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Trump once flirted with white nationalism. Now it’s a centerpiece of his White House.

Modern presidents have rejected white nationalism, but Trump has advanced its agenda.

Trump, in a navy suit and bright red tie, scowls in front of a microphone. Behind him is bulletproof glass, wet from rain. And behind the glass, a crowd of cheering Trump supporters wearing red, white, and blue.
President Trump at the “Salute to America” Fourth of July event at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on July 4, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

President Donald Trump has a symbiotic relationship with white nationalists.

It’s been a constant in nearly every element of his presidency: The white nationalist violence in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was followed by a pronouncement that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”

The election of Congress’s most diverse class in 2018 ever was met with tweets demonizing women progressives of color, telling them to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” Even Covid-19, a disease spun out of the animal kingdom, has been cast as a foreign foe that was at best the fault of — and, at worst, created by — nonwhite people, with the president insisting on using racist language around it. And Trump arguably launched his political career by appearing on shows like Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor in 2011 to speculate that “maybe” President Barack Obama’s birth certificate “says he is a Muslim.”

As president, Trump energizes white nationalists on two levels: with his rhetoric and through his staffing and policy choices. In turn, many have given him their support. In doing so, Trump has given an overt platform to white nationalists in a way that is unprecedented in the modern political era.

The issue isn’t just Trump’s rhetoric. His administration’s immigration policy has led to the separation of families, to children facing risk of exposure to disease like Covid-19 in detention facilities, and to the deaths of immigrants seeking asylum in the US. His criminal justice policy has led to a more punitive criminal justice system and to the weakening of police oversight, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color.

His economic policies have rewarded those already holding wealth (a mostly white group), and his much-vaunted “greatest economy” was not as great for people of color — particularly Black Americans, whose unemployment rate has been at least 2 percentage points higher than the general unemployment rate for the entirety of Trump’s tenure. In fact, a kinship with white nationalist ideas can be found in just about any part of the Trump administration’s policy, from health care to foreign affairs.

All of this is not to say that the Trump administration has run the country exactly as the leader of a white nationalist group would. “But they are doing a lot of things that are ideologically compatible,” Kathleen Belew, a University of Chicago historian and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, told Vox. “And I think it creates a road toward political action for a movement that might not have seen one in an earlier historical moment.”

White nationalism, white supremacy, and white power, briefly explained

The white nationalist movement is a complex one, and it overlaps with other ideologies, particularly those of white power and white supremacy, that are brought up in discussions of racism, history, and the misguided belief that white people are superior to people of color. But the terms “white nationalism,” “white power,” and “white supremacy” each mean something different. And to understand how the Trump administration relates to white nationalism, it’s important to understand what white nationalism is and what it is not.

Nationalism typically refers to strong support for a country akin to patriotism, as in the nationalists who want to put “America first.” But nationalism can also refer to self-determination, such as the Scottish nationalists who want an independent Scottish state.

White nationalism has more in common with this latter form of nationalism: It advocates for a physical or spiritual white state.

“The nation in white nationalism is imagined as the Aryan nation,” Belew said. White nationalism is “the idea that white people are going to unify together as one national polity either in a white homeland or a white nation — or even in a white world — through the violent killing or exclusion of other people.”

There are many routes to accomplishing this vision, but Belew stressed white nationalists generally are not “interested in the United States as a nation.” Instead, they aspire to replace the United States with something like the white state imagined at the end of The Turner Diaries, a central white nationalist text describing a war against people of color.

This is why, Belew said, “When we think about white nationalism, it’s important to remember that it is a deeply revolutionary and deeply anti-democratic project.”

The overall white power movement, on the other hand, goes beyond questions of statehood and has little regard for borders. As Belew told my colleague Jane Coaston, it is what connects New Zealand’s Christchurch shooter to white nationalists in the United States, and is primarily a social, rather than strictly political, movement that she says is incredibly diverse “in all ways other than race.”

“The white power movement is a broad-based social movement of interconnected groups of people that includes the Klan, Neo-Nazis, radical tax protesters; it includes some segments of boogaloo now; it includes some segments of militia groups,” Belew said. “It’s all across the country: It’s urban and suburban and rural; it has men and women and children in it, and people across class backgrounds.”

As that list would suggest, white power is a movement that provides a home for white supremacists — people who, as political scientists Tehama Lopez Bunyasi and Candis Watts Smith write in Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, believe “that white people are inherently superior to people of color and should dominate over people of color.”

This definition, Lopez Bunyasi told Vox, captures the ideological portion of white supremacy, but she noted there is also a structural facet.

Structurally, Lopez Bunyasi and Smith write, white supremacy is “the systematic provision of political, social, economic, and psychological benefits and advantages to whites, alongside the systematic provisions of burdens and disadvantages to people who are not white.” White supremacy isn’t just an ideology; it is an actual system that has been used to build government and create policy in the real world.

It’s this sort of white supremacy, Stony Brook University sociology professor Crystal Fleming told Jenée Desmond-Harris in a 2016 piece for Vox, that has been “a constant throughout history.” The concept provided for the enslavement of Black people, the genocide of Native Americans, and the overall allocation of resources in manners that benefit white Americans. And it is a system that still exists today, keeping people of color out of jobs, universities, and political power. Which means everyone — regardless of whether one subscribes to white supremacist beliefs — lives in a white supremacist system.

Trump has embraced this system and has glorified some of its uglier moments, like its production of the Confederate States of America. He does not advocate for the sort of white nationalism depicted in The Turner Diaries, but his rhetoric has certainly elevated white Americans — and sometimes white supremacists and nationalists — over Americans of color. And as Belew notes, when it comes to the idea of white power, “there is a lot of very concerning evidence that, if not Trump himself, there are people in his administration who really do understand what it means.”

The Trump administration’s relationship with white nationalism goes beyond the president

It’s not only Trump who gives a voice to white nationalists. Key people in his administration champion their beliefs. Chief among them is White House senior adviser Stephen Miller.

A trove of more than 900 emails Miller sent to the alt-right publication Breitbart in 2015 and 2016 — both while an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and a member of the Trump campaign — suggests Miller has deep ties to the white nationalist movement.

The emails, which were analyzed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, touched on race or immigration. Some of the messages included links to white nationalist articles, while others included white nationalist slang. Miller also promoted The Camp of the Saints, a white supremacist book that casts immigrants of color as savages who subsist on feces, as well as praise for the nativist, hard-line immigration policies of the 1920s.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, in navy suit, walks behind President Trump on the White House grounds. In the foreground of the photo, Trump speaks to reporters, gesturing above a cluster of microphones.
White House senior adviser Stephen Miller is one of several key people in Trump’s administration who have championed the beliefs of white nationalists.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Those emails saw Miller citing in particular the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Historian and author of The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas Monica Muñoz Martinez notes that act had “quota systems to restrict immigration from nations deemed to have populations that were racially undesirable.” Those quotas allowed more immigration of people from Western Europe and fewer people coming from other nations, while banning immigration from Asia. As Muñoz Martinez explains, these policies were designed by eugenicists and are admired not only by Miller but by the Ku Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler.

Miller has emulated those eugenicists in his crafting of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, and he’s doing so with Trump’s blessing. Muñoz Martinez told Vox, “One hundred years ago, Mexicans were called murderers and rapists and bandits,” and now, “Trump says Mexicans are murderers and rapists and drug dealers.”

As Vox’s Nicole Narea has explained, Miller designed the public charge rule that allows immigrants to be excluded from the US based on whether they are “likely to end up relying on public benefits in the future.”

More recently, Miller was reportedly involved in creating the executive order that froze certain green card applications and family reunification initiatives due to the coronavirus. That order was followed in June by another that blocked entry for a wider variety of foreign workers, as well as a Supreme Court decision allowing for expedited removal of immigrants seeking asylum.

But ties to white nationalism go beyond Miller to include figures like Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist and Trump campaign CEO who led Breitbart, described in 2016 by Vox’s Zack Beauchamp as “a leading light of America’s white nationalist movement accused of using misogynistic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and barely hidden racist language throughout his professional life.”

Bannon was fired in August 2017, but in his brief tenure, he seeded the White House with his “economic nationalism” philosophy, which has been criticized as rebranded white nationalism. And he helped develop the policies that defined Trump’s early days — most notably the Muslim ban. Bannon’s ideas about immigration remain entrenched due to figures like Miller, and his divisive rhetoric on domestic and foreign policy continues to come out of Trump’s mouth.

Bannon’s thoughts on matters like staffing still hold weight. For instance, he has helped usher in his ally Michael Pack to run the US government’s global news agencies, which include Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “We are going hard on the charge,” Bannon told Vox’s Alex Ward.

Pack, Ward notes, began his tenure by firing four top officials (after two others quit to protest his hiring) and by mandating the agencies promote editorial content that reflects the president’s worldview, leading to fears his tenure will see official US news networks become mouthpieces for the sorts of white nationalist-adjacent content that populated Breitbart.

Bannon is not the only former official whose ideology remains influential. Perhaps no fired member of the administration’s presence is still felt as strongly as that of Miller’s old boss, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose tenure atop the Justice Department was marked by the enactment of policies that spoke to the line of thought laid out in The Turner Diaries.

Pursuing a “tough on crime” approach, Sessions crafted policies that actively endangered the lives and liberty of Americans of color, particularly Black Americans. These included mandating federal prosecutors to push for maximum punishment for low-level drug crimes, which Black Americans are disproportionately more likely to be charged with. He also pushed a failed attempted to have federal prosecutors more aggressively pursue marijuana cases. Black Americans are more likely to be arrested for possession than white Americans nationally, again despite marijuana usage being about equal across racial groups.

Sessions successfully limited federal oversight of police departments found to have engaged in civil rights abuses as well as discriminatory and violent policing and, like Miller and Bannon, pursued an aggressively restrictive immigration policy.

He, too, has spoken fondly of the 1924 immigration act, in discussing increasing immigration with Bannon on Breitbart Radio in 2015 while still a senator, saying, “it was good for America.”

Once in the Trump administration, Sessions emulated the policies of the 1920s by “using every power he possessed as attorney general to ensure that the scales of justice tip toward punishment of unauthorized immigrants as often as possible,” as Dara Lind wrote for Vox.

As is the case with Miller, Sessions’s policies have achieved exclusionary white supremacist aims — and fed white supremacists’ narratives about the dangers of Black people. Through Miller and through other former allies still in the administration like Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, who is currently the chief of staff of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Sessions’s ideas live on in the administration despite his departure. His policies survive as well.

Adherents of old and new forms of white nationalism can find a hero in Trump

Trump tweeted that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a “symbol of hate” weeks after overseeing armed forces gassing peaceful protesters demanding equality for Black people and other people of color.

When these actions — and all the other things Trump has done that align with white nationalist thought and values — are taken together, the president begins to appear as someone able to unify traditional forms of white supremacy and more modern modes of white power and white nationalism.

“The Klan would wrap themselves in Christianity,” Nell Irvin Painter, a Princeton University historian and author of The History of White People, told Vox. (Painter is also a signee of a letter criticized, in part, because of its association with prominent anti-trans figures and themes.) “And in the American flag as well. So they were patriots and they were Christians in their own eyes. I don’t see any contradiction in Trump’s embrace of Confederate monuments and his embrace — literal — of the American flag.”

As the Klan did, the president has cloaked himself in the symbols of Christianity. He posed with the Bible. He highlighted virtual church services on Sundays throughout the pandemic. And he has endeavored to signal he is an ally to Christians across the nation, from promising to prioritize Christian refugees to taking strong positions on matters from the celebration of Christmas to abortion, even though he has few personal ties to Christianity or religion in general.

Trump, in a dark suit and bright red tie, smiles as he hugs a flag on a standing pole. On either side of him are Florida flags, also on standing poles, with red crosses on white backgrounds.
Donald Trump hugs the US flag during a rally in Tampa, Florida, on October 24, 2016.
Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Times/Getty Images

Similarly, Trump has worked to use the flag — sometimes even hugging it — as well as other American symbols like Mount Rushmore, to signal that his policies, white nationalist aligned or not, are American. And to argue criticism of those policies is anti-American.

Even the president’s rabid defense of Confederate statues — many of which were erected during periods of Black activism and serve as warnings to people of color to stop striving for equality — is revealing. This is not to say that Trump is using the monuments as part of a campaign of terror and intimidation. But positioning himself as a champion of America allows him to cast their concerns as unpatriotic extensions of a “left-wing cultural revolution” that wants “to overthrow the American Revolution.”

In connecting and conflating white men who tried to destroy the United States with prominent Revolutionary figures like Thomas Jefferson, the president highlights the thing that connects them: the barbaric ways they treated nonwhite people.

“There is a kind of white nationalism that’s about infusing whiteness into the nation,” Belew said. “For the activists that are taking to the streets and training in paramilitary camps, the nation isn’t the United States; they are not at all interested in defending the United States. They want to defend the white nation. And they want to do that, often, by overthrowing the United States.”

This impulse mirrors the goals of the radical white nationalists of the Confederate States of America and is reflected in the president’s policies — particularly around immigration — and in tendencies his critics would call anti-democratic. “To the extent that that ideology has actually crept into governance, it’s shocking,” Belew noted. “Because it’s a revolutionary thing that is attempting to undo the very government where they sit.”

Trump’s immigration policy is notable not just for the ways it excludes people of color but for how it deems white immigrants the “right” type of immigrants.

In 2018, Trump said he’d like the US to have fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa and the Caribbean — instead, he wanted immigrants from the majority-white Norway. In practice, he has put up barriers to immigration for citizens from countries with majority people of color populations, including those with Muslim majorities, while casting them as “some of the most vicious and dangerous people on earth.”

In June, Trump announced a temporary ban on green cards and the suspension of several work visas that are often used by immigrants of color, particularly those from India. Other countries that have been especially affected by Trump’s immigration policy include Vietnam, China, Mexico, and South Korea. Stuart Anderson, the founder of the immigration think tank National Foundation for American Policy, noted those four countries saw drastic reductions in immigration during Trump’s first two years in office, with immigration from China falling about 21 percentage points in that period.

Amid these declines, Trump reportedly hoped to find ways to “fast track” immigration from Europe — with former US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland assigned in 2018 to work on the plan with Miller and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Through exclusion and the push to recruit white immigrants, the Trump administration has advocated for a rigid border policy for nonwhite immigrants and a more porous, generous one for those who are white. This advances the aims of white nationalism that transcends border — and that suggests the sovereignty of US borders matters less when the Trump administration is thinking of the role the country might play in advancing the global white nation than it does when thinking of the country as a discrete entity.

White nationalist goals can only be achieved by dismantling the US government, and there, too, Trump has appeared to align with a violent element, like when he called on armed groups to “liberate” their states.

There are countless other examples, but the point is, Trump has contributed to the political unraveling of the United States some modern white nationalists see as necessary to achieve their goals. He has not done so by violently overthrowing the government. But he has taken steps in the direction these white nationalists want to go.

Trump’s rejections of white nationalism are meaningless

As much as he has embraced it, Trump has made some attempts to distance himself from white supremacy and white nationalism. Following a racist mass shooting in El Paso (one perpetrated by a shooter whose manifesto mirrored some of Trump’s rhetoric on Latinx immigration), Trump said, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”

But words like these are nothing more than language uttered in between statements hewing closely to white supremacist and white nationalist ideals.

Just weeks before the El Paso shooting, Trump called the majority-Black district of former lawmaker Rep. Elijah Cummings a “dangerous & filthy place” and a “rat and rodent infested mess,” adding, “No human being would want to live there.” It’s language that mirrors the characterization of people of color in The Camp of the Saints, and it not only casts a popular Black leader as inept, it implies he and his constituents are somehow less than human.

In the weeks directly after, Trump tweeted a campaign video featuring a logo associated with the white supremacist group VDARE, employed the anti-Semitic dual-loyalties trope in speaking about the political opinions of Jewish Americans, and claimed at a rally that sanctuary cities were releasing “hardened” and “horrible” “criminal aliens ... directly into your neighborhoods.”

Just a little over a month after saying “hate has no place in America,” Trump said of the gang MS-13, which was started by Salvadoran immigrants: “They take young women. They slice them up with a knife. They slice them up — beautiful, young.”

All these things, which happened in the span of less than two months, ticked many white supremacist and nationalist boxes — Jewish people as untrustworthy, people of color as predators with a predilection for young women, and Black people as subhuman — rendering the president’s rejections of various white power ideologies meaningless.

It’s a cycle Trump has trapped himself in, and one that continues even now.

“After these atrocities, like when the George Floyd video came out, he didn’t say anything for a long time,” Painter noted. “I mean, he said, ‘Oh that was terrible,’ and then in the next breath, he went back to his race-baiting.”

And it is a cycle that is difficult to escape. As Muñoz Martinez said, “We are living in a nation that was inspired by the principles of white supremacy.”

So ingrained are those ideas, she pointed out, that even the first presidential administration run by a Black American reflected them, particularly with respect to immigration, with policies that incarcerated children in harsh conditions that spawned lawsuits.

“We have to remember that the policies that the Trump administration created, and the kind of inhumanity that we see, built upon the infrastructure that had already existed,” Muñoz Martinez said, adding that white nationalist and white supremacist “ideals shaped our society and shaped our institutions, and shaped our public societies and laws, our policing mindset. And we haven’t replaced that.”

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