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Donald Trump is never as subdued as when he’s disavowing racism

He says he can’t figure out why the “alt-right” is energized by him.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump said he can’t think of anything he might have done to inspire the “alt-right,” a base of white nationalists that have embraced Trump’s pending administration as a reason to celebrate.

According to the New York Times’s Mike Grynbaum, the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, asked Trump if he felt he had done anything to energize the movement that his adviser Steve Bannon had championed during a meeting with editorial staff on Tuesday. Trump failed to acknowledge a connection, ultimately adding, “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”

If Trump is in fact unaware of the story that’s been heavily reported over the past several days, he will not have to look hard to find out why the alt-right is excited.

Trump announced Bannon — a hero of the racist, white nationalist–affiliated alt-right movement and editor of Breitbart.com — as his chief strategist and senior counselor earlier this month, as he prepares for the White House.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has reported, Bannon is “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.” He spent years mainstreaming ideas that align with white nationalism and told a Mother Jones reporter in August that Breitbart is "the platform for the alt-right.”

Members of the group — not to mention people who hold overlapping views and openly embrace the “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” labels that the members of the alt-right tend to shun — have explicitly said they’re energized by Trump’s candidacy and his presidency, specifically Bannon’s involvement.

The New York Times reported on one gathering over the weekend where people explained why Bannon energized them:

In the bowels of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, three blocks from the White House, members of the so-called alt-right movement gathered for what they had supposed would be an autopsy to plot their grim future under a Clinton administration. Instead, they celebrated the unexpected march of their white nationalist ideas toward the mainstream, portraying Mr. Trump’s win as validation that the tide had turned in their fight to preserve white culture.

... His appointment as chief strategist of Stephen K. Bannon, who has called Breitbart News, the website he long ran, a platform for the alt-right, has reinforced the notion that the incoming president is on their side.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Atlantic shared video of an alt-right conference in Washington, DC, where Trump’s victory was celebrated with Nazi salutes, during which participants chanted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”

Trump’s response to Baquet’s question was similar in tone to the one he provided when was asked in a 60 Minutes interview about the wave of hateful racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, xenophobic attacks sweeping the nation after Election Day, many of which mentioned his name. He said he was unaware. His message then: a simple “stop it” to the perpetrators.

This is beginning to look like a pattern: Journalists report on links between Trump’s rhetoric and actions and outrageous expressions of racism. Trump is asked to comment. He says he is unaware, and expresses rote, subdued disapproval notably lacking the vigor or scorn that he famously applies to other topics — say, his treatment by Saturday Night Live, the Hamilton cast’s message to Mike Pence, or the actions of protesters who took to the streets to demonstrate against the message sent by his win.

Here, as with the report on expressions of hate, there was no “Sad!” and there were no demands for apologies. There were no tweets.

This harks back to the moment during the presidential campaign when, in February, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump whether he would rebuke the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Trump blamed a “lousy earpiece” for his failure to immediately make the statement (although he’d said Duke’s name during the interview, so he clearly heard it).

The next time the topic came up, on MSNBC’s Meet the Press, Trump said he “rebuked” the racist icon’s support, seemingly irritated at the scrutiny that had surrounded the delay in his initial response. "Because last time with another person in this position, I did it very quickly. And they said, 'He didn't do it fast enough,'" Trump said. "Rebuked. Is that OK? Rebuked, done."

Despite his formal rejection of racism, people who make racism their life’s work have received a different message from Trump. "The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions,” Rachel Pendergraft, a national organizer for the Knights Party, the successor to Duke's Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, told Mother Jones in October. "They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet,  but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will."

Of Bannon, though, Trump told the Times, "If I thought he was racist, or 'alt-right' ... I wouldn't even think about hiring him."

But whatever labels are applied and whether or not Trump says he disavows white supremacist group, white nationalist groups, or the alt-right have little impact on how excited and emboldened members of these groups will continue to be if his statements, appointments, and, eventually, actions as president continue to speak to their extremist pro-white values.

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