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Is the new breed of white nationalists in retreat?

As the ‘alt-right’ movement breaks from President Trump, so goes its moment in the sun.

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.

Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

In April 2017, while Democrats and Republicans were finding common ground on starting a war in Syria following President Trump’s retaliatory airstrike for a brutal chemical gas attack on civilians, the so-called “alt-right” finally declared its break with the new administration. Richard Spencer, the enigmatic center of the alt-right and their leading “luminary,” took his rage to Twitter.

“The #AltRight is against a war in Syria. Period,” he said to echoes of retweets. “If Trump takes us into war in Syria, I’m done with him.”

Peter Brimelow’s anti-immigration website VDare continued the disappointment with Trump, explaining that the three things voters ended up with after becoming “Trump Republicans” were conflict with Syria, a Paul Ryan healthcare plan and tax cuts for billionaires. Across the blogs, podcasts and message boards, the alt-right is revolting against Trump, declaring his capitulation to military intervention the ultimate betrayal.

For those who have been watching the rise of the far-right in the United States, this response to Trump’s behavior may seem frenetically schizophrenic. This notion comes largely from the belief that white supremacist politics are based in traditional white colonialism, and that “America First” means the ability to enact militarized genocide on the developing world at will. The right-wing politics that the alt-right evolved from, however, is one that is isolationist at its core. They believe nationalism means creating strong boundaries between peoples, which would preclude intervention—both humanitarian and mercantile.

Paleoconservatism, an evolutionary stage leading up to the alt-right in the mid-2000s, was a reactionary response to the growth of “compassionate” interventionist neo-conservatism that rose to prominence inside of the GOP in the 1980s. The American Conservative, a paleo-leaning publication founded by Pat Buchannan, has been running headlines since this month’s bombing like “This Isn’t the Foreign Policy Trump Campaigned On” and “Bombing Syria Doesn’t Provide Humanitarian Relief.” This is not surprising since the defining principle of The American Conservative in the early 2000s was that it was the only major conservative institution to stand against the invasion of Iraq.

This rejection of Syrian intervention is uniform on the alt-right and signals the first major betrayal of the Trump presidency. Most white nationalist ideologues did not think that Trump would actually carry out a clean interpretation of their politics, but hoped they could mobilize him on their key political issues like foreign policy, refugees and non-white immigration. While he has enacted some of their agenda—including the Muslim travel ban, which was taken largely from Kris Kobach and the anti-immigration Tanton Network—his collaboration with Republican business interests has been disheartening. In that sense, the Syria bombing is only the most recent infidelity to the alt-right, albeit the most significant.

As a prelude to the widening rift, Stephen Bannon was removed from his central role on the National Security Council. The political world was shocked when Trump first brought Bannon into his inner circle—his previous job having been as head of Breitbart, which emerged as a “diet white nationalist” news site under his reign. Bannon’s own civic nationalism is tinged with fascist esotericists like Julius Evola and marked by allegations of open racialism and anti-Semitism. As such, he is deeply tied to a post-paleo world, situated to the right of the GOP and acting as the perfect weigh station between the fringe and the state house.

This was as close as Trump could walk to the alt-right, especially when he moved him to his advisory team. As Trump began to capitulate to the negotiations of party politics, Bannon’s hard edge waned, and his removal forced the alt-right to realize that Trump chose party loyalists over his dissident nationalist crew. While the anti-Trump left played a role in making Bannon’s nationalism politically toxic, it is more likely that Trump’s own power plays sunk his status. The hope for Spencer and others was that it was Bannon’s secret opposition to conflict with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that forced him off the council.

This break came after a long sequence of failures, each more significant than the last, which sparked the doubt on the right that then shifted into an anger. The alt-right could correctly be called a “post-libertarian” ideology, as most of their rank-and-file came out of the libertarian movement before abandoning it for ethnic nationalist reasons. Trump’s willingness to flirt with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-worker healthcare policies—which would hit white workers in the Midwest and South especially hard—was a significant point of rupture. The writing was on the wall for months, as his transition team became a glossy episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — especially from the international financial sector, which the alt-right views through an anti-Semitic conspiracy lens.

As Trump moves further away from the dissident cadre he brought into the halls of power with him, the alt-right is sent floundering, lacking its clear connection to the mainstream. White nationalism is still unpopular to the vast majority of Americans, so they need points of crossover to recruit. The Trump spaces have been that—from the recent “MAGA” rallies to the Students for Trump and Turning Point organizations on college campuses. If the alt-right publicly denounces and organizes against Trump, as Spencer and other major alt-right leaders are calling for, then the movement will lose access to its largest pool of potential converts.

On Sunday, April 9 2017, Spencer led a couple dozen supporters in front of the White House to protest Trump’s war in Syria. They were overwhelmed by counter protesters, who, while also uniformly against the military action, see no place for Spencer in any kind of public anti-war movement. While the alt-right protest itself lacked any crossover appeal to the broader Trump Republicans—a point solidified by the gathering’s anti-Semitic messaging—such a crossover is necessary for the movement to make any material gains.

If the alt-right is forced to divorce itself from Trump, then its members will find themselves in the same boat that white nationalists have always been in when their moderate allies turn on their agenda: completely marginalized. While this would not be the worst political move for the movement, without its own “purity politics” it lacks a reason for existing. The only legitimacy it has provided to itself is that its white nationalism is complete and explicit, presenting itself as the revolutionary alternative to the capitulation of what it calls the “cuckservative” establishment.

To continue supporting Trump amid this deviation from the program would reveal the movement’s own deal-making, and—without a strong sense of how organizing works—its supporters will instead bank their reputation on loud shows of anger rather than strategic thinking. This does not mean the alt-right will voluntarily walk into obscurity, but as it attempts to reclaim its identity firmly away from the Trump pulpit, its proponents will find they made far less progress than they believed.

In the end, the alt-right stands to become just a fascist movement that found a moment in the sun. That moment faded when its Trojan Horse leader was appropriated by his own business party—thereby sending the movement back to the fringes it desperately wanted to leave behind.

About the author

Shane Burley is a journalist whose work has been featured in ThinkProgress, In These Times, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, and many other publications.  Find him at ShaneBurley.net or on Twitter at @shane_burley1. 

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