President Donald Trump’s “vicious brand of right-wing populism” is providing fuel for bigots and racists.
In the social-media age, the caveat that high-profile public figures can’t choose their followers is more pertinent than ever. So, is it fair to say Trump has flirted with, encouraged and directly or indirectly solicited support from alt-right white supremacist groups?
Having long toyed with the notion of entering politics, Trump effectively launched his political career in 2010 with the “birther” campaign, the spurious claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US, so was therefore ineligible to be president under Article Two of the Constitution.
Birtherism was a shrill, prolonged dog whistle directed at those white Americans for whom a black man in the White House meant their worst nightmare – “their” America being swamped by a tide of otherness as a result of changing demographics – was becoming a reality. As former Fox News windbag Bill O’Reilly declared on election night 2012: “Obama wins because it’s not traditional America any more. The white Establishment is the minority.”
Birtherism had a distinct Islamophobic tinge, with the conspiracists dwelling on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, and the fact that he spent part of his childhood in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.
In 2016, Trump conceded that Obama was born in the US, congratulating himself for having resolved the issue. However, the New York Times reported in November 2017 that he was continuing to push the birther conspiracy behind closed doors.
Thus, Trump had runs on the alt-right board when, in June 2015, he launched his presidential campaign by vilifying Mexican immigrants – “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” – and promising to build a “big, beautiful wall” to keep them out.
Journalist David Neiwert has been described as “America’s canary in the coal mine – our national early-warning system on the spread of corrosive, eliminationist, right-wing hatred”. In Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, Neiwert writes that the President’s anti-immigration rhetoric had a “downright electric” effect on the extremist right.
On his widely condemned Daily Stormer website – named after the Nazi propagandist newspaper Der Stürmer – neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin urged readers “to do whatever they can to make Donald Trump president”. The openly racist VDare site – after Virginia Dare, the first white child born in North America – lauded Trump’s defiance of the “elite consensus increasingly defined by increasingly blatant hatred of the historic American nation in general and of white males in particular”.
If the extremists harboured lingering suspicions that Trump wasn’t really made of the right stuff, they were surely dispelled when he put Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon in charge of his campaign. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors hate groups, had identified Bannon as “the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill”.
When it became clear that Trump would be the Republican candidate, the extremists’ joy was unconfined. Anglin: “White men in America and across the planet are partying like it’s 1999 following Trump’s decisive victory over the evil enemies of our race.”
In late 2015, Trump caused consternation by attaching #WhiteGenocide to retweeted material. The hashtag derives from the white nationalist mantra that “multiculturalism is synonymous with white genocide”. Accused of cosying up to racists, Trump went through a process that has become familiar.
Neiwert: “Trump makes a statement showing sympathy with an extremist point of view; he responds to the uproar by temporarily backing away, at least in his press conferences, and then declines further comment. [The alt-right] dismissed his disavowals as Trump’s concessions to political realities. What mattered to them was the original signal.”
Or, as Anglin put it, “Our glorious leader and ultimate saviour has gone full wink, wink, wink to his most aggressive supporters.”
In office, Trump has continued to send mixed signals, which extremists decode to their satisfaction. He did so after a neo-Nazi drove into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, killing one; after a white supremacist murdered 66-year-old African-American New Yorker Timothy Caughman; and after the horror attacks in Christchurch. He expressed sympathy for “the people of New Zealand”, even though it was a precisely targeted massacre of Muslims rather than an indiscriminate killing spree; he didn’t condemn white supremacism or eliminationist ideology; he didn’t act on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s advice to “show sympathy and love for all Muslim communities” after the March 15 attacks.
And when that was pointed out, he dispatched minions to chide the media for “outrageous” insinuations against a president who has “repeatedly condemned bigotry, racism”.
In fact, Trump has repeatedly spurned the opportunity to repudiate alt-right support, unequivocally condemn white supremacism and embrace beleaguered minorities. As Neiwert says, the alt-right treats the original signal as pure, unadulterated Trump and the subsequent equivocation as a snow job of which they should take no notice.
Emotions over facts
Public figures can’t choose their followers, but the US President can dissociate himself from extremists and take every opportunity – and the President’s opportunities are virtually unlimited – to denounce their creed and stand with the targets of their hate. Trump has chosen not to do so, whether because he shares their views or sees political gain and, in his ignorance and irresponsibility, couldn’t care that he’s enabling and encouraging dark forces.
As Richard Spencer, a self-styled white supremacist intellectual, explained: “It’s not so much about policy, it’s more about the emotions [Trump] evokes. And emotions are more important than policy; emotions are more important than facts.”
Neiwert wrote: “Trump may not be a fascist, but with his vicious brand of right-wing populism, he is not just empowering the latent fascist elements in America, he’s leading his followers merrily down the path that leads to fascism. Even more dangerously, his alt-right Tea Party brand of right-wing populism is helping these groups grow their ranks and their potential to recruit new members by leaps and bounds. Not only that, he is making thuggery seem normal and inevitable. And that is a serious problem.”
For all of us.
This article is part of the Listener's special coverage of the Christchurch attack, Not Alone: Aftermath of a Tragedy, in the new issue of the magazine.