But no matter what Trump and his advisers might prefer, he’s unlikely to be able to put questions about hate groups behind him for the rest of his presidency. And that’s because the white nationalists and supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Confederates and alt-righters who gathered in Charlottesville and continue to try to organize across the nation are all marching together in his name.
Maybe these elements have come to support Trump coincidentally, without his conscious encouragement. But it is undeniable that the most extreme elements of the American right uniformly see Trump as their champion, their Great White Hope for achieving their agenda. Whatever half-measures he has made to distance himself from them has not been enough to convince anyone, especially the extremists themselves, that they do not have a champion in the White House.
All the alt-right rallies in various cities nationwide, including Charlottesville, since the election have featured prominent pro-Trump rhetoric. As they did that weekend in Virginia, the marchers in these various factions — in addition to full complements of armed militiamen and weapon-and-shield-toting “Proud Boys” — have worn red “Make America Great Again” ball caps and pro-Trump T-shirts, carried pro-Trump signs and chanted his name as often as they chant “U-S-A!”
In Seattle on Jan. 20, amid brawls outside a Milo Yiannopoulos event, the wife of a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat allegedly pulled a gun and shot an anti-fascist peacekeeper who was trying to prevent her husband from using pepper spray on counterprotesters. In Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., “free speech” rallies led by pro-Trump alt-right groups and featuring armed and armored “Proud Boys” wearing the trademark red caps turned into large rolling melees that left dozens injured. A recent “Patriot” rally in San Francisco was canceled out of fears of violence from anti-fascists, though its organizers managed to provoke some well-documented violence in Berkeley at an anti-racist rally the next day.
I’ve tracked and monitored these alt-right events closely and attended many in person as a reporter. All these rallies have featured a diverse array of far-right extremists, reflective of the alt-right as a movement: nativists and Neo-Confederates and Klansmen, neo-Nazis and white nationalists and well-armed “Patriot” militiamen, men’s rights activists, and, of course, the smirking, polo-shirt-wearing, Pepe-banner-waving adherents of the online alt-right. They are a contentious lot, inclined to internal warfare and bickering. However, one thing unites all these groups, both within the movement and at these rallies, beyond a general loathing of all things liberal, often papering over their usual disagreements: Trump.
All of these rallies have featured speeches and chants about the president. In Charlottesville, the alt-right marchers chanted: “Hail Trump!” Moreover, alt-right organizers specifically urged rally-goers in the months beforehand to bring their “Make America Great Again” ball caps to emphasize their connection to the president. “Bring your MAGA hats if you’ve got ’em,” wrote “Unite the Right” chief organizer Jason Kessler in a recently uncovered June post. “If Antifa f‑‑‑s with us it’ll look like average Trump supporters … are under attack.”
The problem is not just reflected in these protests, but in what has happened nationally since the election. In the first three months after Trump won the presidency, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded an astonishing 1,372 hate incidents, nearly all of them election-related. A deep dive into the data reveals that nearly half of these incidents involve people referencing Trump, either by name or by parroting his rhetoric: groups of white thugs intimidating minorities while chanting “Trump,” for instance, or swastika graffiti accompanied by the words “Make America White Again.” The cold, hard fact that racist thugs shout and chant Trump’s name (something we all saw happening in Charlottesville) while threatening and intimidating minorities should give us all pause — particularly the president himself.
This, really, is the crux of the problem the nation faces: not Trump’s fumblings and prevarications or his reflexive reliance on “both sides do it” equivocation, but his steadfast refusal to acknowledge his overpowering role in the toxic violence that is being plotted and carried out on his behalf. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump played footsie with these groups, retweeting their hashtags and memes, refusing to disavow David Duke one day and then issuing an anodyne and plainly insincere disavowal the next.
At one point during the campaign, after news broke that white nationalists were placing robo-calls on Trump’s behalf, the media eventually elicited a perfunctory disavowal from him, but he also rationalized them: “People are angry, they’re angry at what’s going on. They’re angry at the border, they’re angry at the crime.”
His alt-right fan base invariably interpreted these remarks in the most generous light: “If he disavowed us, he did it, I thought, in the nicest possible way,” white nationalist Jared Taylor said after the flap over the robo-calls.
Most of all, the radical right uniformly expressed the view that Trump was advancing its agenda. “The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions,” Rachel Pendergraft, leader of the KKK-based Knights Party, told me. “They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet, but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will.”
If Trump really were a normal politician, he would not want his name associated with these kinds of ideologies, nor the hateful acts their followers engage in. A man of presidential dignity and decency would make clear, irrevocably, that these hatemongers should consider him their enemy, not their “glorious leader,” as some neo-Nazis are wont to call him.
Instead, Trump constantly stonewalled and equivocated, shifted blame to the victims of the violence and suggested that these acts were being faked by the left to make the right look bad. The pattern remained intact all the way through Charlottesville, when his initial response failed to call out the presence of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. His alt-right fan base was correspondingly joyous: Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer responded on social media: “He said he loves us all.” They were universally delighted by Trump’s later remarks defending the Charlottesville marchers. Duke thanked Trump for his “honesty and courage.”
Even if Trump were to reverse course, wittingly or not, the president has empowered and unleashed an army of true believers over the course of the past year and a half. The alt-right is a profoundly anti-democratic movement, openly hostile to the institutions of voting and the underlying concepts of equality of opportunity. Its adherents are organized, numerous, angry and prone to violence. Its emergence on the political scene will be a major challenge in the years ahead for those of us who still believe in, value and cherish our democratic institutions.
And under Trump’s banner, they will not be going away anytime soon.