Click here for TPM’s portraits of American Renaissance conference attendees and their explanations of why they’re voting Trump.
BURNS, TENNESSEE—Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump has been accused of dog-whistling to white nationalists ever since he kicked off his campaign in the summer of 2015 and warned against “criminal” Mexican immigrants. His retweets of Twitter users with handles like “@WhiteGenocideTM” and his tepid disavowals of David Duke’s support have not gone unnoticed in that fringe community, either.
Tucked away in the woods of middle Tennessee’s Montgomery Bell State Park, 300 “white advocates” gathered over the weekend at the fourteenth American Renaissance conference to reflect on just how much fuel Trump has added to their movement this election cycle.
“I’ve never felt this sense of energy in our movement,” the conference host, Jared Taylor, said in his opening remarks. “I’ve never been more optimistic.”
For the conference, American Renaissance, a white nationalist publication, brought advocates for a white ethno-state together with Holocaust deniers, eugenicists and confederate sympathizers. American Renaissance and many of the groups the conference speakers are associated with are designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
According to Taylor, this year’s conference saw a 100-person jump in attendance from 2015; a show of hands identified half of the participants as first-time attendees and one-third as under the age of 30.
American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor
Trump’s candidacy and the proliferation of white nationalist media online have put the old guard of white advocacy in touch with the new. At the conference, anti-immigrant, pro-Confederate old-timers rubbed shoulders with the young men of the “alt-right”—a loosely defined amalgam of isolationist white nationalists who crusade against political correctness and thrive on the Internet.
Younger attendees—many of whom sported the “fashy” haircut, a variation on the short-on-the-sides, long-on-top hipster ‘do that one attendee said he appreciated for its “authoritarian uniformity”—seemed particularly lacking in nostalgia for the GOP of yesterday. In Trump, these young men saw a Republican they could get behind: a brash billionaire who had no qualms calling out the Washington, D.C. establishment or the failures of conservatism.
“Trump is probably the first politician I’ve seen in perhaps my entire life that I would go and vote for,” Nathan Damigo, a social science major from Northern California sporting a “fashy” haircut, told TPM. A two-tour Iraq War veteran, Damigo praised Trump as “the only one” in the GOP to condemn that invasion as a mistake.
A gangly oil-and-gas industry employee from Houston, who gave his name as Karl North, praised Trump for saying “the things that other people aren’t willing to say that are just true.”
“We need a wall on our southern border. Mexico has a wall on its southern border. Israel has walls all over its border. It’s something I would say as a teenager and get laughed at for,” he told TPM. “Like it’s been said recently, we either have a nation or we don’t. We either have borders or we don’t. If not then America is just some smorgasboard of government handouts and business opportunities for whoever happens to come take them.”
Almost every conference attendee TPM spoke with said he or she voted for Trump in the primaries. Some had attended rallies or canvassed for his campaign. A few, like William Johnson, have done much more. Johnson, the founder of the white nationalist American Freedom Party, poured thousands of dollars into his American National Super PAC’s effort to blanket early voting states with robocalls urging voters to back Trump. He caused a stir earlier this month when his name appeared on a list of Trump’s California delegates.
Though the Trump campaign attributed Johnson’s inclusion on the delegate list to a “database error,” he told TPM at the conference that his support for the real estate mogul, who he repeatedly called a “strong male leader,” was unwavering.
James Edwards, host of “The Political Cesspool” radio show, had his own dustup with the Trump campaign this year. As he recounted at a panel, the media raised a collective eyebrow in March when he wrote a glowing blog post describing his interview with Donald Trump, Jr., and his trip to a Trump rally in Tennessee, which he covered as a member of the press credentialed by the Trump campaign. Trump Jr. later said he wouldn’t have granted the interview had he known of Edwards’ beliefs.
The radio host said the outcry over the incident proved to him that the mainstream media were “mouthpieces for the regime.” The audience agreed. They laughed when Edwards asked if they had a favorable opinion of the press; every hand in the room when up when he asked if they thought the media was “made up of liars.”
James Edwards, host of “The Political Cesspool” radio show
That suspicion toward mainstream media manifested as open hostility at one Saturday talk, where Paul Ramsey, who goes by “RamZPaul” on YouTube, repeatedly called out a Buzzfeed reporter who’d previously written about the alt-right and was covering the conference. After Ramsey’s speech, a young blonde man walked up to Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray and issued a warning that sounded equally ominous and troll-y.
“There’s more of us than you think,” he said to her. “We’re crashing the plane. No survivors.” [Ed. note: TPM later learned that this was an adaptation of a line Batman villain Bane says in “The Dark Knight Rises”]
Still, the white nationalist movement sees coverage of Trump’s anti-immigration policies as key to spreading their ideals.
Peter Brimelow was a conservative financial journalist for Forbes and The National Review until his increasingly caustic anti-immigrant beliefs led to his dismissal in 1997. He now runs the “patriotic immigration reform” site VDARE.com. In his talk, the British expat pointed to Trump’s campaign announcement speech as the “spark” that started “the conflagration.”
“It didn’t even take a speech,” Brimelow said of Trump’s comments on Mexican immigrants. “It just took a sound bite, a few sentences.”
That little spark could be all the movement needs to get their candidate in the White House, Brimelow said.
“It will only take one election and then mount America will really blow,” he predicted.
Peter Brimelow, founder of VDARE.com
Despite their warm embrace of Trump, speakers and attendees at the conference said they didn’t believe he is one of them or that he will be able to fulfill all of his promises on immigration. Instead, they framed their relationship to Trump’s campaign as a marriage of convenience. They get to see some of their core beliefs mainstreamed by the presumptive nominee of one of the country’s two major political parties, while he gets to appeal to disgruntled white voters.
Asked if Trump could actually build a southern border wall, temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants without congressional support, even Jared Taylor was circumspect.
“All politicians break promises,” he said. “That’s something we have to live with. I would prefer it that we had certainty about this but certainty is impossible.”
Taylor said he sees himself as “an old school stickler” who would prefer Trump carry out those proposals through legislation, but not everyone in the movement shares that reservation.
“Next time there are illegal alien demonstrations, round them up and ship them out,” Brimelow of VDARE.com proposed.
Johnson believes Trump should simply override the judicial and legislative branches to make whatever immigration reforms he chooses.
“You could have a Trump do what Andrew Jackson did when he defied the U.S. Supreme Court and had the Trail of Tears,” Johnson said, pointing out that the president “controls the armies.”
“It might be violating the procedures we’ve used for 100-some years but its not unconstitutional,” he continued. “I think we need to have some strong executive decisions because America has disintegrated so much that something dramatic needs to be done.”
Photo credits: Daniel Graf
This post has been updated.