WASHINGTON ― Richard Spencer, a top figure in the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, was upset with President Donald Trump’s military strike on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday night. Spencer, a big fan of both leaders, says he wants them to get along. So, he hinted that Trump’s military attack would turn him away from the president in the next election to someone who seems like a startling alternative ― a Democrat and prominent booster of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Gabbard has long criticized the official American view that the Syrian regime is not legitimate, and has questioned intelligence from the U.S. and allied nations that suggests Assad has committed war crimes and used banned chemical weapons. A chemical bombing Tuesday that the U.S. blames on Assad is what prompted Trump’s strike.
Since that brutal attack, Gabbard has indicated that her views haven’t shifted. On the day reports of the chemical bombing emerged, she said she wanted whoever carried it out to be held accountable ― a statement suggesting she didn’t believe the intelligence pointing to Assad. On CNN Friday night, she said she was still skeptical.
But the rhetoric from Gabbard and her allies on the left who say Washington should embrace Assad ― including former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and a bevy of prominent activists ― continues to mirror arguments from Spencer, Duke and other fringe figures on the right who have ascended in the Trump era. It sets them apart from fellow progressives in the broad anti-war coalition, who are critical of both Assad’s alleged violations and risky U.S. interventionism.
Trump now appears to have turned on Assad. Reports suggest this is because of his reaction to the chemical attack, not some radical shift in his worldview. But the unorthodox vision of foreign policy he articulated prior to the election ― which allowed the alignment of views held by such strange bedfellows as Gabbard and Spencer ― remains a new but important thread in U.S. global behavior.
The striking and ongoing fascination with Assad in far corners of the right and the left is the best evidence of this.
The factions agree on two main points when it comes to the Syrian strongman. (They also share views on other broad matters, like the need to replace what they see as an aggressively capitalist, pro-war status quo.)
Calling Assad “secular” is a favorite tactic, one Gabbard employs frequently. It’s useful in her effort to discourage U.S. involvement in Syria because it helps connect the crisis to Americans’ memories of ousting “secular” dictators, like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, only to leave space for horrific groups like the so-called Islamic State.
“If we focus on overthrowing secular dictator Assad instead of defeating our real enemy, Islamic extremists who attacked us on 9/11, we’ll see a repeat of exactly what happened in Iraq, exactly what happened in Libya ― where ISIS, al Qaeda, al Nusra will walk in the front door, take over the country of Syria and they will be a greater threat to the people on the ground as well as the world with their heightened military capability,” Gabbard told MSNBC in 2015.
Defenders of Assad’s rule use the “secular” label to argue that he is better than any alternative in Syria, despite well-organized homegrown resistance to the dictator and differences between the situation in Syria and those in Iraq and Libya. Kucinich, a two-time Democratic presidential candidate who has met with Assad twice, frequently ties the removal of the regime to the end of any hope for Syria’s religious minorities. That view echoes the dictator’s own rhetoric and ignores the fact that Assad is one of many Middle East authoritarians who created dynamics that make minority communities terrified of their countries’ majorities.
There’s significant evidence that Assad is not “secular,” particularly in his regime’s dependence on Syrian and foreign forces that say they are driven by explicit religious commitments to holy Shiite sites. Their brutality is arguably religiously motivated in a way similar to that of ISIS.
That Gabbard and her allies believe being “secular” is enough to grant Assad legitimacy is even more important. The unspoken argument here is that alleged war crimes, mass torture and decades of repressive one-family rule are acceptable, so long as they don’t have a pesky Muslim tinge. The message is precisely what controversial Trump White House advisers like Sebastian Gorka believe: People in the Muslim-majority world do not become radical militants keen to target the West because of repression or deprivation. The problem lies in how “Muslim” they are ― or how “secular.” Activist Iyad el-Baghdadicalls Gabbard’s position a clear case of Islamophobia.
Spencer and Duke are more explicit in acknowledging what this argument means. After Trump’s airstrike, Spencer tweeted a picture of Assad, with his wife beside him in a sleeveless dress. A few weeks earlier, Duke tweeted a different photograph of the couple, as well as one that appears to show a Syrian woman wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt in a car emblazoned with Assad’s face.
In the alt-right’s telling, Assad is a defender standing between masses of hyper-conservative Muslims and the rest of the world. To them, imagery suggesting that Assad is “modern” is essential ― it’s a way to contrast him with other Muslims, like the millions of Syrians the Assad regime has targeted, who they argue want to force white women into headscarves and impose Islamic law.
Given his enemy, then, Assad is justified in whatever he does. He is, after all, a secular man, with no beard and no wife in hijab.
The second favored talking point is related to the first. For those who like the idea of Assad as a “secular” option, the alternative must look irredeemably “religious” ― violently so, and driven to that violence by religious dogma.
Gabbard for years has argued that the armed opposition to Assad is dominated by extremists. While U.S. and regime policies have arguably made the extremists more powerful, this has never been fully true, according to experts. A coterie of left-wing writers and activists, notably journalist Rania Khalek, have joined Gabbard in making this case. The movement cloaks itself in anti-imperialism ― and dares its critics to defend American overreach.
The idea has gained significant traction on the right. Prior to his inauguration, Trump himself doubted whether the U.S. knew who the anti-Assad rebels were. And after his strike, some conservative commentators have accused Trump of providing American support to radical groups.
In their rush to demonize the opposition, some on the left and right have veered into conspiracy theories. Some writers argue that the internationally renowned volunteer medical organization known as the White Helmets is a terror front. Gabbard cites Stephen Kinzer, a fellow at Brown University who believes the American media is engaged in a government-led conspiracy to discredit Assad.
After the Syrian chemical attack this week, far-right blogger Mike Cernovich began telling his following of Trump supporters that anti-Assad rebels were responsible. Right-wing favorites InfoWars and WikiLeaks soon joined him. Before long, so did Moscow. The Russian government has long tried to exploit disinformation to favor Assad, and knows it has a ready audience in the U.S. because of skittishness following decades of unhappy American interventions in the Middle East.
On Friday, the internet was treated to the piece de resistance: Conservative media personality Ann Coulter tweeted a screenshot from the lefty site Alternet.
Like many new aspects of U.S. politics, this alignment has been clear for years in Europe. The cause of defending Assad has brought together the left-wing group Stop the War in the U.K., and far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen in France. A Spanish leftist figure invited an Assad representative into the European Parliament just this week. Conservative British provocateur Katie Hopkins joined previously pro-Trump media and Brexit architect Nigel Farage in blasting the president’s airstrike on Friday:
None of this is to say that the far-left and far-right are equally troubling on Assad. Gabbard does not repeat conspiracy theories from Duke and Spencer about American intervention in Syria being a Zionist plot, and she has ― after a controversial anti-refugee vote in 2015 ― become a critic of Trump’s harsh approach to refugees fleeing the conflict.
But the alignment shows a flourishing mood in the U.S. that is capable of fueling latent Islamophobia and Syrian suffering for years to come.
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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the year of Gabbard’s anti-refugee vote.