As United States President Donald Trump prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination this week, researchers and activists fear his legacy could impact the country’s political landscape for decades by both legitimising and disenfranchising the far right.
Trump’s 2016 election ushered in a new era of white nationalist movement mobilisation, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Movement members had a renewed belief they could enact political change, thanks to Trump’s popularity, but the reality of Trump’s era left them jaded, and the issues they champion are not going away. The movement could potentially become more dangerous.
White nationalists looking to blame issues like downward social and economic mobility on “immigration … women or people of colour are now taking an even more violent turn”, Cassie Miller, a co-author of the report, entitled When the ‘Alt-Right’ Hit the Streets: Far-Right Political Rallies in the Trump Era, told Al Jazeera.
Racism gets a new look
Newer groups such as the National Policy Institute, headed by Richard Spencer, became the face of the new “Alt-Right” during the 2016 campaign. These groups joined veteran racist organisations like the Ku Klux Klan in voicing support for Trump. Online forums facilitated organising and helped indoctrinate new followers.
After the election, Trump’s rhetoric made many on the far right believe they “actually had some connection to mainstream politics and that they had a shot at achieving to actual political power”, Miller said.
White Nationalist leader Richard Spencer chants back at counter-protesters as self-proclaimed ‘White Nationalists’ and ‘Alt-Right’ supporters gather for what they called a ‘Freedom of Speech’ rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on June 25, 2017 [File: Jim Bourg/Reuters]
To ease their normalisation, far-right supporters had adopted a new strategy: optics. They were featured prominently in media after Trump’s victory and white nationalists, many of whom had long kept their identities secret, demonstrated openly.
Spencer, along with members of the Proud Boys, an all-male group founded in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, donned a “new uniform” of khakis and polos. McInnes denied the Proud Boys was a racist group but instead promoted “Western chauvinism” – the idea that “The West” and its ideals “are best”.
On August 12, 2017, white nationalism with its new, clean-cut look would clash with its opponents. The “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia saw thousands of white nationalists – including those from Spencer’s and McInnes’s groups – march on the upscale Virginia city, where antifascist and anti-racist counterdemonstrators met them in equal force.
People of colour were attacked by groups of white nationalists, leading to various trials, and 32-year-old counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed in a car-ramming attack. It was political violence in the US not seen for decades.
White nationalist demonstrators clash with counterdemonstrators at the entrance to ‘Unite the Right’ protest [Steve Helber/AP Photo]
Trump said there were “fine people” on “both sides” of the protest, which drew resounding condemnation.
While his statement was interpreted as a presidential endorsement of the far right, shakeups in the Trump administration followed.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, architect of some of Trump’s most controversial policies such as the border wall and the “Muslim ban” – both of which many white nationalists supported – left the White House that month.
The following year saw shrinking media exposure – an important recruiting tool – for the increasingly violent far right as the US soured on its ideology and as news outlets turned their attention towards the probe by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.
Many in the white nationalist movement “were frustrated by the fact that they didn’t feel like they were getting the kind of recognition that they deserved, that they believed they would get from the Trump administration”, said the SPLC’s Miller.
As their movement continued to suffer losses without institutional support or recognition, white nationalists’ broad disillusionment with Trump resulted in an “indictment of the system as a whole … that the system itself needs to be taken down”, Miller explained.
A shooting allegedly inspired by white nationalism at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania killed 11 and injured seven in 2018. Twenty-three people, mostly of Latino heritage, were killed in a mass shooting committed inside a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas in 2019.
First responders surround the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where a shooter opened fire on Saturday, October 27, 2018 [Gene J Puskar/AP]
Prosecutors say the alleged shooter in the latter attack, Patrick Crusius, published a far-right manifesto on an online forum before the shooting.
McInnes left the Proud Boys in November 2018, as the group was tied to increasingly violent and racist protests. Other groups splintered through 2019. As of 2020, far-right groups have returned to the underground, Miller said.
The political rallies of 2017 have been replaced with provocation – and murder – to push the US into a second civil war, as with the “Boogaloo Boys”, a far-right militia that goes to already-planned demonstrations, such as Black Lives Matter events, and allegedly stokes tensions while attempting to blend with protesters.
They have allegedly killed at least two security and law enforcement personnel.
Others, such as a group called “The Base”, have expressed plans to construct accelerationist “training camps”, according to leaked encrypted messaging conversations detailed in an SPLC report.
“I had a dream about a international training camp,” a member of The Base told others in a chat conversation in February 2019. “I don’t think anyone cared much about keeping a low profile because we were making bombs, ammo, and deadly gasses. Everyone looked a bit more seasoned than I’d expect as well. It totally felt real though.”
While many have “crawled back into their holes … on the internet”, some white nationalists are still operating in the open, Jalane Schmidt told Al Jazeera.
Schmidt, a professor at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia, is also a community activist and local public historian who leads tours of the city’s historic areas and its monuments, including those erected to honour Confederates like General Robert E Lee.
A group called the “Virginia Flaggers”, which works to fly Confederate flags in public, has dispatched “guards” to Charlottesville’s parks to protect the statues, and has hassled Schmidt during her tours.
Some of these guards are reportedly linked to the far-right groups present at the Unite the Right rally.
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Grace Aheron, an organiser with Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a group that organises white people to fight racism, acknowledged the threat of accelerationist groups, but said there has also been progress in slowing the movement.
Activists have made strides in “deplatforming” white nationalists online, with forums and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter banning far-right accounts and removing posts that praise racist ideology.
As the white nationalist movement retreats from the mainstream, politically unaffiliated white people are “up for grabs”, Aheron said.
SURJ is working on several initiatives to reach out to these people, including “calling every white voter in Georgia who has never voted”, Aheron said, noting, “These are almost all poor and working-class people who would benefit substantially from economic and racial justice reforms.”
But Aheron, Miller and Schmidt all agreed that whether or not Trump wins another term, his legacy will affect the US for years.
Schmidt noted the number of federal appointments the president has made, including almost a quarter of active federal judges.
Some Congressional candidates are also running on pro-Trump, far-right platforms, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, a fervent Trump supporter who won a primary against an establishment Republican in Georgia – and who also lent credence to QAnon, the conspiracy theory that the president is battling satanic paedophiles in the US government.
Whether in the courtroom, Congress or Charlottesville parks, the far right is “not going away no matter who wins in November”, Schmidt concluded.