For years, the GOP has been moving away from its identity as a traditional center-right party and morphing into something that more resembles the populist fringe parties of Europe.
Donald Trump’s candidacy has all but completed this transformation. If anyone still had doubts, Trump’s hiring of Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon was the clearest sign yet that the Republican Party has become a vehicle for what in the U.S. is known as the ‘alt-right’ movement.
The alt-right thinks the mainstream conservative movement has been compromised by feminism, racial tolerance and “globalism,” and that only a reactionary, populist movement that speaks to the plight of white men can save America from political correctness and multiculturalism. The alt-right is drenched in racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and misogyny. But that didn’t stop Bannon from calling his outlet “the platform for the alt-right.”
While avowed white nationalists have always had a place in the conservative movement—most recently, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa proudly detailed his white supremacist views to a cable TV audience—Trump has thrown such forces into the mainstream.
Trump’s view of America as a weak, crime-ridden and chaotic place would resonate with any regular reader of Breitbart’s news coverage.
Breitbart News depicts an America where white people are under attack from the Obama administration, anti-Christian feminists and LGBT rights activists, African Americans who seek to discriminate against white people, Latino immigrants obsessed with rape and violence, and Muslim refugees who support terrorism.
The U.S. isn’t the only country experiencing a surge in the alt-right’s ideology. Anti-immigrant ethnic nationalists are on the rise in Europe, and European far-right leaders from France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen to the Dutch politician Geert Wilders have jumped aboard the Trump Train.
This is all good news to one of the European far-right’s most enthusiastic backers: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia under Putin’s leadership has been promoting ultraconservative political groups in Europe with the goal of weakening the EU and the liberalism, democracy and cultural pluralism that comes with it. The National Front, a French political party rooted in Holocaust denialism and anti-immigrant sentiment, is open about its financial links to Russian banks, and neo-fascist parties including Jobbik of Hungary, Vlaams Belang of Belgium and the Northern League of Italy likewise have Russian ties.
“As European far-right leaders openly voice their support for Moscow, it would be wise to remember that Putin’s Russia is not just another ‘meddling power’ lobbying for its interests,” writes Alina Polyakova. “It is a government hostile to the West and the value system—democracy, freedom of expression, political accountability—that it represents.”
The Syrian refugee crisis has presented a great opportunity for these far-right movements in Europe to spread their messages of xenophobia. Russia, whose bombing campaigns in Syria have ravaged the civilian population, has been happy to help promote the anti-refugee message. Russian state-sponsored media outlets have enthusiastically fanned the flames of anti-refugee suspicion, bolstering the far-right’s criticism of how the EU and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have approached refugee resettlement.
The Russian government has also sponsored a global right-wing effort to portray the U.S. and Europe as victims of cultural rot due to homosexuality, abortion rights and secular government, and Russia as the protector and preserver of traditional Christian values. In 2014, major conservative groups from the U.S. and Europe convened at the Kremlin to praise the government’s crackdown on LGBT rights advocates while lamenting the social liberalism in their home countries.
Trump, who aspires to be the Russian president’s “new best friend,” has praised Putin as “a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” and has seemed to side with Putin’s position on the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and shared in fueling doubts about the future of the EU and NATO. Trump’s campaign is stacked with officials with Russian ties and, at least according to his eldest son, his businesses have seen “a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Merkel, on the other hand, has been a frequent target of Trump’s attacks, and the GOP nominee has dubbed Clinton “America’s Angela Merkel.” (Just to show how far to the right the GOP has drifted, Merkel is the leader of Germany’s main center-right party).
Beyond his expressed support for Russian policies, Trump seeks to govern in the same illiberal, authoritarian manner that Putin has demonstrated, itching to dilute the freedom of the press and laws barring war crimes and human rights abuses and deport undocumented immigrants and refugees legally settled in the country. Like the Religious Right activists who have rallied behind Putin, Trump believes that Christians have been sidelined and marginalized in America, promising to return them to their rightful positions of power.
Such contempt for civil rights, diversity and democracy pervades the alt-right, which calls for a more “masculine,” racially chauvinist response to a society it sees as weak and rootless. One alt-right meme shows “President Trump” congratulating Putin, both decked out in military garb, “on retaking Constantinople.”
While Trump and the alt-right emerged without the help of the Russian government, Putin’s display of authoritarianism and aid to far-right movements have helped bring their ultraconservative designs into the political mainstream.