’s the same role we play in America. As chummy as we like to be with Republicans we are sometimes a burr in their saddle. It’s an uncomfortable role but one we play.”
That global alliance is alarming to some American conservatives, however.
“Trump is a budding authoritarian and he feels a natural affinity with other actual or aspiring authoritarians abroad. Some call it the Illiberal International,” said Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a foreign policy expert who has advised GOP presidential campaigns. “They are united by their embrace of nationalism and xenophobia and rejection of liberal democracy, science, and even reason. The foreign authoritarians learn from Trump and he learns from them. It’s a disturbing dynamic that is doing much to undermine democracy around the world.”