Who could imagine a president would act as an enabler of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen?
President Donald Trump’s refusal to unequivocally condemn the white supremacists at Charlottesville has thrilled these awful fringe groups. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage,” tweeted David Duke, the notorious ex-Klan leader, whose support the president famously refused to denounce last year. “No condemnation at all … God bless him,” exulted the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer.
Trump’s insistence that “both sides” — Nazis and anti-Nazis, Klansmen and anti-Klansmen — were equally responsible for the Charlottesville violence is not only morally bankrupt but will inspire these hate groups to more violence. They were mostly dormant fringe outfits until the Trumpsters awoke them with their dog whistles.
Still, how could a president whose daughter and son-in-law are Jewish embolden thugs who chanted “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”?
For the answer, look no further than the White House, where a coterie of Trump aides have provided their boss with a nationalist, populist ideology designed to win disaffected white voters. If that means ignoring — or quietly cultivating — the support of white supremacists and other radical right extremists, well, never mind.
Let’s begin with Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who was formerly the head of the incendiary web news site Breitbart. Bannon, a verbal bomb-throwing populist, famously described his “news” operation as the “platform for the alt-right.” Now he has brought the alt-right into the White House.
The alt-right is shorthand for a loose network of individuals and groups that seek a version of conservatism that often endorses racism, anti-semitism, and white supremacy — whether implicitly or explicitly. The president often reads or retweets comments from conspiratorial alt-right websites and blogs.
Bannon holds an apocalyptic view of history, believing Western civilization is in decline and can only be revived by a return to uber-nationalism along with religion and “traditional” values. He denies he is a racist, but has admitted that his views may be endorsed by fringe groups. He has also made clear that this is an unfortunate necessity that doesn’t bother him.
This Machiavellian was invited to head Trump’s campaign after it hit a nadir in August 2016. He devised an ugly, nationalist strategy that stressed race, immigration, and white identity politics, while branding anyone who opposed these themes as “the enemy.”
Call it the politics of anger, as described in fascinating detail in Joshua Green’s new book “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.” With his uncanny ability to channel Trump’s ugliest instincts, Bannon has so far avoided efforts to oust him at the White House. He has positioned himself as a key link between the president and his core supporters.
So long as Bannon is in the White House, he will fuel Trump’s knee-jerk haste to attack those who oppose him and minimize any sins of extremist supporters. The New York Times reported that Bannon has cautioned the president not to criticize far-right activists too severely lest he antagonize a key piece of his base.
Yet Bannon is not the only White House booster of alt-right values. It’s hard to envision any previous president tolerating an aide such as Sebastian Gorka, who is Trump’s frequent frontman on TV talk shows (his aggressive performance reportedly delights the president).
Gorka is supposed to be a counterterrorism expert, but his academic credentials are dubious. A native of Hungary, he had ties there with far-right and anti-Semitic groups and public figures, according to an investigation by the Jewish weekly The Forward. He wears the medal of Vitezi Rend, a onetime pro-Nazi organization. Gorka claims to wear the medal in honor of his father, but that’s like saying one wears a swastika to honor daddy.
Gorka, too, has survived rumors that he was about to be fired.
The alt-right apologists in the White House have been at war with the saner members of Team Trump such as the national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster. Bannon is suspected of backing an ugly web and Twitter campaign urging that Trump fire McMaster. (Trump tweeted support of the general, but Bannon remains in place.) The latest chapter in this battle helps explain the mindset behind Trump’s moral blindness in Charlottesville.
McMaster recently fired an NSC staffer named Rich Higgins for writing a seven-page memo that darkly described a conspiracy to oust Trump by “cultural Marxists” — a group that lumps together anti-racist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, the media, globalists, international bankers, and the GOP establishment. The memo urges Trump to fight back against members of this conspiracy. According to Foreign Policy, Trump “gushed over” the memo when he saw it, and was later “furious” when he found out Higgins had been fired.
The memo exemplifies the Trump mindset: Fight your enemies and hold supporters close, even if some of them are distasteful.
In the end, the amoral Trump appears driven less by ideology (though ousting Bannon and Gorka would remove key enablers). His main concern is whether he thinks a group is for him or against him.
In Charlottesville, the Klan and the Nazis were singing Trump’s praises. So he had to avoid any unequivocal denunciation of their role.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.