Make Spain Great Again
The far-right Vox party has adopted Trump-style politics.
“Hacer España Grande Otra Vez”—“Make Spain Great Again.” Vox, the far-right populist party poised to play spoiler in Sunday’s Spanish elections, has adapted Trumpian language for the Iberian Peninsula. The motto appears on a poster of party leader Santiago Abascal at party headquarters in Madrid. It shows up again in some of the party’s videos. But it’s not just language. This new populist, nationalist, far-right party that has already changed the political equation in Spain has a great deal in common with U.S. President Donald Trump and European populism.
Vox exploded onto the Spanish political scene in the wake of the crisis triggered by the Catalan government’s decision to proclaim independence from Madrid in October 2017. Vox took nationalist leaders to court and subsequently sued then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for “dereliction of duty” against the secessionists. Party leaders advocated for the permanent abolition of Catalonia’s autonomy, a policy that had been introduced in the early years of Spanish democracy, and refused to participate in the Catalan regional elections of 2017, alleging that they were the result of a secret agreement between the Spanish government and the independence movement leaders.
Even now, opposition to Catalan nationalism still the most resonant element of Vox’s political platform. But as the party has grown, it has morphed into a more ambitious political movement—one that uses language, and promotes ideology, that reflect a worldwide populist movement.
Vox has adopted a number of positions, including the expansion of the right to have and use firearms, opposition to non-Christian immigration, attacks on feminists (or, as they say, “feminazis”— in Spanish, hembristas), rejection of “globalists” (mundialistas), and “elites,” that were, up until now, alien to Spain. Vox also uses the symbols of the Reconquista—the eight-century-long battle that pitted Christians against Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula—to mobilize its base.
The party’s connection with Trump-style populism is not simply ideological. In 2017, Steve Bannon, one of the architects of Trump’s White House bid, began communicating with Vox. Bannon has met with one of its founders, former conservative Prime Minister Jose María Aznar’s international affairs advisor Rafael Bardají. According to José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Vox had initially reached out to Bannon for help with using social media.
Bannon met with Bardají and other Vox leaders in Washington last April, in what was labeled by Vox at the time as the start of a collaboration to “reduce international support for Catalan separatism.” However, in that meeting, Trump’s former chief strategist praised the party as an “important” political force in Spain “ready to defend its borders.” (The party’s press release touting the meeting has disappeared from Vox’s website, but the tweet promoting it still exists.) Bannon’s trip to Spain, scheduled for late 2018, was canceled due to the U.S. congressional election.
In February, Bannon praised Vox as “one of the most important and interesting political parties in Europe” and likened it’s rise to that of, first, the U.S. Tea Party, and then Trump himself.
Trump, Vox, and other European populists also share a demonization of George Soros, the Hungarian billionaire-turned-humanitarian.
Vox leader Abascal tweeted in June 2018: “Soros is one of the most sinister characters of today’s world. He promotes human trafficking with his NGOs and has collaborated in the separatist putsch [a reference to the Catalan crisis].” (Soros does not promote human trafficking.) Three weeks later, Abascal tweeted again, “Soros thinks he is ‘some sort of god.’”
Vox’s No. 2, Javier Ortega Smith, has blamed the ongoing Mediterranean immigration crisis on a Soros-orchestrated conspiracy. Last July, after Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party government agreed to let a three ship flotilla led by the nongovernmental organizations Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée ship Aquarius, carrying refugees from 26 countries, including Sudan and Nigeria, dock in the Spanish port of Valencia the month prior, Ortega Smith said on television: “Globalism controlled by the Soros and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkels and companies of the world wants to sell us the idea of a humanitarian crisis, of a ship adrift at sea that needs to be rescued. But that is a real lie and falsehood, and they know it perfectly, because Italy has explained it.” Italy’s deputy prime minister, populist Matteo Salvini, had refused to accept the Aquarius. However, when Salvini, who leads the historically separatist Northern League party, showed sympathy for Catalan nationalists, Abascal tweeted at Italy’s nationalist and populist deputy prime minister, “Mind your own Italian affairs and stop behaving like a globalist bureaucrat.”
Aside from its defense of Spain’s territorial integrity, Vox has mimicked Trump’s border policy proposals in more direct ways: In 2018, the party leader Javier Ortega Smith urged the country to build a concrete wall at the border of Spain’s North African outposts of Ceuta and Melilla and Morocco. The border is currently guarded by two lines of 20-foot-high razor concertina wire. In a book by the Spanish writer Fernando Sánchez Dragó, published just weeks ago, Abascal suggests that Morocco “perhaps should pay for” the wall.
Vox also promotes a decidedly neopopulist brand of masculinity. The party has pushed to abolish so-called Gender Violence Laws, including a national law passed in 2004, which aimed to protect women from domestic abuse through the creation of a special prosecutor’s office for abuse against women and by treating any psychological or physical mistreatment as a crime —so the burden of proof is on those charged with abuse. Vox has also been very critical of what it calls hembrismo, a neologism that could be translated as a female equivalent of machismo, or feminist chauvinism. Finally, though in economic policy Vox is much closer to the U.S. Republican Party’s or the British Conservative Party’s free-market ideals than to France’s Marine Le Pen’s interventionism, Vox defends broad tax cuts, especially for corporations, as well as cuts in social programs—particularly those supporting immigrants—and privileges laws that support private over public education.
Vox’s play with anti-nationalism is simultaneously Trumpian and uniquely Spanish, and it works in two ways. One is against pro-independence forces—mainly in Catalonia, but also in the Basque region—that threaten to break apart Spain. The other way is a defense of the traditional, conservative, Catholic-oriented view of Spain against immigration and, in general, globalization. The former is a uniquely Spanish story, while the latter taps into pan-European populist ideas of Christian civilization battling both immigration and the Muslim world.
On the latter, Vox is not subtle.
Two weeks ago, the party launched its electoral campaign for the Sunday election in Covadonga, in Asturias, in the extreme north of Spain. The location wasn’t random: It was there, in 718, that the Catholics defeated the Muslims for the first time, thus starting the Reconquista—a process that culminated in 1492 with the conquest of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, in Granada. The idea of the Reconquista has been used multiple times by Abascal.
The party’s stance on immigration mimics its bid to revisit the Reconquista. “If there is immigration, let it be what Spain wants and can benefit from. If it can be of Christian origin, better than Muslim,” Bardají, the former Aznar aide, said in 2018. “Certainly, if I have to accept refugees from the Middle East, I prefer Christian families to Muslim ones, because we don’t see a long-term coexistence [with the latter] as very viable.” In December 2018, after Vox’s unexpectedly good results in Andalusia’s regional election, the party retweeted a congratulatory tweet from prominent American neo-Nazi and former KKK leader David Duke saying that “the Reconquista begins in the Andalusian lands and will be extended in the rest of Spain #AndalucíaPorEspaña.” And in the aforementioned Twitter salvo toward Salvini, Abascal told the Italian deputy prime minister that “that Catalan secessionism that you support has made Catalonia the most Islamized region in Europe.”
While Catalonia and political corruption are issues that concern the mainstream Spanish voter, Vox’s other—U.S.-style—rhetoric is unheard of for a mainstream Spanish party.
In an interview with the gun aficionado website Armas.es in March, Abascal said, “We have to change the law urgently, not just so Spaniards with no criminal history and in full control of their mental capacities can have a gun at home, but also so they can use it in circumstances of real danger without having to face a legal hell.” Those “circumstances of real danger” remain murky, since, in the same interview, Vox’s leader simply advocated “expanding the concept of self-defense” so “good Spaniards” can exert it.
That position is decidedly unusual for Spain. A poll conducted by the left-leaning TV station la Sexta showed that a staggering 89.1 percent of Spaniards oppose Abascal’s proposals on ownership and use of firearms. Spanish gun ownership laws are currently very restrictive, in line with most Western European countries. And crime is extremely low: Only five other nations—Singapore, Liechtenstein, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Austria—have a lower murder rate.
Further, the 2004 domestic violence legislation was unanimously passed with the support of every single party, and polls show Spaniards are truly concerned about gender inequality. Finally, showing any affection for Donald Trump should be political suicide in Spain: Last October, a poll by the Pew Research Center showed that only 7 percent of Spaniards have “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding global affairs.”
And yet Vox has grown at an astonishing pace. In the last general election, in June 2016, the party pulled in a mere 46,781 votes, or 0.2 percent of the total. In contrast, this year, polls project Vox will win some 11 percent of the vote, and the party is projected to now be Spain’s fifth most popular party. In truth, nobody knows the extent of its actual support, which may be far higher if the past is any guide: Prior to the December 2018 regional elections in Andalusia, the government polling organization Center for Sociological Research estimated Vox would garner 3 percent of the vote and one seat in the regional parliament. When the votes were counted, it got 11 percent and 12 seats, thus enabling the right-wing parties to rule a region that had been governed by the left since 1982.
Meanwhile, the party is penetrating Spanish society, and the dominant conservative People’s Party, as well as conservative commentators, have tacked further right as a result. On March 1, Alfonso Ussía, one of the most well-respected conservative columnists in Spain, tweeted, “On the still far-away day when Soros will be arrested, the full extent of the immense harm he has done to Spain with his terrible plotting and donations will be known.”
Vox is trying to take over Spain’s conservatism with a Trumpian agenda. This Sunday’s elections may be a critical step in that direction.