Untangling the World’s Right-Wing Reactionary Web

How an international network of far-right politicos, media figures and foundations are building a new, global coalition—one that is undermining democracies around the world

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Untangling the World’s Right-Wing Reactionary Web

“The bad guys are winning,” declared the neoconservative journalist Anne Applebaum in a glossy essay for The Atlantic in late 2021. Applebaum, a one-time Cold Warrior, has been using the arrival of the MAGA movement and the British exit from the European Union as an excuse to defend a decaying status quo. She is among the litany of Western pundits who have spent much of the past eight years equating the unpopularity of centrist, market-first politics with the end of liberalism as we know it. 

“If America removes the promotion of democracy from its foreign policy, if America ceases to interest itself in the fate of other democracies and democratic movements, then autocracies will quickly take our place as sources of influence, funding, and ideas,” Applebaum warned in her Atlantic cover story. 

She claims the culprits who are undoing the glorious victories of globalization, hyper-managed democracy, and NATO supremacy are none other than a gallery of “rogue” states: Belarus, China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. These are the vaunted autocracies with their strongmen regimes, antagonistic geopolitical interests, and mutual disdain for truth, justice, and the American way.

They are supposedly the greatest threat to our civic life—along with useful idiots like former president Donald Trump—instead of the demonstrably more impactful constellation of locally sourced right-wing programs around the world. 

For Democracy Protectors™ like Applebaum, the crisis in popular government perforating the globe is not organized around the philosophy of reaction—that is to say, the ideological scaffolding inherent to conservatism which promotes social and political regression. In fact, according to her, there’s nothing conservative about the web of right-wing outfits and individuals that comprise the bulwark of the anti-democratic movements tightening their grip on power. 

Instead, we should encapsulate everything from the repression of Chinese Uyghurs to the xenophobia of Trump into a neat package: The Bad Guys. And we must stand up, tell them that we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore. Preserving the same, bog-standard hegemony of the late 20th century probably won’t hurt either. 

But there’s something disempowering about Applebaum’s essentialist saber-rattling. Yes, the fabric of the international liberal order is under threat. But what if it’s not because some Eurasian horde hates us for our freedom? What if the call has been coming from inside the house?

Enter the Reactionary International, a new consortium assembled by a caucus of left-wing groups—the Latin American Council of Social Sciences, Progressive International, and Transform! Europe—with an emphasis on intercontinental cooperation. Their goal is to “trace the connections between the politicians, platforms, think tanks, funders, foundations, publications, judges, and journalists” that have embedded themselves within the political foundation of the West and geopolitical allies like Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Central Africa, India, Israel, Hungary, and Turkey. 

As a collective, the engineers of the Reactionary examine the problem of democratic backsliding holistically; encouraging us to consider the phenomenon as a product of systemic failure rather than a conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Their research and analysis are telling: The spread of anti-democratic practices throughout our declining public institutions is, in large part, being marshaled by a specific network of ultra-conservative forces, and we’re only just getting a sense of how interwoven and influential these forces are. 

The project came together in response to the lack of mainstream focus on urgent, modern political events—the 2019 fascist coup in Bolivia comes to mind—and the absence of legal accountability by reactionary actors who break or subvert the law, like the operations of the Turkish ethno-nationalist group Grey Wolves in Europe. 

“There was a very partial account of the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of this Reactionary International. People cared about the politicians and the presidents, they cared about their rhetoric, but they didn’t care about the entities that we determine in our research…are equally if not more responsible for the advance of reaction around the world,” the project’s leader, David Adler, said.

A good example of the global reactionary movement in action is Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party have built an “illiberal democracy” where policies like limited freedom of speech, preferential treatment towards Christian families, and privatization of public schools have become the norm. 

As the Reactionary International outlines, Orbán’s rise to power didn’t occur in a vacuum. Fidesz became competitive with help from a constellation of American conservatives and Republican operatives. He even received support from the International Republican Institute—a non-profit that has received public grants from the State Department—which builds connections between the GOP and other reactionary parties. 

“As a result of the fact that a lot of the early leaders of Fidesz spoke English and that the International Republican Institute was pouring a bunch of money into Hungary, that developed into a much more formalized relationship where they were bringing out Republican consultants almost every cycle,” Connor Mulhern, one of the consortium’s researchers, told Splinter

Over the course of a few decades, such support would beget Orbán’s eventual domination of Hungarian politics. 

But what makes Reactionary International’s telling of these stories so distinctive is their presentation. A crucial goal of the project was to bring to life the narratives, history, and data points that define the reactionary right’s international reach. Previous efforts to chart the growth of far-right politics created a long, dry list of parties and affiliates, but there was never a sense of interconnectivity. 

“[They weren’t] able to illustrate the dynamics and the mechanisms to which reaction is actually executed, transmitted, maintained. And that I think, is something that we’ve tried to keep at the front of these case studies is really to show how the pieces fit together,” Adler said. 

The case studies Adler is referring to are the detailed, interactive documents that provide insight into the key relationships and tactics shaping the Reactionary International. 

Take their “Surveillance State, Inc.” file, which demonstrates how the Israeli government and the country’s tech industry developed Pegasus, one of the most pervasive surveillance softwares in the world. Once the program makes its way onto a smartphone or computer, Pegasus allows its users complete access: one can read the text messages, track the location, collect the passwords, and access the microphone of its victim. 

The case study provides a trove of diagrams, photos, and hyperlinks to aid the reader in understanding how the software works and the means by which Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli tech firms have granted countless states access to Pegasus. This has fostered a new global capacity to clamp down on journalists, human rights lawyers, and political opposition. 

“What we have seen with Israel is that it’s honestly not even solely about the far-right. It’s about colonization. It’s about power. It’s about money. They’re really selling Pegasus to every country and using that to convince countries to support them,” Amytess Girgis, a UK-based academic and the author of the case study said.  

“This is about reinforcing state power in a very particular way that everybody, whether it’s neoliberals or the far-right, loves to use. And I think that’s the power of the Reactionary International database as well, right? It’s really adding some significant nuance to how we look at power,” she continued.  

That’s the efficacy of the Reactionary International framing. Yes, the modern formation of the far-right has an outsized impact on the decline of democratic practices, but reading through the archive of case studies, one gets the sense that it was longstanding national and supranational institutions which created the conditions for them to do so. 

Reactionary International contains an abundant list of the think tanks, media organizations, paramilitary groups, private firms, and individuals—each with their own unique synopsis and how they are plugged into the broader reactionary network.

Click on the outline of, say, the newly elected Argentinian president Javier Milei and you’ll soon have a concise profile of his libertarian leanings, but also how he was a fellow at the U.S.-based Atlas Network—which argues for “fewer protections for workers, with fewer guaranteed rights of any kind, and with no hope or intention to save the globe from environmental catastrophe.” Scroll further and you’ll find that he has connections to former president Donald Trump as well. 

It’s this framework that Tanya Singh, another Reactionary International contributor based in India, finds useful in visualizing how the matrix of anti-democratic politics operates throughout the entire world. “In this environment, I feel [the Reactionary International] really helps people find connections with other countries; that it’s not just India facing these movements or these interventions by businesses and tech and NGOs alone,” Singh said. 

Such examples allow us to reconsider India’s recent election, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party repressed his political rivals and critics. 

“I have professors who have been jailed, whose computers have been forged with false evidence that has been planted. Evidence has been uncovered that this was planted by the police. The Modi-led government has been chilling, professors, artists, activists, everyone, using Pegasus spying on their families, spying on their kids,” Singh explained. 

The mapping component of the Reactionary International is the most potent aspect of the project: It is collaborative by its very nature. The exercise of building the Reactionary International database required people from a host of different countries and political settings to compare notes on how their democracies are failing and the similarities of the tactics being used. 

This contrasts starkly with Anne Applebaum and other Democracy Protectors™, who seem to believe democratic values can be protected by brute force and returning to the platonic ideals of a bygone era of moderation. What’s absent from this perspective is mobilizing the “demos” portion of democracy—one in service of a more robust and egalitarian form of representation.

The emphasis that the Reactionary International places on collective action—be it through repressive means of the far-right or the formation of a popular front—is how we must understand the politics of the current moment. The minoritarian, technocratic approach to democracy appears to be dying.

Maybe it’s best we don’t try protecting it with platitudes and pistols, but by rebuilding it with an international coalition of our own: Trade unions, journalists, grassroots organizers, lawyers, teachers, progressive caucuses, and other organizations would stand to benefit from thinking about the struggle for a better democracy as a cross-border endeavor. 

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