Election 2016

Frightening Talk from Leader of Major Right-Wing Evangelical Confab

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, asked about the Trump campaign's ties to the white nationalist alt-right, defends 'alternative voices.'

Photo Credit: A.M. Stan

At the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of right-wing evangelical Christians in Washington, D.C., the mood is decidedly pro-Trump. On Friday, the candidate himself received an enthusiastic response, as did his surrogates, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and actor Jon Voight. Today, attendees were treated to a speech by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump's running mate.

A number of speakers, including U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, have told the conference-goers of Trump's purported virtues (while slamming Democratic rival Hillary Clinton) and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and FRC Action, which is hosting the conference, endorsed the thrice-married New York reality TV show star during the Republican National Convention. (In the Republican presidential primary, Perkins supported Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator from Texas.)

Of course, Christian evangelicals represent only one segment of the radical right being courted by Trump. He's caused quite a stir by sidling up to the denizens of what is known as the alternative right or alt right, a loosely configured constellation of "white nationalist" groups and publications, such as Richard Spencer's National Policy Institute and Jared Taylor's American Renaissance, a white supremacist magazine. In a major shakeup, Trump hired Breitbart News chief executive Stephen K. Bannon as his campaign CEO. At an event in Cleveland, during the Republican National Convention, Bannon boasted to reporter Sarah Posner that under his leadership, Breitbart News had become "the platform for the alt right."

On August 25, Hillary Clinton delivered a newsmaking speech in Reno, Nevada, decrying Trump's alliance with the alt-right and noting the many times Trump has retweeted memes generated from the Twitter accounts of white supremacists.

At a press conference outside the Washington, D.C., hotel where the Values Voter Summit is taking place, I asked Perkins what he made of Bannon's "alt right" boast. (Our full exchange appears at the bottom of this piece.) While he wouldn't speak directly to Bannon's relationship to the alt right, Perkins did offer something of an explanation for the movement's appeal. "[T]here have been a lot of alternative voices that have risen up, just because Americans feel they are under constant threat by this administration’s policies," Perkins said. "So, what has given Donald Trump, I believe, the nomination, is that he has given voice to a lot of people who feel like their voice has all but been snuffed out under this administration." 

Perkins knows something about such "alternative voices"—and their usefulness when managing a right-wing campaign for political office. In 1996, Perkins was managing the campaign of Woody Jenkins for Louisiana's U.S. Senate seat. (Jenkins' Democratic opponent was Mary Landrieu.) To maximize the turnout, Perkins purchased the mailing list compiled by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke in his successful run for a seat in the Louisiana state legislature, paying Duke $82,500. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center website, "The campaign was fined $3,000 for filing false disclosure forms in a bid to hide the payment to Duke. Perkins has stated he did not know about the mailing list’s connection to Duke."

When Duke first endorsed Donald Trump in February, Trump peevishly disavowed the endorsement when pressed to do so by CNN's Jake Tapper. Currently running for U.S. Senate from Louisiana, Duke also issued robocalls in August urging voters to cast ballots both for him and for Trump. The Republican standard-bearer, apparently having learned his lesson, quickly disavowed the calls.

In the exhibit hall of the Values Voter Summit, the John Birch Society, which opposed granting equal status to African Americans during the civil rights struggle, has a booth, as does Tradition, Family and Property, the paleo-Catholic cult whose founder lauded the Spanish Inquisition as the most glorious moment in the church's history.

The Trump campaign, which has dazzled mainstream media as something new under the sun, is really anything but. It's simply the repackaging of an old alliance in a shinier wrapper. 

AlterNet's full exchange with FRC president Tony Perkins:

AlterNet: I’m wondering what you make of Trump’s hiring of Steve Bannon, who said that he had provided the platform for the alt-right.

Tony Perkins: The what?

AlterNet: The alt-right, which Hillary Clinton—

TP: —I didn’t hear his comment, so I can’t really speak to that. I can speak to the fact that, in the last eight years, this administration, which Hillary Clinton has been a part of, has increasingly tried to marginalize people who do not surrender to a progressive, liberal agenda. And there have been a lot of alternative voices that have risen up, just because Americans feel they are under constant threat by this administration’s policies. So, what has given Donald Trump, I believe, the nomination, is that he has given voice to a lot of people who feel like their voice has all but been snuffed out under this administration.

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Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.