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).
Sensing their influence greatly diminished, such individuals have opted out of electoral politics. They have felt abandoned by the old Democratic Party after it became the party of black civil rights and betrayed by the modern Republican Party, which has cynically used dog-whistle politics to gain their votes without, in their view, doing enough to safeguard their interests. Some of the discontented have become radicalized, joining patriot groups, separatist strongholds, or white supremacist organizations.
Anxiety about biological and cultural extinction is pervasive among these disaffected whites. Before his downfall and death, Richard Girnt Butler gathered self-identified Aryans to his compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho. On social media today, racially conscious whites assemble around the hashtag #WhiteGenocide or lodge their grievances at Stormfront.org. (Trump once actually retweeted a user named “White Genocide.”) The late David Lane, an influential Aryan thinker and member of a violent organization called the Order, helped popularize the view that the white race was “now a small minority in the world,” beset by forced integration, intermarriage, and “inter-species compassion.” According to this worldview, only those who aspire to the ideal of the Aryan warrior can restore the civic republicanism of America’s forefathers and save the white race. Enter Trump.
The cultural image of the Aryan warrior combines romantic masculinity, chest-beating race pride, and a relish for legal violence. Lane’s writings put the Aryan warrior in explicitly political terms. His tract 88 Precepts prophesies the coming of the “strongman,” who will emerge in the late stages of a dying democracy. That figure will display a keen ability to see that “political, economic, and religious systems may be destroyed and resurrected” in ways to prevent the eternal destruction of the white race. Some will call the strongman “a dictator,” but Lane insists that a ruthless leadership style “is the only way to restore order out of the chaos caused by a democracy.”
Trump’s style of governance seems to fulfill this prophesy: His entire self-presentation is a rebuke to liberalism and gradual legal change. Instead, he promises political revolution through charismatic leadership. Trump’s vulgar, unvarnished manner of speaking and his penchant for favoring extreme measures—the very characteristics deemed unpresidential and dangerous by his critics—are seen as not only refreshing but also as essential for the rebirth of the Aryan nation-state. When Trump calls Hispanic immigrants “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” and vows to “take our country back” from those “taking our jobs” and “taking our money,” white nationalists hear Trump telling the same uncomfortable truths about the sorry state of white society they have voiced for decades. Every time he eggs followers on to forcefully confront detractors or swears to “take out the families” of terrorists, he projects a muscular approach to protecting the white republic.
His calling card is a plan to build a massive wall between the United States and Mexico to stem illegal immigration and somehow force Mexico to pay for it. Policy analysts have scoffed at this proposal, but its real power lies not in policy but in metaphor, one that taps into a hardened, survivalist mindset. It is an image that resonates with a community that already believes it is losing the war against nonwhite civilizations. When Trump ritually invokes the wall or recommends the creation of a national deportation force, he signals to this constituency that he agrees the future of the white race is at stake.
To Aryans, a resurgence of public masculinity is central to sovereignty. They believe that the power to command others, and then to spark a revolution, emanates from one’s power to control the traditional family. This is why Trump’s crude comments about female appearances and the proper role of women excite rather than repulse these core supporters. It is also why, in trading on fears of white male helplessness, his claims that “Mexico sends its people” to rape and pillage and that China is “raping our country” through unfair trade practices appeal so powerfully to the racist mind. For Trump, as for the white nationalist community, sovereignty and maleness are forever interlinked.
Additionally, the scorn heaped upon Trump simply confirms for these racially motivated white voters that they have discovered the right leader, one who might defeat the forces of liberalism and multiculturalism that have corrupted American law. Lane urged white people to select a strongman “wisely.” “Choose one who has sacrificed all in the face of tyranny; choose one who has endured and persevered,” he writes. “This is the only reliable evidence of his worthiness and motives.” On this front, Trump has more than proved his mettle by drawing the arrows of his enemies in the Republican primary and emerging more powerful for it, while the battlefield is littered with opponents who underestimated him.
How far can he go? Trump has actively courted fringe parts of the electorate by assenting to their racially inflected diagnosis of what ails America and has thrown his support behind whites-first prescriptions. From this point on, Trump’s ceiling as a vehicle for white nationalism will depend on the willingness of mainstream voters to take responsibility for his promise to restore white self-governance and his systematic scapegoating of nonwhites.
By casting himself as a virtuous guardian of white people’s welfare and claiming a “mandate” to be provocative, Trump has gotten further than any similar politician in recent years. Win or lose, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, he is already more successful than Pat Buchanan or David Duke, which makes him the most prominent Aryan warrior of the modern age.