The Fearful and the FrustratedDonald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now.BY EVAN OSNOS
When the Trump storm broke this summer, it touched off smaller tempests that stirred up American politics in ways that were easy to miss from afar. At the time, I happened to be reporting on extremist white-rights groups, and observed at first hand their reactions to his candidacy. Trump was advancing a dire portrait of immigration that partly overlapped with their own. On June 28th, twelve days after Trump’s announcement, the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed him for President: “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people.” The Daily Stormer urged white men to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”
Ever since the Tea Party’s peak, in 2010, and its fade, citizens on the American far right—Patriot militias, border vigilantes, white supremacists—have searched for a standard-bearer, and now they’d found him. In the past, “white nationalists,” as they call themselves, had described Trump as a “Jew-lover,” but the new tone of his campaign was a revelation. Richard Spencer is a self-described “identitarian” who lives in Whitefish, Montana, and promotes “white racial consciousness.” At thirty-six, Spencer is trim and preppy, with degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago. He is the president and director of the National Policy Institute, a think tank, co-founded by William Regnery, a member of the conservative publishing family, that is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Spencer “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old.” Spencer told me that he had expected the Presidential campaign to be an “amusing freak show,” but that Trump was “refreshing.” He went on, “Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it.”
Jared Taylor, the editor of American Renaissance, a white-nationalist magazine and Web site based in Oakton, Virginia, told me, in regard to Trump, “I’m sure he would repudiate any association with people like me, but his support comes from people who are more like me than he might like to admit.”
From the beginning of the current race, the conservative establishment has been desperate for Trump to be finished. After he disparaged the war record of Senator John McCain, the New York Post gave him a front-page farewell—“DON VOYAGE”—and a Wall Street Journal editorial declared him a “catastrophe.” But Trump carried on—in part because he had activated segments of the electorate that other candidates could not, or would not. On July 20th, three days before his trip to Texas, Ann Coulter, whose most recent book is “¡Adios, America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole,” appeared on Sean Hannity’s show and urged fellow-Republicans to see Trump’s summer as a harbinger. “The new litmus test for real conservatives is immigration,” she said. “They used to say the same thing about the pro-life Republicans and the pro-gun Republicans, and, ‘Oh, they’re fringe and they’re tacky, and we’re so embarrassed to be associated with them.’ Now every one of them comes along and pretends they’d be Reagan.”
From the pantheon of great demagogues, Trump has plucked some best practices—William Jennings Bryan’s bombast, Huey Long’s wit, Father Charles Coughlin’s mastery of the airwaves—but historians are at pains to find the perfect analogue, because so much of Trump’s recipe is specific to the present. Celebrities had little place in American politics until the 1920 Presidential election, when Al Jolson and other stars from the fledgling film industry endorsed Warren Harding. Two decades ago, Americans were less focussed on paid-for politicians, so Ross Perot, a self-funded billionaire candidate, did not derive the same benefit as Trump from the perception of independence.
Trump’s signature lines—“The American dream is dead” and “We don’t have victories anymore”—constitute a bitter mantra in tune with a moment when the share of Americans who tell Gallup pollsters that there is “plenty of opportunity” has dropped to an unprecedented fifty-two per cent; when trust in government has reached its lowest level on record, and Americans’ approval of both major parties has sunk, for the first time, below forty per cent. Matthew Heimbach, who is twenty-four, and a prominent white-nationalist activist in Cincinnati, told me that Trump has energized disaffected young men like him. “He is bringing people back out of their slumber,” he said.
Ordinarily, the white-nationalist Web sites mock Republicans as Zionist stooges and corporate puppets who have opened the borders in order to keep wages low. But, on July 9th, VDARE, an opinion site founded to “push back the plans of pro-Amnesty/Immigration Surge politicians, ethnic activists and corrupt Big Business,” hailed Trump as “the first figure with the financial, cultural, and economic resources to openly defy elite consensus. If he can mobilize Republicans behind him and make a credible run for the Presidency, he can create a whole new media environment for patriots to openly speak their mind without fear of losing their jobs.” The piece was headlined “WE ARE ALL DONALD TRUMP NOW.”
Trump’s admirers hear in his words multiple appeals. Michael Hill heads the Alabama-based League of the South, a secessionist group that envisions an independent Southern republic with an “Anglo-Celtic” leadership. In 1981, Hill began teaching history at Stillman College, a historically black college in Tuscaloosa. He applied for jobs at other schools, and was turned down, which he attributes to affirmative action. In 1994, he co-founded the League, which put him at odds, he said, with “civil-rights-age, older black faculty and administrators, looking down their nose at this uppity white boy coming out here, talking about the Confederate flag and all that kind of stuff.” In 1999, he left Stillman. He told me, “If academia is not for me, because of who I am—a white Southern male, Christian, straight, whatever—then I’m going to find something that is. I’m going to fight this battle for my people.” Hill was moved by Trump’s frequent references to Kathryn Steinle, a thirty-two-year-old woman who, on July 1st, was walking with her father on a pier in San Francisco when she was fatally wounded in what police described as a random shooting. When police arrested Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a repeat felon who had been deported from the United States five times, Trump adopted the story of “that beautiful woman” as “another example of why we must secure our border immediately.” Hill told me, “That struck such a nerve with people, because a lot of this political stuff is abstract, but, as a father, I’ve got a daughter as well, and I could just see myself holding my daughter, and her looking up at me and saying, ‘Help me, Daddy.’ ” Hill, who condemns immigration and interracial marriage and warns of the influence of “Jewry,” said, “I love to see somebody like Donald Trump come along. Not that I believe anything that he says. But he is stirring up chaos in the G.O.P., and for us that is good.”
I joined Hill at a League of the South meeting one afternoon in July, at its newly built headquarters, on a couple of verdant acres outside Montgomery, Alabama. It was the League’s annual conference, and there were about a hundred men and women; the older men were in courtly suits or jackets, and the younger set favored jeans, with handguns holstered in the waistband. The venders’ tables had books (“The True Selma Story,” “Authentic History of the Ku Klux Klan”), stickers (“The Federal Empire Is Killing the American Dream”), and raffle tickets. The prize: a .45-calibre Sig Sauer pistol.
After years of decline, the League has recently acquired a number of younger members, including Brad Griffin, a thirty-four-year-old who writes an influential blog under the name Hunter Wallace. Short and genial, he wore Top-Siders, khaki shorts, and a polo shirt. As we talked, Griffin’s eyes wandered to his two-year-old son, who was roaming nearby. Griffin told me that he embraced white nationalism after reading Patrick Buchanan’s “Death of the West,” which argued, in Griffin’s words, that “all of the European peoples were dying out, their birthrates were low, and you had mass immigration and multiculturalism.” Griffin once had high hopes for the Tea Party. “They channelled all that rage into electing an impressive number of Republicans in the South, but then all they did was try to cut rich Republicans’ taxes and make life easier for billionaires!” he said. “It was all hijacked, and a classic example of how these right-wing movements emerge, and they’re misdirected into supporting the status quo.”
Griffin had recently told his readers that his opinion of Donald Trump was “soaring.” He sees Trump’s surge as a “hostile takeover of the Republican Party. He’s blowing up their stage-managed dog-and-pony show.” Griffin is repelled by big-money politics, so I asked why he spoke highly of Trump. “He’s a billionaire, but all of these other little candidates are owned by their own little billionaires.” He mentioned Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. “So I think Trump is independent.”
The longer I stayed, the more I sensed that my fellow-attendees occupied a parallel universe in which white Americans face imminent demise, the South is preparing to depart the United States, and Donald Trump is going to be President. When Hill took the stage, he told his compatriots that the recent lowering of the Confederate flag was just the beginning. Soon, he warned, adopting the unspecified “they,” they will come for the “monuments, battlefields, parks, cemeteries, street names, even the dead themselves.” The crowd was on its feet, cheering him on. “This, my friends, is cultural genocide,” he said, adding, “Often, as history has shown, cultural genocide is merely a prelude to physical genocide.” I ducked out to catch a flight to Des Moines: Trump was speaking the next day in Iowa.
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Trump has always weaved in and out of racially charged controversies. In 2000, he secretly ran ads opposing a Catskills casino backed by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, because it would rival his businesses in Atlantic City. Beneath a picture of drug paraphernalia, the ad asked, “Are these the new neighbors we want?” Tribal leaders denounced the message as “racist and inflammatory,” and Trump and his associates were fined by New York State for concealing the true source of the ads. In March, 2011, Trump, who was considering a Presidential run, resurrected the crackpot theory that Barack Obama is not an American citizen, declaring, “I want him to show his birth certificate.” (It had already been publicly available for more than three years.) Trump’s declaration gave the issue new prominence. At the time, Trump’s on-again, off-again political adviser, the former Nixon aide Roger Stone, said that the decision to become a birther was “a brilliant base-building move.”
Trump’s phantasmagorical visions of marauding immigrants are part of a genre in which immigration and race are intermingled. In recent years, hoaxes and theories that were once confined to the margins have been laundered through mainstream media outlets. In 2013, Fox News repeatedly broadcast warnings about the “knockout game,” based on a self-published book by the white nationalist Colin Flaherty, which described black men randomly attacking white pedestrians. In a study published in the journal Race & Class, Mike King, a sociologist at SUNY-Oneonta, searched for a single actual case of the knockout game and found none. The news reports were largely patched together from unrelated viral videos of street violence. Bureau of Justice statistics show, King wrote, a “marked decrease in random assaults, including black assaults on white strangers.”
When Trump started emphasizing the mortal threat posed by undocumented immigration, America’s white nationalists rejoiced. “Why are whites supposed to be happy about being reduced to a minority?” Jared Taylor, of American Renaissance, asked me. “It’s clear why Hispanics celebrate diversity: ‘More of us! More Spanish! More cucaracha!’ ”
Taylor, who calls himself a “racial dissident,” was slim and decorous in gray trousers and a button-down when we met. For years, he and others have sensed an opportunity on the horizon to expand their ranks. When Obama was elected in 2008, Stormfront, the leading white-supremacist Web forum, crashed from heavy traffic. The Klan, weakened by lawsuits and infighting, barely exists anymore, but the Internet draws in young racists like Dylann Roof, who is accused of the June 17th massacre of nine people at a church in Charleston. The attack inspired a broad effort to remove the Confederate flag—from the state capitol and from the shelves of Amazon and of Walmart and a host of other retail stores. Defenders of the flag were galvanized, and they organized more than a hundred rallies around the South, interpreting the moment, months after racial unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, as a sign of a backlash against political correctness and multiculturalism. Trump’s language landed just as American hate groups were more energized than at any time in years. Griffin, the blogger for the League of the South, told me that the removal of the flag had crystallized “fears that people have about what happens when we become a minority. What happens when we have no control over things? You’re seeing it play out right now.”
Over sandwiches in the dining room of Taylor’s brick Colonial, with views of a spacious back yard, a half-hour from downtown Washington, D.C., five of his readers and friends shared their views on race and politics, on the condition that I not use their full names. They were white men, in white-collar jobs, and each had a story of radicalization: Chris, who wore a pink oxford shirt and a tie, and introduced himself as an employee of “Conservativism, Inc.,” the Republican establishment, said that he had graduated from a public high school where there were frequent shootings, but he felt he was supposed to “ignore the fact that we were not safe on a day-to-day basis because of all of these blacks and the other immigrants in our schools.”
Jason, a muscle-bound commercial-real-estate broker in a polo shirt, said, “I’ve had personnel—in strict, frightened confidence—just tell me, ‘Hey, look, we’re just hiring minorities, so don’t appeal, don’t come back.’ ” This sense of “persecution,” as he called it, is widely held. In a study published in 2011, Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Samuel Sommers, a professor of psychology at Tufts, found that more than half of white Americans believe that whites have replaced blacks as “the primary victims of discrimination” today, even though, as Norton and Sommers write, “by nearly any metric—from employment to police treatment, loan rates to education—statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for Black than White Americans.”
The men around the table, unlike previous generations of white nationalists, were inspired not by nostalgia for slavery but by their dread of a time when non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the largest demographic group in America. They uniformly predicted a violent future. Erick, who wore a Captain America T-shirt and unwittingly invoked one of Trump’s signature phrases, told me, “The American dream is dead, and the American nightmare is just beginning. I believe it’s that way. I think that whites don’t know the terror that’s upon us.”
All the men wanted to roll back anti-discrimination laws in order to restore restrictive covenants and allow them to carve out all-white enclaves. Henry, a twenty-six-year-old with cropped blond hair, said, “We all see some hope in Donald Trump, because it’s conceivable that he could benefit the country in a way that we feel would be helpful.”
In early August, the Republican candidates convened in Cleveland for their first debate. I watched it on television with Matthew Heimbach, the young white nationalist in Cincinnati, and some of his friends. Heimbach, whom anti-racist activists call “the Little Fuhrer,” for his tirades against “rampant multiculturalism,” founded the Traditionalist Youth Network, a far-right group that caters to high-school and college students and pushes for the separation of blacks and whites. Stocky and bearded, Heimbach is ambitious. He graduated, in 2013, from Towson University, in Maryland, where he attracted controversy for forming a “white student union.” He has met with European Fascists, including members of the Golden Dawn, in Greece.
Heimbach rents part of a house on a placid side street and works as a landscaper. He and his wife recently had their first child, a boy named Nicholas. When I asked Heimbach how he got involved with Fascist politics, he laughed. “I was not raised like this,” he said. “I was raised to be a normal small-town Republican.” The son of teachers in Poolesville, Maryland, an hour from Washington, he, like Brad Griffin, credited Buchanan’s book “Death of the West” for seeding his conception of a desolate future. “Even if you play the game, even if you do everything right, then the future, when it comes to your income, when it comes to benefits, when it comes to everything, we are going to be the first generation in American history to be living worse than our parents.” He went on, “My own parents tell me, ‘Well, you should just shut up, you should go get a normal job, and get a two-car garage, and then you’ll be happy.’ ”
On the economics, Heimbach’s narrative is not wrong. During a half-century of change in the American labor market—the rise of technology and trade, the decline of manual labor—nobody has been hit harder than low-skilled, poorly educated men. Between 1979 and 2013, pay for men without a college degree fell by twenty-one per cent in real terms; for women with similar credentials, pay rose by three per cent, thanks partly to job opportunities in health care and education. Like many ultraconservatives, Heimbach had largely given up on the Republican Party. He said, “We need to get the white community to actually start speaking for the white community, instead of letting a bunch of Republicans that hate us anyway, and don’t speak for our values, be the unofficial spokespeople.”
During the debate, Mike Huckabee was asked how he might attract enough support from independents and Democrats to get elected, and Heimbach shouted at the TV, “You don’t need to! All you need to do is get the Republican base to get out and vote.”
On a couch across from the television, Tony Hovater, who used to be a drummer in a band and now works as a welder, said that, from what he has heard from Trump, he suspects that Trump shares his fears about immigration but can’t say so openly. Hovater told me, “I think he’s, like, dog-whistling,” adding, “He’s saying we should probably favor more European immigration, or maybe more of just a meritocracy sort of system, but he’s not coming out and saying it, because people will literally stamp him: ‘Oh, you just hate Mexicans.’ ” Hovater hopes that Trump will find a way to be more forthright: “Why not just say it?”
For his part, Hovater hopes to get into politics. This fall, he’s running for City Council in New Carlisle, Ohio, representing what he and Heimbach have named the Traditional Workers Party. He is taking inspiration from Trump’s populist success. “Just like we’re seeing with Trump, if the people honestly feel like you’re fighting for them, they’ll rally behind you,” he said. He knows that his views are “extreme,” but Trump’s success tells him that people support tone over substance. “People will be, like, ‘Well, I’ll take the fighter, even though I might disagree with him on some things,’ ” he said.
As the debate wound down, Trump, in his final statement, recited his mantra of despair. “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t win anymore,” he said. “We can’t do anything right.” Matthew Parrott, a Web developer who was sipping coffee from a cup adorned with a swastika, said, “He was sassy without being comical. He struck exactly the tone he needed to give the people supporting him exactly what they want more of.” He went on, “The political system hasn’t been providing an outlet for social-conservative populism. You had this Ron Paul revolution, and all the stuff about cutting taxes, small government, and that’s just not the electrifying issue that they were expecting it to be. Simple folks, they want the border secure. They want what Donald Trump is mirroring at them. I think he’s an intelligent businessman who identified what the people want to hear. He’s made a living finding these sorts of opportunities.”