Predictably, last week’s most quotable moments of right-wing viciousness were Trump’s jabs at reporters. So goes the game plan. Team Trump flips all defeats into victories, or triggers for belligerence, or both, so it was entirely in character that he seized the spotlight and changed the subject from Election Day’s votes of no-confidence, first by firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then, the day after the election, by insulting and banishing reporters. Certain reporters in particular.
Trump has been playing so many race cards he’s spread out a full deck. At his November 7 press conference, Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour introduced her question thusly: “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists.” Trump interrupted, saying: “I don’t know why you’d say that. That’s such a racist question.” The second sentence he repeated twice more.
Why would the true observation that Trump has called himself a nationalist, and that he has “emboldened white nationalists,” be “racist”? Might it be that Alcindor, of Haitian descent, is black? If so, Trump’s language would be consonant with his peremptory words for another black reporter, CNN contributor April Ryan: “Sit down!” Or his contempt for CNN’s Abby Phillip: “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question….You ask a lot of stupid questions.”
But there’s something at work besides raw disrespect. Trump’s thrust at Alcindor rhymes with a prime theme of the white supremacists who call themselves “white nationalists.” And it looms large in the utterances of the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, who shouted “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” to Nazi salutes just after Trump’s election. Trump is not Spencer, though Trump has been at pains to echo Spencer’s themes.
The day before the midterms, Spencer issued a manifesto called “The Unmentionable Majority.” He took what was, for him, the high road: a pass at analytical rigor salted with references to mainstream journalists. Spencer argued that Republican politics is doomed, for demography is a tide running against the white majority. No triumphalism for him this year:
The Republican party is the de facto White party; the Democratic party is the de facto party of non-Whites, immigrants, and their urban White “allies.” An America in which Whites no longer comprise a majority is an America where a Republican majority is simply untenable at the national level….
The Republicans, in other words, have reached the peak power within their reach by electoral means. In the long run, they hold a weak hand. The Democrats, winning the House, will make sure that Trump’s power dwindles. Encroachments upon his authority will constitute an emergency. The supremacist prerogatives—white nationalism, voter suppression, NRA politics, anti-immigrant animus—are at risk. The Democrats are attempting a counterrevolution, even a putsch.
Democratic recovery of the House ratifies Spencer’s claim that whites are wimps, failing to secure their blood-and-soil entitlement as their numbers wane. Spencer suggests that the white majority is not bold enough. It doesn’t even dare speak its own name:
The obstacle preventing the GOP from fulfilling its destiny is fundamentally psychological. In multicultural America, Whites remain the decisive voting block for determining electoral outcomes; yet they are the only voting block that is not allowed—and that does not allow itself—to advocate openly for its own existence and political power.
Lurking within Trump’s insult to Yamiche Alcindor is Spencer’s scorched-earth demographic panic, a protracted theme in the white supremacist movement for decades. It’s a racist standby already virulent in Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and resounding decades later in the ideologue Sam Francis’s warning of “the war against the white race and its civilization.” Francis’s friend Pat Buchanan picked up the same theme in The Death of the West (2002). There’s a straight line from them to the shrieks emanating from Trump, Fox News, and Lou Dobbs & Co. about the Central American caravan—including “unknown Middle Easterners,” “very tough fighters,” and many violent criminals.
Behind the “invading” dark-skinned horde are, of course, “the Jews.” “Jews will not replace us,” was the Nazi taunt in Charlottesville. Pinning the Central American caravan on George Soros’s funding enables the white nationalists to score a twofer. Another crass way to stir panic is with the term “white genocide,” an absurd projection that’s been a staple of white supremacists for decades. Thus, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson has gloried in the fraudulent theme of South African murders of white farmers. Trump’s “nationalism” is, in his terms, “nicer.” It’s still code for sticking up for an allegedly embattled white race.
But however much Trump boasts of victory, apprehension rumbles below. The far right unites in the fear that their glorious victory of 2016 can be snatched out from under them. The Democrats, said strategist-in-exile Steve Bannon on Gateway Pundit, “promise Trump’s head on a pike.” (Banishment from the White House has not altered Bannon’s penchant for the inflammatory metaphor.) In the right’s propagandistic solar system, where Planets Limbaugh, Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, Hannity, Ingraham, and others revolve around the sun of Fox News, the loss of the House means that rageful vengeance is coming Trump’s way.
In one far-out scenario proposed by Spencer, Trump has gone soft, poised to sell out the overtly white supremacist right. According to Chauncey Alcorn in Mic, “Spencer spent election night tweeting about how Trump had shunned the alt-right” by playing up tax cuts and healthcare and downplaying building the wall along the nation’s southern border and cutting off non-white immigration. But even if Trump doesn’t sell out the ultra-nationalists, the ultra-right’s fear of a weakened Trump is realistic. If Democratic committee chairs in the House have the gall to exercise their powers, Representatives Jerrold Nadler (Judiciary), Adam Schiff (Intelligence), Maxine Waters (Financial Services), Elijah Cummings (Oversight) and others will open subpoena fire at Donald Trump’s band of innocents. If the Democrats have their way, in the words of the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, it’ll be “darkness at the break of noon.”
Moreover, those whom Trump called “the Second Amendment people” fear that the Democrats, given the chance, will come after their God-given weapons. Indeed, militias are on the march. According to Mary Lee Grant and Nick Miroff in the Washington Post, “Gun-carrying civilian groups and border vigilantes have heard a call to arms in President Trump’s warnings about threats to American security posed by caravans of Central American migrants moving through Mexico.”
When Richard Spencer implies that white supremacists cannot rely on the ballot, armed militias are surely listening. So too are the volatile freelance white terrorists who pick up signals of encouragement and incitement from social media’s incendiaries. The alleged bomb-mailer Cesar Sayoc of Florida, and Robert Bowers, the alleged mass murderer of Pittsburgh Jews, like Dylann Roof, the mass murderer of the African-American churchgoers of Charleston, South Carolina, appear to have been lone actors. However, the Daily Beast reports that among Spencer’s followers (to Charlottesville in 2017, among other places) are two brothers, Jeffrey and Edward Clark. Jeffrey, who had been in touch with Bowers online and declared himself to be “a Nazi” in front of the White House, has now been arrested by the FBI on weapons charges. Edward, in possession of more ammunition than he needed to kill himself, shot himself to death in New York a few hours after the Tree of Life massacre. Relatives interviewed by the FBI say he believed in a “race revolution” and “wanted to expedite it.”
Others wishing to get up close and personal with a home-screen Spencer can play him online, for he is featured as a character in the video game Angry Goy II, described by the Charlottesville white supremacist Christopher Cantwell (on the “free speech” social network Gab) as “the season’s hit game for White males who have had it with Jewish bullshit.” According to Newsweek, the original Angry Goy reveled in simulated assaults on LGBTQ and “Fake News Networks,” “allowed players to shoot refugees and push Jews into ovens,” and declared: “There is only one solution. A Final Solution.”
The incendiary right, with its virtual networks and apocalyptic scenarios, encourages loose cannons who think political opposition is illegitimate and enemies must be liquidated. Thanks to social media, they may not be as loose as they used to be.
The signals from the far-right are loud and clear: the time is nigh when “white patriots” have to take matters into their own hands. The raging fear Trump inflames threatens violence that can undermine such democracy as—for the time—withstands them.
In brief, Democrats—and democracy—are nowhere near out of the woods. The end of the present tunnel may look like dawn but leads to more tunnels.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD Program in Communications at Columbia University. He has recently been active in the fossil fuel divestment movements at Columbia and among Harvard alumni, and sits on the board of Partners for Progressive Israel. He is the author of sixteen books. His next is a novel, The Opposition.