These groups and their lone-wolf acolytes were seen as comprising a tiny if virulent minority on the far right. What was missed was how widespread anger at the election of the first African-American president and resentment against Latino immigration had fused into broader right-wing dissidence that embraced the racially charged rhetoric of these groups and sometimes these groups and their leaders themselves.
Still, there were limits. Most American conservative leaders spurned the “identitarian” ideology of Europe’s anti-immigrant right as antithetical to US traditions of ethnic and religious pluralism, even while they were blocking efforts to legalise undocumented immigrants. Among GOP legislators and past presidential aspirants, few associated themselves with the world views of Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders or Le Pen père.
But Trump made common cause with Europe’s anti-immigrant right, attacking Angela Merkel for opening Germany’s doors to Syrian refugees, cheering on the Brexit movement and even appearing with Farage by his side. After the election, Farage volunteered to serve as a United Kingdom liaison with the US president-elect.
Hard-right groups were delighted, citing Trump’s popularity as proof that their views could no longer be considered extreme. “Our message is more visible than ever before,” wrote Brad Griffin, editor of the white nationalist website Occidental Dissent, in early 2016. “It’s also all due to Trump’s presidential run … Can you imagine a world in which White Nationalists have come out of the closet, the charge of ‘racism’ elicits only a ‘meh’ and shrugged shoulders, and we have begun to openly organise?”
President Obama’s historic election in 2008 prompted an upsurge in openly racist anti-black rhetoric, the most common and deep-rooted form of US racial prejudice, but one rarely voiced aloud by politicians or media commentators.
In Obama’s case, this anti-black racism was intensified by xenophobic claims that the president was not really “American” but rather a Kenya-born Muslim, which received wide airing on right-wing radio and television, most prominently on Fox News, the country’s most-watched cable channel. The most prominent spokesman for this “birtherism” was Donald Trump, who used the issue to propel his rise as a GOP (Republican Party) presidential contender.
What was radically different in 2016 is that for the first time in American political history the standard-bearer of one of the two major US political parties had not only personally engaged in overt bigotry but deliberately positioned these prejudices at the centre of a presidential campaign.
As a result, scores of once-marginal far-right groups that had never before backed a major-party candidate became active supporters of Donald Trump. And Trump, to the dismay of many Republican Party professionals, refused to denounce these groups even though the party’s long-term viability depends on significant support from “minority” voters, who in much of the country are collectively nearing majority status. But Trump campaigned with contempt for the Republican establishment and other proponents of “political correctness”.
Trump never disavowed the support of self-declared neo-Nazis, who praised him as a kindred spirit. The chairman of the American Nazi Party, Rocky J Suhayda, told his followers that Trump’s campaign statements, “if nothing else, have shown that ‘our views’ are not so ‘unpopular’ as the Political Correctness crowd have told everyone they are!”
The fascist-nativist Vanguard News Network declared that: “Only Trump can turn back the brown tide, and thinking Whites know this”. James Edwards, a white nationalist radio talk-show host, said with satisfaction: “Our people just needed a viable candidate and they’ve identified Trump as that man.”
In September, in an unusual campaign address, Hillary Clinton catalogued the many extremist groups backing the Trump campaign, most of them part of the self-proclaimed “alt-right”, the movement popularised by Breitbart News. Rather than take offence at Clinton’s speech, these groups welcomed her attacks and use of their preferred terminology as evidence of their growing influence.
“The term ‘alt-right’ is a rebranding of white supremacists for the digital age,” says Mark Potok, who monitors US “hate groups” for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.
After Trump’s victory, not only in the reliably Republican south but in such former Democratic strongholds as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, are these hate groups now poised to expand their influence by placing their own candidates in races across the country, running as pro-Trump Republicans?
As Potok’s research shows, some already have, with the blessing of local GOP leaders, despite their white supremacist antecedents. Others entered major-party politics for the first time as Trump delegates in the Republican primaries. Few received national media attention at the time.