By Max Fenton
On the campaign trail, President Trump made the controversial and racist slogan of “America First” the center of his foreign policy, and it worked. Trump tapped into a feeling of war-weariness and mistrust of dreaded “globalism,” a vision that appealed to alt-right feelings of racist nationalism for decades. The “America First” message was tied to a racist, paranoid vision of isolationism favored by racists who opposed American entry into World War II. In the ‘20s, the Ku Klux Klan used the slogan verbatim; since then, it has been a resounding component of racist nationalism. Nevertheless, it was a message that was popular: a Politico poll from January reports 65 percent of Americans agreed with the “America First” message of Trump’s inaugural address.
Like most of his promises made on the campaign trail, President Trump has lied yet again. In the past month, American involvement overseas has ramped up as has political discourse surrounding American foreign policy choices. Recent American strikes on Syria have produced a polarized reaction in global political discourse. While much of the mainstream American media hailed President Trump’s decision as “decisive,” “presidential” and “the right thing to do,” others have condemned the strikes as cavalier, running the risk of causing an international incident. Russia (correctly) argued the strikes were in violation of international laws of war. The strikes came at a particularly fraught moment globally. Multiple superpowers have stakes in the Syrian conflict; he question of ramping up American intervention quickly becomes an existential one considering the region’s potential for implosion.
Trump has abandoned one of his key promises, and it looks increasingly likely that he will continue to break from his isolationism and move towards more “normal” (albeit reactionary) conservatism.
With Steve Bannon on the skids and the technocratic, managerial Jared Kushner taking his place, international politics are probably headed for a repeat of the hawkishness of the Bush years rather than a bold retreat from the global stage. The strikes projected American power in the face of global rivals. Coupled with increased international involvement in East Asia and Afghanistan, the Trump presidency seems to be abandoning its “America First” bonafides in favor of a more neoconservative international approach. How this decision is playing out in domestic politics is particularly interesting, especially as related to Trump’s base. The alt-right are among President Trump’s most ardent defenders, emerging from particularly fetid Internet swamps to harangue anyone who dares disagree with their leader’s policies. But within the context of Syria, the Trump faithful have emerged in a peculiar, but internally consistent opposition, to recent American strikes.
The alt-right has claimed that all the media concern about Trump’s competence is a series of falsehoods. Rather than the more likely scenario that Trump has no clue what he’s doing, he is playing 4-dimensional chess and his brinkmanship will work out in the end. But even the feverishly loyal Trump cult has lost its respect for their leader because of his foreign policy choices. Noteworthy racist and anti-Semite Richard Spencer tweeted that Trump must be a “deep state plant,” and toyed with the idea of supporting the Assad-apologist Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard for president in 2020. Paul Joseph Watson, editor at the conspiratorial website ‘Infowars’, is “officially off the Trump train” as of April 6. The myriad of blank “egg profiles” on Twitter and throwaway accounts on /r/The_Donald are scrambling to internally justify the Trump foreign policy moves by arguing he’s the victim of an international conspiracy.
But what does this ultimately mean for Trump’s base? With the increasing skepticism of alt-right ideologues as to Trump’s nationalist bonafides, it is likely they will turn to other, more international concerns. Watson replied to several tweets saying he would focus his efforts on the Le Pen campaign in France, saying that she is the real politician. Many have taken to defending Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad as “strong leaders” that Trump would be wise to emulate. With Steve Bannon’s rapid descent in political influence, it seems increasingly likely that far-right media will become increasingly critical of Trump in favor of international right-wingers. It seems that a series of cracks are emerging in the once-strong relationship between Donald Trump and the alt-right. It remains to be seen if their embrace of international fascists will cripple the movement or only further embolden its reactionary politics.