While other Democratic leaders were conciliatory after the election, retiring minority leader Harry Reid came out fighting, saying on Nov. 11, “The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.”
Reid could have been talking about many aspects of our future president, but he was likely aiming most pointedly at his supporters on the so-called alt-right, a group the New York Times tells us is now trying to rebrand to include a few fewer swastikas. Because if you’re looking for supporters, it’s often best to downplay the Nazi worship.
A primer: the “Right” refers to conservatives – Republicans such as William Buckley, Ronald Reagan and Ted Cruz. “Alt-Right” refers to white nationalists or white supremacists, per the Associated Press. Other current and historical white nationalist organizations include the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis. Hence the swastikas.
Overt white supremacy has for decades subsisted on the fringes of American politics – it once existed on the forefront – but Trump’s racialized campaign gave these groups a national platform. The man who pledged to be “ president for all Americans” appointed Steve Bannon, the executive chair of Breitbart – a publication Bannon himself called “a platform for the alt-right” – to be his campaign CEO and White House senior advisor. Asked to disavow former Klan grandmaster David Duke’s endorsement, Trump pleaded ignorance as to Duke’s identity. (Trump knows exactly who Duke is). In January, Trump retweeted the Twitter user “WhiteGenocide.”
As these cleverly titled neo-Nazis have gained prominence, politicians and the media have struggled with how to discuss the alt-right without elevating or normalizing them. When Hillary Clinton declared in August that through Trump “the racist ideology known as the alt-right … has effectively taken over the Republican Party,” leading white supremacist Richard Spencer celebrated the recognition and was promptly inundated with interview requests. The LA Times recently apologized after publishing these letters:
Meanwhile, the alt-right is attempting to rebrand to gain more followers – a terrifying prospect. As the Times reports, the movement sees “the burning crosses, swastikas and language of yesteryear as impediments to recruitment … New, coded slurs have emerged. Fewer pointed hoods, more khaki pants.” Sometimes they slip, such as at their post-election convention in DC, when Spencer wondered aloud if “Jews are people at all or just soulless golem?” and supporters broke into “Heil Heil Heil” chants.
But perhaps I’m being unfair. It’s never good to paint with a broad brush and the Times reports that the Alt-Right is “hardly monolithic.” For instance, they disagree on the “vexing J.Q. – the ‘Jewish Question.’” The “Jewish Question” was the term post-Enlightenment Europeans used when debating how to “deal” with the continent’s Jews and if you drift over to the not-so-nether regions of reddit you’ll find alt-right commenters disagreeing on whether Jews can be allies or if they lay at the "root of society’s ills." Hitler had a solution. He called it the “Final Solution."
As much as a politician unfettered by the need for votes can reveal rare conviction, it can also show politics at its most cynical. After failing to disavow the alt-right throughout his entire campaign, Trump, the tells-it-like-it-is candidate, finally told the neo-Nazis to “stop it” five days after the election. The next day, he appointed Bannon as the White House chief strategist.