Trump, Putin, and the Alt-Right International

In boosting Trump and funding fringe parties in Europe, Russia has helped construct a new kind of "comintern"—and it's even more effective than the Cold War version.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 19, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 19, 2016. (Alexei Nikolsky / Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters)

One of the double-edged aspects of being a writer is that you can become known in all kinds of unlikely circles. That was what I was thinking when I pulled a large envelope out of my mailbox. The return address was Germany; the cover letter (in German) announced that I was the recipient of Compact magazine, and more oddly, requested that I should send an email confirming receipt.

The magazine itself, also in German, was about politics. A superficial look might suggest it was the anti-American manifesto of some fringe left-wing German group (“Heil Hillary! Candidate of US Fascism” reads one headline), but closer inspection revealed it came from the other end of the ideological spectrum.

A glance at a political profile of Jürgen Elsässer, Compact’s purported editor, discloses that he had been an extreme leftist who opposed German reunification and worked for Neues Deutschland, once the official newspaper of the East German Socialist Unity Party, the client Communist Party ruling East Germany in the interests of the USSR. Yet at some point in the 2000s, he migrated to the far right, and is now aligned with the new anti-immigrant party, Alternative für Deutschland. The prestigious newspaper die Zeit flat out calls Elsässer a Kremlin propagandist.

Elsässer’s shift from one political extreme to the other suggests that that he is an apparatchik whose first loyalty has likely always been to Moscow. When the USSR represented an authoritarian version of the left, he was a leftist; when the party line of the successor Russian state changed to right-wing authoritarianism, he obediently tacked right—a circumstance which shows that “left” and “right” are often arbitrary categories, particularly when considering the fringes.

This year, the German public television network ZDF produced a documentary tracing the ideological and financial ties between Russia and extreme right-wing elements; among those elements was Elsässer. His own blogs show an over-the-top enthusiasm for the Russian regime, such as comparing Putin’s bombing of Aleppo with the Russian defense of Stalingrad. Whatever the realities of the situation in Syria, Russian intervention in the conflict hardly merits comparison with the decisive turning point of the Second World War.

There were other suggestions of Russian fingerprints on Elsässer’s magazine. It was printed on coated stock, with lots of photos and fairly high production values. Fringe parties generally can’t afford the production costs of this sort of thing—unless they are getting a bit of financial help. The editorial tone was a kind of unholy marriage between and the Russian-funded website Sputnik, with a little Völkischer Beobachter thrown in for good measure (there was generous use of the term “Lügenpresse”—the lying press, a term popularized by the Nazis.) More to the point, it was written in the breathless, apocalyptic manner of the Soviet anti-NATO propaganda I used to see as a national-security analyst in Congress in the 1980s—with one exception.

Classic Soviet propaganda always treated Democrats and Republicans as essentially indistinguishable and interchangeable components of the bourgeois power structure, both equally worthy of denunciation. Compact, however, had several articles explicitly endorsing Donald J. Trump as an all-around swell guy, with one explaining how a President Trump would improve U.S. relations with Russia.

The propaganda message of this magazine crossed a threshold of sorts. The hacking of the Democratic National Committee that has been attributed to the Russians by the U.S. government is obviously intended to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, but the Russian government, and Vladimir Putin above all, have been careful to avoid being seen publicly praising or attacking either candidate.

Yet Putin, or at least his European allies, apparently see it as worth their while to spend money attacking Hillary and talking about Trump in terms so flattering that Caesar would have blushed, in a country whose citizens don’t have a vote in America’s election in any case. The Soviet Union’s goals in attempting to rouse the European (and above all, German) public against, say, NATO’s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s was straightforward and understandable, but why would an ideological ally of Russia puff up Donald Trump to a German public that cannot vote for him?

The strategy becomes more comprehensible when one acknowledges that Trump received the nomination of one of America’s two major parties, and, not long ago, was tied with Clinton in the polls. The message to nationalist and authoritarian-minded Germans is that Trump is a model: If, in the self-styled “greatest democracy in the world” the demagogic real estate mogul could have a decent shot at becoming president, then the right-wing fringe parties of Germany and the rest of Europe are not toiling in vain. If they work hard enough and employ the right themes, they can win.

According to Igor Eidman, a sociologist and cousin of the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Putin’s policy objective in Germany is clear: The country is the keystone of Europe, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is by default the principal figure holding Europe together as a political entity. She is also the only Western leader to grow up under communist rule: She knows what the Stasi was like and also the KGB, Putin’s former employer (he was posted to East Germany before its collapse). Merkel is less than fond of Putin and the feeling is mutual.

When Merkel unwisely led with her chin at the height of the European refugee crisis, she provided an opening for right-wing parties in her own country and the rest of Europe to make electoral gains over the flood of refugees. She also granted Putin, smarting from Western sanctions over Ukraine, an opportunity for payback.

The amusing irony is that leaders of the nationalist-authoritarian right in Europe campaign on a platform of national sovereignty while rubles jingle in their pockets. Marine Le Pen’s National Front requested a 27-million euro loan from Russia, according to the party’s own treasurer. Nigel Farage, the former UK Independence Party leader and Brexit engineer, has appeared on RT, the Russian government-subsidized media empire (it spends more on foreign broadcasting than any other entity except the BBC). Farage may be better known to American political junkies for speaking at a Trump rally in Mississippi.

There is a fascinating historical parallel here: Throughout the Cold War, Moscow subsidized the leftist fringe in Western Europe. Now it does the same with right-wing parties there—same tactics, different ideological players.

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One massive difference is this: If Trump’s own words are anything to go by, not to mention the activities of some of his former advisers like Paul Manafort and Carter Page, Moscow may have made inroads in the United States (Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, once mooted to become Trump’s vice-presidential candidate, remains an adviser; he has been a regular contributor to the Russian-funded news channel RT and was a paid guest at an RT gala where he was seated next to Putin—odd behavior for a former Defense Intelligence Agency director with the highest security clearances). Never in its wildest dreams could the old Soviet politburo have imagined it would get a U.S. major party candidate so congenial to its interests. All it had to work with was poor, old Gus Hall, the Communist Party USA’s perennial hapless candidate!

Compared to the Clinton emails or Trump’s Access Hollywood scandal, this has been an underplayed story, given the grave implications of foreign intervention in an American election. While an FBI investigation into improperly managed emails has already significantly influenced the presidential election (with the Bureau’s most recent lead growing from an investigation launched by revelations in a British tabloid article), the Department of Justice has been oddly passive, at least in public, in the face of substantial evidence of political subversion resulting from an adversarial foreign government’s spending resources to affect that same election.

FBI director James Comey has been publicly inert over the astounding spectacle of a presidential candidate encouraging the Russian government to release the content of emails stolen from American servers, with that government subsequently complying. In contrast to Comey’s unprecedented volubility over the Clinton emails (a case in which no one has been charged), the FBI has been unusually dilatory with timely information about potential Russian involvement in the election.

We are now witnessing a curious phenomenon: The resurgent far-right parties in numerous Western countries, which harp incessantly on the sovereignty, independence, and world-historical uniqueness of whichever country they happen to live in, have self-organized into a transnational alt-right “comintern” that appears to be more effective than the leftist comintern of the Soviet era. No doubt this development was inevitable in the age of digital communication, but it has undeniably received a boost from the Kremlin. It also bears emphasis not only that Russia is attempting to influence politics in Western nations, but that this influence comes prepackaged with a specific ideological content.

As is well known, Putin’s domestic political adversaries have a distressing tendency to end up dead, often from exotic radiological poisons like polonium-210, and even living in exile abroad does not always keep them safe, as Alexander Litvinenko found out. If this were the end of the tale, it would be a neat and tidy one with a storybook villain (Putin) and good guys (Americans). But things are never that simple, just as the Cold War was never quite a Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness.

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When German reunification was being negotiated in 1990, the soon-to-be-defunct Soviet Union believed it had a deal: In return for reunification and the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the Western parties to the treaty (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) would agree not to push NATO membership into the former Warsaw Pact territories.

But this would change as the result of a mindless search for issues during the otherwise vacuous 1996 U.S. presidential election campaign. First, Republican nominee Bob Dole proposed early deployment of a missile-defense scheme that would likely have Russia as the potential “threat.” This, in the minds of Dole’s handlers, would surely lock in the Eastern European ethnic vote in big Midwestern cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.

Not to be outdone in vote pandering, the incumbent, Bill Clinton, countered with a proposal to expand NATO into Eastern Europe. By 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic had joined NATO. Continuing in the tradition of bipartisan foreign-policy overreach, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, invited additional countries to join the alliance, and by 2004, another seven countries joined, bringing NATO east of what had been the borders of the old Soviet Union.

It is too often forgotten that in late 2001, Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a gratuitous slap at Russia in view of the fact that in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Russia both shared intelligence on Islamic extremist groups with America, and also granted the U.S. military transit rights over Russian territory for deployment to Afghanistan.

NATO’s overtures to Georgia were clearly the limit, as Putin demonstrated when he sent military forces against that country in 2008. The move also clearly telegraphed what he would do if NATO accession were offered to Ukraine, a country far more integral to Russia’s security than Georgia. Parts of Ukraine extend east of Moscow’s longitude, a fact that would certainly be riveted in the minds of a government whose people have ancestral memories of devastating invasions from the West stretching back centuries.

The Russian response was perfectly predictable in February 2014, when the Ukrainian opposition, egged on by U.S. diplomatic personnel, overthrew the Russia-friendly regime of Viktor Yanukovych. The rough equivalent from the American perspective would be as if, hypothetically, a coup occurred in Ottawa that was assisted by Chinese “advisers.” Does anyone doubt that Washington would take drastic measures under the circumstances?

The infamous hack of the cell-phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, in which they speculated on who would be the “right” people to run Ukraine, was widely viewed in America as an unsporting trick perpetrated by Putin’s secret service. In reality, Nuland and Pyatt screwed up: When talking on unencrypted devices on territory adjacent to Russia amid intense civil strife, what did they expect would happen, anyway? The fact that they were treated back home as victims rather than punished as security risks and diplomatic loose cannons is evidence of the clannishness, naïve self-righteousness, and self-referentiality that often prevail among Washington’s national security elite.

Finally, Putin has begun to reciprocate against imprudent U.S. actions like Bush’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty with impulsive and ill-considered symbolic measures of his own: In March 2015, Russia ceased participating in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, and, during the past month, the Kremlin withdrew from the U.S.-Russia agreement on the disposal of plutonium.

That is how we got to our present miserable state of U.S.-Russian relations. Washington has made numerous preventable errors as the result of sacrificing a stable long-term relationship with Russia on the altar either of domestic electoral expedience or empire-building by the NATO bureaucracy. But, as the Russian suspension of diplomatic agreements, stepping-up of computer hacking, and accelerated propaganda campaign show, the bill for two decades of ill-considered policy has come due.

The Russia scholar Samuel Charap has pointed out that Russia’s use of coercion has, up to now, been a fairly carefully calibrated means of gaining rational, essentially defensive, political goals: in Ukraine, maintaining a territorial buffer against NATO; in Syria, assisting a friendly government (and it can at least claim it was invited by the Assad regime). Washington may not like these actions, but it also has to realize that they do not threaten vital U.S. interests.

But the increasing number of incidents of brinkmanship in international airspace and at sea introduces the vastly more dangerous possibility of a direct clash between NATO and Russian forces due to miscalculation. And now, beginning in earnest this year, direct Russian intervention into the electoral affairs of the United States and several NATO allies immeasurably raises the stakes.

The United States can’t very well not respond if evidence were to emerge of Russian attempts to disrupt the balloting on November 8. But with each side still possessing arsenals of roughly 7,000 nuclear weapons, and the Cold War era’s informal behavioral protocols between the two powers largely moribund, the risks have never been greater.

The dilemma is this: The Russian government chose to conduct propaganda and disinformation operations within the United States precisely during an unusually rancorous presidential election, with one of the candidates repeatedly and lavishly praising the Russian government’s leader. Even after the election, the bad feeling in the country over this activity will certainly linger. Putin may not fully realize just how much he has raised the geopolitical stakes in the growing Cold War 2.0 between the U.S. and Russia by taking sides in the most polarized domestic election since the Civil War. Climbing down from this confrontation will require restraint and enlightened self-interest on both sides. Unfortunately, during the last two decades, we have seen scant evidence of such far-sighted thinking.