Donald Trump’s rebrand of American conservatism was largely aesthetic. The mogul was far from the first Republican to dress up the one percent’s agenda in populist garb; or to pin blame for the middle class’s decline on a conspiracy between rootless elites and an undeserving minority; or to shore up a fragile sense of national esteem and identity by defining it against an evil, foreign other.
Like most pop-culture phenoms, Trump added a few idiosyncratic touches to a tried-and-true formula, and, thus, generated a sound both reassuringly familiar and thrillingly new. Specifically, the candidate traded the party’s decades-old racial dog whistles for foghorns, while revitalizing the genre of right-wing demagoguery by borrowing flourishes from the domains of professional wrestling and reality television.
Still, Trump’s innovations weren’t entirely stylistic. Nor were they all merely amplifications of inherited themes. His anti-trade diatribes were genuinely new for a Republican nominee, at least for the past half-century. And, occasionally, he directed his populist fury past the bureaucrats and cultural elites whom Nixon so reviled, and up to the owners of capital (albeit, strictly the “international,” implicitly Jewish sort).
But Trump’s most radical and persistent break with convention came on foreign policy. No candidate, in either major party, spewed venom more acidic on the subject of the Iraq War. And Trump shot it straight into the face of George W. Bush’s brother, in a South Carolina auditorium packed with Jeb’s well-wishers.
Over 18 months of campaigning, the geriatric demagogue maintained a consistent line on very few things. But the hypocritical horrors of humanitarian intervention was one of them. The Trump doctrine on the Middle East was, in many respects, evil, impractical, and illegal. But it offered coherence, and a cathartic acknowledgment of the oft-ignored trauma of Iraq: If we drop bombs over there, let’s do it kill terrorists and their families, or to confiscate natural resources, but not to save a bunch of Muslims from a secular dictator who kills jihadists.
Of course, this posture was not Trump’s own invention. It was broadly similar to the brand of isolationism preached by Pat Buchanan and the long-marginalized, paleoconservative wing of the Republican Party. Which made Trump’s primary victory its own kind of regime change: The foreign-policy elite was the one segment of the GOP coalition to abandon its standard-bearer in large numbers and loud tones. When Trump won anyway, the neo-paleocons (a.k.a. the alt-right) collected the keys to the kingdom.
Or so they thought.
On Tuesday, heartrending images of children murdered by toxic gas emerged from Syria. Two days later, Trump was excoriating Bashar al-Assad for murdering “beautiful babies” — the very babies he spent his entire campaign vowing to keep out of our country.
“No child of God should have to suffer such horror,” the president said, shortly after American planes dropped 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airfield.
Less than four years earlier, after an apparent chemical attack by the Assad regime killed 1,400 Syrians, Trump implored the president to save his “powder.”
Now, following a chemical attack that killed 70 people, Trump had committed an act of war against the secular dictator whose terrorist-killing skills he had previously praised — all in the name of human rights. While both he and other members of his administration were already making noises about regime change.
And all this came one day after the Buchananites’ champion in the West Wing — Breitbart mastermind Steve Bannon — was evicted from the National Security Council’s principals committee, a demotion that his allies attributed to Jared Kushner, the White House’s most powerful Jewish lifelong Democrat.
As of Friday morning, the alt-right was not alright.
Mike Cernovich — the reactionary blogger and nootropics evangelist who recently won Donald Trump Jr.’s praise for “breaking” the Susan Rice “story” — started the hashtag #SyriaHoax Thursday afternoon, claiming that the chemical attack was a false-flag operation by jihadist rebels hoping to attract American air support.
When it became clear that Trump did not accept this alternative fact, Cernovich tweeted his grief.
Infowars’s Paul Joseph Watson broke with Trump more decisively.
Alt-right Twitter personality, and self-described good Christian boy, Baked Alaska offered similar sentiments:
Ann Coulter, a longtime fixture in far-right media, who has tightly aligned herself with her party’s populist-nationalist wing, asked, in so many words, “Won’t somebody please think of the Christians?”
Alex Jones dipped into his emergency stash of dank Voltaire memes.
It seems doubtful that principled isolationists make up a large portion of Trump’s voting base. While the mogul did win new voters to his party in a few critical regions, the overwhelming majority of his coalition were the same people who pulled the lever for two terms of Bush, McCain, and Romney. It’s quite possible that the president will gain more supporters by diverting focus to a display of American military might than he’ll lose by betraying the foreign-policy vision he campaigned on.
But if committed opponents of neoconservatism make up a small part of the conservative electorate, they make up a good portion of the audience for niche right-wing media enterprises like Infowars and Breitbart. And both those outlets built their brands, in no small part, by cultivating the paranoid rage of conservatives who felt betrayed by elites in both parties. Trump’s win was an enormous boon to these sites, but it was also a challenge. Maintaining an antiestablishment ethos and an adulatory attitude to the president of the United States is no easy task. Ambivalence makes for much weaker copy than unadulterated outrage.
So, alt-right media has something to gain from reassuming its role as the reactionary opposition. But it also has plenty to lose. The far-right fever swamp has never enjoyed such intimate access to the halls of power. And its various news outlets and media personalities have supplemented their core audiences with devotees of the Trump personality cult.
For now, expect most on the alt-right to try to square this circle by blaming the president’s treachery on Jared Kushner’s nefarious influence — and calling on all red-blooded patriots to take their White House back, and make Trump great again.