Shortly after Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, the candidate made an appearance at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, supported by an all-star undercard of GOP politicians, including then-Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and one or two congressmen.
During the speeches, I wandered out of the exhibit area in the center of the floor where the candidate lobbed derisive barbs at the press to the delight of his audience. One of the most startling revelations from my foray out of the press pen was the sight of a man standing near the front who wore a long-sleeved shirt with the back covered in vivid color with the image of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin riding a horse. To many political reporters in July 2016 — certainly to me — admiration for Putin among a small number of Trump supporters seemed like a freakish but largely insignificant sideshow.
Later, a YouTube video surfaced of Greensboro area white supremacist Manuel Luxton at the Trump rally a month prior exhorting, “Stop the war crimes against Novorossiya” — a politicized term denoting support for Russia’s expansionist aims in Ukraine. The geopolitical reference might seem obscure, but it points to a striking irony: that the anti-globalist right is far more internationally engaged than the left at the moment, whether it’s American evangelicals traveling to Russia for “family values” conferences or Trump promoting Brexit.
Trump’s successful exploitation of white nationalism to build a political coalition and his strange attraction to Vladimir Putin have never quite synced up as a unified narrative. Until last week, that is, when, one day after the president’s disastrous press conference with Putin in Helsinki, the League of the South announced plans to launch a Russian-language page.
To those who aren’t immersed in the nuances of white-nationalist discourse, the name might sound innocuous, like a collection of history buffs who get together from time to time for academic conferences or Civil War reenactments. But take it from the league’s president, Michael Hill: “We seek to restore the South to the dominance of the white man and make it our own ethnostate for our posterity.” The League of the South, along with an ad hoc group that included Luxton, provided some of the gladiatorial foot soldiers of the far right at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017.
On the heels of Trump’s prostration before Putin in Helsinki, the League posted an open letter, entitled, “To our Russian friends.”
“We understand that the Russian people and Southerners are natural allies in blood, culture, and religion,” the post reads. “As fellow whites of northern European extraction, we come from the same general gene pool. As inheritors of the European cultural tradition, we share similar values, customs, and ways of life. And as Christians, we worship the same Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and our common faith binds us as brothers and sisters.”
Whether, as some have suggested, Kremlin-tied funds are flowing to the League or not, Putin has reason to cheer an organization whose primary goal — establishing a whites-only breakaway state — inherently undermines the sovereignty of its primary geopolitical foe, the United States. Affinity between the League and the Kremlin would be right in line with the activities of a St. Petersburg troll farm, whose sock puppets generate and share inflammatory and often false posts designed to exacerbate divisions.
In another sense, the parallels between resurgent Russian nationalism and the Southern nationalist ideology promoted by the League are genuine and not just a cynical ploy for mutual advantage. In Russia, Putin exploited an anti-gay crackdown and witch-hunt against supposed “pedophiles” to consolidate control in the earlier part of this decade while embracing illiberal political ideas and challenging the European Union.
Unlike other segments of the American far right that embrace the rhetoric of patriotism and “constitutionalism” as cloak for a reactionary agenda, the League of the South explicitly rejects the founding principles of the United States, such as, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Hill’s remarks during the League’s 2013 National Conference track more closely with the national socialism of the Third Reich than the “white man’s democracy” of the Jim Crow South.
“We’re not wedded in the League or in the true South to a universal proposition,” Hill said. “Equality, democracy, the universal rights of man — all of these poisonous things that have been foisted upon us we’ve been conditioned to think are good. No, we are wedded to a real historical order, based on, as I said, blood and soil, kith and kin.”
We should be either thankful that the League of the South is pulling the mask off the United States’ march towards fascism, or terrified that Trump and the League now feel secure enough to flaunt their alignment with Putin’s Russia.