Throughout President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign, he relied on rhetoric, promises, and even internet memes that are appealing to a certain group of ideologues: White nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, who have mobilized under the rebranded term the “alt-right.”
Meanwhile, Trump professed ignorance of the group. Even while frequently using Twitter and his rallies to denounce institutions like The New York Times and The Washington Post, he remained mum on his white nationalist fan base.
Then this past weekend the group themselves gathered in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Trump’s victory. At the conference, one of the group’s leaders, Richard Spencer, reportedly quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. Video emerged of Spencer leading the crowd: “Hail Trump! Hail to the people! Hail to victory!” Some in the crowd raised their arms in a Nazi-salute.
Finally, it was too much for Trump to ignore.
At an on-the-record roundtable interview with The New York Times on Tuesday, editor Dean Baquet referenced the conference asked Trump if he thought he had “energized” the group.
“Hail Trump! Hail to the people! Hail to victory!”
“I don’t think so, Dean,” said Trump. “First of all, I don’t want to energize the group. I’m not looking to energize them. I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”
And Trump did, later in the interview, “condemn” the group: “Would you like me to do it here? I’ll do it here. Of course I condemn. I disavow and condemn,” he said to another question about his white nationalist fans from a reporter.
But that was it. Stories claiming that Trump “disavowed” and “condemned” the white nationalist group are technically true — but the disavowal is so brief that it almost entirely fits in the headline. Trump’s language is boilerplate and perfunctory: He explains nothing about why he disavows the group or what they do.
And because Trump says nothing beyond the bare minimum to distance himself from open white supremacists, his disavowals are unlikely to have any real effect on their support.
Even after “disavowing” the group, Trump claimed ignorance: “They, again, I don’t know if it’s reporting or whatever. I don’t know where they were four years ago, and where they were for Romney and McCain and all of the other people that ran, so I just don’t know, I had nothing to compare it to.”
We’ve seen this all before.
In February, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke endorsed Donald Trump for president. Trump used much the same language he used this week against the “alt-right” to distance himself from the endorsement: “I didn’t even know he endorsed me. David Duke endorsed me? I disavow, OK,” Trump said.
A few days later, CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed Trump on the endorsement, and Trump fell back on professed ignorance to avoid a substantive repudiation of the former Klan leader.
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know,” he told Tapper.
“You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I would have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them. And, certainly, I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong.”
“The Ku Klux Klan?” replied Tapper, incredulous.
Trump, however, did know who David Duke was: More than ten years ago, he called Duke “a bigot, a racist, a problem” for the Reform Party.
In 2016, however, his refusal to publicly and unequivocally condemn Duke’s racism quickly dominated the media. Republican leaders criticized Trump for his comments. In response, Trump tweeted out his earlier “disavowal” of Duke: The same boiler-plate language, the same lack of detail about why, exactly, he was “disavowing” a former KKK grand wizard.
As I stated at the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke- I disavow. pic.twitter.com/OIXFKPUlz2
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2016
Duke was undeterred. He continued to urge his supporters to vote Trump. When Duke announced his run for the open U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana (he lost on Nov. 8th, but garnered just over three percent of the vote), he cited Donald Trump’s success as his inspiration.
“I am overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years,” Duke said in his announcement.
Now as President-Elect Trump is rolling out his administration, Duke is still a big fan.
Bannon, Flynn, Sessions — Great! Senate must demand that Sessions as AG stop the massive institutional race discrimination against whites!
— David Duke (@DrDavidDuke) November 18, 2016
Trump’s disavowal had no effect on Duke’s full-throated support. It also had no effect on the validation Duke and other white supremacists took from Trump’s rhetoric and success.
The same is likely to be true of Trump’s weak disavowal of the white nationalists who recently gathered in DC.
Spencer himself told AP after the New York Times interview that while he was “disappointed” in Trump’s comments, he understands “where he’s coming from politically and practically.” The Guardian reports that on popular messaging boards, members of the white nationalist movement were split between dismay and continued support of Trump — urging others to look at Trump’s policies, not his words. As one of the movement’s leaders and spokesmen, Spencer fell into the latter camp, telling AP he planned to “wait and see” how Trump’s administration shaped up.
There lies one of the main problems with taking Trump’s weak disavowal seriously: with his actions, Trump continues to send signals to white nationalists.
This was true for Duke’s support during the campaign. While on the surface offering “I disavow, OK?,” Trump’s campaign attacked Hillary Clinton with an anti-Semitic image that first appeared on a white-nationalist messaging board, and echoed one of their favorite insults: Calling Clinton “America’s Angela Merkel.”
More recently, Trump elevated one of their patrons, Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart, to be his campaign manager and now Chief Strategist in the White House. In the same Times interview where Trump supposedly distances himself from white nationalists, he called Breitbart “a news organization that’s become quite successful” and denied that it was “alt-right.”
“You know, they cover stories like you cover stories,” he said to the New York Times reporters, defending Bannon as having been “treated very unfairly.”
Bannon himself bragged that he had made the site the “platform for the alt-right” to a Mother Jones reporter at the Republican National Convention this year. If Trump really still doesn’t know what the “alt-right” is all about, he doesn’t need to look far for a teacher.
Since the election, Trump has added to his collection of figures who appeal to white nationalists. In addition to Bannon, Trump selected Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as his nominee for Attorney General and retired General Michael Flynn’s appointment as his National Security Advisor. Sessions once was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship, and Flynn has previously said it’s rational to fear all Muslims — nearly a textbook definition of Islamophobia.
In an article in The Daily Stormer, a white nationalist, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi site, founder Andrew Anglin called the news of Session’s and Flynn’s appointments “like Christmas” and wrote that Trump was assembling “a Daily Stormer dream team.”
Trump’s picks probably don’t describe themselves as white nationalists, white supremacists, or neo-Nazis. But their actions and words have made them heroes to people who do.
It shouldn’t be difficult to get a future United States President to condemn racists. With Trump, however, even the barest condemnation is lifted up as noteworthy.
If Trump truly wants to stop the “energizing” white nationalist groups, there are a few good places to start. He can elaborate on exactly why he disavows and condemns them. He can lay out how he plans to combat their racist agenda. He can explain how his government agenda will run counter to their goals. And he can stop elevating their heroes to top-level positions.
Until then, his disavowals will continue to fall on deaf ears.