On Wednesday night President Trump, weathering what might be the worst news week of his presidency, tried to change the subject: He tweeted about the purported plight of white farmers in South Africa.
The issue, and the language he used to describe it, mirrors a rallying cry of white supremacist groups, and Trump picked up on it after Fox News host Tucker Carlson reported on the murder of white farmers in South Africa and lambasted the South African government’s policy of expropriating land without compensation, which it does to address some of the massive racial inequities that persist in the country decades after the end of Apartheid. While it’s true that white farmers have been the victims of some violence in South Africa over the years, the number of farm attacks has decreased to a third of what it was 20 years ago, according to the New Statesman. The site further reports that murder rates in predominantly black townships in South Africa are higher than in the white suburbs. The government of South Africa likewise shot down the accusation. But debunking the myth of widespread white farm violence in South Africa hasn’t made the conspiracy theory any less believable to people whose agenda it serves.
White supremacists noticed the president’s tweet immediately. Richard Spencer retweeted Trump. The Canadian fringe-right media personality Lauren Southern, who is making a documentary about white farmers and land expropriation in South Africa, quote-tweeted Trump and said, “This is huge.” The American neo-Nazi organization Identity Evropa replied to Trump to stress the importance of the president’s new concern. “South Africa serves as a warning to people of European heritage all around the world,” the group wrote in a tweet. “There’s no light at the end of the multicultural tunnel—only ethnic strife, conflict, and tragedy.” Famous far-right podcaster Mike Peinovich, who also goes by Mike Enoch, put the significance most plainly on Twitter: “It may seem like a small thing, but this is how we slowly chip away at the all-consuming anti-white discourse. Let’s hope this is followed with action.” On Thursday, far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones live-broadcasted about the issue for hours.
These corners of the far-right are excited because they’ve been talking about the fairly niche topic of South African land policy for years. Now their talking point has the attention and endorsement of the president, who wrote in his tweet that he’s asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to investigate what’s happening, as if there’s a human rights abuse urgently requiring U.S. intervention. The specter of white genocide has long been used as an indoctrination tactic in white supremacist circles on the internet, and in fact it was cited by Dylann Roof as part of his motivation for murdering nine black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015. Over the past year, though, the subject of white farmers in South Africa has truly taken flight in online fringe-right communities as the president has validated racist and white supremacist thinking time and time again, with comments blaming violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on “both sides” and his reported comment calling Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.”
Anyone who spends time combing through online hate communities should be well aware of the fixation on South African land expropriation and white farmers. Breitbart has written about the issue extensively, and well-known far-right media personality Jared Taylor has taken it up on his podcast American Renaissance . Stroll over to Gab, the nearly-anything-goes social network that’s become a safe space for hate, and you’ll find a string of popular posts from over the past year in which verified members discuss the issue. Take a peek at Stormfront, the oldest and largest community of neo-Nazis and white supremacists on the internet and you’ll find post after post of pro-white commenters debating what Trump’s tweet means for the movement to uplift the white race. “Let’s see where this goes…. at least he broke the silence,” one contributor to Stormfront commented Wednesday evening.
These racists have a point, if only because a lot more people will be Googling about white farmers in South Africa today, and surely a few of them will be nudged closer in the direction of outright white supremacism as a result. Whatever happens in federal courtrooms to people like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, the president still exerts a powerful reality-distortion field, into which he has now drawn the bogeyman of white genocide. No wonder white supremacists are giddy.
Correction, August 23, 2018: This article originally misstated the name of the podcast American Renaissance.