On Monday morning, after two days of flailing around with ambiguous statements, President Donald Trump finally denounced the racist violence that led to the death of a counter-protester in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists,” Trump remarked in a prepared statement. The words themselves were unremarkable, but it’s astounding that it took a behind-the-scenes struggle to get Trump to utter them, after he had weaselly blamed “many sides” for the fatal violence.
There are several possible explanations for Trump’s reluctance to condemn racism, starting with the fact that the president is personally a racist, as evident by his long history of housing discrimination and incendiary remarks, including his lead role in promoting in birtherism. More strategically, Trump might have feared alienating white nationalists who supported him in the election.
But a bizarre memo from a fired National Security Council official, made public on Thursday by Foreign Policy, offers a window into the larger ideology that makes Trump so loath to say anything critical of white supremacist groups. The memo, written in May by NSC official Rich Higgins, who was later fired, blames “cultural Marxism” as the root ideology animating political opposition to Trump.
“This is not politics as usual but rather political warfare at an unprecedented level that is openly engaged in the direct targeting of a seated president through manipulation of the news cycle,” Higgins wrote. “It must be recognized on its own terms so that immediate action can be taken. At its core, these campaigns run on multiple lines of effort, serve as the non-violent line of effort of a wider movement, and execute political warfare agendas that reflect cultural Marxist outcomes.” According to Higgins, “cultural Marxism” is either allied with or animating such disparate anti-Trump forces as Islamists, Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Brotherhood, the academy, the media, the Democratic Party, globalists, international bankers, late night TV comedians, the “Deep State,” and moderate Republicans.
The memo has been immensely polarizing within the Trump administration. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster forced Higgins out over the memo, but Trump reportedly was a fan of it. As Foreign Policy reports:
Trump Jr., at that time in the glare of media scrutiny around his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, gave the memo to his father, who gushed over it, according to sources.
In a comedy of errors, Trump later learned from Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close friend of the president, that the memo’s author had been fired. Trump was “furious,” the senior administration official said. “He is still furious.”
The memo itself is now a source of tension between Trump and McMaster. But the implications of it are far greater than whatever comes of the latest feud in the White House. Trump’s apparent support for the views expressed by Higgins suggests that the president’s denial of racism, sexism, and homophobia in America is not merely the result of a political calculation, but a deep conviction.
At first glance, it’s hard to see how the memo, written in barely coherent academic jargon that sounds like a parody of a professor, could have any appeal to Trump. “While the attacks on President Trump arise out of political warfare considerations based on non-kinetic lines of effort ... they operate in a battle-space prepared, informed and conditioned by cultural Marxist drivers,” Higgins wrote. “As used in this discussion, cultural Marxism relates to programs and activities that arise out of Gramsci Marxism, Fabian Socialism and most directly from the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt strategy deconstructs societies through attacks on culture by imposing a dialectic that forces unresolvable contradictions under the rubric of critical theory.”
It takes some effort to translate this gibberish into English, but here is the gist of Higgins’s argument: Trump embodies traditional American values, which are under siege by political forces that accuse him of racism, sexism, and homophobia; but these critiques are not valid because they are “memes” created by cultural Marxists for the express purpose of destroying Western civilization.
Holding up “cultural Marxists” as the mastermind of all evil in the world is not original to Higgins, but an old trope on the conspiratorial far right. The actual historical “cultural Marxists” were the Frankfurt School of social thinkers who formed in the 1920s, notably T.W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse (some parallel thinkers like Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs are also sometimes grouped with them). The Frankfurt School emerged during the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, both movements they opposed. What defined the Frankfurt School was their argument that a purely economic account of history was inadequate for accounting for the new dictatorships. Instead, there was a need for cultural analysis of authoritarianism, racism, and patriarchy.
During the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse, then teaching in San Diego, rose to prominence as a mentor to the New Left. Angela Davis, who also studied with Adorno, was Marcuse’s protege, and some New Left activists cited Marcuse’s abstruse works. Right-wing groups, notably the John Birch Society, made Marcuse a scapegoat for the upheavals of the 1960s. Marcuse himself received death threats from a right-wing militia. In a 1971 interview with Playboy, actor John Wayne blamed Marcuse for student protests, saying, “Marcuse has become a hero only for an articulate clique. The men that give me faith in my country are fellas like Spiro Agnew, not the Marcuses.”
The conspiracy theory was later revived in the 1980s by the paleo-conservative thinker William S. Lind, who claimed that the Frankfurt School was the foundation for political correctness. Via Lind, it has become a popular argument on the far right, often cited by figures like columnist Pat Buchanan and the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik. In a 2012 interview, Buchanan said, “Cultural Marxism has certainly been more successful than the economic Marxism of the 19th century and the Leninism associated with it.”
The theory that the Frankfurt School is the root of political correctness is historically absurd. Anti-racism, feminism, and the gay rights movement all have roots that well precede the Frankfurt School and owe far more to the activism of women, people of color, and LGBT individuals than to any German theorist. While Marcuse was friendly with the New Left, his main work dealt with themes of the impact of technology that are far removed from political activism. Although nominally they were on the political left, Adorno and the other members of the Frankfurt School had little truck with activism (and indeed were often accused by their students of being hermetically removed from practical politics). In an infamous 1969 incident, feminist students mocked what they saw as Adorno’s prudishness by baring their breasts to him. Adorno was a deeply Eurocentric thinker who hated jazz. Horkheimer defended the Vietnam War and admired the Catholic Church’s stance against birth control. These are not thinkers than can plausibly be seen as the creators of modern political correctness or debates about identity politics.
But the “cultural Marxism” myth persists because it’s convenient for the right, allowing them to pretend that bigotry is not a real problem but rather an ideology created by sinister thinkers, who, as it happens, were Jewish. As Jason Wilson noted in The Guardian, “The theory of cultural Marxism is also blatantly antisemitic, drawing on the idea of Jews as a fifth column bringing down western civilisation from within, a racist trope that has a longer history than Marxism. Like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theory was fabricated to order, for a special purpose: the institution and perpetuation of culture war.”
The fact that Trump reportedly loved this memo is deeply disturbing. It’s one thing to say that the extent of racism, sexism, and homophobia can be debated. It’s much more extreme to argue that racism, sexism, and homophobia don’t exist at all, but are illusions created by crafty thinkers to fool the masses.
The memo offers a clue to the extent of Trump’s bigotry. It’s not just that he’s a visceral bigot, but also, on some level, intellectually committed to bigotry. With the encouragement of white nationalist advisers like Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka, Trump is attracted to ideas that absolve society of the need to deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia. There’s no surprise that a president who “gushed” over the cultural Marxism memo had to be dragged kicking and screaming into saying “racism is evil,” since on some level he probably doesn’t think racism even exists.