Trump, Iran, and the right-wing anti-interventionists

Three Way Fight


[This commentary grew out of discussions among Three Way Fight supporters.]

When Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, many people feared it would lead to full-scale war between the U.S. and Iran—especially when Iran responded with missile attacks against Iraqi bases that house U.S. military forces. But instead of escalating the conflict further, Trump reversed course the next morning, celebrating that no Americans were harmed in the missile attacks and that “Iran appears to be standing down.” This didn’t end the crisis or negate Trump’s aggressive moves, but for the moment at least it pushed back the threat of full-scale war.

Trump’s reversal also pointed to a sharp foreign policy conflict within the array of right-wing forces that put him in the White House—a conflict between aggressive militarists and right-wing anti-interventionists, between those who advocate a U.S.-led crusade against “radical Islam” and those who see a supposed “invasion” of the United States by dark-skinned immigrants and refugees as the greater threat.

From the beginning, Donald Trump’s presidential administration has represented an unstable coalition of conflicting rightist factions. Many of his supporters uphold the “America First” policies he ran on, such as shutting down immigration from Latin America and the majority Muslim countries, boosting tariffs to revive American manufacturing, and pulling the United States back from its global military role and system of alliances. But Trump has also relied on support from more conventional conservatives because of their strong organizational base in the Republican party or in the ruling class. These include neoliberals who advocate free trade and relatively open immigration so that businesses can exploit workers wherever and whenever they want, neoconservatives who want the United States to spread “democracy” by invading and occupying other countries, and Christian rightists who (in most but not all cases) believe that building the state of Israel and waging war on its enemies are part of God’s plan for the Second Coming of Christ. To varying degrees, all of these factions have been represented in the Trump administration.

Some of President Trump’s foreign policy moves have broken with conservative interventionist orthodoxy, such as praising Russian President Putin, criticizing NATO (and privately threatening to withdraw from the organization), and meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. On these points, Trump is in step with America Firsters such as Steve Bannon, who was White House chief strategist from January to July 2017, and whose influence in the administration has persisted. But in substantive terms, Trump’s administration has largely followed an interventionist approach. As one analyst argued a year ago:

“In the name of opposing globalism, Trump has upheld one pillar after another of the neocon policy agenda. He is building up America’s already supreme military, to the tune of $750 billion slated for 2019. He is confronting a panoply of adversaries from Venezuela to Iran to China. He has escalated military engagements in parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, without leaving a single of the nation’s dozens of formal security obligations around the world. He has released the United States from multilateral arrangements like the Paris Climate Agreement, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, and is exiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. And he has steadfastly supported the right-wing government of Israel, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and slashing aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. If Dick Cheney were president, the record would be similar.”

Pompeo at lectern with "Christians United for Israel" backdrop
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,
interventionist and Christian rightist,
addresses Christians United for Israel
summit, July 2019

Neoconservatives in the Trump administration have included Elliot Abrams (special representative for Venezuela since January 2019) and John Bolton (national security advisor from April 2018 to September 2019). But among interventionist factions, the Christian right has had an even stronger influence on the administration, at least with regard to the Middle East. Ten months ago, Kathryn Joyce noted that Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights (a “radical shift in foreign policy”) was a gift not only to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also to right-wing evangelicals in the United States, who have been among Trump’s staunchest supporters. Both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence are closely aligned with the Christian right, specifically the Christian Zionist group Christians United for Israel, whose founder John Hagee believes a joint U.S.-Israeli preemptive military strike against Iran is integral to God’s plan. In 2018, Pence successfully urged Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, and last year it was Pompeo and Pence who persuaded Trump to have Qasem Soleimani killed.

When Soleimani’s assassination was announced, many Trump supporters celebrated. The Three Percenters–Original, a Patriot movement group, gleefully applauded the attack on its Facebook page. The Federalist Society declared that the murder of Soleimani was “long overdue.” Concerned Women for America (CWA), a leading Christian right organization, wrote in an open email to Secretary of State Pompeo, “CWA is 100% supportive of the President’s decision to retaliate against Soleimani and his murderous thug entourage. History has taught us that appeasement only emboldens terrorists and fascist dictators. We are calling on our members to cover you, President Trump, and our military leaders in prayer.”

Alt-rightists, who played a pivotal role in helping elect Trump in 2016, had a sharply different response. In the months and years after Trump’s inauguration many alt-rightists become bitterly disappointed by what they saw as his betrayal of America First politics and capitulation to the conservative establishment—and to the Jewish cabal that supposedly controls the U.S. political system. The killing of Soleimani bolstered that assessment. Counter-Currents editor Greg Johnson called the attack Trump’s “dumbest foreign policy decision yet.” Brad Griffin (“Hunter Wallace”) of Occidental Dissent wrote that “Donald Trump just took a major step toward starting a war with Iran for Sheldon Adelson and the Jewish billionaires who have bought his foreign policy.” Richard Spencer tweeted: “I deeply regret voting for and promoting Donald Trump in 2016. * To the people of Iran, there are millions of Americans who do not want war, who do not hate you, and who respect your nation and its history. * After our traitorous elite is brought to justice, we hope to achieve peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness.”

Other right-wing anti-interventionists also criticized the Soleimani assassination. The libertarian and paleoconservative website reposted an article by Thomas Luongo commenting, “Americans supporting this refuse to comprehend that we’re as much to blame as Iran is for the violence. We’re not the good guys and they aren’t the bad guys. Everyone sucks here…. Trump was elected to end this belligerence but he’s incapable of separating strength from weakness.” Neonazi David Duke’s website denounced “Trump’s Illegal Terrorist Attack and Murder of a Hero in the War Against ISIS & al Qaeda.”

Some Trump supporters also criticized the assassination. Helga Zepp-LaRouche, Lyndon LaRouche’s widow and successor as head of the fascist cult network he founded, wrote that Soleimani “has probably done more than anyone to contribute to the defeat of ISIS, Daesh, al Nusra, al Qaida etc., and represents a national hero in the eyes of the Iranians.” Zepp-LaRouche portrayed Soleimani’s killing as a dangerous legacy of former National Security Advisor Bolton’s “confrontational policies,” in contrast to Trump, “who promised to end the endless wars and has already taken several steps in that direction.” To avert further escalation and “outflank the maneuvers of the war-mongers,” she called for an immediate summit involving Trump, Putin, and Chinese President Xi, so that “those three outstanding leaders [can] fulfill the potential that historical providence has bestowed upon them.”

Photo of Tucker Carlson holding a microphone
Tucker Carlson, Fox News host and
right-wing anti-interventionist, who says
“invasion” from Mexico is bigger danger
to U.S. than Iran

Perhaps the most important Trump supporter to criticize the Soleimani assassination was Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson. In contrast to other Fox hosts such as Sean Hannity, who praised the attack, Carlson warned that “America appears to be lumbering toward a new Middle East war” and—like Zepp-LaRouche—blamed the move on Bolton and other advisors rather than Trump himself. Carlson asserted that Trump himself “doesn’t seek war” but suggested he “might be outmaneuvered” by “people around him.”

The evening before Soleimani’s assassination, Carlson declared,

“the very people demanding action against Iran tonight, the ones telling you the Persian menace is the greatest threat we face, are the very same ones demanding that you ignore the invasion of America now in progress from the south. The millions, the tens of millions, of foreign nationals living among us illegally; the torrent, more significantly, of Mexican narcotics that has killed and disabled entire generations of Americans…”

This combination of criticizing military aggression and demonizing immigrants is squarely in the tradition of right-wing anti-interventionists going back to paleocon Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s. Coupled with Carlson’s care to blame the attack on Trump’s advisors rather than Trump himself, the approach “seems carefully engineered to appeal to a paranoid, racist president who typically responds to criticism with vindictive hyperaggression,” to quote Matt Gertz of Media Matters. This approach may have succeeded in influencing Trump’s actions. As Gertz argues,

“Carlson, like several of his colleagues, is effectively not just a cable news host but a political operative. These members of the Fox News cabinet try to influence Trump’s actions, both through their public commentary and by counseling the president on the side. Carlson has been particularly effective in this role. Last year, he was reportedly able to attract Trump’s attention and, through both his television show and private lobbying, convince the president to call off planned military strikes against Iranian targets. The Fox host later used that relationship to get Trump to push Bolton out of the administration.”

From the standpoint of many alt-rightists, Carlson is serving a useful “alt-lite” role, helping to spread key parts of their message to a mainstream audience and to Trump himself, as White House advisor Stephen Miller does with regard to immigration policy. Alt-rightist Brad Griffin commented a few weeks ago, “Tucker Carlson is trailing behind us. He is as close to us as he can be while staying within the boundaries of the ‘mainstream’ elite consensus.”

These dynamics belie simplistic claims that all rightist forces in the United States are pulling together toward the same goals. They also have practical implications for leftists as we work to oppose the Trump administration’s militaristic and murderous policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Just as anti-war activists face the danger of being coopted into supporting kinder, gentler forms of U.S. imperialism via the Democratic Party and related formations, we also face the danger of unwittingly legitimizing and aiding far right initiatives. Although their underlying politics differ profoundly, rightist and leftist opponents of war with Iran often use similar talking points. When fascists denounce the killing of Soleimani as a terrorist attack, or call on Americans to respect the people of Iran and their history, or even praise Soleimani as a hero in the war against ISIS and al Qaeda, they are advancing arguments that are also being used by (some) leftists.

There is a long history of fascists and other far rightists infiltrating anti-war movements or otherwise seeking to build alliances with leftists against the U.S. government and the political center. This was an issue around the U.S.-Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003, the anti-globalization movement, and the Occupy movement. In recent years, efforts by far rightists to forge red-brown alliances with leftists have received some attention, for example on Three Way Fight, on Bill Weinberg’s CounterVortex website, and in the 2018 report by the anarchist author “Vagabond.” In the recent crisis, following Soleimani’s killing, white nationalists attempted to join or distributed literature at anti-war protests in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Austin. These moves can’t just be dismissed as hypocrisy or disruption, but reflect serious efforts to inject fascistic politics into the anti-war movement or, in some cases, to make common cause with leftists.

As noted above, red-brown alliances aren’t the only pitfall for leftist opponents of Trump’s militarism to be concerned about. Anti-war initiatives are vulnerable to Democratic Party cooptation to the extent that they blame U.S. military aggression on Republican politicians rather than recognizing it as a systemic problem bolstered by both major parties. But anti-war activism is vulnerable to cooptation by the far right to the extent that it echoes far right myths—specifically, that right-wing, authoritarian, murderous governments such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Ba’athist government in Syria represent a bulwark against imperialism, or that U.S. policy in the Middle East is dictated by the Israeli government or rich Jews.

Three Way Fight calls on U.S. leftists and antifascists to promote anti-war politics based in liberatory principles and solidarity with the exploited and oppressed people of the Middle East. That means, most urgently, oppose any moves by the Trump administration to escalate military conflict with Iran, but it also means reject cooptation by the liberal wing of the ruling class—or by right-wing or fascist anti-interventionists.

Mike Pompeo, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. 
Tucker Carlson, photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

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