“You are not just responsible for what you say, you’re responsible for what people hear.”
That is how former NSA Director Michael Hayden reacted to Donald Trump’s recent call for “Second Amendment people” to stop Hillary Clinton. The Trump campaign responded as it always does after sparking outrage with an inflammatory remark: insisting the GOP nominee meant something completely innocent and blaming the media for negative spin.
But groups monitoring extremist communities in the United States say they’re increasingly worried about how such communities are interpreting Trump’s rhetoric, regardless of his intent. The non-partisan Southern Poverty Law Center sounded the alarm this week about white supremacist groups, on- and offline, citing Trump’s words and actions as signals of support.
The SPLC’s Heidi Beirich, who tracks the rhetoric and actions of hate groups, pointed to the Trump campaign’s pattern of following and retweeting influential white supremacists, giving interviews to explicitly racist media outlets, and repeatedly emphasizing the criminality of people of color and immigrants. She told reporters this treatment “reinforces the core beliefs of the white nationalist movement.”
“For the first time, they feel they have someone running for the highest office saying things they believe and want to see,” she said. “White nationalists desperately fear the demographic changes the country is going through, and they see Trump as their last stand and last best hope for controlling the country.”
Since he entered the national political scene in 2011 by questioning whether the country’s first black president was a U.S. citizen, Trump has sent signals of approval to white nationalists and conspiracy theorists while elevating their ideas from fringe websites to a mainstream audience.
One of those signals, Beirich and others argued, is his repeated reference to his own superior genes.
Trump has long attributed his wealth and success to his genetic makeup. He told Playboy in 1990 that he is “a strong believer in genes” and that, because his children inherited those genes, they don’t need “adversity” to build skills and character. In 2010, he gave an interview in which he discussed his “breeding” at length and compared himself to a racehorse.
“I’m a gene believer,” he said. “When you connect two racehorses, you usually end up with a fast horse. I had a good gene pool from the stand point of that.”
Trump has also repeatedly cited his uncle, an MIT professor, as proof of his “good genes, very good genes.” He has done this so often that the New Yorker referred to the family connection as Trump’s “sort of eugenic guarantor of intelligence and breeding.”
Angelo Carusone with Media Matters for America, which has also been tracking white supremacist message boards, radio shows, and websites, says this obsessive talk of genetics reinforces and elevates the racist ideas found in those forums.
“It reinforces the idea that genetics are a legitimate qualification for leadership.”
“He constantly cites his own genetic background and argued that his brain is biologically better because of his genes,” Carusone said. “That could be Trump just being braggadocious, but it reinforces the idea that genetics are a legitimate qualification for leadership.”
Genetic intelligence, and its connection to race, is a common theme on white nationalist websites like American Renaissance and Stormfront. The latter writes in its mission statement: “A great deal (possibly 90% or more) of a person’s intelligence and character is determined by their DNA, which determines the structure of their brain before they are born. This is why Blacks, as a group, do the things they do.”
These groups, along with others like the American Freedom Party and the Council of Conservative Citizens, celebrated when Trump accused a Latino federal judge of being unfit for his job because of his “heritage” — essentially, his genes.
Ryan Lenz, the editor of the SPLC’s Hatewatch research project, told ThinkProgress that Trump’s emphasis on genes could be yet another of the many “dog whistle” messages he has offered far-right white nationalist groups.
“It has happened so many times now that if it’s not a strategy, it’s certainly a pattern,” he said.
The Trump campaign did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions about these comments.
Social media footsie
Twitter has been a staple of Donald Trump’s campaign, allowing him to bypass the press and instantly communicate with millions of voters. But the social platform has also gotten him into trouble.
After Trump shared a meme in July depicting what looked like a Jewish star resting on a bed of money, reporters and tracking groups discovered that the image came from an white supremacist online community.
Further digging revealed that the Trump campaign has a history of promoting messages and images from openly racist accounts.
“He has retweeted some of the most influential voices in the white nationalist community,” said Carusone, “and he has refused to disavow it.”
Katrina Pierson, the official spokesperson for the Trump campaign, also follows white supremacists on social media, including the leaders of the movement promoting the idea that there is a genocide currently being perpetuated against white people. Many of Trump’s state-level staff follow similar accounts.
When Fortune magazine hired an analytics company to comb through Trump’s Twitter history, they found that the mogul has retweeted at least 75 users who follow three or more of the top 50 influencers in the “white genocide” movement.
“Donald Trump and his campaign have used social media to court support within the white supremacist community,” Fortune concluded.
White supremacists themselves have been open about the message they take away from Trump’s online habits.
“Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full-wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters,” the site Daily Stormer gushed after Trump retweeted several “white genocide” accounts.
The non-white criminal menace
The theme of non-white criminality has been central to Trump’s campaign, despite the fact that both undocumented immigration and violent crime are at their lowest rates in decades, and despite ample evidence that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S. nationals.
The hotel mogul launched his bid for president with a speech proclaiming that Latino immigrants are rapists who are “bringing drugs, bringing crime” to the United States. Last month, he accepted the GOP nomination with a speech rife with racial dog whistles and inaccurate statistics about the threat posed by illegal immigrants and inner-city criminals.
“These are literally the ideas that inspired Dylann Roof,” said Beirich, referring to the man who murdered nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina last year. Roof cited the Council of Conservative Citizens’ warnings about “brutal black on White murders” as inspiration for his massacre. (Incidentally, the the Council of Conservative Citizens openly supports Trump and has made robocalls on his behalf.)
Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that monitor extremist groups say Trump is appealing to white nationalists thanks to his focus on black-on-white crime, calls for mass deportations, and discussions of bans on immigration based on religion or country of origin.
“Trump’s whole strategy is to single out people based on things they cannot change, and target them for exclusion,” said Ryan Lenz, the editor of the SPLC’s Hatewatch program. “And it is almost always presented in terms of national security.”
In particular, said Beirich, Trump’s proposal to deport millions of immigrants “resonates with those who want to ethnically cleanse parts of the United States.”
Loud and clear
Over the last year, prominent white supremacists have endorsed Trump, made robocalls for him, organized rallies for him, raised money for him, and became delegates for his convention. They have praised him as a “glorious leader,” the “best hope for white people” who is “doing the Lord’s work.” They say his win would be “a real opportunity for people like white nationalists.”
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke — a vocal Trump supporter — said he was inspired to run for a Louisiana Senate this fall after seeing Trump’s success espousing views similar to his own. “I represent the ideas of preserving this country and the heritage of this country, and I think Trump represents that as well,” Duke told NPR.
Duke is not the only white supremacist inspired by Trump to run for office. From Tennessee to Montana to Ohio, candidates with openly racist and antisemitic views have stepped up to seek local and statewide offices.
Rick Tyler, an independent running for Congress in Tennessee, has put up public ads referencing Trump’s iconic slogan. Tyler’s billboard read, “Make America White Again.” The candidate, who opposes interracial marriage and all non-white immigration, specifically credited Trump for “loosen[ing] up the overall spectrum of political discourse.”
Whatever message Trump is intending to send, Caruson argues, it’s important to pay attention to the message these white nationalist groups are hearing.
“Taken together, these incidents demonstrate to these communities that he is on their side,” he said. “It is marshaling them and signaling that he believes their ideas are valid.”
Some white supremacist sites have noted this phenomenon directly. In May, when Trump supporters began targeting Jewish journalists for harassment, and Trump refused to condemn the behavior, the white supremacist site Daily Stormer laid out their takeaway message.
“Trump responded to the request [to denounce the anti-semitic slurs] with ‘I have no message to the fans,’ which might as well have been ‘Hail Victory, Comrades!’”