While Donald Trump’s presidency was the fillip, this fundamental change is the culmination of three decades of dynamic interaction among white supremacists, far-right organizations and populists within the Republican Party. Across these years, party insurgents enlisted the energy and ideas of radicals outside the system to ignite and direct the passions and resentments of White Christian voters inside it. Their success depended on the ability of activists to provoke racial resentments without openly embracing white supremacy.
This phenomenon starts with Pat Buchanan, who was a presidential speechwriter for Richard M. Nixon, communications director for Ronald Reagan, and a popular syndicated columnist and regular Sunday morning talk show guest. He was a consummate Republican insider, yet his GOP primary campaigns in 1992 and 1996 were waged in opposition to the GOP mainstream. He racked up early success against President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 primaries by explicitly playing up White grievance in populist language. With a sluggish economy, unemployment hovering above 7 percent and significant job losses in the manufacturing sector, Buchanan was able to portray cultural liberalism, immigration and Bush’s embrace of free trade as an attack on “Middle America” from all sides.
Buchanan was among the first to understand that the end of the Cold War meant that the post-World War II era of ideological consensus was over. There was now room to begin building a nationalist right that could dispense with democratic pluralism. That time had not yet come, but his prophetic language was resonant enough to secure him a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where he delivered his famous “culture war” speech.
When Buchanan ran again in 1996, it was discovered that his campaign co-chair Larry Pratt had appeared with members of the Aryan Nation at a white-supremacist Christian Identity meeting, and another co-chair had attended a banquet honoring people convicted of shooting abortion providers. Two other subnational campaign chairs had organizational ties to David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Louisiana state representative. There would be no prime-time speaking spot for him at the convention this time, but his campaign was able to capture the platform committee to keep strong antiabortion language and to add an anti-immigrant plank that called for a constitutional change to the 14th Amendment to undermine birthright citizenship.
Perhaps as consequential for the future development of a far-right GOP was Buchanan’s informal political adviser, Samuel Francis. Francis, an award-winning columnist at the Washington Times, was also a racist and nativist die-hard. He understood that white supremacists and other authoritarians then relegated to the fringes could someday play an important role in the mainstream right. Francis observed about Duke’s 1990 U.S. Senate run that for all of his attempts to cleanse his image, there was a “subtext, communicated by the continuous depiction of Mr. Duke in Nazi uniform and Klan hood by his enemies … that the historic racial and cultural core of American civilization is under attack.” While the symbols of Duke’s past white supremacy could not be openly embraced, they nevertheless spoke to many White voters.
Francis knew the Republican Party would never choose Buchanan as its presidential candidate, but for him that was hardly the point. Buchanan had begun a process, Francis said, that would empower “new social forces” on the right and provide “an organized mode of expression that will allow them to develop and mature their consciousness and their power.”
Francis was eventually fired by the Washington Times for stating at a conference of the eugenicist American Renaissance journal that the “genetic endowments” of White people made them the “creating people” of Europe and America. Yet the dynamic tension between overt white supremacy, authoritarianism and party-building that Francis identified in the Buchanan campaigns slowly developed on the margins while the national GOP committed itself to neoconservatism, free trade, military interventionism abroad and soft multiculturalism at home.
After more than a decade of growing economic disparity, war and simmering tensions over immigration, the twinned events of the Great Recession and the election of the first Black U.S. president in 2008 set the stage for racial populism to come roaring back in the form of the tea party movement. Tea partyers largely did not proclaim white supremacy as such, but they took up the racial sentiments embedded in the xenophobia developing since the Buchanan campaigns, the Islamophobia sparked in the wake of 9/11 and the racism and the anti-Blackness summoned forth in reaction to the election of Barack Obama. They showed up with firearms to disrupt health-care town halls, demonstrate against immigration and swarm city councils to prevent the imposition of what they deemed “sharia law.” This movement marched into party politics and political power when 138 candidates backed by the tea party ran for Congress as Republicans in 2010, about a third of whom won seats.
But far-right extremism did not work its way to the heart of the Republican Party until the nomination and 2016 election of Trump. Neither single election cycles nor individual presidencies determine the trajectories of political parties. But through racial demonization, the treatment of political opponents as enemies and an embrace of executive authoritarianism, Trump achieved two critical things at once: He moved far-right radicals toward the Republican Party and the Republican voter base toward greater radicalization.
This was an uneven process, to be sure. The now-infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 was the first major public demonstration by far-right forces in the Trump era. As white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer later said: “There is no question that Charlottesville wouldn’t have occurred without Trump. It really was because of his campaign and this new potential for a nationalist candidate who was resonating with the public in a very intense way.”
However, from the torchlight march by young men chanting “Jews will not replace us” to the killing of counterprotester Heather Heyer by self-avowed neo-Nazi James Fields Jr., the event was disastrous for the far right. In its aftermath, much of the movement collapsed under infighting, federal lawsuits and nearly unanimous public condemnation of white supremacy. As Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, later commented, “Armband neo-Nazism is never going to be that popular.”
Trump’s supporters took an embattled and defiant stance against the “deep state” and Democrats in the House over the next three years in response to the Russia investigation and Trump’s subsequent impeachments. Social media algorithms helped harden this identity, but an authoritarian nationalist vision that could bridge party identity, presidential leadership and militant extremism was already long in the making.
By the summer of 2020, a variety of right-wing groups began to succeed where the openly racist alt-right had failed. The mass social movement that arose in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor also gave rise to vigilantes who took to the streets to oppose what they saw as the mob violence and Marxist agenda of Black Lives Matter.
Some were organized into groups like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Proud Boys and white-nationalist groups, but many more had no affiliation, simply seeing themselves as defenders of their communities. It was in this context that, unlike Fields, Kyle Rittenhouse received accolades from local and national Republican officials and became a folk hero for fatally shooting two men and wounding a third in Kenosha, Wis., during protests sparked by the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a White police officer.
On Jan. 6, these same forces would become the battering ram at the doors of the U.S. Capitol, acting on behalf of the tens of millions of Republican voters who falsely believed that Joe Biden was fraudulently being installed in the White House. Shaken GOP leaders condemned Trump in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, but within weeks most had not only walked it back, but affirmed Trump’s leadership of the party. By midsummer, a dumbfounding counternarrative emerged among GOP leaders that neither Trump nor the rioters were responsible for the tragic events on Jan. 6, but rather House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Since then, condemnation of the insurrection itself has steeply declined among Republican voters.
Francis had hoped that the “new social forces” he identified in the Buchanan campaigns would someday “make use of Caesarism and the mass loyalties that a charismatic leader inspires” to overcome settled arrangements of power. That moment has arrived as the Republican Party, from national leadership to voters, has come to embrace violent authoritarianism.
This essay draws inspiration from a chapter by the same author in “A Field Guide to White Supremacy” edited by Kathleen Belew and Ramon A. Gutierrez.