If the alt-right’s core ethos could be reduced to a single maxim, it would be this: to each his own. This is the attitude that undergirds the support for racial and cultural separation and white nationalism that the movement is most closely associated with. It is also the attitude that undergirds the movement’s less widely discussed isolationism, which was brought into the spotlight Thursday night as President Trump ordered a strike against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
Richard Spencer, whose support for Trump has dimmed as Trump’s stances on immigration have, according to Spencer’s harsh measure, softened, issued what is perhaps his most forceful rebuke of the president so far in a video titled “The Trump Betrayal.” “I have to be brutally honest,” he said. “I am deeply disappointed in Donald Trump. I’m shocked, and I’m angry. And I am ready to condemn Donald Trump.” He was far from alone. “The #AltRight is now totally independent of Trump, and this anti-West, pro-terrorist foreign policy,” the white nationalist publication VDare tweeted. “Organize, organize, organize.” “So Trump’s first forceful action as President was supposedly to defend the same people that mow down white children with trucks,” the Right Stuff founder Mike Enoch wrote disgustedly.
This was a reaction foretold by the alt-right’s very origins. The split between the mainstream conservative movement and the paleoconseratives—that is, those fixated on maintaining traditional cultural and religious identity who would become the alt-right’s intellectual progenitors in the United States—came into being over not only racism but also opposition to American intervention in the Middle East, including the Iraq war.
“9/11 was a direct consequence of the United States meddling in an area of the world where we do not belong and where we are not wanted,” paleoconservative Pat Buchanan said in a 2002 appearance on Hardball. “We were attacked because we were on Saudi sacred soil and we are so-called repressing the Iraqis and we’re supporting Israel and all the rest of it.”
This sentiment and the larger divide within the movement was the subject of an essay called “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” published by the conservative writer David Frum in National Review less than 24 hours before the invasion of Iraq began. In opposing the Iraq war and interventionism, he wrote, paleoconservatives had “made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe” and included among their ranks some who yearned “for the victory of their nation’s enemies.” Peter Brimelow, founder of VDare, responded with a post arguing that defeating terrorism would be a matter of keeping unassimilable would-be terrorists out of the country. “Instead, America’s establishment is committed to seeking a foreign policy answer to terrorism, of vast ambition and indefinite scope, on the other side of the globe,” he wrote. “Whatever the merits of this answer, it cannot be denied that a fraction of the resources devoted to it would have sealed the borders and ended the illegal immigration crisis.”
Some of the far right’s opposition to Middle East intervention was driven by anti-Semitic theories about the role of shadowy Jewish globalists in setting American foreign policy. But overall, the stance of what would become the alt-right on the Iraq war, nation-building, and interventionist foreign policy was motivated by opposition to the idea that Western-style democracy could be delivered by force to people seen as backwards—and also by the desire, voiced by Brimelow, to see resources devoted to making the country whiter and more prosperous. “Does anyone want to consider what our aims are in all this?” Spencer asked of the Iraq war in 2008. “What might actually be accomplished by democratization? If the Baghdad parliament were running efficiently, would anything change?”
Those concerns remain Friday with Syria, along with some added panic about the flow of Muslim nonwhite refugees into the West that the conflict has produced. A large and underrated part of the promise the alt-right saw in Trump was his repeated (albeit frequently contradicted) commitment to keeping America out of not only Syria but foreign conflict more broadly. That commitment is now dead and the shockwaves felt in the movement have been huge. “No more ‘wag the dog,’ no more ‘4D chess,’ no more ‘decisive leadership,’ ” Spencer tweeted Friday afternoon. “The Syria strikes must end now.”