It is dawn in the Spanish countryside. A man is walking, and then running, in slow motion. He climbs a fence. He crosses a field of wheat while brushing his hands, as in a Hollywood movie, across the tops of the sheaves. All the while, music is playing and a voice is speaking: «If you don’t laugh at honor because you don’t want to live among traitors . . . if you look toward new horizons without despising your old origins . . . if you can keep your honesty intact in times of corruption . . .»
The sun rises. The man climbs a steep path. He crosses a river. He is caught in a thunderstorm. “If you feel gratitude and pride for those in uniform who protect the wall. . . . If you love your fatherland like you love your parents . . .” The music climaxes, the man is on top of the mountain, the voice finishes: “. . . then you are making Spain great again!” A slogan appears on the screen: Hacer España Grande Otra Vez.
The slogan translates to “Make Spain Great Again.” The man is Santiago Abascal, and this, of course, is an advertisement for Vox. Vox is Spain’s fastest-growing political party, and Abascal is its leader. In the Spanish parliamentary elections of 2016 — the year that Abascal starred in that “Make Spain Great Again” video — Vox and its macho, cinematic Spanish nationalism did not win a single seat; soon after, one Spanish website posted an article asking, “Why doesn’t anybody vote for Santiago Abascal?”
But last Sunday, the party’s support among the electorate went from zero to 10 percent, which earned it 24 members in parliament. Its loud presence in the election campaign helped boost election turnout to the highest level in years, as Spaniards were eager either to support Vox — or to vote against it.
How did it happen? And what does it have to do with President Trump? The speed of Vox’s rise is, in many ways, a uniquely Spanish story, one of nationalist reaction to a regional separatist crisis, the growth of polarization and the fragmentation of what used to be a two-party system. The economic crash of 2009 undermined faith in the mainstream parties and led to a strong, far-left backlash. Vox is the counter-backlash.
But the story of Vox also belongs to a larger global story about the online and offline campaign tactics developed by the American alt-right and the European far right, which are now used throughout the world. The use of social media marketing to exacerbate polarization; of websites created especially to feed polarized narratives; of private fan groups that pass around conspiracy theories; of language that deliberately undermines trust in “mainstream” politicians and journalists: Fans of the party that wants to “Make Spain Great Again” used all of these tactics to move its message from the fringes to the mainstream. They also used funding, including foreign money, that doesn’t go directly to Vox but rather goes to organizations that share some of its views — a form of political finance familiar to Americans, but new to Europeans.
In March and April, just before the parliamentary elections on April 28, I made a couple of trips to Madrid to speak to people from Vox, as well as a range of others — including former leaders of the center-right Popular Party and the center-left Socialist Workers’ Party, the two groups that dominated national politics for three decades after the democratic transition of 1977. The Spanish capital felt a little bit like London just before the Brexit referendum, or Washington before Trump’s election. I had a strong sense of deja vu: Once again, here was a political class about to be hit by an angry wave.
In the once rather predictable world of Spanish politics, this is a major change. As recently as 2018, Spanish journalists and analysts were still asking why Spain, unlike France or Italy, had no significant far-right political party. Many assumed that the ghost of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, which ended only in the 1970s, was responsible for this “Spanish exception.” Whereas no one active in French or German politics actually remembers Vichy or the Nazis, plenty of living Spaniards remembered Franco’s ostentatious nationalism, the chants of “Arriba España!” — “Go Spain!” — at rallies, and, for that reason, they stayed away from it.
But over the course of the past year, Vox has slowly broken that taboo. At the top of his Twitter feed, Abascal has pinned a long series of tweets, beginning in the spring of 2018 and continuing to the present. Each one links to a clip or a photograph of a conference hall or stadium packed to the rafters with people cheering and clapping. The later tweets also contain the hashtag #EspañaViva — #LivingSpain — and rapturous commentary: “Neither death threats from dozens of communists nor insults from television can stop #EspañaViva.”
These tweets, plus the party’s constant attacks on the “fake” opinion polls in the “biased” media, had a purpose: Those following Vox had the feeling they were part of a huge movement — Abascal spoke of a “patriotic movement of salvation of the national union” — which, in a sense, they were.
A uniquely Spanish nature
Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, Vox’s vice secretary for international relations, comes from a wealthy, titled Spanish family; when Vox attacks «the establishment,» it means the media and the political class, not Spain’s haute bourgeoisie or its business class. More importantly, for the purposes of his current occupation, Espinosa is an adept user of social media — as is his wife, Rocio Monasterio, who is also a Vox politician.
I followed both on Twitter for a while and noted how good they are at creating drama. Espinosa used Twitter to gather a crowd on the street after a Madrid university, his alma mater, canceled a lecture he was scheduled to give. Monasterio won thousands of “likes,” first for declaring she would boycott marches scheduled to mark International Women’s Day, and then for tweeting a video contrasting angry, protesting feminists with some soft-focus clips of men and women holding hands.
Espinosa agreed to meet me at a Madrid coffee shop, and the main message he wanted to convey to me was about the uniquely Spanish nature of Vox. Vox, he told me, has little in common with Europe’s other “far-right” parties. “Vox is easily and frequently associated with other new parties and things going on in other parts of the world . . . but it’s not quite true.”
Instead, he argued that Vox arose largely out of Spain’s failure to cope with its long-standing regional conflicts. Abascal, a former member of the center-right Popular Party, is himself from Basque Country. His father, also a Popular Party politician, was famously a target of ETA, the Basque terrorist group; for that reason, the Vox leader claims to carry a Smith & Wesson handgun at all times — an extremely unusual habit in Spain, though one that has endeared him to a tiny minority of gun owners. But it was the Catalan secession crisis, beginning in 2017, that really put Vox into the center of Spanish politics. José María Aznar, the former center-right prime minister of Spain, told me that Vox was a “consequence of the inaction of the government during the coup d’etat in Catalonia,” and almost everyone else I met in Madrid said more or less the same thing.
Catalonia is a wealthy province, and many of its inhabitants speak a separate language, Catalan; it has a long history and some old grudges, going back several centuries. When George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, he found the regional capital in full revolt against the government of the time: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists.” After the forces led by Franco won the civil war and imposed the dictatorship, any hint of Catalonian separatism was harshly suppressed.
By contrast, the Spanish constitution of 1978 gave autonomy not just to Catalonia and Basque Country, whose separatist movement long had a terrorist wing, but also to all of the Spanish regions. Arguments about the relationship between the central government and the regions have continued since. In 2017, Catalonia’s regional government, narrowly controlled by separatists, decided to hold a referendum on independence. The Spanish Constitutional Court declared the referendum illegal. A clear majority of Catalans boycotted the referendum — an emotive event, marred by police brutality — but those who did vote chose independence.
In the ensuing mayhem, the Spanish Senate imposed direct rule and called new Catalan elections. Some secessionist leaders fled into exile; a dozen secessionist leaders were arrested and put on trial. In Spain, private prosecutors are allowed to be co-accusers during public prosecutions. Vox took advantage of this rule and launched a private suit against the Catalan secessionists.
In practice, that meant that the widely televised public trial featured, alongside the government’s prosecutors, the “lawyer from Vox” — Javier Ortega Smith, the party’s secretary general. Sitting in a Madrid taxi, I heard a radio announcer excitedly reporting on comments from the “lawyer from Vox.” Two witnesses refused to speak to him.
For a small party that advocates Spanish unity, opposes regional autonomy, and wants to ban separatist parties and arrest the Catalan president, it’s difficult to think of a more effective way to evoke strong emotions — or to get a strong reaction. When Vox held one of its rallies in Barcelona this spring, Ortega Smith called the Catalan government a “criminal organization.” But most of the news coverage focused on the rock-throwing, barricade-burning, black-masked anarchists who violently protested against the visiting “fascists.” In other words, it was another publicity victory for Vox.
‘They don’t have any ideas’
But Catalonia was not the only Spanish issue to work in favor of Vox. Like some other new (and not necessarily «right-wing») European parties, most notably the Five Star Movement in Italy, Vox also picked up on a series of underrated issues and themes whose adherents had begun to find one another, and to organize themselves, online. Whereas successful political movements used to have a single ideology, they can now combine several. Think about how record companies put together new pop bands: They do market research, they pick the kinds of faces that match, and then they market the band by advertising it to the most favorable demographic. New political parties can now operate like that: You can bundle together issues, repackage them and then market them, using exactly the same kind of targeted messaging — based on exactly the same kind of market research — that you know has worked in other places.
Opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism; opposition to feminism and same-sex marriage; opposition to immigration, especially by Muslims; anger at corruption; boredom with mainstream politics; a handful of issues, such as hunting and gun ownership, that some people care a lot about and others don’t know exist; plus a streak of libertarianism, a talent for mockery and a whiff of nostalgia — though it’s not quite clear for what: All of these are the ingredients that have gone into the creation of Vox.
For the most part, these are issues that belong to the realm of identity politics, not economics. Espinosa characterized all of them as arguments with “the left,” meaning not just Spain’s Marxist, far-left party, Podemos, but also the center-left Socialist party, at least in its most recent incarnation. In particular, he pointed to the Socialist government that controlled Spain between 2004 and 2010, under then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which passed a series of laws easing restrictions on abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage, and extending special protections, including trials in special courts — Espinosa called them “man courts” — to victims of domestic violence. He described these laws as “any kind of law that [Zapatero] could think of to attack the family, a bastion of conservatism.”
Zapatero also reopened the question of history, passing a Historical Memory Law that, among other things, formally condemned the Franco regime and removed Francoist symbols from public spaces. For Spain, this was new: Spanish governments, during the first two decades after the democratic transition, had simply kept the subject of the dictatorship and the civil war off the table. For Vox, this issue is a nuance, rather than a major theme, at least in public. But the demand for “freedom to talk about our history” is a line that Abascal does use at rallies.
He illustrated his point with a couple of salt shakers. “Here,” he said, putting the two shakers together: “This was Spanish politics in the 1980s and 1990s.” And “here” — he put a fork down several inches away — is Spain today: “pulled to the extreme left. Center and the right don’t push back. They don’t counterattack. They don’t have any ideas.”
Of course, that kind of language enrages not only the Catalan secessionists but also supporters of the center-left. As do Vox’s staged provocations. In advance of local elections in southern Spain last December, Abascal put out a video of himself on horseback, reenacting the medieval “reconquest” of Spain from Moorish occupation, to the tune of a song from t he “Lord of the Rings” film series; another time, the party put together a video of an imaginary news report on the imposition of sharia law in southern Spain and the conversion of the cathedral of Cordoba into a mosque. Each of these actions causes a counter-reaction — more retweets for Vox, more anger on the other side.
Espinosa knows this. “Are we part of this polarization? Unfortunately, we are. I’m not saying we’re not.” But from his point of view, “the left” are the extremists, not Vox.
Espinosa speaks excellent English — he spent part of his childhood in the United States and went to business school at Northwestern University — and occasionally he tweets in English. Several times he has tweeted to attack foreign media coverage of Vox, especially when it compares the party to far-right groups in France or Italy. He tweeted a sneering congratulations to one Guardian journalist on his “PC-certified story.” He makes the same complaint about the Spanish media. “Congratulations El Pais,” he wrote recently, “for managing to put the expressions ‘ultraconservative,’ ‘ultranationalist’ and ‘extreme right’ in just five paragraphs. Goebbels would admire you.”
In fact, there have been multiple contacts between Vox and the other far-right parties of Europe. In 2017, Abascal met Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, as Vox’s Twitter account recorded; on the eve of the election, he tweeted his thanks to Matteo Salvini, the Italian far-right leader, for his support. Abascal and Espinosa both went to Warsaw recently to meet the leaders of the nativist, anti-pluralist Polish ruling party, and Espinosa showed up at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the D.C. area, as well.
Still, Espinosa is correct when he dismisses these public meetings as courtesy calls. The important relationships between Vox and the European far right, as well as the American alt-right, are happening elsewhere.
‘Restoring the natural order’
Until very recently, far-right nationalist or nativist parties in Europe rarely worked together. Unlike European social democrats, who always shared a general outlook on the world, or even the center-right European Christian democrats, who from the 1950s onward were the true engine behind the creation of the European Union, the nationalist parties, rooted in their own particular histories, are often in conflict with one another almost by definition. The French far right was born from arguments about Vichy and Algeria. The Italian far right long featured the intellectual descendants of dictator Benito Mussolini, not to mention his actual daughter. Attempts to fraternize still founder on old arguments. Relations between the Italian far right and the Austrian far right, for example, recently came unstuck after they started arguing, amusingly, over the national identity of South Tyrol, a German-speaking province in northern Italy.
But recently, that has begun to change. The European far right has now found a set of issues it can unite around. Opposition to immigration, especially Muslim immigration, is one of them; promotion of a socially conservative worldview is another. To put it differently, dislike of same-sex civil unions or African taxi drivers is something that even Austrians and Italians who disagree about the location of their border can share.
The links and connections are certainly visible online. Among those watching the rise of Vox in the Spanish elections was a Madrid-based company called Alto Data Analytics. Alto, which specializes in applying artificial intelligence to the analysis of public data, such as that found on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other public sources, recently produced some elegant, colored network maps of the Spanish online conversation, with the goal of identifying disinformation campaigns seeking to distort digital conversations. The maps showed three outlying, polarized conversations — “echo chambers,” whose members are mostly talking and listening only to one another: the Catalan secessionist conversation, the far-left conversation and the Vox conversation.
That was no surprise. Nor was it a surprise to discover that the largest number of “abnormal, high-activity users” — bots, or else real people who post constantly and probably professionally — were also found within these three communities, especially the Vox community, which accounted for more than half of them. A few days before the election, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue — a British organization that tracks online extremism, and that I work with as an adviser and collaborator — uncovered a network of nearly 3,000 “abnormal, high-activity users” that had pumped out nearly 4½ million pro-Vox and anti-Islamic messages on Twitter in the past year.
The network’s origins are unclear, and it isn’t known who funds it. It was originally set up to attack the Maduro government of Venezuela, but after a terrorist attack in Barcelona in 2017, it switched targets. For the past couple of years, it has focused on immigration scare stories, gradually increasing their emotional intensity. Some of what is promoted is material that comes originally from extremist networks, and all of it aligns with messages being put out by Vox. On April 22, for example, a week before Spain’s polling day, the network was tweeting images of what its members described as a riot in a “Muslim neighborhood in France.” In fact, the clip showed a scene from recent anti-government riots in Algeria.
Both Alto and ISD noticed another oddity. Vox supporters, especially the “abnormal, high-activity users,” are very likely to post and tweet content and material from a very particular groups of sources: a set of conspiratorial websites, mostly set up at least a year ago, sometimes run by a single person, which post large quantities of highly partisan articles and headlines.
Curiously, the Alto team had found exactly the same kinds of websites in Italy and Brazil, in the months before those countries’ elections in 2018. In each case, the websites began putting out partisan material — in Italy, about immigration; in Brazil, about corruption and feminism — during the year before the vote. In both countries, they served to feed and amplify partisan themes even before they were really part of mainstream politics.
In Spain, there are a half-dozen such sites, some quite professional and some clearly amateur. Some, of unclear origin, seem to be created from a template: One of the more obscure sites has exactly the same style and layout as a pro-Bolsonaro Brazilian site, almost as though both had been designed by the same person. On the day before the Spanish election, its lead story was a conspiracy theory: George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire who has been made a boogeyman by the far right all across Europe, would help orchestrate election fraud. Soros was not a well-known figure in Spain until recently, though Vox has now made him part of the debate.
On the other end of the scale are digitalSevilla, which mostly writes about Andalusia, and CasoAislado, which puts out a constant stream of stories about immigrants and crime. Both of the latter seem to be run by very small teams of people and funded by the Google advertising system. They appear with high frequency in the Vox echo chamber. The owner of digitalSevilla — according to El Pais, a 24-year-old with no journalism experience — is producing headlines that compare the Andalusian socialist party leader to “the evil lady in Game of Thrones” and, at times, has had more readership than established newspapers. Espinosa told me that CasoAislado’s owner is “a guy who sympathizes with us, he’s an amateur. . . . I can assure you, we’re not paying any of these guys.”
Americans will recognize these types of sites: They function not unlike Infowars, Breitbart, the infamous partisan sites that operated from Macedonia during the U.S. presidential campaign or, indeed, the Facebook pages created by Russian military intelligence, all of which produced hypercharged, conspiratorial, partisan news and outraged headlines that could then be pumped into hypercharged, conspiratorial echo chambers.
At times, these sites, and the networks that promote them across Europe, work in concert. In December, the United Nations brought world leaders together to discuss global migration at a low-key summit that produced a rather dull and nonbinding pact — the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Though the pact received relatively little mainstream media attention, in the lead-up to that gathering, and in its wake, Alto found nearly 50,000 Twitter users tweeting conspiracy theories about the pact — and several hundred who were doing so in multiple languages, switching between French, German, Italian and, to a lesser extent, Spanish and Polish. Much like the Spanish network that promotes Vox, these users were promoting material from extremist and conspiratorial websites, using identical images, linking and retweeting one another across borders.
A similar international network went into high gear after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue tracked thousands of posts from people claiming to have seen Muslims “celebrating” the fire, as well as from people posting rumors and pictures that purported to prove there had been arson. CasoAislado had one up almost immediately, claiming that “hundreds of Muslims” were celebrating in Paris and using an image that looked as though people with Arabic surnames were posting smiley-face emoticons under scenes of the fire on Facebook. A few hours later, Abascal tweeted his disgust at the “hundreds of Muslims,” using the same image, though linking it to a post by the American alt-right conspiracy theorist Paul Watson — who, in turn, sourced the same image to a French far-right activist named Damien Rieu. “Islamists want to destroy Europe and Western civilization by celebrating the fire of #NotreDame,” wrote Abascal. “Let’s take note before it’s too late.”
These same kinds of memes and images then rippled through Vox’s WhatsApp and Telegram fan groups. These included, for example, an English-language meme showing Paris “before Macron,” with Notre Dame burning, and “after Macron” with a mosque in its place, as well as a news video, which, in fact, had been made about another incident, talking about arrests and gas bombs found in a nearby car. It was a perfect example of the alt-right, the far right and Vox all messaging the same thing, at the same time, in multiple languages, attempting to create the same emotions across Europe, North America and beyond.
There are offline connections, as well. Recognizing the cross-border potential of social issues in particular, a number of pan-European organizations have been created, along an American model, to fund and promote them.
One of these is CitizenGo , an organization founded in Madrid in 2013. CitizenGo is the international arm of HazteOir.org, a Spanish organization created more than a decade earlier. According to Neil Datta, the secretary of the European Forum on Population and Development and author of a major report on the European Christian right, CitizenGo is part of a larger network of European organizations dedicated to what they call “restoring the natural order”: rolling back gay rights, restricting abortion and contraception, promoting an explicitly Christian agenda. They put together mailing lists and keep in touch with their supporters; the organization claims to reach 9 million people.
In this task, they have had international support.
The CitizenGo board includes both Brian S. Brown, an American co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, and Alexey Komov, from the Russian branch of the World Congress of Families. Komov is affiliated with the sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, and he functions, in practice, as the link between Malofeev and the American religious right. CitizenGo’s leader, Ignacio Arsuaga, appears regularly at pan-European events, including the World Congress of Families meeting in Verona, Italy, in March. Others in attendance, according to the WCF website, included Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League, as well as a handful of Hungarian politicians, a senior Russian priest and even Her Serene Highness Gloria, Dowager Princess von Thurn und Taxis.
According to a report from OpenDemocracy, an investigative nongovernmental organization, Darian Rafie, a leader of a U.S. organization called ActRight, also advises CitizenGo and helps support it financially. (For context, ActRight’s Facebook page carries posts mocking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and asking how much President Barack Obama paid to get his “pothead daughter” into Harvard University.) Rafie told an OpenDemocracy reporter that he “did a lot of fundraising” for Trump; he also claimed to be able to capture personal information from the cellphones of people attending rallies. But these kinds of contacts are not unusual: OpenDemocracy has additionally identified a dozen other U.S.-based organizations that now fund or assist conservative activists in Europe .
And not only Europe: Viviana Waisman of Women’s Link, a Madrid-based human rights and women’s rights legal group, told me she now runs into CitizenGo, and its language, around the world. Among other things, it has popularized the expression “gender ideology” — a term the Christian right invented, and that has come to describe a whole group of issues, from domestic violence laws to gay rights — in Africa and Latin America, as well as Europe.
In Spain, CitizenGo has made itself famous by painting buses with provocative slogans — one carried the hashtag #feminazis and an image of Adolf Hitler wearing lipstick — and driving them around Spanish cities. The buses enrage people and accrue more attention, not just for CitizenGo but also for Vox. The broader overlap between CitizenGo and Vox isn’t a secret: CitizenGo has given its annual prize, over the years, to Abascal, Ortega Smith and a number of people who are now Vox politicians, along with Catholic activists and the illiberal Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.
In the run-up to April’s parliamentary elections — the first ones in which Vox was a real contender — the money, the network and the talents of CitizenGo proved extremely useful. In the days before the vote, CitizenGo, as it has done in the past, ran a “Vote for Values” campaign; this time, the buses were painted with quotations meant to disparage the leaders of non-Vox parties. The group set up a website that included checklists showing which parties agree with the “values” platform, making perfectly clear that the only party with “values” is Vox.
It’s a pattern we know from U.S. politics. Just as it is possible in the United States to support super PACs that then pay for advertising around issues linked to particular candidates, so is it now possible for Americans, Russians or the Princess von Thurn und Taxis to donate to CitizenGo — and, thus, to support Vox. This isn’t a campaign-funding model that has been widely used in Europe in the past. In most countries, political funding is limited; in some places (though not Spain), foreign funding is banned. A great deal of fuss has been made about Stephen K. Bannon’s organization, the Movement , which he set up reportedly to help far-right candidates in Europe win elections. But in fact — as most Europeans probably don’t realize — outsiders who want to fund the European far right have been able to do so for some time. OpenDemocracy’s most recent report quotes Arsuaga, the head of CitizenGo, advising a reporter that money given to his group could “indirectly” support Vox, since “we actually currently totally align.”
Connecting the far-right dots
When I asked Rafael Bardají about the «Make Spain Great Again» video, he grinned: «That was my idea; it was kind of a joke at the time.» Bardají joined the leadership team of Vox a little later than Espinosa and Abascal. Like them — like most of Vox — Bardají is a former member of the Popular Party who became disillusioned with its centrism and moderation. In the early 2000s, Bardají worked for Aznar’s government, and he is best known as the aide who pushed the hardest for Spain to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Thanks to that, Bardají is frequently referred to as a “neoconservative,” though it’s not really clear what that means in the Spanish context; he has also acquired a nickname — Darth Vader — which he finds amusing, or at least amusing enough to put Darth Vader’s picture on his Twitter feed.
“Make Spain Great Again,” he explained, “was a kind of provocation. . . . It was just intended to make the left a little bit more angry.” This, of course, is a very familiar concept: “Do it because it offends the establishment.” “Own the Libs,” “Drink Liberal Tears” — a classic Breitbartian sentiment. And, yes, Bardají is an acquaintance of Bannon, with whom he has a mutual friend, though he laughs at the speculation that has created. Spanish journalists, he told me, “give Bannon a relevance that he doesn’t have.”
Besides, it’s unclear whether Bannon, the former Breitbart chairman and chief strategist for Trump, influences Bardají, or the other way around. Bardají told me he visited the White House not long after Trump’s election. He said he was in touch with both then-national security adviser Michael Flynn and Flynn’s successor, H.R. McMaster, and discussed both Trump’s first trip to NATO, as well as Trump’s speech in Warsaw, the one that outlined the need to defend the Christian world against radical Islam: ‘The civilizational aspiration, how the West must defend itself, we were completely in tune on that,” Bardají said.
The number of actual Spanish Muslims is relatively low — most immigration to Spain is from Latin America — and the number of actual U.S. Muslims is, relatively, even lower. But the idea that Christian civilization needs to redefine itself against the Islamic enemy has, of course, a special historic echo in Spain — as it does in the post-9/11, post-Iraq United States.
There are other ways in which Trumpworld and Vox are symbiotic. Bardají, who says he also knows Jason Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s Middle East negotiator, has long-standing links to the current Israeli administration. He told me that in 2014 he organized some PR advice from Israel for Vox: “I personally brought it from the team that won the election for [Benjamin] Netanyahu.” In that same year, Vox’s first, unsuccessful candidate for the European Parliament, Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca, also got a very large donation — more than 800,000 euros (about $897,000 in U.S. currency), divided into dozens of individual donations — from the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a cultlike Iranian organization that opposes the Islamic Republic. The MEK has a mixed reputation in Washington — at times, it has been classified as a terrorist organization — but it does have some friends: Both national security adviser John Bolton and Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani have spoken at its annual Paris event. These shared links of Vox and the Trump administration suggest not a conspiracy, but common interests, and common friends, going back many years.
More than anything else, these are people who see common enemies and have come, over time, to adopt a common worldview. Like Espinosa, Bardají acknowledges the polarization of Spanish politics, and he thinks it’s permanent: “We are entering into a period of time when politics is becoming something different, politics is warfare by another means — we don’t want to be killed, we have to survive. . . . I think politics now is winner-takes-all. This is not just a phenomenon in Spain.”
Bardají said Vox has been, until now, too small to orchestrate much propaganda, let alone take part in an international movement: “We have been a little party with a limited budget.” Espinosa said the same, as did Vidal-Quadras, who told me that the MEK money ended when he left the party; it had been personal recognition for his past advocacy. There is no reason to disbelieve them.
But it is also the case that many others, in Europe and the United States, have been pushing and promoting the issues that have become the party’s agenda for the past several years. As Aznar, the former prime minister, said, the party is a “consequence,” though it is not only a consequence of Catalan separatism. It’s also a consequence of Trumpism, of the conspiracy websites, of the international alt-right/far-right online campaign, and especially of a social conservative backlash that has been building across the continent for years.
In a way, it is the ultimate irony: The nationalists, the anti-globalists, the people who are skeptical of international laws and international organizations — they, too, now work together, across borders, for common causes. They share the same contacts. They tap money from the same funders. They are learning from one another’s mistakes, copying one another’s language. And, together, they think they will eventually win.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.