In a campaign speech on Thursday, Hillary Clinton denounced Donald Trump for his ties to the “alt-right,” a fringe right-wing movement built around white supremacy, white nationalism, sexism and antisemitism, rebranded for an online generation.
Clinton, in her speech, calmly walked through the extensive list of Trump’s ties and overtures to the movement. “This is someone who retweets white supremacists online, like the user who goes by the name ‘white-genocide-TM,’” she said, referencing a blatantly white supremacist Twitter account Trump has retweeted during the campaign. “Trump took this fringe bigot with a few dozen followers and spread his message to 11 million people.”
It was 37 minutes of example after example of how Trump has clearly courted and emboldened the movement; in all, a devastating attack. Since then, leaders of the Republican party have been conspicuously silent. The alt-right, meanwhile, is rejoicing over the media coverage. American Renaissance, another flagship group of the movement, responded in a press release that only emphasized the alt-right’s white-nationalist premise.
Trump, however, trotted out his usual defense — ignorance.
On CNN, Anderson Cooper asked Trump point-blank if he was embracing the alt-right.
“I don’t even know — nobody even knows what it is,” Trump said.
Cooper responded by pointing out that Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart News boss who Trump recently appointed as his new campaign CEO, has boasted about his site’s ties to the alt-right.
“We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon point-blank told Mother Jones at the Republican National Convention.
To Cooper on Thursday, however, Trump responded by doubling down on claims of ignorance: “I don’t know what Steve said.”
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) August 26, 2016
If one takes Trump at his word, if he is indeed ignorant of what the “alt-right” is, it would be a sign of astonishing incompetence in someone seeking political office. After all, retweeting — and crediting — a Twitter account with a handle referencing “White Genocide,” a favored talking point of the alt-right and the KKK, ought to at least be something one notices as they do it. And the alt-right movement has gained enormous momentum from Trump’s campaign and veiled support — before yesterday, it may not have been a familiar term to every American, but it ought to be a familiar term to Trump, one of the movement’s heroes.
Unfamiliarity with things his new campaign CEO has previously told reporters would also be a sign of colossal ignorance and incompetence — hardly positive traits in a presidential candidate.
Trump’s claims at ignorance, however, aren’t credible. Throughout his campaign, Trump has made overtures to the alt-right, parroting their talking points, cozying up to prominent figures within the movement, and retweeting their memes. As Cooper referenced, Trump effectively officially embraced the movement last week when he named Bannon the new CEO of his campaign.
Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart has become a flagship publication of the alt-right, promoting figures like Milo Yiannopoulos (who calls Trump “daddy”) and publishing essays that unabashedly promote white nationalism.
Claiming ignorance, however overwhelming the evidence, is a tried-and-true tactic of Trump’s — one he employed a second time on Thursday when he professed ignorance about widely-publicized comments one of his advisers made calling for Hillary Clinton’s execution.
It’s hardly a new tactic either: after prominent White Supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump for President, Trump initially declined to condemn Duke’s racism or the support of white supremacists.
“I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t even know anything about what you’re talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. Did he endorse me, or what’s going on? I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists,” Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Trump, however, did know who David Duke was: he had previously denounced him in 2000. Trump eventually said that he “disavowed” David Duke, who, unperturbed, went on to cite Trump as his motivation to run for a Louisiana Senate seat and publicly claim credit for originating Trump’s “America First” slogan.
After tweeting an anti-Semitic meme that layered a Star of David over a pile of money, Trump also feigned ignorance, writing off the backlash as “political correctness” and insisting that the Star of David was a “Sheriff’s star.” The meme was originally created by white supremacists and appeared on an alt-right site a week before Trump tweeted it.
Dishonest media is trying their absolute best to depict a star in a tweet as the Star of David rather than a Sheriff's Star, or plain star!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 4, 2016
Throughout the campaign, that’s been Trump’s dance: promote racist, xenophobic, nationalist sentiments, promote the alt-right itself (which Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the New York Times is really just a “fancy, almost antiseptic term for white supremacy”), then, when confronted, claim to have no understanding of his actions. Ignorance might be bad, but open promotion of white nationalism is still taboo — if only, as Trump shows, by a thread.
Yet despite Trump’s claim that he “will never lie” to supporters, these repeated claims of ignorance are wholly unconvincing (though he’s hardly the first rabidly xenophobic leader to use a claim to “know nothing” as a cover for ethno-nationalism). And not only are Trump’s tepid claims unconvincing, they’re dangerous — by refusing to cleanly, clearly, and quickly disavow racist fringe groups, Trump emboldens them, whether he openly acknowledges it or not.