As a tuxedoed former President Donald Trump stood on a stage in Manhattan on Saturday night and doubled down on past quips about being a “dictator,” at least one member of the audience had real ties to actual historical dictatorships.
The crowd who gathered at the swank Cipriani Wall Street for the New York Young Republican Club’s annual gala included Gerald Grosz, an Austrian politician and former presidential candidate who has been part of a political party founded by Nazis and who has deep ties to a late leader who often praised the Third Reich. Grosz was one of several figures from the European far right who attended the event and have previously associated with the club that hosted Trump.
The scene was a precise encapsulation of the way Trump and his allies have embraced the global far right and authoritarian rhetoric as he runs to retake the White House. It also nodded at the irony in Trump and his allies’ insistence that his strongman bluster shouldn’t be taken seriously, even as they eagerly expect four years of vendettas and aggression.
Outside the MAGA bubble, fears of a Trump dictatorship are fueled by his own campaign platform, including the potentially criminal efforts to overturn and question the last election, his vows to crush political enemies, or as he has called them “vermin,” promises to use the military to quash protest, and vows to suppress the press. The dark rhetoric ramped up in recent weeks as Kash Patel, a former Trump White House aide who has been tipped for a senior post if the former president returns to office, gave an interview promising a hypothetical second administration would “come after” Trump’s rivals “not just in government but in the media.” Amid the growing alarm, Trump loyalist and Fox News host Sean Hannity asked the former president during a town hall to promise he would “never abuse power as retribution against anybody.” Rather than taking the opportunity to soothe anyone’s fears, Trump declared he would only be “a dictator” on “day one” of his second term.
Trump doubled down at the NYYRC gala this weekend, where he was introduced with a flair of false and illogical 2020 election denialism as “the 45th, the 46th, and the 47th president of the United States.” In his speech, Trump blasted the press as “animals” and praised global strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un as “sharp.” He also reiterated his desire to — albeit briefly — be a dictator.
“I said I want to be a dictator for one day,” Trump said. “You know why I wanted to be a dictator? Because I want a wall, and I want to drill, drill, drill.”
The over-the-top nature of his comments, the jovial tone, and the suggestion it’s just a theoretical comment about a single day give Trump’s promise of authoritarian rule a winking, nodding deniability. Self parodying humor has been a defining feature of the modern far right and neo-Nazi movement.
The notion that Trump and his MAGA movement are sending out a clear signal about his authoritarian intentions is bolstered by the fact several fellow ideological travelers from Europe were drawn to his speech last weekend.
Grosz, who did not respond to a request for comment, was initially a member of the Freedom Party of Austria, which was founded by a former Nazi leader and SS officer. He left that party for an offshoot along with a fellow member, the late Jorg Haider, the son of a Nazi stormtrooper who sparked international controversy duringt his career for praising the “orderly” policies of the Third Reich. Grosz is currently on the board of a society dedicated to Haider’s memory. Last year, Grosz ran for president with a decidedly Trumpian flair, as his main slogan was “Make Austria Grosz Again.”
Along with Grosz, the gala was attended by Susanna Ceccardi, a member of the European Parliament from Italy’s right-wing Lega party. Another member of the European Union’s legislative body, Maximilian Krah of Germany’s right wing Alternative fur Deutschland party, or AfD, was also present for the festivities along with David Bendels, the editor of a publication that is aligned with the AfD.
While they hail from different countries, Grosz, Ceccardi, and Krah have all been part of movements that are staunchly nationalist and anti-immigrant. In Germany, AfD has been described by critics as a “neo-Nazi” organization, an allegation it has rejected. The group has also been classified as a right-wing extremist group by state-level intelligence agencies.
Trump’s likely election opposition believes his association with these fringe figures is an alarming sign that should be taken quite seriously. Ammar Moussa, director of rapid response for the Biden campaign, described Trump’s participation in an event with leaders from Europe’s far right-wing as just the latest proof of his authoritarian leanings.
“Donald Trump rubbing elbows with Nazi-linked groups might be surprising if Trump’s last month wasn’t defined by him parroting Hitler and Mussolini, and promising to rule as a dictator so he can rip away Americans’ freedoms and round up millions of Americans into detention camps,” Moussa said. “The American people rejected Trump and his MAGA attacks on democracy in 2020, and it’s why he’s going to lose again next November.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
For now, Trump is leading in some polls and the NYYRC gala was a snapshot of a potential second Trump administration in waiting. Under the lights at Cipriani, the international right mingled with a motley crew of MAGA world politicians and online influencers. The crowd who gathered for Trump’s fiery speech included Patel, Reps. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), as well as Rogan O’Handley, the conservative commentator better known as “DC Draino,” and Jack Posobiec, a right wing pundit who was a prominent advocate of the “Stop The Steal” movement and the thoroughly debunked “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory.
Trump gave shoutouts to O’Handley and Posobiec from the stage. Patel, Posobiec, and Gaetz had a meeting together at a Manhattan hotel prior to the event, according to a photo a source provided to TPM. The audience also included Steve Bannon, the once-and-future Trump confidante who has been a major force in defining the modern, nationalist so-called right wing “populist” movement and building connections between its adherents in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. That includes politicians like former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose supporters ransacked government buildings after he left office earlier this year, and Argentina’s newly-elected president Javier Milei, who won a shocking victory last month after a campaign filled with defenses of Argentina’s former military junta and promises to shutter government agencies and enact socially conservative policies.
The far right European politicians in attendance appeared to have reveled in this mix of social media stars and MAGA officials. Both Ceccardi and Grosz posed for smiling pictures with Gaetz, whose office did not respond to a request for comment. Grosz and the AfD delegation also posed for pictures with a man who goes by “Jeremy Fragrance,” a German influencer who has earned millions of followers with “unhinged” social media content focused on cologne and perfume. The pictures of Fragrance with the AfD contingent caused a firestorm in Germany that resulted in him losing a book deal. Amid the backlash, Fragrance posted an Instagram endorsement for a centrist political party.
A member of the New York Young Republican Club leadership, who requested anonymity to discuss the European far right figures at the event, marveled at the Fragrance furor.
“He happens to live above Cipriani Wall Street,” the club leader said of Fragrance. “He lives in the condos above there and he just wandered into our event and wandered into this international incident.”
But while the AfD delegation may have been too hot for Jeremy Fragrance, the NYYRC didn’t distance themselves from the European extremists. While the club leader who spoke with TPM quibbled with the term “far right,” they acknowledged the group is eager to build a bridge between what they describe as right wing populist movements in the U.S. and around the world.
“I think it’s important to be precise when you look at these movements and not paint with a broad brush. … But at the same time, I would say, yes, I think we are at the nexus of having these conversations and we see ourselves as a partner in the transatlantic dialogue between these groups,” the club leader said.
The New York Young Republican Club bills itself as the nation’s “oldest and largest” GOP organization and has a history stretching back to the early 20th century. However, the august institution began to reflect the more modern Trumpified face of the Republican Party in 2018 when it was taken over by a pair of younger activists, Gavin Wax and Vish Burra, who cut his teeth working with Bannon. And as the organizers went full MAGA, the NYYRC also reached out across the Atlantic.
According to the club leader, Wax, the NYYRC president, has spoken at events in Brussels and Strasbourg, which is the seat of the European Parliament. In May 2022, the NYYRC started a partnership with the youth wing of Austria’s Freedom Party that was focused on an aggressive form of nationalism and cultural purity. In an announcement of the move, the club praised their Austrian counterparts for “appeal[ing] to young Austrians by building pride in the distinctive nature of their heritage” and vowed to work together on “protection of our local cultures and Western culture at large from the devastation of globalism and the subjugation of our cultures to other systems of belief.”
The NYYRC has also hosted speakers from France’s far right National Rally party and cultivated an extensive relationship with allies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has opposed migrants, the LGBTQ community, and his own country’s democratic systems. Wax, who has described Orban as an “inspiration,” has attended Budapest’s version of the Conservative Political Action Conference and met personally with the Hungarian prime minister.
The club leader told TPM they are eager to work with other movements that “are populist in nature”
“We see them as an opportunity for politics to be responsive to the needs of people in a particular country. And the needs of people in the United States are different than the needs of people in France, or in Germany, or in Austria, or in Italy, or Spain, but there can be an alignment in a sense that we should all be learning from each other,” the club leader explained. “We should all be learning from each other what works, what doesn’t work, what strategies can be helpful, and we can have a friendly dialogue and discussion on those subjects.”
The leader rejected the notion they should have concerns about the Austrian Freedom Party’s historical links to Nazism and described it as a “consistently populist” group.
“I know that that’s the accusation that seems to dog them,” they said. “Ultimately, a lot of things were founded by a lot of people and I think there’s much more recent things to look at. … The people that I know from the Freedom Party of Austria today in no way embody anything to do with Nazi values.”
The NYYRC leader also dismissed concerns about the AfD being labeled extremist and xenophobic statements made by some of the other European organizations the club has associated itself with.
“We feel comfortable talking to everyone because we value free speech. We value open dialogue,” the club leader said. “This year, we were delighted that President Trump came and brought the entire country into that dialogue.”
In their home, the group has crusaded against the “transformation of New York City and State into dumpsters for illegal aliens.” The NYYRC has also associated with American far right figures and given a platform to authoritarian rhetoric. Guests at last year’s gala reportedly included Grosz as well as Peter and Lydia Brimelow of the white nationalist site VDare. They were treated to a speech from MAGA Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) wherein she boasted that the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol would have succeeded in overturning Trump’s 2020 election loss and would have been “armed” if she had organized it.
The club leader brushed off any concerns about their guests or the extreme remarks from their speakers with more claims about their dedication to free speech and dialogue.
Along with showing the clear connection between Trump’s MAGA movement and the global far right, the NYYRC also provides a clear example of how these various groups attempt to dodge criticism or concerns about creeping authoritarianism.
In general, even as they have taken stridently anti-immigrant positions, promoted conspiracy theories about Trump’s election loss, and mingled with foreign fringe figures, the NYYRC has tried to toe the line and avoid being painted as extremist using the various gymnastics common among Trump and his far right allies. Statements that seem xenophobic are just about preserving heritage. Associations with the far right are chalked up to “dialogue” and “free speech.” And, when Trump makes statements with violent and undemocratic overtones, it’s all just a joke.
“When we look at what President Trump is saying … he’s riffing,” the club leader said of the former president’s gala speech. ”When you listen to him, sometimes he says things and they’re not meant to be taken literally.”
And yet, the NYYRC leader made clear that they took a real, serious message from that segment of the speech. In their view, it was a signal to the right wing populist base that Trump would be focused on their priorities “from things as serious as building the wall to things as trivial as mandating that federal buildings be built in neoclassical style.”
The club leader described some MAGA diehards as frustrated Trump didn’t get those things done and they attributed this to the fact that, in his first term, the former president had some aides who were not sufficiently loyal and “in line” with the agenda. Now, with Trump aiming for a second term, the NYYRC leader saw his comments as painting a picture of what’s to come.
“I think this point about being a dictator for one day is he’s going to hit the ground running,” they said.