The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America’s neo-Nazis don’t look to Germany for inspiration. They look to Russia.

White-nationalist protesters march through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Aug. 11. (Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star via Associated Press)

Casey Michel is a journalist based in New York.

America’s white nationalists may bear swastikas, raise Nazi salutes and cheer for the protection of “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil) for all to see. They may say “Heil Trump!” and laud the legacy of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell.

But for these American white supremacists, it’s not Nazi Germany to which they look.

It’s Russia.

It doesn’t take much to gather white nationalists’ affections for modern Moscow — a regime whose model they want to bring to bear in the United States. For David Duke, who has seen his books sold in the Russian Duma, Moscow remains the “key to white survival.” For Richard Spencer, a founding member of the alt-right’s rogues’ gallery — and someone married to the translator of Alexander Dugin, Russia’s illiberal polemicist extraordinaire — the Kremlin stands as the “most powerful white power in the world.” For Matthew Heimbach, who has said he would like to see the United States fracture on ethnic lines, Vladimir Putin has transformed into the “leader of the free world.”

Ignore the multi-confessional, multiethnic nature of the Russian state. Ignore the fact that Moscow maintains the largest mosque in Europe, or that Putin’s Russia contains one of the largest swaths of immigrants outside of the United States. These alt-right actors have proved to be more than capable of disregarding these base realities. For the white supremacists who brought bloodshed to Charlottesville, Russia remains the last, best hope for the world they would wish in Washington.

And Russia has proved to be only too willing to cater to these groups. While Moscow’s relations with neo-fascist contingents across Europe — in France, in Hungary — are well-known, less has been said about its extensive efforts to cultivate like-minded actors in the United States.

In 2015, for instance, St. Petersburg hosted one of the most outspoken gatherings of far-right ideologues Europe has seen in years. With speakers rotating across the dais, a pair of Americans — Jared Taylor and Sam Dickson — railed against Washington’s turn toward civil rights and racial equality. Taylor, a man Spencer himself has cited as inspiration for his political baptism into white nationalism, and a man who recorded robocalls on behalf of Trump during the campaign, joined Dickson, erstwhile lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan, as the latter praised Putin for encouraging high birthrates among white Russians. The organization pulling the Americans to the conference was itself an outgrowth of a Russian party founded by Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow’s deputy prime minister.

And Moscow’s government mouthpieces have enthusiastically promoted the views of American neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Not only have Spencer and his wife been welcomed as geopolitical analysts on Kremlin-funded outposts such as RT and Sputnik, but these outlets have also proved eager to flame far-right fringe theory. During the 2015 Jade Helm controversy — when armed, hard-right U.S. militias became convinced that President Barack Obama was set to “invade” Texas, among other states — one of RT’s hosts wailed that there was little doubt Jade Helm’s planning had “started some kind of war … between America and itself.”

This screeching came as the FBI picked up a trio of North Carolinians who were planning a series of bomb attacks in apparent retaliation for Jade Helm’s supposed plans. One of the people behind the attempted car-bombings in Kansas last year, which would have slaughtered dozens of members of a local refugee population, had also posted material both from RT and praising Putin. And, to be sure, Russia doesn’t just back far-right fringe voices in the United States: RT even hosted the U.S. Green Party’s 2016 debate — and went above and beyond any other media outlet in pushing the candidacy of Jill Stein, catering equally to far-left cohorts.

None of this, of course, is to say that the recent carnage in Charlottesville is directly attributable to Moscow, or that James Alex Fields Jr., the alleged domestic terrorist behind the attack, worked as some part of a broader slate of Russian active measures. We have not yet learned of evidence that Fields espoused pro-Putin, pro-Kremlin views.

But you can’t separate Fields’s presence in Virginia from the faces, the figures and the fascists running the “Unite the Right” rally, including Spencer, Heimbach and Duke. After all, the purpose of the Kremlin’s campaign of interference in the recent presidential election wasn’t solely to stack the White House with friendly faces. It wasn’t simply to lift a raft of oil and gas sanctions, or to regain access to Western credit markets.

It was, instead, a campaign predicated on turning the United States against itself. Of cultivating, encouraging and goading groups that would create internal disruption and prevent the United States from promoting a liberal, international order.

An America rending itself apart is a fervent dream for those cloaked in power in Moscow. After Charlottesville — and after Trump revealed that he has little capacity for condemning white nationalists — the United States is one step closer to granting the Kremlin’s wish.

Little surprise, then, that over the past year Russia has also cultivated American secessionists from Texas, Puerto Rico and California. These are, after all, the ideological descendants of the Confederates whose vestiges continue to bring wrack and ruin upon the country. And they are, like the white nationalists currently leading a campaign of domestic terrorism, witting agents in Moscow’s efforts to implode Trump’s America.