It is always tempting to dismiss the importance of America’s far right to the nation’s political trajectory, given the torrent of absurd and frankly false claims of its proponents, whether regarding the birth certificate of a president or the meaning of the Constitution. But around the world, the far right is on the rise, infecting nearly every Western democracy, and ours is hardly immune. Witness the election of Donald J. Trump, which most progressives and liberals had deemed impossible. After spending a weekend at the Values Voter Summit, an annual conference hosted by the political arm of the Family Research Council, I fear that same denial remains strong, even in the Age of Trump.
Were there ever a doubt that the Christian right, as represented by the Family Research Council, was anything other than a white Christian identity movement, that notion was laid to rest at this year’s Values Voter Summit, which took place October 13 and 14 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. In fact, you might say that this year’s gathering of right-wing believers contained many of the elements of a Stephen K. Bannon production—a combination of fire, brimstone, explosions, and nationalism, presented in an acrid cloud of coded racism.
Bannon, the propagandist and former chief presidential strategist—a man known more for his foul mouth than his piety—delivered a dark, apocalyptic address to the Values Voter audience, upstaging Trump in the headlines that followed. Sure, Trump received an enthusiastic response when he addressed the conference the day before, but Bannon’s burn-it-all-down litany of grievances set the house on fire. Enthusiasm for Bannon was not dampened by the astonishing BuzzFeed report on the ways in which Bannon courted white supremacists to grow the audience of Breitbart.com, the noxious right-wing website he oversees as executive chairman.
Bannon’s attack from the Values Voter stage on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which included a promise to back primary challenges to each of the incumbent Republican senators up for re-election next year (with the exception of Texan Ted Cruz), prompted what may go down in history as the most awkward presidential press conference ever, when Trump appeared in the White House Rose Garden on Monday, McConnell at his side.
“Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing,” Trump said when asked to respond to Bannon’s declared “war” on “the Republican establishment as personified by Mitch McConnell” and the targeted senators. “Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk him out of that, because frankly, they're great people,” Trump added. But the president had not an unkind word to say about Bannon, who served as CEO of Trump’s campaign, and has come to represent the heart of Trump’s base. The violence perpetrated in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists may be seen as yesterday’s news, but Trump’s tortured mixed-messaging on the subject had everything to do with that base and its sympathies.
A menacing undercurrent flowed throughout the Values Voter conference, not only in hyperbolic descriptions of the supposed threats to Western civilization posed by Islam and the American left, but in veiled threats, couched in the language of violence, directed at opponents of the Trump agenda.
Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina and chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, described his ideological fellows as bullets, and Republicans who opposed him as “duds” that should be “ejected from the chamber.” Sebastian Gorka, who was pushed from his role as a White House adviser after an uproar over his links to a neo-Nazi group in Hungary, spoke of the greater “damage” he and Bannon would do to the left now that they were no longer a part of the Trump administration. Bannon likened McConnell to Julius Caesar on the eve of Caesar’s assassination. (He did take a moment to qualify his comments as metaphorical.)
Even Family Research Council President Tony Perkins got into the violent-imagery act.
“An old farmer once told me, ‘If you throw a rock into a pigpen, you can always tell which one you hit by who squeals the loudest,’” Perkins said in one of his many turns at the podium. “That sounds pretty simple, but it’s revealing when you hear how loud the left is squealing.”
Given Perkins’s own history, it’s hardly surprising that he would align himself with the likes of Gorka and Bannon, with their ties to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. If anything, Perkins knows his own base. In 1996, Perkins ran the U.S. Senate campaign of Louisiana Republican Woody Jenkins, for which he purchased the phone-bank lists used by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in Duke’s gubernatorial campaign. David Duke was the first Klan leader to work in concert with neo-Nazi groups, as reported by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons in their book, Right-Wing Populism in America.
In 2001, during his tenure as a Louisiana state legislator, Perkins addressed the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Bannon’s remarks to the religious-right confab was his prediction of a bloody conflict to come, and his assurance to the Values Voters that they would be “the folks who saved the Judeo-Christian West.” He warned that America is now at the point of a “fourth turning”—a reference to the theory of historical cycles put forth by amateur historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, which divides history into cycles of roughly 80 years, each one punctuated by a period of cataclysmic bloodletting.
“We are in the valley of decision,” Bannon said. “This is the fourth great turning in American history. We have had the [American] Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression/World War II. We will be one thing or the other on the other side of it. We are either going to be the country that was bequeathed to previous generations and to you, or we will be something else.”
This backlash, he said, was the result of the “economic hate crimes” perpetrated by the “corporatist clients” of people like Mitch McConnell, the Davos crowd, “the elites.”
According to The New York Times’s reading of Strauss and Howe’s book, “The authors envision a return to a more traditional, conservative social order as one outcome of a crisis. They also see the possibility of retribution and punishment for those who resist or refuse to comply with the new expectations for conformity.”
While it’s true that the people to whom Bannon speaks do not comprise a majority of the American population, Trump has already proven that you don’t need a majority of the popular vote to win the presidency. Republicans have quickly become expert at winning at the margins, be they margins created by algorithmically determined congressional districts, or microtargeted Facebook ads designed to suppress turnout among the targeted communities.
Significant leaders among the Christian right are on board with Bannon’s scheme to once again alter the DNA of the GOP by making it hospitable only to those who uphold the Bannon worldview. And the followers don’t seem to mind that Bannon described them in his talk as characters in a beloved fantasy. Speaking of his own worries ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Bannon told the audience that he was assured that “the Hobbits in the Shire are turning out the vote.”
Come 2020, they’ll no doubt be trudging the Shire again, along with Russian bots—in solidarity with the thugs who plagued Charlottesville and the far right of Europe. To dismiss the allure of Bannon’s dystopian nationalism is folly. Such folly is how authoritarians emerge from democracies. While Dumpster fires burn everywhere in the form of oppressive legislation and false narratives, there’s a big conflagration glowing on the ridge. It will take more than a bucket brigade to put it out.