In recent years, white supremacists have tended to avoid taking part in national politics in the belief that both parties have been conquered by nonwhites who pursue their own racial interests over others. This year represents a sea change. Rarely have so many open racists flocked to a presidential candidate’s banner as they have done for Donald Trump. They have shown up at rallies to do gleeful battle with Black Lives Matter protesters and jumped at the opportunity to serve as Trump delegates to the Republican National Convention.
The reasons for white nationalists’ renewed hope in mainstream politics are more complicated than the caricature of jackbooted youths saluting one of their own. Trump has disavowed the endorsement of overt racists such as David Duke, but somehow white nationalists have “never been more optimistic.” Despite Trump’s profession, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” his brand of race-fueled populism promises to reforge broken psychological ties among large swaths of demoralized white voters, whether or not they self-identify as white nationalists or belong to extremist organizations. Trump seeks to recreate a coalition that includes dislocated rural workers and dissatisfied denizens of urban democracy, the relatively prosperous and the hardly working, weary defenders of the Old South and armed isolationists in the Pacific Northwest. Through a mix of policy and symbolism, Trump unites them all with a sneering form of nationalism that, more than ever, helps rekindle the racial consciousness of mainstream white voters.
A key to Trump’s appeal is that his agenda to “Make America Great Again” revolves around an iron-fisted leadership style for which many disaffected white voters have been searching. The fractured elements of white nationalist America, meanwhile, perceive Trump to be the embodiment of the Aryan warrior, a mythic figure who will liberate white people from their current state of malaise, infighting, and almost certain extinction. White nationalists trace their lineage through Northern Europe (some claim to descend from the Lost Tribes of Israel) and find their role models in the various soldiers and statesmen who supposedly defended the purity of the white civilization. Today, any person of Western European stock can theoretically become an Aryan warrior by swearing to preserve the white race, but some white supremacist groups believe a single figure will be called from among the people to fulfill a more unifying role. Trump, who is of German and Scottish ancestry, fits the ethnic profile of this savior to a T. But it’s Trump’s political self-presentation that is truly arousing.
Unhappy white Americans are not monolithic, Trump’s appeal goes beyond his potential Aryan saviorhood. In a Republican Party that has tilted decidedly rightward, he outflanked Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz—figures who are more faithful conservatives than Trump—by shrewdly appealing to a complex belief system shared by many disgruntled white voters. But for the most extreme of these resentment-oriented citizens, Trump’s appeal is manifold. These citizens believe that the founding generation established the United States as a republic for the pursuit of liberty and happiness as white people alone define those ideals. Members of this alt-community despise pluralism, bristling at any emphasis of race, sex, or gender differences. Many distrust liberal education, which is blamed for fostering white guilt and destroying a sense of racial identity among whites. A number of them fear the global economy (this ranges from a philosophical objection to laissez-faire economics to a more conspiratorial conviction that big banks, Jews, and nonwhites are together subjugating the white race).
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