Looking behind recent events, there are troubling developments occurring behind the scenes underscoring how Donald Trump’s relationship to the Alt-Right is transforming the Republican Party. In more ways than one. There were already signs that the Republican Party had gone beyond dog-whistling about race to being the Party of white nationalists who use a megaphone to champion their cause of promoting white lives over all others. It also had gone from being the party that railed against communist Russia to the party that stands by while their president shares secrets with the autocratic kleptocracy that now rules Russia.
Race and Russia might seem to be two different issues. After all, one is more domestic and the other foreign. But, thanks to the rise of the Alt-Right and the critical role they have played in Trump’s political ascendancy, they are in fact deeply related.
Recently, it was reported that several dozen torch-bearing demonstrators appeared in Charlottesville, VA on a Saturday night chanting “You will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend” and “Blood and soil.” Among those chanting was Richard Spencer, the putative leader of what has come to be called the “Alt-Right,” i.e., White Nationalists committed to standing up for those whom they see as “real Americans.” The Alt-Right was a critical part of President Donald J. Trump’s constituency in the 2016 election. They not only helped him win the Presidency but have also proven resolute in their support. That support remains in spite of Trump’s missteps that affected items on the Alt-Right’s own agenda, like banning Muslims, limiting illegal immigration from Mexico, cracking down on black crime, improving relations with Mother Russia, putting America first in trade, and avoiding foreign entanglements in the Middle East and elsewhere. Trump is committed to defending them from those demonized “others” and they are sticking with him.
The image of a torch-bearing crowd marching in the name of white nationalism, if not white supremacy, seemed intentionally staged to be reminiscent of Nazis marching in support of Adolf Hitler. The racism of this movement is transparent (they were there to protest the removal a statue of Robert Lee, the general of the Confederate army). Their racism, however, was also reflective of the more diluted forms of racial resentment that animated the broader base of whites who supported Trump. Altogether, the various strains of racialized support for Trump made his constituency more about race than class, and — at a minimum — meant that economic anxieties associated with the failures of the neo-liberalized economy were being inflected through a racial lens. Trump’s populism was more about race than class.
While the racism of the Republican Party has been increasing in prominence for some time, the movement that coalesced behind Trump has both made this much more explicit and remade the Republican Party in the process.
The rise of white nationalism in the Republican Party however has also been producing a Republican reevaluation of American relations with Russia. The Alt-Right has led the way on this front as well. The Alt-Right’s cock-eyed view of racial relations in a globalizing world has a special place for Russia right at the center, as a leader of white nationalism worldwide. This racist affinity for Russia has infected the Republican base more generally in part as less racist conservatives have left the Party to be replaced by white nationalists and others who are not concerned about the warming to Russia.
As a craven opportunist in both business and life, for years Trump has been shopping for a political constituency, ultimately coming home to his worst racist instincts and making a Faustian bargain with the Alt-Right. He aligned himself with leaders of that movement, especially Steve Bannon at Breitbart, who now is a senior advisor in Trump’s White House. Fanning the flames of white anxiety more generally, Trump rode the tidal wave of racial resentment to the White House to impose a klepocratic authoritarian-style presidency. It was a fraught bargain to say the least.
The Republican Party’s leadership has done the same with Trump — tolerating his outrageous lies, his unethical behavior, and reprehensible policy initiatives. They have done all of this in the name of a president who will support their massive transfer of wealth upward while gutting the welfare state and deregulating the economy. Trump’s extremely corporate-friendly cabinet has reassured them their bargain may be worth it.
As recent events highlight, Trump’s relationship to the Alt-Right is remaking the Republican Party as surrogates for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It is surely shocking to think that the Republican party — the party of anti-communism and of the Red Scare — has shown so little resistance to this about-face with regard to Russia. Certainly, it’s true that Putin’s Russia is not communist (it is its own kleptocratic autocracy), but there is nearly as little to recommend today’s Russian autocracy to Republicans as the communism of the prior regime. Nonetheless, Republicans have stood largely silent while Trump has played footsie with Putin.
The spinelessness of the Republican Party is in evidence by the reaction to Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. They stood silent when Trump announced — contrary to his own press office and surrogates, including the Vice President — he terminated Comey because he had become frustrated with the FBI investigation regarding whether or not he colluded with the Russians to influence with the very election that put him in the White House. This blatant announcement of his own attempt to obstruct an investigation into his possible complicity with the Russians did little more than raise a few eyebrows among Republican leadership. There were no expressions of outrage.
Now, most recently and perhaps most controversially, the Republican Party leadership has failed to condemn Trump when irresponsibly he divulged to the Russian foreign minister top-secret information that has likely endangered national security. And on top of that we now learn that Republicans are mulling over how to respond to reports that Trump asked Comey to drop his investigation of fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn regarding his possible collusion with the Russians.
The rise of the Alt-Right has helped Trump win the presidency and has brought both race and Russia to the forefront of U.S. politics in deeply disturbing ways. This diabolical combination has led to the remarkable transformation of the Republican Party into a party of white nationalists willing to stand by silently while Trump and Putin impose their authoritarian kleptocratic regimes on the countries they rule. They stand by while Trump acts irresponsibly, unpredictably and unilaterally, in his collaboration with Russia on matters that affect the U.S. domestically and internationally.
With friends like these, the American people don’t need enemies.