During his rambling rally this week in Phoenix, Arizona, President Donald Trump scoffed at the idea that anyone would label him a racist for his ever-evolving response to the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. All he wanted to do, he told a crowd of his supporters, was address his concern that an undefined “they” were attempting “to take away our history and our heritage.”
That language merely puts a presentable face on the racism that left counter-protesters bloodied on the streets of Charlottesville, according to former skinheads and law enforcement who’ve worked with them. Those individuals told TPM that Trump’s comments used the same rhetorical lures that white supremacists and other hate groups rely on to hook new members.
“It’s dangerous because it creates a distinction between us and them,” said Michael German, a former FBI special agent who during his time in law enforcement went undercover with neo-Nazi skinheads in southern California and anti-government militia groups. “When Donald Trump talks about us and our heritage he’s only speaking to one audience, and that audience then starts to view others who are fellow Americans as somehow the enemy.”
“The rhetoric draws people in because it makes them feel like they are losing something terribly important. It perpetuates the us vs. them mentality and serves no one,” echoed Angela King, a former skinhead who spent six years in prison for assisting an armed robbery of a Jewish-owned store. King went on to co-found Life After Hate, a nonprofit that works with former members of violent far-right groups.
The criticism that Trump is dog-whistling to disaffected whites is nothing new for a politician who kicked off his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans drug dealers and criminals, and who once proposed banning all Muslim immigrants to the U.S. The White House has brushed it off, insisting that Trump “of course” condemns “white Supremacists, KKK, neo-nazi and all extremist groups.”
“We have condemned these groups over and over again and will continue to do so,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a Thursday statement to TPM. “There is no place for hate and bigotry in our country.”
But after a week of flailing statements on the violence in Charlottesville that were cheered by the extremist fringe and criticized by just about everyone else, the President has landed on talking points that those same groups use to justify their movement and bring new people into the fold.
Trump’s remarks on George Washington offer one telling example. “George Washington was a slave owner. So will George Washington now lose his status?” the President asked reporters last week at Trump Tower. “Are we going to take down, are we going to take down statues to George Washington?”
“How about Thomas Jefferson?” he added. “Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue?”
On that same day, onetime GOP presidential candidate and nativist commentator Pat Buchanan made the very same point in a column republished by white nationalist publication American Renaissance.
“Many Southern towns, including Alexandria, Virginia, have statues of Confederate soldiers looking to the South. Shall we pull them all down?” he wrote.”And once all the Southern Civil War monuments are gone, should we go after the statues of the slave owners whom we Americans have heroized? Gen. George Washington and his subordinate, ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, were slave owners, as was Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson.”
Conservative pundits have made similar arguments on Fox News couches in recent days. As Derek Black, the son of the founder of white supremacist website Stormfront, pointed out in a New York Times op-ed this week, few Americans would justify marching down the streets of a U.S. city brandishing a swastika flag, but many more feel comfortable lamenting what they are being told is the erasure of U.S. history.
“My dad often gave me the advice that white nationalists are not looking to recruit people on the fringes of American culture, but rather the people who start a sentence by saying, ‘I’m not racist, but …’,” Black, who has disavowed the movement, wrote of his father, Don. “The most effective tactics for white nationalists are to associate American history with themselves and to suggest that the collective efforts to turn away from our white supremacist past are the same as abandoning American culture.”
Frank Meeink, a former neo-Nazi who left the movement after a stint in prison as a teenager for kidnapping one man and beating another, told TPM that he used those sort of “common sense,” pseudo-academic appeals to recruit residents of his South Philadelphia neighborhood into his skinhead gang.
“It’s the biggest bait and switch. You’re down and out and people are saying, ‘Come be proud of your heritage, they’re telling you you can’t be, come join our group!’” Meeink said of his efforts to “pitch” to new recruits.
“You join the group and not once did these guys talk about their heritage in meetings,” Meeink went on. “Never went to a meeting where they were like, ‘Hey, let’s talk about Leif Erikson again!’ All we talked about was, ‘Look at what the Jews are doing to our culture,’ but we never talked about what our culture did, it was what they’re doing. You’re not taught about your heritage; you’re taught about why other heritages aren’t as good.”
Trump is hardly the first politician to fret over the preservation of southern history or to send winking signals to white nationalists. But that kind of pandering has almost always come from the fringiest members of Congress, if not obscure local and state-level politicians. Just Wednesday, the Republican Party of Virginia backed down after attacking the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, whose ancestors had owned slaves, for betraying his “heritage” by calling to move Confederate statues into museums.
Trump, who himself once argued in favor of removing the Confederate flag from public spaces, has showed no signs of contrition, lashing out at critics in the media and on Capitol Hill and defending his recent comments as inherently harmless. Speaking with the imprimatur of the White House, Trump has taken these bogus historical arguments mainstream.
German, the former FBI agent, emphasized that people don’t simply transform into white nationalists overnight, pointing to recent studies showing an increase in U.S. hate groups.
“I always ask myself, ‘Okay is it that people who weren’t racist yesterday decide, you know what, I think I’ll be a racist!’” he joked. “I don’t think so.”
“I tend to believe that these are feelings that a sizable segment of the population holds and is reluctant to express, because they know its not social acceptable to say these things,” he added. “When you have someone like Donald Trump say them from a campaign podium or platform, that makes it okay to say them. That has brought out a lot of this latent racism to full expression. And that expression then influences our policy and the way we enforce the law.”
This post has been updated.