The Rise of the ‘Alt Right’ and Religious Right Are Chillingly Similar
It wasn’t over on November 8. This race, with its roiling of our electoral landscape, is the kind that leaves legacies—even if Trump had lost, the stain of what Trump has made possible would be with us.
For a party that has shown itself to be chronically allergic to expanding its base, finding ways to ratchet up the rage of angry white men may seem to be the only hope. Worse, the self-identified “alt-right’s” internet-savvy gloss provides Republicans with the illusory sense that young voters are turned on by this fundamentally paleoconservative message.
It could work, for a time at least. With Faustian grace, the Republicans have shown themselves to be adept at buying a moment’s vigor and wealth at the cost of their souls. The last time the GOP made such a deal was in the late 1970s, awakening the politically quietist constituency of Evangelical Christians and giving birth to the Religious Right—a force that would imbue the Republicans with immense power, even providing the margin of victory in the painfully tight 2004 presidential race. But it would also consume the party, drowning it in ever more stringent purity pledges, infighting, and indulgence of extremism—dragging the country in its undertow by saddling us with draconian abortion restrictions, bathroom bills, and other self-satirizing absurdities at every level of government.
We can glean a lot about what’s ahead by studying the legacy of the Religious Right.
Ronald Reagan giving his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As he accepted his party’s nomination for president in 1980 he bashfully stammered, “I’ll confess that I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest...I’m more afraid not to.” He then enjoined his audience, “Can we begin our crusade, joined together, in a moment of silent prayer?“ After several seconds of head-bowed silence, he ended with the now requisite “God Bless America,” uttered after practically every State of the Union address and nomination-acceptance speech these days. But it was that self-effacing act, the pretense of being a fearful Christian, wary of some invisible secularist elite, that really struck a chord with some voters.
Christian resentment proved to be the answer, not least for how neatly it dovetailed with the existing Southern Strategy.
Republicans needed to siphon votes away from President Jimmy Carter, and Southern Christian Democrats were a likely target—as well as more apolitical Evangelicals who had hitherto stayed out of elections altogether. They found their wedge issue in religiously inspired segregation.
Throughout the 1970s, the Christian college, Bob Jones University, had been fighting the Internal Revenue Service to keep its tax-exempt status despite its prohibition on interracial dating and marriage; for many white Christians, the IRS rule and successive court rulings against Bob Jones University were unforgivable intrusions on their “religious liberty.” In 1984, at long last, the matter was settled by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the IRS’s revocation of tax exempt status did not violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. But during the case’s many years wending its way through the courts, Republican doyen andHeritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich used the issue to galvanize white Evangelicals angry about “political correctness.” More than even abortion, this issue began getting the nascent “moral majority” to pull the lever for Republicans—and eventually, for Ronald Reagan himself.
Just six years after Nixon’s historic resignation, Republicans were back on their way to the White House with a thumping mandate from the electorate. But the “moral majority” wanted more than occasional meetings with the Gipper and “God Bless America.”
The history of the Republican Party these last 30 years is the tale of a flesh-eating virus. Though many politicized Evangelical Christians will speak fondly of Reagan, to speak to them in private is to hear their quiet laments about his overall inaction on issues like abortion and divorce. Indeed, Reagan’s administration, though thoroughly right-wing, was more consumed with neoconservative foreign policy and Friedmanite Monetarism than the “soft” social issues that so animated the Religious Right. They wanted more, and demanded it quite loudly at the 1992 convention when they booed Massachusetts Governor William Weld off the stage for making a pro-choice speech (his political fate was to be Gary Johnson’s running mate this year).
This is the party Trump now commands, clothed in terrifying power at the federal and state level, leading an ongoing revolution against itself and the nation’s women and minorities. The deal made with the religious right was one built on the idea that Platonic Republican leaders could use the noble lie of Evangelical Christianity as a circus for a new bloc of voters. It consumed them and came to dominate the party with terrifying sincerity.
Trump has tapped into what we might think of as the KKK’s David Duke wing of the Republican Party, feeding racist resentment in ways so blatant that “dog whistles” are just whistles now. The energy Trump has generated, riding to a convincing primary victory through cultivating a cult of personality around his bigoted “tell it like it is” bombast, is doubtlessly attractive to Republicans.
Trump’s victory was excruciatingly narrow, and he’s poised to lose the popular vote by millions. This is cause for some cold comfort, but it carries its own warning. Barry Goldwater and his fiery far right conservatism lost in a nationwide rout in 1964 while giving Nixon ideas for how to win big just four years later, and set the stage for a young Ronald Reagan to begin making the case for his own brand of right-wing ideology, cultivating a new base for the party.
We should not doubt that there are many Republicans in the wings now looking at how Trump made white nationalism respectable again, trying to figure out how best to exploit that. They see that voter suppression has worked, and that Trump’s appeals excite rural whites (of all classes) who had been turned off by mainstream Republicanism. They, undoubtedly, feel they have a “formula” now, which will be deployed at every electoral opportunity.
Goldwater’s radical credo—“extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”—has been the rallying cry for those dragging the Republican Party further and further to the right.
With Breitbart—ground zero for white nationalism’s relatively semi-respectable wing—publishing a steady diet of conspiracy theories about the election, and their chief executive’s elevation to the White House, it’s clear that this movement is in the ascendancy for now. In the wake of Trump’s victory, there will be a temptation to find ways of catering to voters who now feel it’s okay to say they want to stop “Mexicans and Syrians” from voting, or who are keen on idolizing totalitarians.
Rather than a “basket of deplorables,” to many Republicans these people are a basket of votes, not to be dissuaded from their nascent extremism but catered to.
Like the Religious Right, white nationalists offered Republicans a chance to innervate themselves during a period of electile dysfunction. And it seems to have worked, for now.
Rachel Pendergraft, national organizer of the white nationalist Knights Party, told Mother Jones recently that, “The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our viewsâ€¯ resonate with millions . . . They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet,â€¯ but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will.”
Trump, for his part, has been excruciatingly loath to disavow such support, barely even acknowledging the blatant racism he’s engendered—or the calls to repudiate it. Earlier this year, when pressed by CNN’s Erin Burnett on the issue, he gave a mealy-mouthed disavowal before adding “People are angry, they’re angry at what’s going on. They’re angry at the border, they’re angry at the crime.” Yesterday, he more explicitly condemned the movement, but only after pressed by New York Times reporters following a white nationalists gathering in DC over the weekend to celebrate Trump and cheer his victory, complete with Nazi salutes. The fact that it took such an extreme incident, and such a long time, for Trump to renounce the movement has drawn sharp criticism.
Trump’s relative silence doesn’t stem from a lack of awareness. He’s retweeted white supremacist tweets and memes multiple times throughout the campaign. More damning, as a Mother Jones investigation uncovered, many Trump campaign staffers follow top white nationalist “influencers” on Twitter—people who talk about “White Genocide” and the “Holohoax” in reference to the Holocaust.
The long and short of it is that the call is coming from inside the GOP house. While Trump has courted outrage with his white nationalist pandering, including earning condemnation from other Republicans—most of which was based on outrage at Trump’s style rather than substance—none of it disqualified him from getting to the White House. Republicans, already banding together to enthusiastically avail themselves of a “united government,” will now try to find a way to cater to Trump voters in ways that, at best, will signal an unwillingness to condemn the growing influence of white nationalism.
After all, no matter what, it seems Trump’s bigotry was not enough to stop 60.5 million people (around a fifth of the country) from voting for him for president.
There are moments in political history that are a crossroads over an abyss. This is one of them; things seem almost hopeless right now.
Former Canadian MP Jane Stewart reflected on a similar crossroads in her country at the bitter height of the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. “In 32 years [we] had never seen anything like this...No logic; lies, deceit are winning, and there is nothing that is working.” In the face of “Teflon Don,” whose extremity of outrageousness has seemed to simply overload our capacity for shock and moral condemnation, these words echo painfully.
Even if the worst does not come to pass and Trump’s fascist instincts do not lead to an outright dismantling of the Republic or internment camps and the like, this will leave its mark for a generation to come. The impossibility of his white nationalist agenda will now be in living memory for decades to come, and even a “best case scenario” of surviving this administration entails understanding and dealing with its traces.
Illogic, big lies, and deceit have not been banished from the political stage—not by a long shot.