President Donald Trump isn’t the only American leader with a puzzling fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Consider, for example, the chant that was caught on local television footage as it was shouted by several dozen torch-carrying protesters who rallied against removal of a Confederate monument in a Charlottesville, Va., park last Saturday.
“Russia is our friend!” they shouted. “Russia is our friend!”
What, many observers must have wondered, did Russia have to do with the Confederacy?
Not much, except in the minds of such key leaders of the alt-right as Richard Spencer, who spoke and carried a torch in Charlottesville, where he once attended the University of Virginia.
Spencer is widely credited with coining the term “alt-right” to describe his Americanized version of Euro-nationalism that seeks a whites-only state. He also is famous for being punched in the face in a video-recorded street attack that went viral on YouTube and for being thrown out of the Conservative Political Action Conference convention this spring. You know you’re out in the far-right field of “The Twilight Zone” to be thrown out of CPAC.
Beneath his digital-age jargon and elegantly soft-spoken manner, Spencer offers a rehashed version of traditional doomsday visions of “white culture” under assault by a rising tide of feminists, nonwhites and other scapegoats for all-white miseries.
“What brings us together,” he told the crowd at an earlier rally Saturday, “is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced.”
Yet Spencer also shows a clear admiration for Russia, which he has called “the sole white power in the world.” His former wife is the Russian writer and self-described “Kremlin troll leader” Nina Kouprianova. Writing and blogging under the pen name Nina Byzantina, she regularly follows Kremlin talking points. Like Spencer, she had defended Syria’s butcher president – and Putin ally – Bashar Assad, describing reports of civilian deaths in Aleppo as “fake news.”
Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, who has eagerly embraced the alt-right movement, has traveled to Russia several times to promote his book “The Ultimate Supremacism: My Awakening on the Jewish Question,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Rising self-described white nationalist Matthew Heimbach also has praised Putin’s Russia as “the axis for nationalists,” according to an interview by Business Insider. “I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now,” he told the news website. “Putin is supporting nationalists around the world and building an anti-globalist alliance, while promoting traditional values and self-determination.”
Heimbach leads the Traditionalist Workers Party, which, like Spencer’s American Policy Institute, is listed as a “white identity” hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Leading American alt-right figures like “race realist” Jared Taylor also attended a right-wing conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, two years ago, organized by a fringe nationalist Russian group. Taylor, according to Business Insider, called the United States “the greatest enemy of tradition everywhere.”
It may be only coincidental that white nationalists cheered Russia as “our friend” two days before President Donald Trump was reported to have revealed “highly classified” secrets to two high-ranking Russians in the Oval Office. But both episodes raise questions about how much Putin is actively engaged in sowing division in the United States, versus how much he is passively sitting back and watching us divide ourselves.
But we know from past behavior that Putin cares much less about what we Americans think of him than what his own people think of him. With his tightening despotic control over speech and Russian media, he promotes a return to the dominant “Mother Russia” of the czars and the Soviet Union.
The computer hackers who serve as an underground propaganda army in his behalf aim to undermine the West’s faith in democracy and its institutions to promote the line that, when it comes to corruption, human rights and empire-building, Western democracies are no better than Putin’s Russia.
Trump curiously embraced that line in an interview with Bill O’Reilly, then a Fox News host, in which the president openly suggested we were no better than Putin when it comes to being “a killer.” Astonishing.
If nothing else, we know that Putin is delighted to see us Americans divide ourselves against one another. That’s how he gained almost unquestioned control in Russia.
Dividing Americans is one thing that the alt-right is delighted to do. We need to show them, in the words of the late Rodney King, how we can all get along.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune editorial board. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.