Trump and the radical right
An excerpt from Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump by David Neiwert.
Trump’s effect on the radical right went well beyond a mere recruitment boost. His rhetoric empowered extremists not just to angrily revive open expressions of bigotry, such as Jimmy Marr’s truck rolling up and down I-5, but also to open the floodgates of violence inherent in the far right’s ideology and unleash the nation’s dark id.
All the long-suppressed hatreds and resentments, all the deep anger and black fears about the nation and the changing shape of American society, came bubbling up and burst into public view in predictably ugly ways. Trump’s rhetoric seemingly gave permission for the unleashing of an eliminationist flood.
An increasing number of Trump followers seemed to feel empowered by his rhetoric and disdain for “political correctness” to freely express their own bigotry and racial or religious hatred, as well as freely professing the bizarre conspiracy theories concocted by Jones and his “Patriot movement” cohort. Sometimes, they also began acting out violently.
At Trump rallies, violence directed at protesters became so common that some incidents received relatively light media coverage. The violent trend began in the fall of 2015 with incidents in the South, where Trump supporters grabbed protesters’ signs and assaulted them (first, on October 14, in Richmond, Virginia, and then on October 23 in Miami). The violence increased over time, leading his alt-right fans to ardently defend him on social media and dismiss the protesters as worthy of violence. After a March 9, 2016, rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Trump disparaged protesters from the stage and a black protester was hit. The alt-right social media maven @RickyVaughn tweeted: “Black militants preemptively kicked out of Trump rally. We wuznt gonna do nuffins, honest! we wuznt gonna protess.”
Trump seemed to encourage the violence, directed both at protesters at his rallies and at minorities generally, by expressly suggesting the use of assaults and threats against them in his fiery rally speeches. When challenged by reporters he then danced around the issue.
In other words, he hewed to the same pattern he had already established in connection with controversial statements. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on February 1, 2016, Trump told rally participants to “beat the hell out of ” protesters, said he’d like to “punch [a protester] in the face,” and described the violent fate that “back in the old days” was expected for such protesters. But when Jake Tapper confronted him about it at the March 10, 2016, GOP presidential debate, he briefly decried the violence, and then rationalized it:
We have twenty-five, thirty thousand people—you’ve seen it yourself. People come with tremendous passion and love for the country, and when they see protest—in some cases—you know, you’re mentioning one case, which I haven’t seen, I heard about it, which I don’t like. But when they see what’s going on in this country, they have anger …
They love this country. They don’t like seeing bad trade deals, they don’t like seeing higher taxes, they don’t like seeing a loss of their jobs where our jobs have just been devastated. And I know—I mean, I see it. There is some anger. There’s also great love for the country. It’s a beauti- ful thing in many respects. But I certainly do not condone that at all, Jake.
There were many other indications that increasing numbers of unrepentant racists were now openly advertising their ideology. A video of a flag-waving pro-Trump pickup truck and motorcycle convoy in Wrentham, Massachusetts, in July 2016 has voice-overs exchanging racial slurs on the CB channel: “Lynch the niggers by their dicks!” shouts one. Another says: “Burn every single nigger!” A third chimes in: “All I know is we got plenty of trees to hang niggers from.”
Such vicious ideas were soon expressed in a nationwide surge of hate crimes, particularly against Hispanics, Muslims, and African Americans. Shortly after Trump opened his campaign with his speech denouncing Mexican immigrants, Latino organizations warned that his rhetoric could inspire hate crimes against people perceived to be undocumented immigrants. Those fears were realized in August 2015, when two white men in Boston beat up a Latino man and said they had been inspired by Trump: “Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported.” Later, in May of 2016, a motorcyclist began beating a Latino man and a Muslim man outside a Wichita convenience store while shouting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” In Olympia, Washington, a white supremacist stabbed an interracial couple after seeing them kiss; a police officer investigating the case said the man began “talking about Donald Trump rallies and attacking people at the Black Lives Matter protest.” On July 23, a video captured a white Trump supporter verbally assaulting a black woman on the New York subway and shouting, “Worthless stupid fucking stupid cunt. Donald Trump 2016! Put them back in the fucking fields where they belong.”
Trump responded to these incidents with his now-familiar tango. About the Boston incident, at first he tweeted out a civic-minded response: “Boston incident is terrible. We need energy and passion, but we must treat each other with respect. I would never condone violence.” But the next day he responded to reporters’ questions with the same “love of country” rationalization: “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”
Muslims were a special target for Trump supporters. On May 3, 2016, outside a DC Starbucks, a woman verbally assaulted another woman wearing a hijab (head scarf ), telling her, “If Donald Trump wins the nomination, I’m going to vote for him so he can send all of you all back to where you came from.” In October in Brooklyn, a frenetic Trump supporter attacked two women wearing hijabs as they walked their babies in strollers, knocking them down and screaming, “Get the fuck out of America, bitches!” She was charged with a hate crime.
The evidence was not merely anecdotal. A May 2016 study by the Bridge Initiative and Georgetown University found a sharp spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes nationally in 2015, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks, presumably by Islamist extremists, in Paris and San Bernardino, California. The study’s authors found a correlation between the elevated level of attacks and the presidential election season, noting that:
after the first candidate announced his bid for the White House in March 2015, there have been approximately 180 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence, including: 12 murders; 34 physical assaults; 49 verbal assaults or threats against persons and institutions; 56 acts of vandalism or destruction of property; 9 arsons; and 8 shootings or bombings, among other incidents.
The study also placed the blame on Trump, noting that he had “escalated anti-Muslim vitriol in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, France in November 2015 rather than urge calm or international unity.” It went on: “Mr. Trump made many anti-Muslim statements during televised appearances on mainstream news media outlets, impacting millions of viewers across the US and around the world.”
The San Bernardino attacks became a frequent Muslim-bashing point for Trump. During the murderous rampage on December 2, 2015, two apparently radicalized Muslims, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, massacred fourteen people and wounded twenty-two more at a holiday gathering for Farook’s co-workers at the county public health department. The Monday after the tragedy, Trump created a national uproar by declaring that he wanted to see all Muslim immigration into the United States shut off—temporarily, he claimed, “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
It’s impossible to establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship between Trump’s announcement and subsequent events, but within days there was a series of ugly incidents: phoned-in and social- media threats, vandalizing attacks on mosques, and arsons of Muslim businesses, in locations all around the United States.
• December 4, St. Louis, Missouri. A man phoned in a threat to the local offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, vowing to kill any Muslims who dared show up on his property. He is unlikely to be charged with any crime.
• December 4, Manassas, Virginia. The local mosque was threatened with a phoned-in threat from a man claiming to be a member of the extremist Jewish Defense League and vowing that his group “will do to your people what you did to them.” “We are checking now to see if one Jew has been shot or killed in California,” he said. “You all will be sorry. You all will be killed.”
• December 4, Palm Beach, Florida. A lone vandal attacked a local Islamic center, breaking windows and wreaking property damage inside. The man who was later arrested for the crime is the son of a well-known local educator.
• December 8, Philadelphia. Someone in a red pickup truck rolled up next to a neighborhood mosque and hurled a severed pig’s head onto the steps. Security cameras caught images of the perpetrators, but so far, investigators have had no luck tracking them down.
• December 10, Grand Forks, North Dakota. Someone scrawled graffiti featuring a Nazi symbol and the words “Go home” on the walls of a Somali restaurant owned by a Muslim family. Two nights later, someone deliberately set fire to the restaurant, causing an estimated $90,000 in damage.
• December 10, Twin Falls, Idaho. Someone spray-painted boards that covered the windows of the local Islamic center with the words “Hunt Camp?” The graffiti referred to the old Minidoka Relocation Center in nearby Hunt, the site of the massive Japanese American internment erected during World War II, apparently suggesting internment for local Muslims.
Mark Potok, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Senior Fellow and Intelligence Report editor, observed to Hatewatch: “Although the hateful comments of Trump … are protected by the First Amend- ment, there is little doubt that they will ultimately lead to more violence directed at minorities … Words have consequences.”
Trump’s wink-wink suggestions to use violence against undesirables and opponents were not limited to minorities. Trump also deployed similar innuendo to attack Hillary Clinton.
In August 2016 he said at a rally audience that Clinton’s election would doom Americans’ gun rights: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks.” The crowd began to boo. Then he quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people … maybe there is, … I don’t know …” As the New York Times reported, the remark seemed “to raise the possibility that gun rights supporters could take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton is elected president.” Trump quickly danced away from the suggestion that he was encouraging gun advocates to shoot her, insisting instead that he was simply out to unify gun owners against Clinton in the voting booth. “
This is a political movement. This is a strong political movement, the Second Amendment,” Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity. “And there can be no other interpretation … I mean, give me a break.”
Unchastened, Trump made his rhetoric more pointed when he later told a crowd: “I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons …Take their guns away. She doesn’t want guns … Let’s see what happens to her … It’d be very dangerous.”
He understood the importance of the issue to his supporters. A woman participating in a question-and-answer session at an Albuquerque, New Mexico, rally for Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, told him, “If Hillary Clinton wins the election … and she’s on that Second Amendment, taking your guns away, there is going to be a civil war in this state.” The crowd applauded.
“But, if President Trump would win,” the woman continued, “there’s also going to be a war, because Obama is going to pull that martial law on the United States.”
Hillary Clinton was not taking the right-wing onslaught lying down. She began speaking out against the rising tide of right-wing extremism her opponent was empowering. On August 25, at a campaign appearance in Reno, she went on the offensive. First, she called out Trump for hiring the self-described alt-right leader Stephen Bannon as his campaign CEO. Then she connected the dots on the central issue of Trump’s empowerment of the far right, now the alt-right:
It’s truly hard to believe, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, Breitbart embraces “ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right.” This is not conservatism as we have known it. This is not Republicanism as we have know it. These are race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman––all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right’ …
Now Alt-Right is short for “Alternative Right” … The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump Campaign represents a landmark achievement for the “Alt-Right.” A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party.
Far from being upset, members of the alt-right claimed that Clinton had actually “legitimized” them with the speech.
“The alt-right as a moniker of resistance is here to stay,” Richard Spencer said. “Hillary just ensured that; there will be more and more people, with various perspectives, adopting it. At this point in history, the ‘alt’ is just as important as the ‘right.’ Hillary aligned herself with George W. Bush and John McCain. The alt-right is the real opposition. We’ve made it, I never thought this would happen so quickly.”
However, the speech also led some journalists to begin reporting more proactively on what the alt-right was really about: a “rebranding of white supremacy for the twenty-first century,” as Mark Potok put it.
On September 9, Clinton gave a private talk to the LGBT for Hillary Gala in New York City, at which she expanded on the subject. A video of the talk was leaked to the press.
Clinton’s remarks raised a firestorm of protest from the right: I know there are only sixty days left to make our case—and don’t get complacent, don’t see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment and think, well, he’s done this time. We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have eleven thou- sand people—now eleven million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks—they are irre- deemable, but thankfully they are not America.
But the other basket—and I know this because I see friends from all over America here—I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas—as well as, you know, New York and California— but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well. [Emphasis added]
Suddenly, the press became focused on Clinton’s “gaffe” in calling some of Trump’s supporters “deplorables”—while the latter part of Clinton’s remarks were utterly dismissed and ignored. Seeing an opportunity, the Trump campaign leapt into action, characterizing Clinton as having dismissed all of his supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Trump remarked that Clinton had revealed “her true contempt for everyday Americans.”
On CNN with Wolf Blitzer, vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence did say of David Duke that “we don’t want his support and we don’t want the support of people who think like him,” but still declined to say that Duke might be someone he’d call “deplorable,” saying, “No, I’m not in the name-calling business, Wolf. You know me better than that.”
Clinton soon apologized for saying that “half ” of Trump’s supporters fitted that description, and added, “But let’s be clear, what’s really ‘deplorable’ is that Donald Trump hired a major advocate for the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement to run his campaign and that David Duke and other white supremacists see him as a champion of their values.” The political analyst Nate Silver examined the poll results of the often-racist and xenophobic views of Trump supporters: Clinton’s statement wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Nonetheless, the whole “deplorables” episode became settled in the media narrative as a “gaffe” by Clinton.
Trump’s army of followers embraced the “deplorables” label. Soon “Deplorable,” or “I’m Deplorable,” or “Proud Member of the Basket of Deplorables” T-shirts started to be seen at Trump rallies.
The alt-right cooked up their usual menu of memes. One of the most popular was a play on the poster for the Sylvester Stallone film The Expendables, renamed The Deplorables, that featured an array of faces from the campaign Photoshopped onto the bodies of the film’s armed characters. Lined up behind Donald Trump as the leading figure were Roger Stone, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, and Gary Busey to the left, and Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, Donald Trump Jr., Rudolph Giuliani, and Pepe the Frog to the right.
Donald Trump Jr. liked the meme so much he shared it on Instagram. Roger Stone retweeted it.
Trump’s dance with Birtherism seemingly ground to a halt in mid-September when, pressed by a rising chorus of press inquiries seeking an explanation of his position, he held a press conference– cum–promotional event at his new hotel in Washington, DC. After a long buildup touting the setting, he read a brief statement acknowledging that President Obama was an American citizen, but blamed the whole mess on Hillary Clinton.
“President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again,” Trump told the reporters. “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the Birther controversy. I finished it.”
With that, he urged the reporters to check out the new hotel, and his handlers then announced that reporters could film him giving tours of the hotel, but could not ask any more questions.
By the time the two candidates finally met face-to-face ten days later for the first nationally televised debate on September 26, their respective armies of supporters were in full roar, and the nation at large was captivated: the event wound up being the most-watched presidential debate in history, with 84 million viewers.
Trump fared reasonably well for the first half hour or so, but he fell apart in the final hour, barking answers, talking over Clinton, and throwing out word salads to avoid answering questions. He seemed unprepared and easily flustered.
Alt-righters groused about Trump’s debating style. “Trump doesn’t always get his message across, he pulls punches regarding race,” wrote Patrick Slattery at the Stormer; at Occidental Dissent, Brad Griffin complained, “He struck me as nervous, irritable, and thin skinned” and blamed the “Jew media” for its supposed bias. One commenter on the Stormer’s debate comment thread was angry: “I nominate him for the firing squad for what he has done.” But Andrew Anglin posted the results of online polls as proof that Trump had actually won the debate.