The video was chilling. Footage from a conference in Washington, D.C. over the weekend of the innocuously named National Policy Institute showed attendees thrusting their arms in the air in a Nazi salute as the man at the front of the room yelled “hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
The Trump transition team responded with a vague statement about the white nationalist conference, distancing the President-elect broadly from racism. There was no specific denouncement of the meeting, however, or its leader, Richard Spencer, a young man who has spent the last few years laying the groundwork to modernize the white nationalist movement.
“President-elect Trump has continued to denounce racism of any kind, and he was elected because he will be a leader for every American,” a statement from his transition team reads, according to the Huffington Post. “To think otherwise is a complete misrepresentation of the movement that united Americans from all backgrounds.”
Trump’s watered-down statement comes after he regularly made overt and derogatory comments about Muslims, African-Americans and Latinos in the country throughout his campaign.
The moment over the weekend at the NPI meeting didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a reason why white nationalists have rallied around Trump, why they view Trump’s victory through the prism of their own accession.
Richard Spencer speaks with attendees at the National Policy Institute summit in D.C.
“The alt-right is here, the alt-right is not going anywhere, the alt-right is going to change the world,” Spencer said during the conference, according to NPR.
Throughout his campaign Trump entertained the hard-right racist fringe of his party with a few nods here or there. He was slow, at times, to back away from their embrace. His selection of Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist at the White House only cemented those ties. Bannon, who led the right-wing website Breitbart once boasted that his site was the “platform for the alt right,” a more tasteful name for some of the white nationalist fringe embracing Trump now. Bannon–a controversial figure on the campaign–was accused by his ex-wife of making anti-Semitic comments about a private school they looked at for their children.
Steve Bannon served as Trump’s campaign adviser and will now take on a prominent role in the White House/ Associated Press
Bannon has said publicly he’s not a white nationalist, but an “economic nationalist.”
“And I have admired nationalist movements throughout the world, have said repeatedly strong nations make great neighbors. I’ve also said repeatedly that the ethno-nationalist movement, prominent in Europe, will change over time. I’ve never been a supporter of ethno-nationalism,” he said in a Wall Street Journal interview earlier this month.
But still, Trump excited white nationalists by selecting Bannon to be in the White House. He emboldened them on the campaign trail with talk of banning Muslims from coming into the United States and more recently a registry. He promised restrictive immigration policies that have been a foundation of anti-immigrant fringe groups for decades. He retweeted white nationalist propaganda and was slow to distance himself from former Klan leader David Duke in the early days of his campaign. While Trump has repeated he doesn’t sympathize with white nationalist causes, his ambivalence at times and his actions have left enough room for white nationalists to feel like they can still thrive under his leadership.
“If Trump does win, okay, it’s going to be a real opportunity for people like white nationalists, acting intelligently to build upon that, and to go and start—you know how you have the black political caucus and what not in Congress, and, everything, to start building on something like that… it has to be pro-white,” Rocky Suhayda, the chairman of the American Nazi Party said on his radio program in July, which was surfaced by BuzzFeed.
Earlier this year, Trump retweeted false crime statistics that 81 percent of white homicide victims were killed by African Americans, a false stereotype that has long been peddled by white nationalists. Trump retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton, a pile of money and what appeared to be a Star of David. (Trump argued that it was just a sheriff’s star, but his account eventually deleted the image and sent it out again, edited with a circle instead of the star.) He retweeted WhiteGenocideTM, an apparent Neo Nazi feed, on two different occasions.
Since being elected, the President-elect has tried to distance himself from the neo-Nazis celebrating his victory. When asked about a surge in hate crimes being reported around the country during a 60 Minutes interview, Trump looked dead pan at the camera and told people to “stop it.”
During a New York Times interview Tuesday, <=”” iframe>”=””>Trump told the paper that the so-called Alt-Right “is not a group I want to energize. And if they are energized I want to look into it and find out why.”
Yet, the words came from a President-elect who has selected Bannon to be a close adviser in the White House and Sen. Jeff Sessions– a man who was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 because a Republican-controlled committee had concerns his past statements were racist–to serve as his attorney general. There was a time when any apparent conflicts of interest or allegations of racism deterred politicians from making such appointments. But, Trump defies those norms instead dismissing them as political correctness gone amuck.
Trump has flirted with the fringe. And, it’s not just Democrats saying that. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said earlier this year that Trump’s attacks against a federal judge’s “Mexican” heritage were the “textbook definition” of racism. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) made a summer of calling out Trump’s attack on a Muslim Gold Star Family and his mass deportation plan.
But, since Trump has won, Republicans have been more reserved, less willing to call out Trump’s cabinet appointments or the selection of Bannon. They have a new president who they are giving some space. Republicans on Capitol Hill have said largely that they don’t know Bannon and cannot comment on him, a way to avoid having to weigh in on Trump’s picks.
It all leaves a lot of room for white nationalism to fester.