With the American presidential election fast approaching and Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric showing no signs of waning, political commentators and analysts have started debating what the Republican Party may look like if its nominee loses in November.
Since announcing his bid for the presidency, Trump has used language that has dragged the Republicans further to the right than they have been in decades, leaving even ultra-conservative members of the party aghast at what they are witnessing.
But, despite the widespread condemnation that he has received, Trump has simultaneously tapped into a well of anxiety and anger that has been bubbling under the surface for years, and it is one that is being whipped up by a fringe group of far-right extremists that are now battling for the soul of American conservatism.
Throughout this summer’s presidential primaries, Trump set himself apart from his more moderate opponents by adopting right-wing populist rhetoric that he used to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’ who is going to ‘make America great again’.
His use of such language initially looked as if it was a temporary scheme to differentiate and distance himself from establishment-friendly figures such as John Kasich and Jeb Bush. But Trump’s campaign remains firmly entrenched in the hard-right, nativist language that has ostracised so many moderate voters. As a result, whilst high-ranking figures within the Republican Party distance themselves from his divisive rhetoric, notorious white supremacist David Duke continues to cheer to the rafters.
Unsurprisingly, this has hurt Trump’s standing amongst non-whites. His dismally low levels of support from ethnic minority voters (one recent poll put African-American support at zero percent) has not only damaged his chances of winning the presidency but has severely weakened the Republican Party’s standing in the eyes of the voters they desperately need to get on their side. Three consecutive defeats is something that the party have not had to face since 1944, leaving them in unfamiliar territory and with a mountain to climb if they are to find a way back into power in 2020.
But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat to Barack Obama four years ago, the Republican National Committee produced a paper entitled the ‘Growth and Opportunity Project’. In it, they mapped out a clear and concise plan that would see them reach out to ethnic minority voters and young people to build a broad base of support that would see them regain the centre ground and win in 2016.
Obama’s comfortable wins amongst ethnic minority voters showcased the problems that the Republicans were having in shaking off the image that they were party for, and catering exclusively to, white people. If they were to have any hope of winning this year’s election, they would need to broaden their support and become a party for all sections of society.
Instead, Trump’s rise has taken them in the opposite direction, sending the Republicans further away from power and into the embrace of the nativist right, a fringe group of extremists that are now risking the complete breakdown of the Grand Old Party and its chances of attracting ethnic minority voters.
Playing an important role in this are the ‘alt-right’, a shady, mysterious, and largely internet-based movement of interconnected extremist beliefs that are positioned firmly on the far-right of the political spectrum.
A lot has been written about the alt-right – especially since their prominence has grown over the course of the summer – but, due to them being in their relative infancy, it remains difficult to pinpoint what its supporters believe. At its core, however, lie elements of white nationalism, nativism, and right-wing populism, all of which continue to play important roles in Trump’s campaign for the presidency.
Tracing the alt-right movement back to its origins in 2008, it is not difficult to link its leading members to the American far-right.
Richard B. Spencer is arguably one of its best-known names, dividing his time between influential alt-right websites such as Alternative Right and the Radix Journal as well as the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think-tank of which he has been president since 2011. Due to his standing amongst other supporters, Spencer has acted as the linchpin of the movement since emerging on the scene in 2010, collaborating with figures such as Kevin B. MacDonald, a former professor of psychology and the current editor of the Occidental Observer, another influential website that has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as having “become a primary voice for anti-Semitism and far-right intellectuals”.
Whilst Trump himself arguably cannot be labelled as part of the alt-right, his rhetoric and policy initiatives surrounding issues such as immigration and race relations have certainly acted as a magnet for members of the movement. Calls for a wall along the border with Mexico and a ban on Muslims entering the country have been well received by the alt-right, who, for the first time since they emerged in the late noughties, have been presented with a high-profile candidate behind whom they can congregate.
MacDonald has said as much in recent articles and interviews, many of which praise Trump for the job that he has done in bringing nativist and ethno-nationalist views to the forefront of political discourse.
Speaking to Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents – a website that describes itself as the “home of the North American New Right” – at the start of 2016, MacDonald claimed “the white working-class base that is horrified, I think, by the changes that are going on in this country is finally getting a voice in Donald Trump”, highlighting the way in which those that are sympathetic to the alt-right’s beliefs have been emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric.
Johnson, himself a former editor of the Occidental Observer, has echoed MacDonald’s views, claiming that “whatever happens with Trump, whether he gets the nomination or not, whether he wins the presidency or not, he’s already broken through a lot of taboos about what can be discussed in the political realm in America”.
It is within this statement that we get to the crux of the matter and start to understand the long-term implications that Trump’s candidacy could end up having on the Republican Party as a whole. For whilst Trump could, and most likely will, lose in November, his – and by implication the alt-right’s – views on ethnocentric issues are becoming entrenched in the minds of those Republicans that have become his biggest supporters.
It is far too simplistic to claim at this early stage that all of Trump’s supporters are members of the alt-right, but a belief that white Americans are under attack is a current that runs through large swathes of Trump’s backers.
Like all right-wing populist movements (many of which have been enjoying increasing success across Europe), Trump’s campaign has centred around an “us versus them” narrative that has proven to be extremely appealing for sections of the white working-class, many of whom feel threatened by economic insecurity and the changing face of modern America. Whilst they themselves may not necessarily be card-carrying “alt-righters”, there are clear overlaps in their beliefs and ideals, presenting the movement with fertile ground that they can use to grow.
Like the Tea Party movement at its height seven years ago, legitimisation of the alt-right’s beliefs through continual exposure presents them with the opportunity to further entrench themselves in the minds of Trump’s core supporters. Right-wing populism sprinkled with nativist rhetoric is a dangerous mix that has remained largely on the fringes of the Republican Party since Barry Goldwater’s devastating defeat in the 1964 presidential election, but, thanks to Trump, the alt-right and similar far-right groups now smell an opportunity to bring their brand of ultra-conservativism to the forefront of the party.
In the words of Chip Berlet, an investigative journalist specialising in extreme right-wing groups, the parallels between the Trump campaign and the alt-right are “the most important pushback against having a multicultural and pluralistic society since the 1920s Klan”.
The moderate wing of the Republican Party will no doubt attempt a pushback of their own as they attempt to regain control in a post-Trump world, but the worry for many is that the divisive and dangerous views that their nominee has espoused are here to stay.
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