The alt-right is an ambiguous term often used to describe a loose coalition of cultural conservatives, economic nationalists, white nationalists and a mix of other ideologies. They were Trump’s most virulent supporters and played a significant role in campaigning for Trump in the primaries and general election. Trump has, however, alienated his alt-right base since taking office.
While difficult to nail down, the alt-right’s policy principles centre on three key points: 1) opposition to immigration and multiculturalism; 2) support for free markets but opposition to free trade; and 3) opposition to overseas military intervention, particularly for the practice of “nation building” and “humanitarian” missions. Trump’s platform fell in line with these key points and the alt-right became fervent followers of the candidate they dubbed as “Daddy” or “The God-Emperor.”
As President, his appointments of Goldman-Sachs employees to key cabinet posts initially gave his alt-right supporters pause. Claims the border wall would take longer than anticipated to build made them nervous. But when Trump ordered airstrikes on a Syrian air force base after the gas attacks in Idlib, huge swaths of the alt-right turned on him.
In the wake of the bombings, Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute think tank and most famous, perhaps, for his “Heil Trump” speech in Washington, D.C., described the military action as a “sad, shocking and deeply frustrating moment.” Red Ice Radio, dubbed the “CNN of the alt-right,” declared its hosts officially off the “Trump Train.” Alt-right members vented on blogs and forums that bombing Syria was what “Crooked Hillary” wanted, and they worried Trump had fallen under the sway of the very globalism he had claimed he would end.
In the mainstream media, Trump’s actions were lauded. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria declared that Trump was finally “a real President.” NBC’s Brian Williams quoted Leonard Cohen in describing the “beauty” of the bombs. For many opinion leaders who opposed Trump’s election, his response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria was a positive first step in the potential reformation of an otherwise disastrous presidency.
Trump’s attempt to pivot is a precarious one. He campaigned on a tough-guy message of “bombing the hell” out of ISIS and “doing a whole lot worse than waterboarding” to suspected terrorists, while also lambasting George W. Bush for the Iraq war and Clinton and Obama for the intervention in Libya. Mainstream opinion worried that Trump would be too close with Putin and wouldn’t use military action to stop dictators killing their own people. Liberal and centrist Americans doubted Trump had the composure to be president. His alt-right supporters either overlooked or actually enjoyed this aspect of his personality, and cheered on his supposedly isolationist message.
Now all that has changed. Increasingly, the alt-right are becoming opponents of Trump. Even Breitbart – the publication previously run by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon – has started publishing articles that are critical of the President, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump.
Trump has seriously alienated his base with his attempt to broaden his support among mainstream Americans. Most Americans opposed Trump because of his personality, not because of his anti-interventionist foreign policy. Boorish, impulsive, and inappropriate, many saw Trump as a man wholly unqualified to be president during his campaign. Since taking office, he has done little to assuage those fears — he Tweets at all hours of the night and makes public pronouncements that directly contradict those of his staff and cabinet. Regardless of his actions in Syria, Trump is still seen as an incompetent executive.
This is most apparent with the outcry against Trump’s (perhaps accidental, perhaps not) leaking of classified information to the Russian ambassador during a meeting in the Oval Office. Trump’s loose lips have only further cemented the opinions of his detractors. Now, Democratic lawmakers are actively calling for his impeachment.
Even if his personality was not a concern, Trump continues to enact a host of policies diametrically opposed to liberal values: repealing Obamacare, gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change research department, and banning foreign aid funding for pro-choice and family planning organizations. Trump’s actions in Syria may have won him praise among liberal and centrist Americans — particularly those in the media — but changes to his foreign policy are unlikely to overshadow these other policies.
The alt-right supported Trump because of his policies — the policies liberal America found so abhorrent during the campaign. His promises to build a wall between America and Mexico, deport illegal aliens, and to “end the false song of globalism” were what attracted the alt-right initially, but Trump has yet to enact these policies, and failing to do so risks alienating his core supporters.
Without the support of the alt-right, Trump risks motivating an extremely active and internet-savvy community to oppose him. MAGA memes, Pepe the Frog, and flame wars were all pumped out by the online mob of Trump supporters during the presidential race. Likewise, as more conservative Americans move to alternative media like Breitbart, Trump’s public clashes with Steve Bannon could turn the reliably pro-Trump publication into an anti-Trump propaganda machine.
After elections, politicians need to turn from their base and focus on policies that will improve the lives of all citizens. Trump is attempting to do this, but politicians also need to give certain concessions to their base to ensure these voters don’t abandon them at the next election. This is where Trump has fallen down. Both his travel bans have been struck down by the courts and his Obamacare replacement bill was pulled after not having sufficient support among Republicans. To the alt-right, Trump seems increasingly like a traditional Republican and the swamp seems far from drained.
If Trump continues to alienate the alt-right, he risks being left with no voter base in the next election (let’s not forget he won critical swing states by incredible thin margins) and could lose Senate and House seats in 2018. Liberal and centrist Americans have no reason to vote for a candidate whose presidency they see largely as a sideshow, while his alt-right base will have no reason to campaign for a candidate it sees as unable or unwilling to act on the promises that were attractive the first place. While some in the alt-right continue to hold out hope that the president is playing “4D chess” and will someday implement all the policies he campaigned on, most seem to have come to the conclusion that so many Americans had before the election: Trump is dangerously unpredictable and his word is never his bond.