When Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz was elected in 2017 on an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, nationalist platform, many observers (including yours truly) feared that the new government would empower right-wing extremists; those fears were confirmed a few months later when the far-right Freedom Party joined Kurz’s coalition. The party took control of several key ministries, while its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, became Kurz’s vice-chancellor.
On Tuesday, the New York Times published a disturbing story on what the Freedom Party has been up to since then. Shortly after the party came to power, the Interior Ministry asked the anti-extremism unit of the domestic intelligence service to hand over the names of informants who had infiltrated the far-right community; the leader of that unit refused, and a few weeks later, “armed police burst into her office and carted away years’ worth of domestic files as well as intelligence from allied nations.”
This bears repeating: A government ministry demanded that a domestic intelligence agency expose the identities of its informants in violent extremist groups to officials sympathetic to those groups and, when rebuffed, proceeded to seize files from the agency by force in an illegal police raid.
It may be hard to fathom this kind of thing happening in a European democracy in 2018, but there is no reason whatsoever to find this surprising. The Freedom Party has well-documented links to extremist groups including the far-right youth movement Generation Identity. An Austrian nonprofit found that extremists have been employed by four of the ministries the party now controls, including the foreign, defense, and interior ministries. A party official recently published a poem “likening migrants to rats,” the Times reports.
The far-right infiltration of the Austrian government has gotten so bad that other countries, including the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, and Germany, are becoming wary of sharing intelligence with Austria for fear that it will end up in the wrong hands: namely, Russian hands, as the Freedom Party is simpatico with Russian president Vladimir Putin and has a cooperation agreement with his United Russia party. Kurz, predictably, has defended his decision to bring the party into his government and downplayed his partners’ ties to Russia, as well as the political motivations of the raid on the domestic intelligence service.
The Freedom Party has been in government before, from 2000 to 2005, at which time the European Union sanctioned Austria over its inclusion. Since that time, it has undergone the same kind of sanitizing as other European far-right parties to improve its mainstream palatability, disavowing or at least soft-pedaling its Nazi origins and casting itself as an ordinary conservative-libertarian party that just wants to Make Austria Great Again. At the same time, it has benefited from the growing public opposition to immigration from Muslim countries and has doubled down on its nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, couched in the language of the white-supremacist conspiracy theory of “replacement.”
Unfortunately, Austria is hardly the only place where right-wing extremism has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, and the Freedom Party’s ideological kin in other European countries are following similar strategies, seeking control of key security and intelligence institutions as soon as they obtain any measure of power. Interior, defense, and foreign ministries are the ideal branches of government for these parties to enact their core agendas; they also happen to be the ministries an extremist minority would want to capture if they wanted to turn law enforcement, the intelligence apparatus, and the military into vehicles for their ideology and undermine the rule of law.
In Italy, for example, deputy prime minister and minister of interior Matteo Salvini, head of the right-wing League party, has been using his position to authoritarian ends. Salvini has filed a defamation suit against author Roberto Saviano, one of his harshest critics, and threatened to take away Saviano’s police protection (due to Mafia death threats) in an act of retaliation disguised as cost cutting. He has also bulldozed refugee camps, abolished protections for migrants, and pushed for transparently racist policies like a curfew on “little ethnic shops.”
What’s new and terrifying about the events in Austria, however, is that the right-wing party is using its powers in government to protect violent organizations it counts as its allies. In most European countries, the far right has yet to garner enough power to act quite so brazenly. Germany’s chief of domestic intelligence Hans-Georg Maassen was removed from his position last year after expressing sympathy with far-right demonstrators and calling into question his agency’s ability to monitor and crack down on neo-Nazis. Other nationalist governments in Europe have quietly embraced or marched alongside extremist groups, but most have avoided actively boosting them.
Where can we find another example of a government actively undermining the detection and suppression of far-right extremist movements? Right here in the U.S., as a matter of fact.
White-supremacist violence has been rising steadily over the past three years, and extremism watchers like the Anti-Defamation League make no bones about the fact that this is directly linked to the election of President Donald Trump. Not only has Trump downplayed the threat of white-supremacist terrorism and failed to convincingly distance himself from the neo-Nazi fringes of his base, his administration has taken concrete steps to shift government resources away from addressing the threat these extremist groups pose.
The Trump administration has gutted the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Community Partnerships and the interagency task force on countering violent extremism. Meanwhile, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka’s wife Katharine, who plays a shady advisory role at DHS, has worked to refocus its counter-extremism efforts exclusively on Muslims (Gorka, like her husband, regularly promotes anti-Muslim conspiracy theories). DHS recently disbanded a team of intelligence analysts who focused on domestic terrorism, while the FBI’s new classification system for domestic terrorism lumps white-supremacist violence into a more nebulous category of “racially-motivated violent extremism.” This despite the fact that homegrown, white-supremacist terrorism is responsible for the vast majority of extremist murders in the U.S.
Just like in Austria, it seems the Trump administration is refusing to treat white supremacists as a top security threat because the administration, like the Republican Party in general, has become increasingly dependent on their support. White supremacism has been seeping into the GOP base through the conservative movement, the tea party, and the Evangelical community for many years now; with Trump at the helm, the ruling party’s link to far-right extremists has become quite apparent. Twitter can’t crack down on white-supremacist propaganda, it claims, because doing so would require it to censor and ban Republican politicians.
Radical white-supremacist terrorists have already carried out and will inevitably continue to attempt mass murders of Jews, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, and other “undesirables,” both here and in other countries. The administration is turning a blind eye to this scourge, to say nothing of Trump’s bashing of security and intelligence agencies and his embrace of “deep state” conspiracy theories, which have politicized the work of those agencies and made it harder for them to combat threats from extremists whose views align with the president’s. This malign neglect will surely contribute to more avoidable deaths in the years to come.
So don’t look at what’s happening in Austria and say it couldn’t happen here; it already is.