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Plus: The Corruption of Lindsey Graham, a new e-book from The Bulwark


MAY 9, 2023

Good afternoon and welcome to Press Pass. There are two important items in today’s edition. First, my Bulwark colleague Will Saletan has just published a powerful, deeply researched, book-length project about Lindsey Graham’s descent into MAGA corruption following the rise of Donald Trump. It’s really a story about how authoritarianism grows within a liberal democracy like ours, and I encourage you to set aside a few hours to give it the attention it deserves. It’s available to read at but also via a PDF and Kindle edition.  I’ll say more about that below. 

But we’ll start off today with the peculiar case of a group of American lawmakers whose travels abroad included a meeting with an infamous right-wing demagogue. I wrote in January about the recent Republican love affair with Italian populist ultra-conservatives like Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who was elected as part of a far-right coalition that swept into power in the country’s September elections. Last week, traveling American lawmakers met with one member of this Italian political movement whose CV is extreme enough that taking the meeting amounted to an act of recklessness on the Americans’ part.

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Credit: Office of Speaker Kevin McCarthy

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and a group of his fellow lawmakers met with a range of elected officials and important people during their recent two-week international congressional delegation, which included stops in Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. During a final leg in Italy last week, McCarthy and co. met with Pope Francis and Prime Minister Meloni.

But one of the other individuals the delegation met with in Italy was a man named Lorenzo Fontana. Fontana serves as the president of the Chamber of Deputies, which means that, as the speaker of Italy’s lower legislative house, he is McCarthy’s counterpart in Italian government. Fontana led McCarthy into the legislative chamber to raucous applause, and he also gave the speaker a gift: a copy of McCarthy’s grandfather’s original birth certificate. The whole of the American group—which included two Democrats, Reps. Jimmy Panetta of California (son of Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary who once held the same seat in Congress) and Jared Moskowitz of Florida—posed for a photo with Fontana. 

While meetings with a variety of international politicians made up the core of the congressional delegation’s itinerary, Fontana is different from other figures the Americans met during the trip. To be sure, he shares some beliefs in common with Prime Minister Meloni: Like her, he is an ultra-conservative who advocates the priority of the family, the upholding of tradition, the virtues of nationalism, and the importance of strict immigration policies.

What makes Fontana different from Meloni is that his right-wing populism goes far, far beyond hers. His views have pushed him to support some of the worst and most dangerous people across Europe, and he has also carved out a lane as one Italy’s leading homophobes.

Fontana is a member of Lega (the League), Italy’s very far-right party that formed a coalition with Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) last year to win the fall election. While it’s understandable that an American Republican might see conservative groups abroad as fundamentally similar to the GOP, Lega is simply not comparable to the Republican party. If it were operating in the United States, Lega would represent just a sliver of the larger GOP, a faction to the right of the Freedom Caucus whose median member would be someone like Paul Gosar, and whose still-further-right wing might be represented by someone like Richard Spencer.

Here are some highlights from Fontana’s career:

  • He has embraced Golden Dawn, a Greek political party and neo-nazi group.
  • He called Vladimir Putin “a light for us Westerners, who live in a great crisis of values.”
  • During the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, he wore a “no to Russian sanctions” shirt. He was later invited to participate as an “election observer” in Crimea as part of Russia’s propaganda campaign justifying the invasion.
  • As the Minister for Families, Fontana fought to restrict adoption and surrogacy for gay couples. He has also said same-sex parents “don’t exist.”

To be clear, McCarthy’s meeting and photo-op with Fontana do not amount to an endorsement of the latter’s views. And yes, the protocols and niceties of diplomacy hold that officials usually meet with their counterparts when traveling abroad. But those protocols are not set in stone. And for McCarthy to meet with Fontana in this way was an act of carelessness, given the way these meetings are advertised to the public. Fontana’s profile will certainly be elevated by pictures of him welcoming an American congressional delegation and presenting a gift to the speaker of the House. Further, Fontana being able to refer to an account of the meeting published on McCarthy’s own official website—where Fontana is mentioned alongside the prime minister and the pope—will do much to further legitimize him as a figure of international standing.

A McCarthy spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Vetting problems seem to be increasingly common for conservative lawmakers; many members of the House Republican Conference have been burned for posing with Proud Boys who were later convicted of sedition, unabashed white supremacists, and more. Of course, it’s possible that these problems might arise from more than simple negligence. Former Rep. Devin Nunes and some of Trump’s children are slated to share a stage with Hitler-praising internet personalities this coming weekend at Trump National Doral resort in Miami. It’s hard to take care to avoid associating with the hateful conspiratorial fringe if you just don’t care that much about it in the first place.

But the highest-ranking elected Republican currently in office should know better and do better, especially considering that during the same trip abroad, he showed that he won’t always take the far-right bait. Then, too, the rest of the international congressional delegation, including Panetta and Moskowtiz, should have had the foresight to have asked their staff to research the officials they met abroad to avoid exactly these problems. (Spokespeople for Panetta and Moskowitz also did not respond to requests for comment.)

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The Corruption of Lindsey Graham

As I mentioned above, Bulwark writer Will Saletan has just published a remarkable deep dive on Lindsey Graham. Read it and you’ll come away with a clearer understanding of what it looks like when authoritarians corrupt liberal democracies—because you’ll know what it looked like, step by step, when it happened to ours.

Here’s a snapshot:

When an authoritarian rises to power in a democratic country, it can be a shock. But over time, the shock wears off. As the new leader tramples norms and rules, people get used to it. That’s part of what happened to Graham and his colleagues in Trump’s first year. They got used to the president’s behavior. It began to feel normal.

Normalization is corrosive. It numbs you to the authoritarian’s crimes. You stop noticing what’s happening. Or you no longer care. Or you get used to defending the leader’s abuses, as Graham did.

The second stage is more serious. Once the authoritarian’s allies have normalized his behavior, they rally around him just as they would rally around any other leader of their party. And they attack his opponents just as they would if he were a normal president.

Graham’s trajectory over the past eight years brought him very low as he sought power and influence with a leader he once despised, in the process becoming the same kind of demagogue he used to hate. Saletan’s account of this process uses Graham’s story to illustrate the mechanics of emerging authoritarianism. I hope you’ll give the whole thing a read. It is worth every minute you spend on it.

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By The Bulwark  ·  Launched 4 months ago

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