TSC IntelBrief: Moscow and the Global White Supremacist Movement
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Russia is central to the increasingly vocal white supremacist movement in Europe and the U.S.
• Many of the leaders and followers of the ‘Alt-Right’ in the U.S. have either strong affinities or ties to Russia.
• Both Russia and white supremacist groups reject western liberalism and multiculturalism.
• As with the Islamic State, social media providers are struggling with how to manage the use of their services by violent racist ideologues.
While the unprecedented Russian disinformation efforts and network database hacking operations during the 2016 U.S. election understandably generate the most public focus, a less organized—but perhaps more socially damaging—trend is underway in the U.S. and Europe concerning Russia’s place at the center of the global white supremacist movement. The U.S., in particular, has a long history of racism and racist violence which existed before and beyond any foreign encouragement or inspiration; as with all of its 2016 election active measures, Russia is not planting seeds of discord and strife, but rather providing fertilizer and sunlight to an already existing bitter crop.
The usual labels as it relates to support for Russia (and previously the Soviet Union) do not apply now as they once did in U.S. politics and society. In the past, the ‘Right’ would often accuse the ‘Left’ of pro-Soviet or pro-Russian sympathies; now many on the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ are openly supportive and admiring of Russia. The difference can be explained best by what the new ‘Right’ is actually supporting; they are not endorsing Russia as a former communist power, but as a mythical homeland for white people that rejects western liberalism and multiculturalism. The neo-fascistic leanings of Russian President Putin also appeal to those in the white supremacist movement looking for a strongman-type leader unafraid to stand up for what they believe is a persecuted demographic majority. As with much on the alt-right, there are no facts that cannot be dismissed by ‘alternative’ ones, and there is no evidence that cannot be twisted by conspiracy theories.
The admiration of Russia extends far beyond the alt-right fringe, as the fringe has moved closer to the accepted political center over the last several years. David Duke, a prominent white supremacist, lived in Russia and is quite direct in his admiration of the Kremlin as a rare remaining bastion of white power; the same applies to figures such as Richard Spencer, Alex Jones, and Roger Stone. During the torch-lit march preceding the deadly events of the Charlottesville protest, the white supremacists, who prefer to call themselves ‘white nationalists’, chanted that ‘Russia is our friend.’ The hesitation of President Trump to categorically denounce such figures, along with his well-reported refusal to criticize Putin and his dictatorial anti-west ideology, has given immeasurable support and fuel to the movement.
In Europe, Russia has moved from quasi-official support for football hooligans during the 2016 EuroCup riots in France to supporting far-right and white supremacist groups in Hungary and elsewhere. Moscow openly supported the racist campaign of Marine LePen as she ran for president in the recent French elections, as well as used its tried-and-true active measures against the eventual winner, French President Macron. As is the case in the U.S., Russia is not creating racist movements in Europe, but rather encouraging them in an effort to divide and weaken liberal democracy. The extreme views of such groups against multiculturalism and western liberalism—including a strong disdain for the concept of international law and the United Nations—also fit perfectly with Putin’s worldview.
As is the case with other violent extremist groups, like the so-called Islamic State, social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook are struggling with how to handle accounts used to spread vile ideology that is extremely offensive but, at least in the U.S., not illegal per se. The First Amendment protection of free speech is strictly limited to protection from government pressure or restriction; it does not guarantee service by private companies. Yet these companies have unprecedented control over the spread of information, and their Terms of Service agreements have become the frontline for free speech debates. The Daily Stormer, one of the more infamous white supremacist websites, was taken offline after Charlottesville when companies refused to host their domain name—it briefly secured an .ru domain in Russia but was kicked off that as well. While the Daily Stormer is still trying variations of their name in order to get back online, social media is still overflowing with white supremacist propaganda and violent imagery, a mirror image of the Islamic State’s online presence. Governments, and increasingly corporations, will be dealing with this challenge for the foreseeable future, while Russia continues to encourage the trend in the hopes of further dividing the world’s liberal democracies.
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