Finding historical precedents for Donald Trump is not easy. It is clear that Trump is markedly different from the Republican presidents and presidential candidates that preceded him. The rash of preelection condemnations from George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney and even onetime arch conspiracist Glenn Beck make it evident that old-style corporatist and neoliberal Republicans do not consider the New York billionaire one of their kin. Trump’s isolationism sets him apart from the militarists of the Bush administration. His apparent protectionism and stated desire to invest in US infrastructure conflicts with the Ayn Rand libertarianism of people like Paul Ryan. Moreover, despite his selection of Mike Pence for running mate, Trump’s excessiveness, vulgarity and lack of commitment to conservative Christian values — with the exception of opposition to abortion — excludes him from the evangelical right. Even though all manner of conservatives are cozying up to him in the wake of his victory, Trump is a strange fit with the coalition that typified the Republican Party.
Why does it matter that Trump is not a typical Republican? Because it means that the kinds of criticism that we are used to unleashing upon the GOP will not necessarily succeed against Trump. One of the most common tactics used by the left has been to expose Republican politicians and programs as bigoted. This approach has been reasonably effective, not only because it is true that numerous Republican initiatives have a damaging effect upon disenfranchised populations, but also because discrimination is officially denounced within the Republican Party itself. The official rules of the GOP describe it as “the party of the open door … the party of liberty, the party of equality, of opportunity for all and favoritism for none.” Even though the Republican Party has, at least since the 1964 Goldwater campaign and the adoption of the white-supremacist Southern Strategy, instrumentalized the racial resentments of white Americans, it nevertheless has professed to be an inclusive organization.
Although the Republican Party routinely enacts policies that do disproportionate harm to people of color, up until very recently, it has denied the charge of being a vehicle for racial hatred. Most Republicans publicly disavow racism and sexism, in the past even going so far as to speak out against candidates who push explicitly hateful views or to force the resignation of politicians who were caught making overtly racist statements. This is not to say that we should believe Republicans when they claim to be non-discriminatory. Rather, it is to note that the charge of racism, sexism and bigotry actually has teeth when wielded against most mainstream Republican candidates, who generally reject accusations of discrimination. What sets Trump apart is that these accusations have no sting. Unlike mainstream Republicans, Trump seems to thrive upon claims of racism, sexism and bigotry.
If Trump is unlike most of the Republicans we have seen up until now, then how should we best characterize him?
Some have proposed that we understand Trump in the lineage of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte or Toronto’s Rob Ford. Like them, Trump won on the back of his authoritarian appeal, populist speeches and voicing of simmering resentment toward the political establishment. The rise to power of these figures seems to illustrate a turn within many industrial democracies toward strongmen whose chief allure is their apparent ability to do whatever they want. Like Berlusconi, Duterte and Ford, Trump is a demagogue whose simplistic answers to complex social ills resonate with a section of the electorate. None of these men seem to have any coherent political program, apart from taking a hammer to practices that were previously thought of as common sense. All they possess is a capacity to connect with a crowd and tell angry people what they want to hear.
Even if Trump and his counterparts are characterized by their vacillation and dearth of any firm policy positions, there is nevertheless a pattern at work behind their actions. Trump’s declarations, whether uttered in campaign rallies or over Twitter, are unpredictable but not random. What lies behind the vacuous mode of politics that New York Times columnist Frank Bruni called an “ideology of applause“? What is the core of the group that gives Trump the adulation he craves? What movement openly celebrates the anti-immigration, anti-Black, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-trans themes Trump deploys?
The Emboldening of White Supremacists and the Far Right
Trump is the organic expression of a sinister faction of right-wing thinkers that have up until now been restricted to the dark corners of the internet: the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, extreme religious traditionalists, anti-Semites, anarcho-capitalists and hardcore libertarians that together make up what white nationalist Richard Spencer describes as the “alt-right.” This host of regressive political communities also includes the so-called Men’s Rights Movement, the group responsible for instigating the Gamergate cyber attacks upon women in the video game industry. Jared Taylor, the head of the white nationalist New Century Foundation and one of the chief “intellectuals” of the self-described alt-right, has said that the president-elect, “instinctively, clumsily stumbled upon some of the policies that we’ve been promoting for a long time.” These are the people for whom Trump was not a protest candidate but instead a champion, the first high-profile figure to openly espouse their extreme cause. This movement embodies a violent identity politics for straight white men that rejects the very principle that all people on Earth deserve equal protection and dignity.
The white supremacists and other right-wing activists who describe themselves as the alt-right are united less by coherent shared policy positions and more by a number of strong feelings — mostly angry, hateful feelings directed toward the media, government institutions, universities and the so-called culture of political correctness. Members of this group describe the efforts of left-leaning academics, politicians, media outlets and celebrities to call out racism, sexism and homophobia when they see it as tyrannical developments that have stripped white men of their “rightful” power. Claiming that feminist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic political movements represent a turn away from universalism, and that efforts to criticize offensive speech amount to censorship, this group rejects both mainstream Democrat and Republican parties. Some members of the alt-right have hijacked the language of feminism in order to describe their movement as an intersectionalism of the right, which blends a wide spectrum of prejudices. The self-described alt-right gives a home to all who reject the idea that the government should provide for its citizens and that all people are equal. Trump’s vocal supporters — KKK leader David Duke, anti-Semitic media chairman Steve Bannon, anti-feminist and Islamophobic journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, white supremacist website The Daily Stormer, and an army of anonymous internet trolls posting racist Trump memes on 4chan and 8chan — comprise a veritable “who’s who” of the alt-right.
In order to identify the hub around which the varied spokes of this movement turn, it is necessary to examine one of the more intellectually “rigorous” factions of the movement: neoreaction. The principle voices of neoreaction are Curtis Yarvin, who goes by the pen name Mencius Moldbug, along with former University of Warwick professor and Deleuzian philosopher Nick Land. The central theme of neoreactionary doctrine, which is predominantly expressed via long, torturously written blog posts, is hardline opposition to what they call “the Cathedral,” the imagined alliance of institutional politics, academia, mass media and culture. The three major subsections of Breitbart News — the alt-right’s chief internet gateway — “Big Hollywood,” “Big Government” and “Big Journalism,” clearly echo these neoreactionary pillars.
What neoreactionaries find so abhorrent about “the Cathedral” is its promotion of things that we generally take for granted as the preconditions for political activism: namely, a belief in natural equality, human rights, social justice, egalitarianism and democracy. Land urges his followers to “stagger back in imagination before 2008 … remain in reverse until the Great Society/Civil Rights era … that is before backing out of the calamitous 20th century.” He calls for the creation of a “Dark Enlightenment,” which embraces the technologies and scientific achievements of the past 200 years, but rejects the progressive, universalist mode of politics that emerged after the French Revolution.
The neoreactionary movement is not just trying to slow down or partially reverse the advances made over the past decades by women, people of color and the LGBT community. Rather, it seeks to install a society in which equality as such is regarded as evil. While the left battled those who were unwilling to include everyone in the universal human community, a cabal of misanthropes was rejecting the very notion of a global humanity. Many of us underestimated the strength of the fringe, which sought to divide the world back into tribes.
Clinton’s campaign mistakenly — although understandably — thought that it would be sufficient merely to show that Trump was a racist, sexist, homophobic Islamophobe who affiliated with and enjoyed the support of far-right and neo-Nazi groups. What was unthinkable for the Democrats — and, indeed, for most in the center or on the left — was the possibility that there was a substantial enough movement in the United States that not only did not care for social progress, but instead was actively in support of radically anti-social causes. Many white liberals and progressives took for granted that almost no one wanted to be known as a racist or sexist, presuming that most people — even those whose political ideas we disagreed with — believed in a modicum of human decency. This is clearly not the case.
Where We Must Go
We are living in a world where simply exposing something as racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise bigoted is an insufficient form of political critique. Our enemies do not care about being outed in this way: to them, racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry are not inherently wrong. Their reaction to being called racists, sexists, homophobes and bigots is a shrug, if not a gleeful affirmation. More importantly, the voters who enabled this group to capture the presidency have proven to be unmoved by typical modes of leftist social critique. The left was unprepared to deal with the base appeals of this unabashed white nationalist politics. Years of combating neoliberals, Reaganite conservatives and 1950s nostalgists have made our movement as a whole vulnerable to those who want to turn the clock back to the 18th century.
It’s incredibly disturbing that so many Americans decided that Trump’s open hatred toward immigrants, women, people of color and the LGBT community did not exclude him from the presidency. It’s terrifying that a significant portion of the electorate was so cynical or apathetic about the political system that they were willing to elect an incompetent businessman, currently facing 75 civil lawsuits, to an office that he doesn’t even seem to understand. Nevertheless, it is important that we do not let our disgust and our fear prevent us from the difficult work of activism and coalition-building that is necessary to prevent the United States from becoming a reactionary dystopia.
Now that a coalition of authoritarians, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and corporate-oriented libertarians has captured the presidency, it is essential that we who are committed to the notion of a more just, more inclusive, more sustainable world are prepared for the challenges that await us. We must work to find people of goodwill — that is, people who embrace the notion of a global humanity — wherever we can. A broad, radically inclusive political movement, composed of all people who believe in universal human rights and social protections, should be set against Trump and the alt-right. Our enemies today do not simply want to slow down or reverse the train of social progress, they want to throw the train off the tracks.
Not everyone who voted for Trump actively ascribes to a white supremacist agenda. Probably the majority do not. Many of the states that went to Trump voted decisively for Obama in the past two elections. We need to ensure that they don’t decide that it is better to tear it all down than reform it.
In order to do this, we must find a way to provide material, as opposed to simply symbolic, support for the multitude of populations that progressive institutions claim to represent. What Trump promises to his chosen audience, a subsection of the American population, is power or, at the very least, vengeance. We must do better.
Our timeline is short. We cannot fail.