Last weekend, I attended the 47th iteration of the Phyllis Schlafly Gateway Eagle Council, a three-day conference in St. Louis for far-right politicians, media grifters, and their supporters. The panels, lectures, and presentations represented—unsurprisingly—the worst of the American political tradition, whether for its barely veiled racism and misogyny or its outright chauvinism.
But even more unsettling than the euphemistic bigotry was the experience of stepping into a world so thoroughly shaped by “fake news” and “alternative facts.” If the conservative movement’s long con is finally blowing up, at Gateway Eagle Council XLVII we inhaled the radioactive fallout. Conspiratorial and paranoid thinking structured much of the weekend’s conversation. All those present—almost entirely white, mostly male, and, barring a small cohort of interns, extremely old—seemed to perceive themselves to be engaged in a Manichean, civilizational conflict of the individual versus the collective, good versus evil, Christianity versus Islam, or the West against… everyone else.
Tony Shaffer, a Trump 2020 campaign adviser employed by an obscure think tank housed within the evangelical Kings College in Manhattan, described contemporary politics as “a clash of civilizations.” Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn and Charlie Kirk both spoke of the need to preserve “Judeo-Christian values.” Congressman Steve King said that he wants immigrants who will “embrace the American civilization.” Dominik Tarczynski of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party repeatedly told conference attendees that their shared identity came from “Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian faith.”
None of this was meaningfully different from the Proud Boys’ position of “I am a Western chauvinist and I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world” or even Identity Evropa’s “You will not replace us.” In fact, it was very much in line with the long tradition of postwar ethnonationalism articulated by Europeans like Alain de Benoist and Renaud Camus or Americans like John Tanton and Jared Taylor, who have long sought to provide an intellectual veneer nativism and white nationalism.
That isn’t to say that the Proud Boys (or their more extreme cousins) have any kind of influence over the Republican Party. But it does reveal something about how the party, institutions like the Eagle Council Education & Defense Fund, and the far-right street movement are coming into alignment.
It’s old news that reactionary populism is taking hold all over the world, from Denmark to the Philippines. And conservative institutions such as the Eagle Council Education & Defense Fund—which was originally founded in 1981 with the goal of ending abortion rights and defeating feminism, and which organized the St. Louis event—are not exempt from its influence.
What’s becoming clear today is that institutional conservatives in the United States and abroad seem more than happy to reconcile themselves with activists and ideas that in another era might have been kept at the fringe: Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are parroting white-nationalist talking points on Fox News (a direct line to the president); the winking anti-Semitic slur “globalist” is a part of everyday conservative vocabulary; General Flynn and his son, both proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, were honored guests in St. Louis.
To the extent that the American conservative movement ever had a center—or at least a mechanism to keep certain elements on the fringe—it has collapsed; with Trump leading the Republican Party, right-wing extremism has moved openly into the mainstream, and the party’s base has welcomed it.
In Making Sense of the Alt-Right, George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, traces how contemporary white-nationalist movements like the “alt-right” both draw upon and react against tendencies within the American conservative movement like the paleoconservatism of Pat Buchanan and the John Birch Society and the radical libertarianism of the Koch network, united in their opposition to social programs and state-sponsored efforts to ameliorate racial or gender inequality.
Paleoconservatives, Hawley writes, were “more comfortable talking about issues like immigration in explicitly ethnic terms” than their neoconservative rivals; thus, nativism had an intellectual home in the movement. The reactionary populism embodied by Trump, with the “alt-right” as its digital vanguard, recuperates this tradition and radicalizes it, as the Gateway Eagle Council shows—a forum where elected officials from right-wing parties around the world echoed “alt-right” talking points, even if they did not speak of the “alt-right” itself.
As noted by Mic.com, far-right media operations like Breitbart News cover immigration in Europe obsessively, fixating on crimes allegedly committed by refugees. The site’s former chairman, Steve Bannon, is touring the continent, networking and supporting nativist parties in a half-dozen different countries. “The individual parties throughout Europe are ‘woke,’” he told Bloomberg.
Apparently, the feeling is mutual. “We are a global movement. We are a strong movement. This is important to know,” Petr Bystron, a member of parliament with Alternative for Germany (AfD) told me, referring to other “right-wing, conservative, freedom-loving parties” like the FPO in Austria and Lega Nord in Italy. “We are serious supporters of the Trump movement,” he continued. “We are for anti-establishment movements. It’s not so much about right, left—we are against the establishment.” He gave a few explanations of what he meant by “the establishment,” variously “very leftist,” “undemocratic,” “the NGOs,” and, simply, “Soros.”
Bystron’s Polish compatriot, Dominik Tarczynski of the Law and Justice party, also referred to Soros’s influence: “Everyone knows it, but we have to say it out loud.” (So did Sheriff Joe Arpaio.) In this, Tarczynski was following his party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, who in turn has taken cues from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. In The Far Right in Government, a report published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Bartosz M. Rydliński, a Warsaw-based writer, describes how both Polish and Hungarian politicians have used nationalism and coded anti-Semitism to undermine liberal democracy: “In response to the claim by international organizations like the European Union and Council of Europe that Poland is currently undergoing a shift away from the rule of law, PiS politicians insist that these developments are grounded in the will of the nation, which is considered a sufficient enough legitimization to conduct reforms.”
As it happens, before he was an MP, Bystron was kept under surveillance by the federal security services as a result of comments he made about the white-nationalist “identitarian” movement; his account of the relationship between identitarianism and the AfD would work equally well as a description of the relationship between “alt-right” and “alt-lite” groups in the United States and the Republican Party.
The so-called identitarian movement, organized principally around the group Generation Identity, is “a front for the AfD,” Bystron said. “We have two different types of opposition: We are a political party; we have to be parliamentarian, keep it clear and separation from all the pre-parliamentarian opposition.”
Citing groups like the Identitarians and Pegida (an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, a far-right anti-immigrant street movement in Germany), Bystron acknowledged that “there are many” such fronts.
“We need them. Those are our people,” he continued. “They are bringing important impulses for conversations in our society, they are demonstrating in the street, making actions. It’s a kind of cooperation.”
This cooperation is central to what Liz Fekete, director of the UK’s Institute of Race Relations, describes in Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right as a “pre-fascist movement.” As “a far-right völkisch party,” Fekete argues (using the German word for a kind of mystical ethnonationalism), AfD is at the forefront of this movement, “the aim of which is to reform the political process and transform it into an authoritarian, völkisch system.”
To that end, Bystron’s “pre-parliamentarian opposition” led thousands of Germans through the streets of Chemnitz last month, hunting down people they thought might be immigrants and reportedly attacking a Jewish restaurant.
Bystron dismissed these accounts as “fake news.”
For all the AfD’s (initial) Euroskepticism, Bystron is not entirely opposed to the immigration reforms brought by the European Union; he supports freedom of movement for European citizens, for example: “There’s no problem with Austrians, Czechs, Dutch people traveling around. This is fine. But you can do it only if you protect our outer borders.”
Like Congressman Steve King, Bystron and AfD claim not to be opposed to immigration as a rule, but rather to be for immigration under certain circumstances. (“We want people that want to embrace the American civilization, the American culture,” King said during his speech on Saturday.) “Yes, we want immigration, but under certain rules,” Bystron told me. “We want educated people, speaking German, with qualifications, and it’s clear that they can integrate.” He added: “Live with us, do your thing, but live according to our rules.”
“The leftists are saying, ‘Hey, open borders for everybody. Come in! No walls, no fences on the borders,’” Bystron said. “If you don’t have the fences there, you have them at home.”
He went on: “We need a ‘Fortress Europe.’” (“Fortress Europe,” a recent AfD talking point, is a phrase derived from World War II–era Nazi propaganda and has also been adopted by the identitarian movement, a further display of the parties’ close ideological and rhetorical alignment.) “We need to reverse what happened since 2015. We have acquired 2 million illegals—we have to send them all back,” Bystron added. “Restore the law again. Restore the security for our own people.”
This squares with the Trump administration’s own moves. Just this week, CNN reported that dozens of undocumented immigrants who volunteered to take care of children in federal custody have been arrested, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would take in just 30,000 refugees in 2019—setting a record low cap for the second year in a row even as the administration works to dismantle the resettlement program itself.
Fascistic movements do not simply accrue power and popularity on their own terms; they do so by drawing support from the mainstream. In postwar Europe, Fekete argues, “fascism was defined as a problem at the margins of society, a kind of gangrenous limb that needed to be cut off to preserve the health of the body politic.” Academics and politicians, regardless of their political views, came to believe that the extreme right pulled the discursive center of gravity rightwards—a natural process that had nothing to do with shared interests and beliefs between those on the extreme right and in the center.
According to Fekete, this approach is fundamentally flawed. “If the biggest threat to society is seen to come from a generic extremism, then critical thinking is stalled,” she writes. “We become trained to understand fascism not as the convergence of affinities and affiliations at the periphery and centre of society, but as just another ideology for sale in the marketplace of extremisms.”
The St. Louis gathering was an example of these affinities in action. Cardboard cutouts of Donald and Melania Trump on the conference’s main stage leered over speakers’ shoulders as lies and paranoia hardened into something resembling a worldview. Repetition and the ritualistic remembering of moments from Trump’s presidential campaign and from his presidency reinforced the sense of community among these actors that has found a brief, defiant respite under siege.
The Gateway Eagle Council, then, was not merely a convergence of the political periphery and the center. It was a celebration.
An earlier version of this article did not distinguish between the Eagle Forum Education & Defense Fund, a 501(c)3, and Eagle Forum, a 501(c)4, both of which were founded by Phyllis Schlafly. The Gateway Eagle Council in St. Louis was organized by the Eagle Forum Education & Defense Fund.