What it's like for these European visitors getting a front-row seat to the RNC circus

Casey Tolan

CLEVELAND—As he stood outside the Republican National Convention arena on Wednesday, Leonid Gozman, the leader of a pro-democracy political party in Russia, looked a bit out of place. He spoke into his phone in rapid Russian, just a few feet away from a table of rather large Republican delegates hobnobbing over grits and gumbo.

But for him, a lot about the convention seemed totally familiar. For one, there's the candidate. "Trump is very similar to Mr. Putin, and for me it's not a positive thing," he told me. "They could run for election on the same ballot, Putin and Trump. One for president, the second for vice president."


Trump's rhetoric, he said, is "exactly like Russia. Exactly. So I feel myself at home."

Over the last few days, foreign politicians like Gozman have made the pilgrimage to Cleveland from around the world. Some came to learn about the latest techniques in political campaigns or to try to understand the Trump phenomenon. Others are simply enjoying the spectacle of the convention, watching the colorful protests, the Texas delegation's coordinated cowboy hats, and the way delegates have been able to turn the American flag into every conceivable article of clothing.

Two right-wing European populists who have been sighted around the convention center here—Nigel Farage, the British politician who helped lead the Brexit campaign, and Geert Wilders, a Dutch party leader who has stridently criticized Islam—have received the most media attention. But there's also a group of 120 elected officials and strategists who were invited by the International Democrat Union, a coalition of center-right parties around the world (which includes the Republican Party). They got to see the action on the convention floor and attended a series of policy briefings with speakers like Paul Ryan and John Kasich.

On Wednesday evening, I met with Gozman and two other prominent European politicians who were in town with the delegation: Tobias Billström, the first deputy speaker of the Swedish parliament, and Reinhold Lopatka, a member of parliament in Austria and the parliamentary chairman of the country's largest center-right party. We sat at a table in the plaza outside the convention center and they passed around their iPhones, showing the photos they had snapped over the past few days, like "Hillary for Prison" T-shirts. Lopatka will go home with perhaps the biggest prize: a selfie of himself standing a few feet from Trump.


As the night's speeches started playing on a huge screen next to us, we talked about their impressions of the convention, Trump's candidacy, and what they've learned about American politics. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is your main takeaway from your time at the RNC so far?

Tobias Billström (Sweden): We are all very keen, I think, to look at the post-Trump era. We are not the delegates. It's not up to us to choose who is going to become either the nominee or the president of the United States of America. But of course, we have a vested interest in who's in charge of this country, as does almost all of this planet. We need to have someone who has a plan and who has an interest in pursuing a policy that leads to the advancement of democratic values.


Leonid Gozman (Russia): For me, everything happening here is a manifestation of a very deep crisis. A very deep crisis not only in the United States, but for world democracy. Look at Austria, half of the voters voted for someone who is almost a fascist. In France, you have [right-wing political leader] Marine Le Pen. In Hungary, Viktor Orban. In Britain, Brexit. In Russia, Vladimir Putin. Here, Donald Trump. Trump is very similar to Mr. Putin, and for me it's not a positive thing. They could run for election on the same ballot, Putin and Trump. One for president, the second for vice president. It doesn't matter, in Russia or in America.

Reinhold Lopatka (Austria): I listened to the speeches, and 80% or maybe 90% were against Hillary Clinton, not in favor of Trump. Many Republicans do not embrace Trump, it seems. It could never happen in Austria, that someone like Trump at the end of the day is the candidate of our party. So it's not easy for me to understand how this could happen.


After spending a few days here at the convention, do you understand it more?

Lopatka: No. No, not at all. Sorry!

Gozman: Human beings are human beings all around the world, and this happens in many countries. There's no perspective at all, no future—he says "Make America Great Again," the future is in the past. It's the same in Russia. Exactly like Russia. Exactly. So I feel myself at home.


Yesterday, I talked with some young girls who demonstrated against Trump near the convention. Very funny slogans. "Trump hates kittens," something like this. I asked these girls, who will you vote for. They said, we'll vote for Hillary to stop Trump. But they do not like Hillary. In 2008, I remember, your ambassador in Moscow told me about how much hope all of them had for Obama. I was here in January after his inauguration, and I remember in Washington, the word hope was in the atmosphere. There is no hope now.

Trump is—I'm sorry, I'm just a foreigner—but I think he's a disaster for America.


How would a Trump presidency affect your countries?

Lopatka: I don't think whoever is the president matters so much as people think—what we in Europe do also matters. Of course Hillary would be much better for Europe, she's a professional politician. I think she would avoid mistakes. Speaking about Trump and mistakes …[shrugs]


Billström: Because of Russia and President Putin's ambitions, we now have a security situation that is very changed. You have the question of vulnerable states and the weakness of NATO. What would the viable alternative to NATO be? A coherent policy from Washington is needed in our part of the world.

Gozman: Mr. Putin, he just prays for Trump to win. All our authorities, they believe that Trump is very good for Russia. They believe Trump will forgive Crimea and Ukraine and will stop sanctions and so on. I hope they're mistaken.


What do you think of this convention compared with political events in your own countries?

Gozman: The production of this convention is fantastic, especially the first day. This speech of the mother of the guy who was killed in Benghazi. She says, "I blame Hillary." Fantastic! Just fantastic! In a couple of hours here, I began to feel that I'm ready to vote for Trump just because the convention is very impressive and has these very good speeches.


Billström: There are some clear differences. This idea about speeches. In our culture, in our party congresses, it's about taking decisions on what policy you want to conduct. We bring forward resolutions, we vote on resolutions, we vote on words in resolutions. There is nothing at all like that here—this is personality, a contest of personalities. I think in a sense it's a very American thing. It's fascinating.

We will bring a lot of interesting ideas and impulses back home with us. When I look at how the social media plays into this, there are very clear connections between what's on social media and what's going on on the convention floor. That's very good.


Do you follow Trump on Twitter?

Billström: Yes, I do! I think a lot of people do because that has formed the basis of the entire debate.


What about the spectacle of the campaign—the outfits, the T-shirts, the protests?

Lopatka: You can't compare it to party conventions in Europe. You have Hollywood. In Europe, like he said, we are focused on the policy items we discuss. Not here. Look at this speech. Who is she? [Motions to video feed of Laura Ingraham's speech.]


I took pictures today. I'll show you. Look, I got a selfie with Donald Trump, when he arrived here. I talked to him very shortly, I said, "I'm from Austria."

Courtesy Reinhold Lopatka

Gozman: You are so lucky.

Lopatka: Look here [opens up more photos]—the people with signs: "The End is Near, GOP!" "U.S. Gone Insane!" I like the next one: "Let Democracy Fly!" It's impossible in Austria. They would bring them to a home for fanatics.


Two hours ago, I saw a man selling T-shirts saying "Hillary For Prison." And he sold a lot of T-shirts! We would never do it in Europe.


Gozman: I saw, "Hillary Sucks, but not Like Monica." And "Donald Fucking Trump."

Billström: They are very direct.

How have people at the convention welcomed you?

Billström: In spite of the high emotions—and in spite of all the references to immigration—people have been very nice to us. We're all very keen to come back in November and see what's going on in the actual election campaign.


Gozman: What I've seen here is the evidence that you are a great democracy. Of course, this democracy may lead to anxious results. But I'm very impressed by the people here, the delegates and the volunteers, they feel that they make a difference. It's their country, it's their political system.

Lopatka: Today I attended the Hall of Fame of Rock and Roll. And there was a reception for Alaska. I asked one delegate, can you take me? They said why not. So for one hour I was a delegate for Alaska. It was nice! They are very friendly—broad-minded and open.


Gozman: God bless America.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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