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Donald Trump Jr. has a white supremacist problem

Donald Trump Jr. at RNC
Donald Trump Jr. gestures to the crowd during his speech at the Republican National Convention.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The past month for Donald Trump Jr. has been an endless roiling controversy that most Republican presidential nominees would have done anything to shut down.

He tweeted and instagrammed a “Deplorables” meme that included Pepe the Frog, a symbol now used by white supremacists and the alt-right. He claimed that if his father had acted like Hillary Clinton, they’d be warming up the gas chamber.” He tweeted an article warning that immigration in Europe would lead to a rape epidemic and another with a debunked rumor that Clinton used a “secret earpiece” during a presidential forum. He compared refugees to poisoned Skittles.

Trump claims innocence on some of these: He said he thought Pepe was just a funny frog in a wig, and that the “gas chamber” reference was to capital punishment, not the Holocaust. But he also hasn’t apologized for giving offense. One gaffe like this is a mistake; two are careless; three start to look like a deliberate strategy.

Typically, candidates’ adult children don’t play a big role in their campaigns, aside from the occasional speaking event. But Donald Trump’s children with his first wife, Ivana Trump, have been unusually influential. Over the summer, Donald Trump Jr., his brother Eric Trump, and his sister Ivanka Trump helped force out former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and select Mike Pence as vice president. Donald Trump Jr. is often called a close political adviser.

Ivanka Trump is reaching toward the political left, signaling to the young career women who buy her clothes, read her books, and save her advice on Pinterest that she cares about the issues that matter to them. Her brother appears to be doing the same for the meme-slinging white supremacists known as the alt-right.

Whether Trump is doing this intentionally or through a level of carelessness that would be a crisis for any other campaign is, in a way, beside the point. More importantly, the Trump campaign has demonstrated repeatedly that it does not care whose voices it amplifies, as long as those voices are speaking up for Trump.

How Donald Trump Jr. went from rising political star to lightning rod

Donald Trump Jr., the Republican nominee’s oldest son, looked like a politician in the making when he spoke at the Republican National Convention, fluently speaking the language of mainstream conservatives. Now he’s mixing in another language entirely: references the far right is interpreting as a coded appeal.

“A political star may have been born,” Politico’s Nick Gass and Ben Schreckinger wrote, calling Trump’s speech “powerful” and “rousing” with “widespread appeal.” Unlike his father, Donald Jr., an executive vice president with the Trump Organization, spoke about conservative priorities fluently. He flirted with the possibility of a mayoral run.

His speech mixed anecdotes about his father’s roots in the construction business with a call for less regulation and more school choice, plus a forceful attack on Hillary Clinton. It was a speech that sounded like it could have been given at any Republican convention, not just Trump’s — which means it stood out for its discipline and coherency.

But that was the high point of Trump’s career as a surrogate for his father. When you look closer, he attracts endless controversy:

  • Trump gave an interview to a white nationalist radio show, James Edwards’s The Political Cesspool, in March. He later said that he didn’t know of Edwards’s beliefs, “and if I had I would have refused,” he told the Huffington Post. The campaign first denied that the interview had happened at all; later, it said that Trump was unaware of Edwards’s background.
  • Trump retweeted a tweet about the Clinton Foundation from Kevin McDonald, a retired psychology professor from California who has written three books about how Jews are destroying America, in part by supporting mass immigration from developing countries.
  • He said that if Republicans lied the way he claims Hillary Clinton has, the media would be “warming up the gas chamber right now.” (He and the campaign later said he was referencing capital punishment, although execution by gas chamber in the US has been very rare for all of Trump’s life; in July, he’d made a similar remark using the term “electric chair.”)
  • He also, infamously, tweeted a “Deplorables” meme that included, along with himself, the faces of Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative provocateur and Twitter harasser, and Pepe the Frog, a symbol often used by the alt-right. “Apparently I made the cut as one of the Deplorables,” Trump tweeted with a laugh-crying emoji, saying the image had been sent to him by “a friend.”

His latest tweet to provoke outrage compared refugees to poisoned Skittles — which, as the Trump campaign said in a statement, was just another way to frame Donald Trump’s official policy.

The result of all of this has been to bring usually obscure figures, ideas, and memes to much more mainstream attention. As the Washington Post put it: “A lot of Donald Trump Jr.’s trail missteps seem to involve white nationalists and Nazis.”

White supremacists are taking Trump’s tweets as a coded signal

Whatever Trump meant by them, Pepe the Frog, the “gas chambers” remark, and the assumed endorsement of McDonald have all been effective dog whistles for the internet age.

“YES: Donald Trump Jr. Makes Casual Joke About Gas Chambers!” the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, enthused after his comments. “This would mean that it’s a part of his normal speech pattern. I mean, this isn’t a turn of phrase that normies use. But it’s the sort of metaphor that someone on the Alt-Right would use instinctively.”

The article was illustrated with Pepe the Frog, inevitably. When Trump himself tweeted an image of Pepe in October 2015, it passed without notice — except by the Trump fans who created it, who celebrated the victory.

Pepe the Frog was a fairly mainstream meme on Tumblr in 2015, but this year it’s been used as a symbol by the online wing of the “alt-right”: internet trolls who love Donald Trump and live to provoke outrage by going against norms about “political correctness” or basic politeness. Jewish journalists who criticize Trump supporters are frequently met with a barrage of anti-Semitic images featuring Pepe.

The “Deplorables” meme that Donald Trump Jr. tweeted originated on 4chan, where the alt-right fans congregate, though it appears likely that Trump got it from Roger Stone, a conspiracy theorist and Trump surrogate. Stone tweeted the image — and Trump favorited his tweet — a few hours before Trump shared it on Instagram.

Trump says he had no idea who Pepe the Frog was before he tweeted the Deplorables meme: “I thought it was a frog in a wig,” he told Good Morning America. “I thought it was funny.”

Determining Trump’s true intention is probably impossible. Given that millions of people who aren’t being attacked regularly by anti-Semites on Twitter have never heard of Pepe the Frog, thinking it was “a frog in a wig” might seem like a perfectly plausible explanation. On the other hand, it’s exactly this level of plausible deniability that makes a good dog whistle.

But Trump’s intentions aren’t the only thing that matters. It’s very bad if the campaign is reaching out to white supremacists and anti-Semites on purpose. But excusing this as ignorance isn’t any better.

Trump seems to have gotten his habit of retweets from his father, the candidate; Donald Trump himself has displayed the same indifference to who his supporters are and what their other beliefs, besides Trump support, might be. The candidate tweeted an image widely seen as anti-Semitic that featured a Star of David and Hillary Clinton’s face on top of a pile of money, and then defended it with another meme borrowed from the alt-right. He’s retweeted white supremacists more than once, including one user whose Twitter handle was “WhiteGenocideTM.”

Hillary Clinton, in her speech on Trump’s ties to the alt-right, said the candidate “took this fringe bigot with a few dozen followers and spread his message to 11 million people,” tying it to her message that Trump is temperamentally unfit for the presidency. “This is not conservatism as we have known it,” she said, making the case that Trump is outside the norm of the Republican Party.

By now, most campaigns — even those craven enough not to care about the moral implications of promoting racism — would understand that the failure to look into supporters’ backgrounds is a political liability. If Donald Trump Jr. can’t be bothered to spend 30 seconds Googling the “frog in a wig” that he found in the Deplorables meme, that lack of curiosity is by now a deliberate choice from the entire campaign.

Message discipline is easy to mock. The calculated social media personas of most candidates and their families and advisers feel inauthentic. But there’s also something honorable in acknowledging that power and influence should be used responsibly. If you can amplify a voice, you want to be sure it’s saying something you want the country to hear.

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