In the wake of Donald Trump’s upset presidential win, the small yet vocal cohort of white nationalists who supported his campaign are refocusing their efforts from trolling liberals online to running for elected office.
Their reasoning: If a candidate who appealed to the tide of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment surging on the country’s right could win over voters, why not one who is openly “pro-white”?
“I have been very surprised that we have not seen attractive, well-spoken, racially aware candidates running for local office,” Jared Taylor, head of the white nationalist American Renaissance publication and annual conference, told TPM in a Wednesday phone call. “I think this will be inevitable, and I think that Trump will have encouraged this. That our people will run for school board, city council, mayor, all that I anticipate certainly.”
Others are thinking in the short-term and training their eyes, perhaps more quixotically, on possible positions in a Trump administration.
William Johnson arguably did the most to advocate for the real estate mogul’s campaign through traditional political channels. The Los Angeles-based lawyer and chair of the white nationalist American Freedom Party founded the pro-Trump American National super PAC, bankrolled robocalls on his behalf, and was listed to serve as a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention until media outcry forced the Trump campaign to remove his name and attribute his inclusion to a “data error.”
Johnson told TPM his plan now is to “wheedle my way into a Trump administration.” He said he’d love a position as ambassador to Japan or the Philippines, countries home to many of his legal clients, or under secretary of Agriculture, as he runs a small persimmon farm. These likely remain pipe dreams, given that the Trump campaign has said in the past that it “strongly condemns” Johnson’s rhetoric.
“Right now because the election is over and there’s going to be no election for another two years, we’re not focused on people running for office,” Johnson said. “We’re focused on getting people into the administration and working within the system. But in another year or so when elections start gearing up, we will put our candidates into place.”
Meanwhile, civil rights groups are keeping a wary eye on the slow creep of white nationalists and the alt-right from marginalized conferences and online message boards into walking, waking political life. Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, believes that the “bigotry and anti-Semitism and hatred” that voters saw come out during the campaign was just the beginning. Trump’s extremist supporters, he told TPM, “feel rewarded for their bad behavior.”
“The alt-right in particular which was this very loosely organized online movement, we’re going to see if it tries to become more of a real world movement,” he added.
This normalization effort is already underway. The alt-right held what amounted to a press conference at the Willard Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. in September, and Segal mentioned an upcoming National Policy Institute event with “known anti-Semites” like California State University professor Kevin MacDonald.
These in-person meet-ups in conventional settings, Segal said, “speak to a development from an online phenomenon to a real-world one.”
White nationalists aspired to office even before Trump launched his campaign. Former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke served one term in the Louisiana House in the late 1980s and made several stabs at elected office in the following years. This year, he launched a failed bid for a Louisiana Senate seat and directly tied himself to a Trump ticket.
The younger generation has been known to take the same tack. A recent Washington Post profile of Derek Black, son of the founder of the white nationalist Stormfront website and a darling of the movement until he publicly broke away from it, explained the strategy Black employed when he was still part of that inner circle.
“The way ahead is through politics,” Black told attendees at a 2008 white nationalist conference, according to the Post. “We can infiltrate. We can take the country back.”
He was 19 years old at the time and had already won a GOP committee seat in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Peter Brimelow, the editor of anti-immigration site Virginia Dare, said Trump’s win would make mainstream politicians “see that these are winning issues.” Although Brimelow doubts that any self-described white nationalists will “be allowed into public life,” he pointed to politicians like Rep. David Brat (R-VA) as “breakthroughs” who he said share very similar views to those of the white nationalist community.
Taylor, of American Renaissance, pointed to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former New York City Mayor Giuliani—all of whom are already working closely with the Trump team—as the kind of officials white nationalists would like to see in the next administration.
Civil rights groups are closely monitoring which officials Trump names to key administration posts, and these are the kinds of names that give them pause.
“When [Breitbart Chairman Steve] Bannon is the CEO of your campaign and also someone who has made a place for the alt-right, the prospects are scary,” said Richard Cohen, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “On the immigration front you’ve got people like Kobach, the architect of the country’s harshest immigration laws, SB1070 in Arizona and HB56 in Alabama, on his transition team for immigration. You have people connected to the Family Research Council, a hard-line anti-gay group, who are playing a role in his transition team.”
“So far we haven’t seen any effort on his part to distance himself from the people who brought him to the party,” Cohen added. “He’s still dancing with them.”
Trump hasn’t sent signals yet indicating he’d pivot away from the hard-right, so civil rights organizations are gearing up for a potential fight. Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the ADL, SPLC and Latino advocacy organizations are redoubling efforts to reach out to congressional allies, prepare for legal battles, and offer training, resources and support to the groups they work to protect.
Robert McCaw, CAIR’s government affairs director, said the group expects to see more of the anti-Muslim hate and bias crimes that have already made 2016 “the worst year on record for anti-Muslim violence in the United States.”
“There’s definitely a link between Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals that have emboldened some of his followers to take violent and criminal action,” McCaw told TPM.
According to Cohen, whether or not such violence occurs may hinge on how much white nationalists feel their views are represented in a Trump administration.
“If they find a true home in his administration, that will take some of the wind out of the sail of the violent extremists on the right,” Cohen said. “If they are shunned by Trump, if they are pushed out, given that he has raised their expectations so high, we could see violence. This rock and hard place are something entirely of his own making.”