As he spoke to the nation on Jan. 20, Donald Trump reminded white nationalists why they had invested so much hope in him as their champion and redeemer.
He painted a bleak picture of America: a nation of crumbling, third-world infrastructure, “rusted-out factories,” leaky borders, inner cities wallowing in poverty, a depleted military and a feckless political class that prospered as the country fell into ruin.
He promised an “America First” policy that would turn it all around. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump declared.
The inaugural address echoed the themes of a campaign that had electrified the white nationalist — or “alt-right” — movement with its promise to stop all Muslim travelers at the border and deport millions of undocumented immigrants – killers and “rapists,” Trump called them.
Four days after the inauguration, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer told a TV interviewer, “Trump is a white nationalist, so to speak. He is alt-right whether he likes it or not.”
In his first 100 days, despite his failure to achieve any major legislative victories, Trump has not disappointed his alt-right followers. His actions suggest that — unlike the economic populism of his campaign — Trump’s appeals to the radical right did indeed presage his White House agenda.
On Jan. 31, former Klan leader David Duke tweeted: “everything I’ve been talking about for decades is coming true and the ideas I’ve fought for have won.”
The extremist advisers
Along with an array of conservative billionaires, Trump installed a handful of advisers who are closer to the radical right than to the mainstream. They include:
- Chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who bragged about turning Breitbart News into “the platform for the alt-right.”
- Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a conspiracy theory peddler with close ties to Muslim-bashing extremists. Named national security adviser, he was fired less than a month into office, ostensibly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
- Stephen Miller, a former right hand to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions and a one-time acolyte of anti-Muslim extremist David Horowitz. From his previous perch in the Senate, the senior presidential adviser served as a bridge to Breitbart and a key player in helping defeat efforts to reform the immigration system.
- Sebastian Gorka, a terrorism adviser who is associated with neo-Nazis in his native Hungary. Gorka has been aligned with anti-Muslim extremist groups since immigrating to the United States in 2008.
Bannon, in particular, embodied the hopes and dreams of white nationalists with his blow-it-all-up style and apocalyptic worldview. He thrilled them with his hyper-nationalism, his firebrand attacks on “globalists” and Republican “cucks,” and his stated desire to “deconstruct” the “administrative state.”
Trump brought into the White House two writers from Bannon’s Breitbart: Gorka, as a deputy assistant, and Julia Hahn, as special assistant to the president.
As chief of staff for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Trump appointed Julie Kirchner, who spent nearly a decade as executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The group, which is included on the SPLC’s list of hate groups, has deep ties to white nationalists and eugenicists. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hired Jon Feere, a legal analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies. The group is an offshoot of FAIR and also listed as a hate group by the SPLC.
Perhaps Trump’s most consequential appointment was Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions, who was once denied a federal judgeship amid allegations of racism, was the most powerful ally of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim extremist groups while serving as a U.S. senator from Alabama.
The white nationalist agenda
Trump moved quickly to make good on his most inflammatory promises, particularly those related to immigration, his core issue. Here are the major policy actions of his agenda over the first 100 days:
- Immigration. Trump signed executive orders instructing the Department of Homeland Security to hire 5,000 new Border Patrol agents; build detention facilities near the border; take steps to begin building a border wall; and prioritize the deportation of undocumented immigrations charged “with any criminal offense” or who “pose a risk to public safety or national security.” In addition, he ordered the withholding of federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to use local police to enforce federal immigration law — though the order was later blocked in court. Implementing Trump’s orders, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly directed ICE to hire 10,000 new agents and gave the agency broad new discretion to arrest and deport immigrants, including parents who can now be accused of participating in “smuggling” or “trafficking” if they bring their children into the country. The administration began publishing a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants; directed federal prosecutors to bring more felony charges against detained immigrants; and announced it will hire 125 new immigration judges over the next two years. It also is reportedly considering curtailing safeguards intended to protect the rights and safety of detained immigrants.
- Muslim ban. Trump signed an executive order indefinitely suspending the entry of Syrian refugees and temporarily barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from entering the United States. After the order was struck down as unconstitutional, he tried again with a similar order. It, too, was blocked in court.
- Criminal justice. Sessions has signaled that he will abandon the Justice Department’s work to rein in discriminatory policing practices. He has ordered a review of Obama-era consent decrees intended to remedy systemic constitutional violations by police departments. And he has suggested he will ramp up the drug war and oppose the bipartisan push to reform sentencing laws. In a memo, he reversed an Obama administration policy reducing the federal government’s use of prisons operated by private, for-profit companies.
- Other civil rights issues. Sessions dropped the Justice Department’s legal claim that Texas enacted its voter ID law with discriminatory intent. He dropped a lawsuit against North Carolina over its bathroom law targeting transgender people. Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also rescinded federal guidelines protecting transgender students from discrimination. In addition, Trump rescinded President Obama’s Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order requiring federal contractors to demonstrate compliance with federal law prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people.
The extremist style
Trump’s appeal to white nationalists can hardly be separated from his willingness to traffic in the most outrageous conspiracy theories and fabrications of the radical right. He forged his political identity, in fact, by leading the birther movement that questioned the heritage of the nation’s first African-American president.
Trump has long been a fan of Alex Jones, a professional conspiracy theorist who once claimed that Hillary Clinton “has personally murdered and chopped up and raped children.” In 2015, he appeared on Jones’ radio show InfoWars and declared Jones’ reputation “amazing.” Trump also for many years has maintained a close association with the far-right provocateur Roger Stone.
As president, Trump has continued the same pattern.
He has routinely attacked the mainstream media, calling it “the enemy of the people.” He has repeatedly cried “fake news” when media reports cast him in a negative light.
He has spun wild, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories — claiming that the news media routinely covers up terrorist attacks; that 3 to 5 million people cast illegal ballots for Hillary Clinton, costing him the popular vote; and that Obama conspired with British intelligence officers to tap his phones during the campaign.
He has also cavorted with extremists. The Muslim-bashing Brigitte Gabriel reportedly visited the White House and later was dining with Trump at Mar-a-Lago as U.S. warplanes bombed a Syrian air base. The overtly racist rocker Ted Nugent – who once called Obama a “subhuman mongrel” and suggested he might kill him — visited the White House with Sarah Palin.
Despite the alt-right’s windfall, as the end of the first 100 days approached, many white nationalists were growing restive. They feared Trump was straying from his “America First” doctrine after becoming increasingly engaged internationally – bombing Syria, flip-flopping on his rhetoric about China’s currency manipulation and praising NATO, for example.
Taking the long view, though, was FAIR President Dan Stein, whose nativist friends were now, as The New York Times put it, “in positions to carry out their agenda on a national scale.”
“We’ve worked closely with lots of people, who are now very well placed in his administration, for a long time,” Stein said.