WASHINGTON ― Last month, several American white nationalists traveled to an anti-immigration conference in Wismar, Germany, and told attendants that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign represents a win for the movement ― even if he loses the election.
Official speakers at the event ― sponsored by an association of nationalistic parties in the European Union ― included Kevin MacDonald, a retired professor at California State University, Long Beach, who defends anti-Semitism, and Tom Sunic, who has spoken at meetings sponsored by Klansmen, Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis, and who was “serving as interpreter ... for a very classy private German audience,” he told The Huffington Post. William Johnson, a white nationalist who was briefly a Trump delegate, made an unscheduled address at the event. Non-U.S. speakers included Frank Rennicke, a German singer-songwriter who is also a far-right extremist and Nick Griffin, a British politician who was once convicted of incitement to racial hatred. (Griffin “chewed all white activists out for not getting married and not having children,” Johnson said.)
The event focused on “the migrant crisis, the threat placed by Islamic terrorism and the negative developments in the European Union,” according to a brochure HuffPost translated from the original German. But the European nationalists were also interested in Trump, including what will happen if he is not elected. At the conference, Johnson said that Trump will only make white nationalists’ efforts “easier” and met “with more acceptance in the future,” he recalled. Sunic, who addressed audience questions about Trump, told HuffPost that as a “political phenomenon,” he “can no longer be stopped.”
Several American white nationalists gathered at an anti-immigrant conference in Germany last month.
There’s no doubt that Trump’s run for the nation’s highest office has energized white nationalists. In recent weeks, the KKK’s official newspaper has endorsed Trump, white supremacists have announced plans to monitor polling places, and Johnson launched a robo-call claiming that Evan McMullin, an independent presidential candidate who is competitive with Trump in Utah, is gay. (On Wednesday, he stopped the campaign and apologized.)
The Trump campaign called the KKK newspaper “repulsive” and said “their views do not represent the tens of millions of Americans who are uniting behind our campaign.” Regarding the robo-call, the campaign said: “We have no knowledge of these activities and strongly condemn any message of hate and any individuals associated with such.”
But white nationalists aren’t just gearing up for Election Day. As the German conference shows, they’re also eagerly planning their next moves.
“Trump has unleashed forces ― forces much bigger than he is ― that simply can’t be put back into the bottle,” said Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank. Those who wish for a “reset” and for the national political discourse to return to normal after Trump are “going to be severely disappointed,” he added.
If Trump loses, Johnson wants to purchase the campaign’s email list ― he is not sure he will be permitted to do so ― and market white nationalism to them. The marketing will include “key nationalist principles” like “opposing diversity and multiculturalism,” he said. He also hopes to see “some of our people become go-to pundits in the media” ― he cited Jared Taylor, editor of the white nationalist publication American Renaissance, as an example ― and claims that white nationalists have “a number of energized candidates” who intend to run for office.
“No major Republican” shares Trump’s views on immigration and other issues, Spencer said. But he believes “there are signs that a new breed of politician is coming on the scene,” he added. Matthew Heimbach, considered by some to be “the face of a new generation of white nationalists,” and who made headlines earlier this year for shoving a black woman who was protesting at a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky, has said he hopes this election severely damages the Republican Party so that white working class voters abandon it altogether. He would like to see them support white nationalists, whom he hopes start running in local elections. To some extent, this has already started: Former KKK grand wizard David Duke, a vocal Trump supporter, announced his run for Senate in Louisiana earlier this year.
White nationalists ― who in 2016 are more likely to be wearing suits at academic conferences than running around in hoods ― want to make it seem like Trump is saying what many Americans were thinking. But his support rests with a shrinking group of white voters who are anxious about immigration and economic shifts. Trump is likely to lose. Duke is extremely likely to lose. The real danger, some experts say, is not that white nationalism will become a dominant political ideology in the U.S., but that a Trump loss will drive frustrated voters to rash action.
Jared Taylor, editor of the white nationalist publication American Renaissance, said the white nationalist movement will continue to grow with or without Trump.
Although white nationalist leaders may call for channeling anger into running for political office or supporting white supremacist candidates, some of the consumers of extremist rhetoric instead may be moved to act with violence, warns Ryan Lenz, senior writer for Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and editor of their Hatewatch blog.
The vast majority of domestic terrorism in recent years has come from the so-called “lone wolf” or “leaderless resistance” groups comprised of just two people, a 2015 SPLC study found. “People are calling for a race war,” Lenz said. “And there’s this crazy sense of hope in the white nationalist and white supremacist world that their dreams will be answered [by a Trump win]. What happens when that hope turns to desperation? Or a sense of defeat? We don’t know, but we do know in times of defeat ... people are most likely to act in rash and violent fashion. That’s the reason for concern in this moment.”
David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University, also fears an uptick in physical confrontations and hate crimes. “I worry that the racial, class and gender divides have been worsened by this election,” he said. “I worry about the morning after.”
It’s unclear whether Trump’s supporters will accept the results of the election, given the extent to which he’s claimed it’s rigged against him. On Stormfront, a white supremacist internet forum, users answering an informal poll question have widely said that they will not accept a Clinton win. “I [hope for] violent uprisings and a big revolution agains[t] her. Get ready for the worst,” one user wrote. Another wants to “resurrect Robespierre and his guillotines,” referring to an 18th century politician who was an influential figure during the French Revolution and a leader during the “reign of terror” period ordering tens of thousands of people to be executed, many by guillotine.
“We are taking back this country. If we do so through the democratic process, fine,” another wrote. “But if we can’t do it democratically, then we will do so by other means! Yea, I said it. Want my address State Department? **** off and die!”
Even if post-Trump violence doesn’t materialize, the GOP nominee has helped normalize racism in political discourse. Pilgrim said while he does not believe “card-carrying white supremacists” will be elected in significant numbers, he is concerned that “increasingly people will be elected who hold racial views that are shared by the Klan and other white supremacists.”
From the beginning of his campaign, Trump promised to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. These radical positions alone would have attracted white nationalists, but Trump went further. When Duke endorsed Trump, the real estate mogul initially refused to denounce him. What might have been written off as a fluke soon became an active strategy to court disgruntled whites.
“Trump is bringing something that was always there,” said Noam Chomsky, the renowned scholar and MIT professor emeritus. Racism is so “deeply rooted in American history and culture” that it will take “lots of work to overcome,” he added.
William Johnson, attorney and white nationalist, was briefly a Trump delegate.
The Trump camp repeatedly winked to white nationalists on social media, denigrated people of color and immigrants in public statements, then feigned ignorance when confronted. To white nationalists, this strategy made perfect sense. Racists who haunted dark corners of the internet started promoting themselves as the “alt-Right”—a term Spencer coined in 2008. The movement soon became so prominent that Hillary Clinton felt compelled to publicly denounce it.
And although the numbers of Americans who “directly support” hardened hate groups or visit their websites is still far lower than earlier decades, it is growing, said Brian Levin, director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “Even if Mr. Trump loses, white nationalism has been dramatically strengthened, unified and broadly transmitted in a manner not seen since George Wallace’s insurgent campaign of 1968,” Levin said, referring to the former governor of Alabama.
In addition to being the Republican nominee, in California Trump is also the nominee of the American Independent Party, a group that grew out of the Wallace’s 1968 presidential run. The analogy between the two candidates is imperfect. Pilgrim pointed out, “I don’t think that [Wallace’s] followers, even the hardcore followers ... I don’t think they thought he would win.” But Wallace nonetheless had a lasting impact on the political landscape.
Richard Nixon, who won the presidency that year, ultimately adopted many of Wallace’s positions on race, even as he “managed to remove the raw edges of the Alabama governor’s angry rhetoric,” said Dan Carter, an emeritus history professor at the University of South Carolina.
White nationalists are still gunning for a Trump presidency. But at the conference in Germany, attendees were, nonetheless, impressed by what his campaign run has accomplished. “Everyone that I spoke to only had good things to say about Donald Trump,” Johnson said.
Jared Taylor, editor of the white nationalist publication American Renaissance, said his movement will continue to grow with or without the real estate mogul. “We are smarter and more determined than Donald Trump,” he said. “We have thought through the question of race in a much more systematic way than he has or probably ever will.”
If Trump loses, Taylor said, there will be “tremendous frustration” among his supporters. “I do not want to get into details, about the kind of approach we plan,” he said, “but we have already reaped a rich harvest of new supporters.”