It is tempting to view President Donald Trump’s response to the weekend mob of murderous neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a logical, if morally heinous, extension of Southern Strategy politics.
Liberal journalists, including Judd Legum and Chris Hayes, have adopted an analysis of cynicism, in which Trump has intuited the importance of white supremacists to his political coalition, and will thus go to great lengths to placate them, so the coalition doesn’t splinter.
This thinking feels so plausible in part because the Southern Strategy is such a well understood facet of modern Republicanism. It can’t be a stretch to accuse the Republican president of deploying the most elemental of Republican political tactics.
The truth is in fact far worse. Trump and many of his closest advisers aren’t making common cause with vile racists for political advantage. They are the vile racists, and are supporting fellow racists at substantial political risk because they want the racist vision to prevail.
The argument that Trump appeases and placates white supremacists as a form of coalition management is an argument that proves too much. If it were correct, Trump would have something to show for it that other Republicans who flirt with only subtler bigotries do not. Instead, Trump ran behind nearly every Republican senator who was in cycle in 2016. He managed to win the presidency despite garnering fewer votes not only than his opponent, Hillary Clinton, but than any victorious president since 2000, in population-adjusted terms.
In his remarks on Saturday, when he infamously condemned bigotry “on many sides,” Trump also admonished citizens to “love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history.” This all sounds banal enough until you place it in the context of the unrest itself. Nazis and neo-Confederates gathered in Charlottesville, nominally at least, to protest plans to remove a monument to Robert E. Lee from a city park. The generic appeal to history is the pretext racists use to support the valorization of a slave society and its military leaders. Trump didn’t just draw a moral equivalence between Nazis and counter-protesters, but took the Nazis’ side in the dispute that motivated their violence.
Trump is most likely not literate enough to have composed those words. His affinity for white supremacists is more atavistic than intellectual. It is almost certain, though, that this particular coded language was written into his prepared text by one of three fascistic advisers: Stephen Miller, a one-time fellow traveler of Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right”; Sebastian Gorka, the bellowing ogre who was affiliated with the Nazi-aligned Hungarian nationalist order of Vitézi Rend; or Steve Bannon, the anti-modernist Breitbart impresario who idolizes Nazi propagandists.
Not everyone who works for Trump supports the same ends as the racists in Charlottesville, but those who do have created a formidable power center within the White House. Contrary to myth, the caretaker generals of the Trump administration have not fully cleaned house, and to the extent that they’ve driven some messianic right-wingers from the administration, the imprint those departed staffers have left behind is unmistakable.
Most recently, The Atlantic reported that national security advisor General H.R. McMaster had removed a former Pentagon official named Rich Higgins from the National Security Council after discovering that Higgins had written and circulated a paranoid and wildly inappropriate memo, which argues that conducting “political warfare” against Trump’s enemies is a matter of dire urgency for the country.
Last week, Foreign Policy obtained the memo and published it online. It is seven pages long and completely demented. Higgins posits a vast alliance spanning establishment Republicans and Marxists who together with Islamists employ “Maoist insurgency” tactics, including the formation of a “counter-state” which “function[s] as a hostile competing state acting within an existing state,” aimed at eventually “seizing state power.” It is all the way around the bend. But its existence is no accident, and its content reflects a non-outlying viewpoint, held by many senior officials in the administration, including the president himself. According to Foreign Policy, the memo made its way from the NSC to Donald Trump’s eldest son. Trump, Jr. reportedly shared it with his father who “gushed over it” and became “furious” when he learned that Higgins had been fired.
The memo is, in a critical sense, a governing incarnation of the notorious pro-Trump treatise “The Flight 93 Election,” published in September of last year. That essay, nearly as unmoored from reality, held out similar enemies as foils to motivate Trump-skeptical conservatives to vote for him nonetheless. First, saving the country from imagined forces like “cultural marxism,” and real forces like white demographic decline, required conservatives to abandon their moral bearings. Now that he’s president, it requires enlisting the national security apparatus into political war against those same enemies—their own countrymen. “The Flight 93 Election” was published pseudonymously, then revealed to have been written by Michael Anton, who now serves—where else?—on Trump’s National Security Council.
The arrival of these ugly people and their ugly views into the halls of power would be alarming even if they hadn’t infiltrated the security services. Upon Trump’s election, the National Rifle Association transformed almost overnight from an organization that posed as a civil liberties advocacy group into, essentially, a pro-government paramilitary outfit. The fantasy of mowing protesters over with cars became so potent among Trump’s core supporters that Republicans in several states introduced legislation aimed at indemnifying motorists who strike protesters with motor vehicles.
The killing in Charlottesville wasn’t an unintended consequence of allowing white supremacists to coexist with others in the conservative coalition. It was the realization of concerted efforts to make their vision of politics a dominant strand within the party. That white supremacists and Nazis feel redeemed by Trump’s election, permitted by his words to stir up more Charlottesvilles, isn’t a consequence Trump and his brigade of racists have simply made peace with. It’s the thing in itself.