After months of squabbling about whether it’s acceptable to use the “F” word (fascism) it seems at long last that we have come to some kind of consensus about what to call Donald Trump’s “philosophy”: alt-right, also known as white nationalism. With the hiring of the former chief of Breitbart media, ground zero for the alt-right movement, as Trump’s campaign chairman, the interest in it has now gone mainstream. Hillary Clinton will be made a speech about it on Thursday.
Alt-right white nationalism is an apt term for a campaign that has electrified white supremacists, so it makes sense that most people would focus on the racial angle. According to this analysis in the Guardian, the rising right-wing ethno-nationalist movement in Europe is the progenitor of this American version, which adheres to its basic premise but brings its own special brand of deep-fried racism. Both share a belief that the white race is under siege and that “demands for diversity in the workplace, which means less white males in particular forms the foundation for the movement.” So it stands to reason that Trump’s border wall, Muslim ban and bellicose appeals for “law and order” (along with his overt misogyny) are a clarion call to this faction.
But while it’s obvious that the subtle and not-so-subtle racial messaging are among the primary attractions for Trump voters, they are also responding to an economic appeal, much of which stems from the misconception that because Trump himself is a successful businessman he must know what he’s doing. But as Dave Johnson of Campaign for America’s Future pointed out, many of the white working-class folk who believe Trump’s promises to “bring back jobs” would be surprised to know what he actually means by that:
Trump says the U.S. is not “competitive” with other countries. He has said repeatedly we need to lower American wages, taxes and regulations to the point where we can be “competitive” with Mexico and China. In other words, he is saying that business won’t send jobs out of the country if we can make wages low enough here.His “plan” is to compete by pitting states against each other to lower wages, particularly by encouraging businesses to move to low-wage anti-union states. Once the layoffs start, workers will be willing to take big pay cuts to keep their jobs. Johnson shows how Trump believes “companies should continue this in a ‘rotation’ of wage cuts, state to state, until you go ‘full-circle,’ getting wages low enough across the entire country. Then the U.S. will be ‘competitive’ with China and Mexico.
So this white nationalist “populist” economic appeal is less than meets the eye. In that regard, Trump is just another “cuck-servative” (you can look it up) who thinks he can fool the rubes into making people like him even richer than they already are. But all that is subsumed in Trump’s message of white grievance and American decline.
One of the most important characteristics of this faction is a strong attraction to authoritarianism. This fascinating report at Vox by Amanda Taub tracked studies which show that “more than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters and more than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians”:
"Authoritarians, we found in our survey, tend to most fear threats that come from abroad, such as ISIS or Russia or Iran. These are threats, the researchers point out, to which people can put a face; a scary terrorist or an Iranian ayatollah."
That fear is also something the American alt-right has in common with their European cousins, but I see it having a different effect here. In Europe — where the alt-right is exemplified by the U.K.’s Nigel Farage — the desire truly is for a withdrawal from external obligations and dismantling the institutions that have blurred national identity and political independence. They are afraid of mass immigration from the Middle East in the age of terrorism and the economic crisis emboldened the usual European suspects. So some observers are tempted to believe that Trump’s invocation of the old isolationist slogan “America First” will likewise result in a pull-back of American global empire. But a closer look at Trump’s rhetoric shows that he has a much different worldview and so do his followers.
Look at his slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Implicit in those four words is the idea of America dominating the planet as it did after World War II. Of course, it still does, but in Trump’s mind, America has become a weak and struggling nation hardly able to keep up with countries like Mexico. He believes other countries are laughing at us and treating us disrespectfully, which has had him seething for over 30 years. Back then it was Japan “cuckolding” America. Today it’s China and Mexico, both of which he promises to sanction for failing to properly “respect” America — with a thinly veiled violent threat backing it up. After all, trade wars have often led to shooting wars.
American nationalism cannot be separated from its status as the world’s only superpower. Trump promises to build up the American military to the most massive force in history (of course, it already is) so that “nobody will mess with us ever again.” He doesn’t say that America should pull back from its security guarantees, merely that it should require other nations to pay more for the protection. He doesn’t take nuclear war off the table, one can assume for the reason that it’s a cheaper, quicker way to “take care of” problems than these relatively smaller wars we’ve waged since the world burned in the two epic conflagrations of the 20th century. His nationalism is all about domination not withdrawal.
And that view is shared by the American alt-right. Here’s one Breitbart writer making the case:
"I’d like an America that makes 7 'Fast & Furious' movies without making concessions to Ayatollah Khamenei. I’d like an America that humiliates the likes of Vladimir Putin, not vice-versa. An America that punches back eight times as hard over a tiny offense. An America that everyone might laugh at but ultimately stop attacking because it can only end poorly for them."
Trump’s nationalism is absolutely about ethno-purity and there’s an element of populism as well, although it’s clearly a misdirection. But it’s largely about wounded national pride which has been a potent motivating force on the American right for a very long time. There’s a reason Trump is now playing the conservative anthem “Proud to Be an American” at his rallies. Good old-fashioned jingoism is the one thing that brings the old right, the new right and the alt-right together.
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