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Opinion How Trump is handing white supremacists huge propaganda victories

Renowned white supremacist and antisemite Nick Fuentes in May 2017. (William Edwards/AFP/Getty Images)

After the news broke that Donald Trump dined with white-supremacist Nick Fuentes at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago home, Trump rapidly disavowed any knowledge of Fuentes’s views. “I didn’t know Nick Fuentes,” Trump declared.

That’s not particularly credible. But either way, the focus on what Trump knew misses a more consequential part of the story: By breaking bread with Fuentes, Trump handed white supremacists and white-power activists a major propaganda coup. It will be read by them as another sign that they are successfully infiltrating the far-right flank of mainstream GOP politics. So will the silence from many Republican leaders since Trump’s dinner with Fuentes.

I contacted Kathleen Belew, the author of a history of white power movements in the United States, to talk about these undercurrents of the Fuentes story. Belew has an important new essay that digs into the underappreciated role of white power activism in helping drive the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.

Belew’s argument — which appears in a forthcoming collection edited by historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer — is that the current rise in political violence can’t be disentangled from the country’s long history of violent white power activism. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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Greg Sargent: You often argue that these groups and figures are best described as a “white power” movement. Why is that more useful than the term “white supremacist”?

Kathleen Belew: White power is a concentrated but very violent subset within the broader web of white supremacy. White power is better thought about as a connected movement of groups and activists who are overtly racist and interested in using violence to create an all-white ethnostate, society, or even nation. Sometimes they think about an all-white planet.

Fuentes’s dinner with Trump was a huge propaganda victory for white power groups. Why does this dinner function that way for them?

What happened during the Trump years is that he and his administration opened some space for people to use mainstream politics for extremist purposes. A former president sitting for a dinner meeting with a white power activist is the kind of thing that activists can use to claim that they have become a real political force.

We have to read that alongside things like Jan. 6 and the Pelosi attack [on Paul Pelosi, husband of the House speaker]. White power activists can use both of these events to say that the political mainstream can be infiltrated and radicalized. They think that a white public can be awakened to the dangers of racial extinction.

Notably, Fuentes urged his followers to storm state capitols and pressure lawmakers into overturning Trump’s 2020 loss. Why was Trump’s coup attempt such a crucial stand for the white power movement?

That has the effect of replicating a scene familiar to these activists from a book called “The Turner Diaries.” The theme was all about a limited-casualty attack on a capitol building that shows that people in power are not safe from this movement, and therefore is meant to convey to the white public that they can violently reclaim the country from racial integration.

It’s meant to show that the government is not all powerful, and that there are enough like-minded people to rise against it.

You write that white power groups were heavily present in the Jan. 6 mob. Is it fair to say parts of the movement see Trump and Jan. 6 as carrying forward their own war to overturn the U.S. government, in service of a vision of a global Aryan nation?

The movement saw that as a stunning act of propaganda. We saw upticks in recruitment drives. And the lack of condemnation of those events by the mainstream Republican Party really showed these activists that there is plenty more space for them in our political process.

Right now, we’re seeing a version of this. Numerous 2024 GOP rivals to Trump are declining to condemn his dinner with Fuentes. That’s another white power propaganda victory.

I think that is a significant and different step forward for the white power movement. It’s not just one person, it’s not just this cult of personality thing, it’s not just the Trump administration. That says the white power movement has become a permanent force within the GOP in some sense. It’s important enough an ideological current that other candidates won’t or can’t distance themselves.

You’ve argued that in our public narrative, the Oklahoma City bombing has been purged of its white-supremacist motives. I wonder if something similar is happening with Jan. 6 and the role of white power ideology in driving the insurrection.

Absolutely. Although the white power activists there were highly organized, had a plan to breach the building and were leading the charge, the fact that they spurred the event — and then used the event — is missing from our reckoning with it.

This is the part that the Jan. 6 committee needed to more forcefully articulate. The broader social problem of the white power movement is a threat to targeted populations, to our infrastructure, and to our electoral system and self-rule.

If anything, the Fuentes dinner shows that the insurrection — as underpinned by white power ideology to some degree — is continuing.

The fact that other candidates aren’t condemning it is a new and alarming escalation.