The Republican operative at the center of Kanye West’s secretive campaign for president has also lent a hand to a far-right nationalist Swedish political party whose main platform is opposition to immigration and multiculturalism.
Gregg Keller, a Missouri-based GOP strategist, has been paid handsomely to help West get on the ballot in a seeming effort to siphon votes away from Joe Biden and boost President Trump’s reelection chances. West has paid Keller’s firm almost $1.3 million in the last two months.
But this isn’t the first time he’s boosted a fringe political party. In recent years he has helped advise the Sweden Democrats, a party founded in the 1980s by white supremacists that in recent years has taken steps to reform its image and purge its most extreme elements to seek mainstream acceptance.
“They have this strong nationalism, [a view] that the nation should be homogenous and reborn,” said Jonathan Leman of the Expo Foundation, an organization that tracks Sweden’s far-right movements. “It’s way more than xenophobia and Islamophobia and anti-immigration policy.”
“[In] their party platform, when they define what it means to be Swedish, they call it an ‘inherited essence,’” said University of Colorado professor Benjamin Teitelbaum, an expert in the Swedish far-right. “Their roots are visible in the people who are in their social demographic profile. They’ve done so much to make sure their rhetoric and policy proposals are cleaned up.”
Keller said during an interview with candidates.vote in early 2019 that he’d been making regular Scandinavian trips to help the party.
“I enjoy the travel and you get so used to it. If I don’t go somewhere once a week, I find myself climbing the walls. Lately a lot of it has been to Sweden, of all places, where I’ve been working with the Democrats, who are their conservatives there. In fact, I have a group of Swedish parliamentary friends coming to CPAC who I’ll be showing around Washington,” he said.
He seems to have struck up a particular friendship with Tobias Andersson, a rising star within the party who heads the Sweden Democrats’ youth wing and was recently elected to the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament. Andersson posted pictures of the two of them smiling together on three separate occasions from 2017 to 2018, and they regularly comment on each other’s Facebook posts.
Andersson told VICE News that they met when Keller came to Sweden to teach campaign tactics to the Sweden Democrats as part of a program organized by the Leadership Institute. Keller has longstanding ties with that organization, which has long played a key role in training American young conservative activists and fledgling candidates, and in recent years has done candidate training sessions for other international conservative parties.
According to the Leadership Institute’s program literature, they don’t charge anything for the training sessions, but the local partner organization — in this case, the Sweden Democrats – “is responsible for reimbursing direct costs of travel and accommodations for the program faculty,” so they likely paid for Keller’s visits.
Andersson also said he’d been one of the Swedes Keller referred to when he mentioned CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual confab of conservatives, libertarians and hard-line right-wingers put on by an organization that Keller used to help lead. While in town for CPAC, Andersson met with a number of American conservatives and populists including Keller, and dined with Steve Bannon.
“Gregg Keller is a highly skilled and well-known political strategist, and I am proud to call him a friend. His love for freedom, democracy, and politics lead him to Sweden even though he has never been paid by The Sweden Democrats,” Andersson told VICE News in a Facebook message. “Gregg helped us to better understand U.S. politics, and hopefully we taught him about Swedish politics.”
Andersson isn’t the only Sweden Democrat that Keller befriended. He has more than a dozen Swedish Facebook friends, and he tagged many of them in a May post touting Sweden’s coronavirus policies. Those include Mattias Karlsson, the Sweden Democrats’ former parliamentary leader and arguably the most influential figure in the party, as well as almost a half-dozen members of parliament, former candidates or party staff members.
Keller declined to talk on record for this story, but he tweeted this shortly after he was contacted by VICE News, suggesting he hadn’t been paid for his work. “Incoming: media hit piece against me for my…volunteer work. What a stupid time to be alive,” Keller tweeted.
It’s hard to prove whether or not Andersson and Keller are telling the truth. Swedish campaign finance disclosure law is much more lax than in the U.S., according to Swedish political experts, and Swedish political parties don’t have to report who they’ve paid in the same way that American politicians do.
What is clear is how important Keller has been to Kanye West’s campaign — and how lucrative it’s been for his team. According to campaign finance reports that were filed weeks after the legal deadline last week, West had paid Keller’s firm, Atlas Strategy Group, almost $1.3 million in July and August for its work helping him get on the ballot in various states. That’s nearly a quarter of the entire $5.8 million that West’s campaign spent in that period.
Keller is a Missouri-based GOP strategist who has moved back and forth from establishment to populist Republican candidates over the years. He has long been known as a sharp-elbowed pugilist and rule-bender with a twisted sense of humor who delights in his image as a dark artist. His twitter bio features two quotes about him he seems to carry as badges of honor, a description as “the dark prince of secrecy” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a “shameless propagandist” from the Washington Post.
The Sweden Democrats began as a party with close ties to anti-immigrant skinhead movements and at times had openly racist members in party leadership. But an internal battle for control almost two decades ago put Karlsson, Keller’s Facebook friend, and others who were more interested in mainstreaming the party in control. Karlsson and the current party advocate a view of Swedish traditionalism that isn’t based on race but rather an embrace of Swedish culture and norms — a view Karlsson said led him to be called a “meatball patriot” by skinheads. The party routinely touts and publicizes immigrants who have embraced their views.
His ascent to power didn’t mark an end to the party’s controversial overlap with white supremacists. Just five years ago, the party cut ties with its official youth wing, excommunicating them for what they said was an embrace of racist ideology. Andersson leads the new youth wing that the party created to replace it.
Those mainstreaming efforts have helped the party politically — after winning almost 6% of the vote in 2010 to first enter the Riksdag, it nearly doubled that number in 2014 and won almost 20% of the vote in Sweden’s 2018 national elections. Other Swedish political parties have moved to co-opt some of its views on tightening immigration laws, a view that grew in popularity during the surge of refugees Sweden accepted from countries like Syria and Libya in recent years. And after spurning them for decades as racist extremists, the country’s center-right parties have signaled they may be willing to join in a coalition government should they win a majority of seats in the 2022 elections.
But their current members still stoke controversy, often painting immigrants as violent rapists. Swedish Prime Minister Stevan Löfven in 2014 called them a “neo-fascist” party that “ "does not respect people's differences or Sweden's democratic institutions.”
Andersson, Keller’s closest contact, drew headlines when he joked at a conference in the United Kingdom in 2016 that his ancestors, the Vikings, were one of the few peoples to invade Great Britain rather than the other way around.
“Don’t worry. I’m not here to steal your belongings, occupy your houses or attack your women,” Andersson said. “I suppose you have enough foreigners doing that already.”