From the moment he announced his candidacy to when the Electoral College declared him the next president of the United States, the rise of Donald Trump has been a grotesque reminder of the power of white resentment. The president-elect’s appointment of Steve Bannon, the Breitbart chairman who built a media empire around white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and rank misogyny, to a senior position in his administration is just the beginning of how we’re going to see that anger take clear political shape.
The buildout of white rage has long been a through line in modern Republican and conservative movements. But the real distinguishing feature of 2016, and the thing that Trump actively cultivated during his candidacy and now in his administration, was the steady mainstreaming of white nationalism and right-wing paranoia.
Just ask your local white supremacist.
David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, celebrated Trump’s win last week as “one of the most exciting nights of my life,” adding that he believed white supremacists “played a huge role” in electing him.
So what happens now that their man is in the White House? This time last week I was interviewing experts on right-wing extremism and white nationalism about the future of the kinds of racist movements made bolder by Trump—with the assumption that his campaign would ultimately fail.
But Trump didn’t fail, and so we talked again after the election to reexamine these questions now that a white supremacist sympathizer will be in White House in 2017.
The creep of white nationalism in 2016, how it happened and what it looked like, was obvious enough: Trump announced his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers,” he stumped on Nixon-style dog whistles about “law and order” and “inner cities,” he pledged to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the country, and—particularly in the final weeks before the election—he routinely borrowed anti-Semitic talking points about “international banks” that “plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” from what sounded like either InfoWars or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or both.
“With this presidential election cycle, we’ve had, through Donald Trump’s campaign for an example, from the very beginning, policies and campaign platform positions that basically are fantasies of the white nationalist movement,” said Ryan Lenz, the editor of the South Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog. “The foot soldiers in the white supremacist and white nationalist movements have openly said that… they’re calling for revolt, revolution, conflict, and everything else. Now whether that comes to pass remains to be seen.”
Richard Spencer, the head of a white nationalist think tank called the National Policy Institute, seemed to agree in an interview with The Huffington Post: “Trump has unleashed forces―forces much bigger than he is―that simply can’t be put back into the bottle.”
While it’s true that white supremacists on Twitter and racist message boards have been discussing “revolution,” Spencer’s vague warning about white nationalism being back in the ether—and now the White House—may be closer to describing its political fate post-2016.
David Duke probably won’t have a place in Trump’s administration, but the sanitized, audience-tested adherents of institutionalized white supremacy will. In fact, they’re already there.
So what happens now that their man is in the White House?
Bannon, an alleged domestic abuser whose ex-wife testified in court that he is an anti-Semite, now has the second most influential role in the new administration. (Bannon has denied the allegations.) The man who called his website “the platform of the alt-right”—a website that has a “black crime” section and has accused President Obama of “importing more hating Muslims”—is one of the president-elect’s chief advisers.
And last week, the Trump campaign announced that Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach would be part of his transition team. Kobach, for those who are not familiar, was the architect of anti-immigrant policies like a “papers please” law in Arizona that was partially struck down because it incentivized racial profiling. He was also the man pushing the false logic behind voter suppression measures like what we just saw in North Carolina, which was also partially struck down because, according to a federal judge, it disenfranchised black voters with “almost surgical precision.”
“Some observers have argued that the Trump administration will ultimately just reflect conservative Republican social and economic imperatives,” Joe Lowndes, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon who has studied right-wing extremist movements, told me over email. “I think that is only partly true. Throughout the campaign (and before) Trump has surrounded himself with dedicated, ideologically committed racists.”
White supremacists like Bannon and Kobach—in ideology if not self-identification—will push Trump, a racist who has otherwise shown himself to be ideologically flexible, to set an agenda and stick with it.
There are people, institutional mechanisms, and progressive groups who will fight him at every step on any potential actions—the thousands of people who have taken to the streets and organizations like the ACLU have made that clear—but taking Trump at his word right now means recognizing that the team he’s building has a legacy of destructive, racist policy already littered across the country.
This is a different kind of danger than a resurgence among groups on the right-wing fringe. In some ways, these kinds of movements have a ceiling. To be a member of a white nationalist group is different than being a dedicated racist: the former just requires more work—organizing, cultivating membership, carrying out actions—than many are willing to put in. So while their membership may very well rise in the coming years, the real threat is more likely to be the institutionalization of their racist fantasies in an increasingly normalized Trump administration.
President Obama, whose executive actions on immigration extended temporary protections to more than 700,000 people, was also responsible for more deportations than any modern president. Things could look very different, and more dangerous, under a president who believes he has a mandate on deportations, aggressive policing, and a hyper-militarized border.
Lowndes offered the same warning about racial justice activism in black and brown communities and movements against police violence. “We will potentially see it expressed in… greater surveillance and intimidation of Muslims and Arabs through Homeland Security, and domestic repression through the Justice Department,” he explained. “It is easy to imagine, as some alt-right figures are already calling for, the use of RICO statues [traditionally used to prosecute organized crime] to neutralize Black Lives Matter activists for decades. And meanwhile organized racists in society are likely to be given a freer hand.”
In the immediate term, Trump’s reinvigoration of the white supremacist movement can, and already has, meant real danger for people of color. And as president, he can build out the infrastructure of white supremacy—in Supreme Court and federal court appointments, in regulations he imposes or repeals, in the foreign and domestic policies he pursues.
This is a possible future under Trump. It’s not that the KKK will have formal footing in the new administration, it’s that they won’t need it because they will have something better: a white nationalist agenda cloaked in the legitimacy of the Oval Office.
Trump’s presidential campaign has been like oxygen to a long-burning fire. His rallies, which turned out thousands at a time, also served as networking and soft recruitment opportunities for these groups. During his campaign; anti-Semitic harassment surged on Twitter; and, just a week before the election, a black church in Greenville, Mississippi, was burned down and “Vote Trump” was spray painted on its side. In the week since his election, there has been vandalism, violence, harassment, and horrific displays of white rage.
We are a racist country, with racist origins. But a racist future is less assured.
The open racism and nativism that was so front-facing during the Trump campaign has long had, and will continue to have, a comfortable home in the Republican Party. But in the bigger sweep of things, America’s shifting demographics—a country that is becoming younger and more diverse by the day—is among the strongest reasons that the Trumps, Steve Bannons, Kris Kobachs, and David Dukes may fail in the longterm. We are a racist country, with racist origins. But a racist future is less assured.
And because Trump’s bigotry is layered, contradictory, and intersectional, the people and communities resisting him may find renewed common cause. In fact, we are already seeing it. This may mean that the last year and a half of white identity politics—and the next four years of a Trump administration—could still be a dying last gasp of white supremacy in the United States.
It could take decades, generations, or more, but the ugliness that was 2016, and the ugliness that will likely come after it, may just be the early, violent sounds of a frantic death rattle. It’s just that few of us expected to lose even more ground in the meantime.