Donald Trump’s alliance with the far right continues a tradition

The Republican took his unique brand of identity politics mainstream in 2016 and won the White House. This year’s race is once again being shaped by the rhetoric of this resurgent political extreme.

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Donald Trump’s alliance with the far right continues a tradition

The far right is not a new phenomenon in the United States, but as a movement, it has certainly moved from the margins to the mainstream and the heart of government from 2016-20, transforming the country’s politics along the way. After three and half years of a Democratic presidency and partial respite for the nation’s liberals, far-right ideas and terminology are once again prominent in public discourse as Americans consider who to elect in November.

Ahead of the first debate between the incumbent and the challenger (Joe Biden and Donald Trump, respectively), feverish nationalism is yet again driving the ‘othering’ of immigrants and other bogeymen of the far right. Like in 2016 and 2020, these themes are shaping national debate in a closely fought election year.

Edge of the spectrum

In the not-too-distant past, this extreme end of the ideological spectrum might have attracted the quiet attention of the country’s internal security services, registering on radars in rooms closed to the public. Today, it simply sounds Trumpian.

Extremists are still watched if the FBI thinks their ideas may lead to violence. When a heavily armed 46-year-old white nationalist walked into a synagogue in Pennsylvania and killed 11 people in October 2018, he did so because he thought a Jewish group “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people”.

He was referring to the support given to Central American immigrants by a Jewish American humanitarian aid organisation that helps refugees. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he posted on social media hours before the attack. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Right-wing populism became mainstream when Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 2016. To the surprise of many, he beat Democratic contender Hilary Clinton before losing to Biden in 2020. His entry and eventual victory made discussions about the far right commonplace and compelling. Journalists and academics began to pay much more attention to it as a political space, analysing its proponents and their proffered solutions.

The 2016 election showed the movement to be more embedded in US societal thinking than most had appreciated. In 2020, adherents were among those to storm the Capital after Trump claimed that Biden’s win was rigged. Understanding America’s far right and the brand of populist politics it has created helps to understand the sense of identity that it depends on and how it will be tested in a landmark year for Washington and the world.

The 'conservative' spectrum

Those whose views could reasonably be described as ‘far-right’ would typically refer to themselves as ‘conservative’, but this is a very broad and encompassing term. Those of a centre-right persuasion, who would also call themselves ‘conservative’, would argue that—politically speaking—they have very little in common with the far right. Conservatives share a preference for preservation, exclusivity, and tradition in a community based on morals. For them, ideas and approaches that have evolved over time should be respected and upheld.

Conservative values and priorities might include religion, family, law and order, self-help, work ethic, the right to bear arms, and a small state. The latter would involve less tax, less state intervention, more competition, and more economic liberty. Conservatives are also likely to be more inclined towards military intervention overseas and less likely to support immigration. While they may support gay rights, they are unlikely to support gay marriage.

On the other hand, progressives tend to embrace change, inclusivity, and reform of established patterns and processes in a community based on ethics. For them, ideas and approaches can always be improved. Progressive values and priorities might include fairness, equality, scientific reasoning, multiculturalism, diversity, openness, empathy, nurture, gun control, protection for minorities, support for same-sex marriage, and a woman’s right to abortion.

Economically, they might favour a larger state with higher regulation and taxes to redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest to help society break the status quo. Progressives are also more likely to favour diplomacy and pacificism over war. In the United States, progressives are drawn to the Democratic Party, while conservatives vote for the Republican Party. While there is some overlap with Republican views, the far right differs significantly from mainstream conservatism.

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The far right believes communities must defend themselves against ‘others’ who are threats. These ‘others’ typically include immigrants who, according to Trump, “poison America’s blood” and are prone to criminality. The far right rejects diversity, which it sees as a means of diluting Christian and ethnic white racial values.

It believes American patriotism is found in those values but that the federal government—rather than champion these ethnocentric values—has been hijacked or corrupted by a progressive liberal elite intent on reducing whites to a minority. According to this creed, the state must be reclaimed and freed, with violence if necessary, hence the attempt by Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2021 to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election result.

Foreign policy

In foreign policy, the far right advocates isolationism and America’s withdrawal from multilateralism and world affairs, hence Trump’s “America First” mantra, his desire to withdraw US forces from overseas missions, and his cold shoulder to NATO allies. One of their prime suspects is the United Nations, its institutions, and its treaties, which is part of the problem of globalisation—a process they see as having stolen American jobs, impoverished American families, and misappropriated American production. For the far right, the UN simply wants America to solve the world’s problems.

The far-right worldview, often based on conspiracies, sees globalisation as having undermined American identity both culturally and economically, driven massive job losses, and sent work abroad. These views are disseminated through low-credibility media outlets, including a widespread and influential network of right-wing radio stations and YouTube channels, whose audience distrusts the mainstream media (MSM) or research centres.

Links to abolition

The dawn of America’s far right was well before the era of YouTube and podcasting. It came around the time of the American Civil War, the late 19th-century conflict that ended with defeat for the South and the abolition of slavery. Forced labour had been the foundation on which the wealth of the socially conservative and largely agricultural Southern states was built. To lose their slaves would be to lose money, yet their Civil War opponents wanted to dismantle this most dismal trade and grant citizenship to black Americans.

The Southern backlash included the formation of underground white supremacist groups, the most famous of which was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in 1865. Set up by disbanded Southern soldiers, it specialised in targeting black activists and their white supporters through violence, with the aim of preventing the integration of blacks into broader society, including their participation in politics.

In 1871, the US government designated the KKK as a terrorist organisation and pursued it legally, particularly in its stronghold of South Carolina. Weakened, it disbanded before resurfacing at the beginning of the 20th century, its influence even stretching to Northern states. It operated as a nativist movement, seeking to restore the ‘original’ America lost with the defeat of the Confederates in the Civil War. This original America was Protestant and white. Blacks, Catholics, and Jews need not apply, lest they taint American purity.

By the mid-20th century, the KKK was directing its efforts against the civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr, a black Baptist minister. Other organisations have come and gone, including the American Nazi Party, which flourished among citizens of German descent in the 1930s, disappeared during and after World War II, then resurfaced in the late 1950s. Although these groups' influence, membership, and activity have largely diminished in the years since the espousal and dissemination of far-right thinking and values are far from over.

God and globalisation

There has long been a religious dimension to America’s far right, who proudly point to America’s motto: ‘In God We Trust.’ During the Cold War, for instance, the American far-right enemy was the atheistic ideology of communism. Yet the economic prosperity enjoyed by America throughout the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, coupled with its global military supremacy, helped isolate extremist voices with their ‘us-and-them’ conspiracy theories.

Trump's ascent to power in 2016 changed that. His brand of immigrant-bashing nationalist populism gave the far right new confidence and visibility. This was best illustrated in Charlottesville in August 2017, seven months into Trump’s presidency, in a march called ‘Unite the Right’.

As various members of the alt-right, neo-Confederates, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and far-right militias marched through the now-infamous Virginia city, chanting racist and antisemitic slogans, violence erupted. A white supremacist drove into a crowd of demonstrators, killing one and injuring 35.

When asked about this later, Trump appeared to draw moral equivalence, saying there were “very fine people” on both sides. The far right continued to expand and grow in both numbers and confidence.

Analysts suggest they exerted an influence on Trump’s presidency, not least by informing his rhetoric, and would do so again should he win in November. This rhetoric, which Trump used to such effect, resonates with substantial sections of society who feel unheard, unrepresented, and left behind by society, the economy, the media, and mainstream politics.

The ‘elite’ bogeyman

Trump’s dominance of the Republican party for the past eight years means that its most prominent politicians now share his views. For them, illegal immigration (especially along the Southern border) and globalisation are the biggest threats to America.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser and far-right advocate, said Trump and the populist movement were “not the cause, but the product” of Americans’ anger, pain, and suffering, noting that the bankers were bailed out with $1tn of taxpayers’ money. He described the bogeyman that won Trump the presidency in 2016 as the “Party of Davos, the scientific, engineering, managerial, financial, cultural elite with their political employees, the permanent political class, who bailed themselves out”.

Economic globalisation, which had benefited America for decades, was now causing impoverishment among factory workers in towns across the country. Their jobs were being lost to Asia, with its cheaper labour rates and lower production costs. Having to learn new skills and enter new sectors was seen as a threat to Americans’ identity rather than an opportunity, and the populist-nationalist right exploited this fear, offering simplistic and supposedly reassuring solutions.

According to Bannon, the US bailout “socialised the risk for the wealthy”, while half of all Americans “can’t put together $400 of cash in an emergence”. He added: “The elite are the cause of the problem, not the populous, and certainly not Donald Trump.”

The power of words

This ‘us-and-them’ argument has been used by Trump ever since, including on the steps of every court he has stood trial in. His supporters see him as persecuted by ‘the elite’, of which they see Biden as a part. This once-marginalised group, with its once-marginalised views, now sees those who differ as the enemy, an enemy that must be defeated. In this sense, the far right has brought the language of war to politics.

Increasingly, Trump is toying with references to Nazi Germany. In May, Trump accused Biden of running a “Gestapo administration”. Weeks later, one of his campaign videos showed hypothetic news headlines in the event of a Trump win in November, with one reading: “Unified Reich!” The word ‘Reich’ is often associated with Nazi Germany’s Third Reich.

In the heated and frenetic US presidential election season, votes are influenced as much by personalities as policies, so the narratives and rhetoric candidates use are key. Trump is adept at singing from the far-right hymn sheet for populist electoral gain. Doing so may amplify and exaggerate the political significance of America’s far right beyond its actual size, scope, and influence, but you won’t hear them complain.

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