Shocked by the violence recently perpetrated by racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia and other liberal-leaning towns across the United States, many Americans see the rise of “white nationalism” on the political landscape as a sudden, nasty surprise. In truth, it’s been around a long time, coalescing after the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s as an alliance of various hate movements that seek, often through violence, to avoid racial mixing, and preserve what they view to be the true culture of the United States: white and European, exclusive of Jews and Muslims.
Ousted Trump strategist Steve Bannon put it in context in his first interview since leaving the White House last month – and his first TV interview ever. Bannon, told Charlie Rose on the September 10 episode of CBS’s “60 Minutes” that America’s neo-Nazis are simply “getting a free ride off Donald Trump.” In reality, Trump and Bannon are riding the winds of the nation’s rising white supremacist movement.
In the month before he was appointed Donald Trump’s campaign CEO, Bannon boasted that he had made Breitbart News, to which he has now returned as chairman, “the platform for the alt-right,” a term popularized by white nationalist activist Richard B. Spencer to describe a loose coalition of far-right racist and white-separatist groups. Breitbart, ranked among the 50 most-viewed political websites before Trump’s inauguration, also unabashedly boosted Trump’s presidential candidacy with laudatory articles nestled among Islamophobic fables, false narratives about “black crime” and anti-feminist screeds.
It was David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader later elected to the Louisiana state legislature, who first brought neo-Nazis together with KKK members in the 1970s. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Duke urged listeners to his radio program to vote for Trump, who only reluctantly disavowed Duke.
Amid these signals, the “alt right” felt emboldened. Its members had supported the Trump candidacy. Despite controversy surrounding Trump’s use of white supremacist social media postings during the campaign, he nonetheless had won the White House.
On August 11 in Charlottesville, Richard Spencer led hundreds of white nationalists to surround Thomas Jefferson’s statue on the University of Virginia campus. Carrying torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and the Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil,” some roughed up counter-protesters. The next day demonstrators from racist groups spilled into the streets of downtown Charlottesville, violently confronting counter-protesters. A neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd, killing a young woman. In the weeks since, rallies and campus events planned by far-right groups made news from Boston to Berkeley.
After provoking outrage by laying blame for the violence in Charlottesville by perpetrators “on many sides,” Trump later condemned neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan explicitly, only to revert to blaming left-wing anti-fascist protesters later that week. White supremacists saw the wink. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists,” tweeted Duke, who had come to Charlottesville that day, he said, to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
First among those promises was one to build a wall on the southern border to keep out Latin American immigrants — one that has fallen into difficulty because to do so requires funding from Congress. But Trump has found other ways of throwing red meat to this racist, xenophobic base. On August 29, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was convicted of criminal contempt in federal court for refusing its order to stop racially profiling Latinos. More recently, Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to avoid deportation. Trump’s Justice Department and advisory commission on election integrity have begun an assault on voting rights.
The signals were there from the start. On the day he announced his presidential candidacy, Trump described undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Throughout his campaign, Trump retweeted the posts of white supremacists, most famously one featuring a Star of David on a background of dollar bills and the image of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that declared her to be corrupt, and another featuring false statistics about “black crime.” He encouraged his rally audiences to roughly evict anti-racism protesters, who were often African-American. He revived the theme of “America First” favored by Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s. And Trump’s misogyny, most flamboyantly displayed in his boast of grabbing women by the genitals, is typically shared by the hate groups whose members so admire him.
A thrice-married New Yorker, Trump was hardly a neat fit for a Republican Party dominated by Southern religious conservatives. But he understood that the animating force of right-wing Republicanism was neither small-government principles nor Christianity; it was resistance to according full civil rights to all people, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or sexual identity. The simmering resentment against the nation’s first black president, who endorsed a woman to succeed him, gave Trump an opportunity.
Trump recognized the power that members of hate groups held through their social media networks. In preparation for his presidential run, Trump drew their attention when he took up the cause of “birthers,” people who spread the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. (Arpaio is also a prominent birther.) By the time he made his run at the presidency, Trump had established credibility among Islamophobes, xenophobes and racists. To them, his promise to “make America great again” could be understood as a pledge to restore the old patriarchal racial and ethnic order.
So don’t be shocked by the prevalence of hate groups now shaping American politics. Their demands were baked into the Trump agenda, and the president aims to deliver.