This is Part V of The Public Medievalist’s continuing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages.
Go back to the beginning of the series here.
This month, Trump is on the warpath over the media’s exposure of his administration’s ties to Russia. Many Americans find themselves confused: why would a Republican administration that wants to “Make America Great Again” be so interested in cozying up to an undemocratic world power? And why are so many Republican legislators unwilling to investigate Trump’s glaring foreign conflicts of interest?
The obvious financial ties between Russia and the Trump administration may be one explanation for Trump’s strange bedfellows, but these don’t explain why, as the Washington Post reports, “Vladimir Putin’s popularity is soaring among Republicans.” The truth—deeper and far more disturbing than economic corruption—is that some people on the American right hope to partner with Russia in a neomedieval crusade against Islam.
The Link between Russia and White Terrorism
In November 2016, anti-terrorist intelligence specialist Malcolm Nance warned that the Trump administration’s embrace of Russia was linked to white nationalism and possible plans for war in the Middle East:
“What we’re seeing is an alignment where people believe that they have to align the United States and Russia as an axis of Christendom against Islam, in a clash of civilizations that Osama bin Laden dreamed about.”
Nance even predicted that we would see an “Americanization” of terrorist acts committed by white supremacist neo-Crusaders like Anders Breivik in Norway. Breivik, who believed he was a Knight Templar, murdered seventy-seven people in what his own manifesto called a pre-emptive strike on behalf of a “pan-European Crusader Movement.”
Unfortunately, Nance has turned out to be exactly right. For example, the same anti-Muslim, white nationalist propaganda that caused Breivik to think he was reviving the Crusades drove Alexander Bissonnette to murder six people at a mosque in Quebec last month. Like Breivik, Bissonnette imagined himself as a neomedieval warrior, even posting this image on his Facebook page:
Last week, two Indian engineers were murdered in Kansas by a man who thought they were Middle Eastern Muslims. It didn’t matter to the shooter where his victims were actually from: his white nationalism and his anti-Muslim “crusade” ensured that the only important factor when he chose his victims would be the color of their skin. For him, and for many others on the violent far right, race and religion are interchangeable.
But why would Nance tie white terrorism to Russia in particular? First of all, contemporary white nationalist terrorists get much of their motivation from the Internet, particularly from Reddit, Twitter, and 4chan, where paid Russian commenters actively promote far-right nationalism and anti-Islamic bigotry. Secondly, and more importantly, this cocktail of Islamophobia and white nationalism is being raised in a toast to one particular, neomedieval leader: Vladimir Putin.
The Great White Hope
Shirtless on horseback, singing a charming song, and (literally) throwing down on Russia’s national Judo team with his “manly” martial arts prowess, Putin was the darling of media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart throughout the latter half of Obama’s presidency. Putin has long promoted this cult of personality, peddling himself as a leader who can reclaim the power that whites, men, and Christians believe they have somehow lost to “political correctness” and “social justice”.
Putin uses this myth of lost power to fuel his merciless persecution of LGBTQ people, his crackdown on feminism, and his elevation of the Orthodox Church in Russia. But his methods are brutal: he has outlawed “homosexual propaganda,” inspired mob violence against gays, and even endorsed the abuse of women by officially decriminalizing domestic violence.
Needless to say, American white supremacists are big fans. They laud Putin’s attempt to raise the white birth rate in his country. They praise the fact that his regime is causing Jews to leave Russia. And they glorify Putin as an “alpha” who, one American blogger argues, is teaching Russian men to “harness their testosterone.” Those to want to “preserve the privileged place of whiteness in Western civilization” and combat “anti-Christian degeneracy” see Putin as their “ideal ruler,” even “the leader of the free world.” The white supremacists over at Daily Stormer even say that “in the culture war for mankind’s future”, Putin is “one of us.”
But it isn’t just extreme white supremacists writing love letters to Putin. Some American evangelicals also admire the Russian leader as “the lion of Christianity,” a heroic champion of the Christian faith in a ‘pagan’ world. Putin cultivates this neomedieval image. He even erected a giant statue to his medieval namesake Prince Vladimir the Great—the “founder of eastern Slavic Orthodox civilization.” In fact, he used this particular segment of medieval history to argue for his annexation of Crimea.
You would think religious Americans might be less eager to sacrifice their principles, and their Constitution, to partner with a world leader who silences the free press, jails and kills his political rivals, and who has shut down democracy to ensure that he’ll be president for life. But for those lost in a racist, Islamophobic fever dream, liberty and democracy are no longer the point. Instead, many of them believe the West needs to sacrifice these unrealistically lofty ideals to arm itself for a global war against Islam.
The New Crusade
Peter Beinart, writing for The Atlantic, identifies the segment of the right wing willing to cast aside democracy to ensure Christian supremacy as “civilizational conservatives.” Allied with the so-called “alt-right,” this splinter group believes that a “civilizational struggle” between Christianity and Islam is immanent. Unlike more tolerant, mainstream “ideological conservatives,” civilizational conservatives do not distinguish between radical Islam and the vast majority of ordinary, peaceful Muslims. Instead, they believe a new crusade between Islam and Christianity is inevitable, and that everyone must choose a side.
Unfortunately for peace-loving Americans of any religious affiliation, these civilizational conservatives are now in our White House and directing our foreign policy. Steve Bannon is the most infamous example. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and a member of his National Security Council, has warned of “a global war against Islamic fascism.” Bannon believes Christians are “already in” this war, and, in a 2014 speech at the Vatican alarmingly pointed to the medieval Crusades as a model for action:
“If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West.”
Bannon’s convoluted speeches are augmented by his filmmaking career, which includes a bizarre “documentary” called Torchbearer starring Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. The duck-call-patriarch-turned-prophet believes that “the Roman Empire’s bloody debauchery, Robespierre’s French Terror, the Nazi genocide, the Khmer Rouge, Boko Haram, the ISIS terror army, and America’s embrace of abortion…are the predictable results of cutting God out of entire societies”; for Robertson, forming a “Judeo-Christian republic” is the only way to fight the forces of godless evil and save our civilization.
But despite his supposed championship of “Judeo-Christian” ideals, Bannon is the same man who allegedly did not want his daughters going to school with Jews. His recent CPAC speech was full of dog-whistles to white supremacists, including bashing the “corporatist, global media” (which translates as “Jews” in the “alt-right” ear). He declared that America was “Not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” To Bannon, Robertson, and white supremacists everywhere, this means America is a white Christian nation. Its existential mission is to defend against the “Islamic fascism” he warned about in 2014.
Alas, Bannon is not the only “civilizational conservative” in the White House. He was recently joined by Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president. Gorka argues that the Qur’an “predisposes” Muslims to acts of terror, has declared that a “Christian Holocaust” is underway in the Middle East, and persuades his lecture audiences to cheer at the sight of dead Muslim bodies. Unsurprisingly, Gorka’s hatred of Islam pairs with his ties to anti-Semitic groups.
As you can see, civilizational conservatism isn’t just about Islamophobia. It’s about white Christian supremacy. Any pro-Israel sentiments or pro-Jewish rhetoric only exist because they mistakenly see Jews as ‘natural’ allies against Muslims or, worse yet, because they are deep believers in the Christian prophecy that Jews in Israel will convert before the end times during a civilizational war in the Middle East. Like some of the medieval crusaders who believed that whiteness was a mark of Christian purity, these self-styled neomedieval warriors choose their enemies just by looking at the color of their skin. After all, when your strategy is to “bomb the hell” out of the Middle East and ban immigration from seven entire countries, including America’s wartime allies, your philosophy is, for all intents and purposes, Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius: “Kill them all. For the Lord knows those that are His own.”
Not coincidentally, that is just the kind of bombing campaign that Putin inflicted on Syria. To civilizational conservatives who long for white global power, Putin—baring his glorious white chest astride his horse, making Russian Christianity great again, and smiting “social justice warriors” at home and Middle Eastern civilians abroad—is just the role model they’ve been longing for.
The Real Bad Hombres
What’s most ironic about the civilizational conservative movement is how eager its members are to become the very thing they claim to hate. Those who accuse ISIS of medieval barbarity are bloodthirsty for their own war in the Middle East. The same men who rail against Muslim “sexism” are pro-patriarchy themselves. Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec shooter, didn’t just denigrate Muslims in his Facebook posts—he also targeted feminists. White neo-Crusaders use the same rhetoric as the ISIS members they claim to be fighting. On inauguration night, Sebastian Gorka said he had a message for America’s troops in the Middle East: “The alpha males are back.” This rallying cry to the red-pill-swallowing “alt-right”, much like ISIS propaganda, uses the promise of heroic masculinity to recruit young men into their own bloody reenactment of the Crusades.
The fanatics who are so eager to preserve “Western Civilization” by any means necessary are likely to be the very same people who end up destroying it. And now that both ISIS and this radical American regime seem to be pushing an apocalyptic neomedieval global war, the rest of us need to fight even harder to keep from being dragged into a new crusade. True patriots on the left and right need to join together, unpack the rhetoric, tune out the lies, and determine, to borrow Trump’s own words, just “what the hell is going on.”
Continue to Part VI of our Series: Were Medieval People Racist?
Amy S. Kaufman is a writer and former professor who specializes in Arthurian legend, Chaucer, and medievalism in popular culture. She’s co-authoring the forthcoming book, Misusing the Middle Ages, with Paul Sturtevant, and she’s Co-Director of Conferences for the International Society for the Study of Medievalism. You can find more information about her work at www.amyskaufman.com or follow her on Twitter at @drdarkage.