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What the alt-right actually wants from President Trump

Richard Spencer.
(Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The so-called “alt-right” is a loose online movement made up mostly, though not entirely, of white nationalists. They’ve gotten famous recently for being some of Donald Trump’s earliest and most vocal backers, seeing him as the first presidential candidate in modern history open to their ideas about the need to protect the white race — by reducing the numbers and influence of African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and Jews.

At a November 19 conference of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist “think tank,” the organization’s leader, Richard Spencer, saluted Trump’s victory: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” Footage of the speech, taken by the Atlantic, is quite chilling.

Most of the coverage of the group has focused on the alt-right’s most blatantly offensive language or, somewhat bizarrely, the fact that Spencer is moderately well-dressedMother Jones described him as “an articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a ‘fashy’ (as in fascism) haircut — long on top, buzzed on the sides.”

But there’s a crucial point missing here: Now that their hero Trump is about to be president, what do they actually want him to do come January?

Turns out they have some pretty clear ideas.

The alt-right’s priority, first and foremost, is preserving America’s status as a white-majority nation. To that end, they want Trump to follow through on the most extreme immigration ideas he’s discussed — such as deporting millions of undocumented immigrants and banning Muslim immigration. These steps, they think, will slow what they call the “dispossession” of America’s whites.

But the alt-right wants Trump to go even further. They want him to slash rates of legal immigration and defund groups that advocate for immigrants, like La Raza. Ultimately, they want Trump to push the boundaries of acceptable opinion to the point where the nakedest of naked racism becomes permissible in mainstream public discourse.

Under President Trump, those goals are plausible, even if unlikely. That means we need to understand the ideology of the alt-right — and the things its members will be working to enshrine in federal law.

They expect Trump to act on his campaign promises about immigration

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The day after the election, I called up Jared Taylor, the editor of the white nationalist website American Renaissance and a leading alt-right thinker. I asked Taylor what he wanted, in policy terms, now that a Trump presidency was no longer hypothetical.

“The policies onto which [Trump] has stumbled, in a kind of innocent, America First way, are ones that will slow the dispossession of whites,” Taylor told me. “I’m very much in favor of him implementing those policies, for whatever reasons.”

The policy that Taylor is most excited about is Trump’s idea of deporting every undocumented immigrant, all 11 million of them. This isn’t quite an official campaign policy — it’s something Trump floated repeatedly in TV interviews but that his campaign has attempted to downplay. Official policy is that they’ll start by deporting the roughly 2 to 3 million with criminal records and then will see how things stand with the rest.

Taylor doesn’t believe Trump will follow through on the full deportation plan, though he says, “If he actually did those things, I’d very much applaud.” Nonetheless, he believes a few high-profile deportation raids on innocent families could go a long way.

He explains why in a 2015 article titled “Is Trump Our Last Chance?”:

The key, however, would be a few well publicized raids on non-criminal illegals. Television images of Mexican families dropped over the border with no more than they could carry would be very powerful. The vast majority of illegals would quickly decide to get their affairs in order and choose their own day of departure rather than wait for ICE to choose it for them.

Even if Trump doesn’t go for mass deportations of families, Taylor thinks there’s a lot to like about Trump’s proposed agenda. A few of the Trump policies Taylor has praised include:

These aren’t pipe dreams. They’re all policies you can find on Trump’s campaign website or in his speeches. Taylor and other alt-righters are attracted to them because, for them, the first priority is the numbers game: Make sure that whites remain a majority in America for as long as possible. Trump’s policies would both slow the rate of nonwhite immigration and actually make nonwhites leave the country. From the alt-right point of view, this is just what the doctor ordered.

This is why Trump’s border wall is less popular among some alt-righters than you might think. They like it, to be sure — but it’s a less direct way to reshape American demography than deporting people or slowing down immigration.

“We might not even need the wall Mr. Trump plans to build, though it’s certainly a good thing to have,” Taylor writes in his 2015 article.

To make the alt-right happy, then, Trump just needs to do a lot of what he’s already said he’ll do.

Ideally, they want Trump to redefine what’s acceptable in America

In Taylor’s ideal world, Trump’s anti-immigration policies would go even further than his official plan does.

Taylor wants Trump to push for a “pause” in issuing green cards, a step that Trump has gestured at but never fully spelled out. He wants Trump to cut off funding for Latino rights groups like the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) — though MALDEF doesn’t get any federal funding, so it’s not sure what exactly Taylor thinks the president-elect can do. He wants him to use executive authority to limit the number of immigrants admitted for the purpose of family reunification.

“There is no end to the good a president could do if he were really convinced that immigration should benefit us rather than foreigners,” Taylor writes.

But alt-rightists’ ambitions for Trump go beyond mere policy. They want him to rewrite the boundaries of the politically possible.

The alt-right believes, at its core, that the American government has been poisoned. Poisoned, specifically, by the ideology of tolerance and multiculturalism. So long as the United States is officially committed to the idea that all people should be treated equally, regardless of race or creed, then it cannot take the steps necessary to make America a nation for whites.

“There hasn’t been a government on our side for 150 years,” Sam Dickson, an attorney who has represented the Ku Klux Klan, said in a 2011 speech to Spencer’s NPI. “The US government — the system in America — is the greatest enemy our race has for its survival.”

Undoing this means going further than shifting immigration policy, even dramatically. It means shifting the lens through which Americans see politics — ushering in a new, racially polarized discourse in which openly racist arguments once again become acceptable to make.

Trump, with his incendiary rhetoric about virtually every minority group — like calling Mexicans “rapists” and describing black communities as dystopian hellscapes — has helped push discourse in what alt-rightists see as the right direction. Because Trump has gotten away with saying offensive stuff, and seized the highest office in the land while doing it, they think they’ve made progress.

“What are we fighting for is a ‘new normal,’ a moral consensus we insist upon,” Spencer said in his recent NPI address (the “Hail Trump!” one). “Donald Trump is a step towards this new normal.”

Now they want Trump to go even further. They want him to continue using offensive rhetoric, and actually escalate it — to use his Cabinet appointments and the bully pulpit to normalize ideas that mainstream discourse shuns.

Taylor, again, is the clearest on this point.

“A change in tone would be as dramatic as a change in policy because a president and his cabinet have tremendous influence that goes well beyond policy,” he writes in his 2015 piece:

They can put a subject on the national agenda just by talking about it. They can make it respectable just by continuing to talk about it. Actually looking at the pros and cons of immigrants could open the door to looking at the pros and cons of different groups of people. White, high-IQ, English-speaking people obviously assimilate best, and someone in a Trump administration might actually say so. A Trump presidency could completely change what is said about the difference between a crowd and a nation, and what it means to be an American.

You actually are seeing a bit of this already. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, once tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” His attorney general pick, Jeff Sessions, once said of the KKK that “I used to think they're okay” until he found out that they’re “pot smokers” (Sessions has played this off as a joke). Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, reportedly once said that he didn’t want to send his kids to a school with too many Jews (Bannon denies this).

This kind of rhetoric from top Cabinet officials, in the alt-right’s point of view, doesn't go far enough. They want top-level American officials saying racially aggressive stuff — like discussing the (mythical) connection between race and IQ — to help bring their ideas back into polite conversations. Trump’s Cabinet appointments may indeed help further this goal, though he has made some picks — like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a child of Indian immigrants, for United Nations ambassador — that the alt-right might not love.

But Trump’s own Twitter account and public appearances will likely be supremely helpful with this too. Trump has a tendency to go off the cuff, and make offensive statements, in tweets, speeches, and interviews. What comes out of his mouth and Twitter account is extremely unpredictable — and, if history is any guide, tends to push the boundaries of acceptable speech in an alt-right direction.

To be clear, Trump did publicly reject the alt-right last week, saying, “I disavow the group.” But the phrasing was very weak, so the alt-right doesn’t see it as too much of a setback. Unless Trump stops saying Trumpy stuff, there’s a very good chance they’ll get at least some of the rhetoric they want.

This is all in service of the creation of a white ethno-state, accomplished through “peaceful ethnic cleansing”

The KKK newspaper’s endorsement of Trump.

The alt-right’s goals go beyond mere policy, to remaking the very nature of the American state itself.

The ultimate goal of the movement is to rebuild America along ethnic lines, turning it into an “ethno-state” for whites. This is why “white nationalist” is probably the most accurate description of the alt-right: They literally see themselves as giving birth to a new white nation in all or part of the continental US.

“The ideal I advocate is the creation of a White Ethno-State on the North American continent,” Spencer writes at Radix, his online journal. “Our task is to capture the imaginations of our people (or the best of our people) and shock them out of their current assumption of what they think is possible.”

But the movement isn’t especially clear on how this is supposed to happen.

Spencer insists that nonwhites and Jews will be “peacefully” made to leave the country. He rarely gets more specific than that. But given demographic trends in the US — birth patterns mean whites will likely be a minority by 2050 — mass ethnic cleansing is the only way to preserve a white Christian majority. And as history makes abundantly clear, ethnic cleansing is rarely ever accomplished “peacefully.” That’s one reason it is literally a war crime.

The most specific plan I’ve heard for achieving this comes from Dickson’s 2011 NPI address. He thinks the US missed an opportunity to enact a “racial partition” in the 1960s, when it could have taken over Cuba and forcibly transferred African Americans (or “our blacks,” as he refers to them) to Cuba, and moved all white Cubans to an enclave in southern Florida (it’s unclear why he believes this was an option back then and not now):

We would take over Cuba. We would take the remaining white people out of Cuba and settle them in South Florida, and give them a state of their own where they could have their own culture — Cuba Nueva, and rename Miami Havana Nueva.

And we would then settle our blacks in Cuba, in a civilized way. We would build roads, expressways, factories, schools. And we would build a state for them, and the Cuban blacks, and they could then have a state of their own, to express their own cultural needs and aspirations and desires.

This is worth mentioning not because it’s something the Trump administration might feasibly do — it obviously isn’t. Rather, it’s to make it abundantly clear what the alt-right truly stands for in its own words, and why so many people find it troubling they’ve so enthusiastically embraced Trump and his policies.

The alt-right believes that its white ethno-state is only possible if white Americans develop a stronger sense of white identity. Taylor calls it “racial consciousness,” the idea “that white Americans, as whites, have collective interests that are legitimate.”

Racial consciousness, they think, will emerge somewhat naturally — alt-rightists believe, incorrectly, that race is a biological category that will inevitably lead to social division between whites and nonwhites. But they also believe that government policy and statements from leading politicians can strengthen it by pitting the interests of whites against others.

This, ultimately, is the effect that many of Trump’s policies and actions could have — intended or not. Deporting millions of Latinos, banning Muslim immigration, and using the bully pulpit to condemn movements like Black Lives Matter create a sense of conflict between the whites who voted for Trump and the minorities who mostly opposed him. Whether Trump intends to sow racial division with these policies is irrelevant; that’s the inevitable consequence of implementing them.

This is why the alt-right is so excited by Trump’s victory. They believe that by electing Trump, whites have finally put their identities as whites front and center — an “awakening,” as Taylor calls it, of “white consciousness” itself.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that MALDEF receives federal funding. It does not.

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