President Trump speaks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower on Aug. 15, 2017, in New York City. He fielded questions from reporters about his comments on the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and white supremacists. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
When President Trump told the national press that the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville included “some very fine people,” white supremacist leader Richard Spencer was feeling proud.
Part of Trump’s importance is for what he has said, but also for what he has not said. Trump has not publicly condemned “alt-right” and “identitarian” groups like California-based Identity Evropa. In addition, Trump publicly disparaged the “alt-left,” a common term among right-wing news outlets, but a term that was not in popular nomenclature until the president used it to describe counterprotesters.
That term helped reinforce a false narrative that counterprotesters were being violent toward white supremacists.
It also mirrored what Identity Evropa leader Nathan Damigo told KQED, when he falsely stated that in Charlottesville “the overwhelming majority of violence that occurred was being done towards rallygoers.”
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?” Trump asked. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
Militant leftists -- most noticeably those who adopt "black bloc" tactics of dressing alike and wearing masks -- have engaged in violence at rallies, too, giving their opponents on the extreme right ammunition in the raging war of words that parallels their physical confrontations.
But the term "alt-left" is inaccurate, since the alt-right name was adopted by white supremacists to disguise their movement's connections to older hate groups and ideologies, a strategy that has no analogue on the left.
Trump’s apparently off-the-cuff remarks are just the latest to give energy to a movement of fringe racists who want to create a white separatist homeland, according to experts who spoke to KQED.
Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at Cal State University San Bernardino, has tracked political extremism for more than two decades. His research showed that what was once a “ragtag group” of small extremists has turned into a vocal, organized political force.
“They have coalesced into a real movement, in part because there is a charismatic leader in President Trump,” Levin said.
Los Angeles-based former white supremacist Tim Zaal agreed that Trump’s presidency has “opened the door for hate.”
As early as 2012, Trump repeatedly falsely claimed that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Before Trump started saying it publicly, that false claim was often repeated in writings and literature by Spencer’s organization, the National Policy Institute.
White nationalists heralded Trump’s first speech as he campaigned for president, after he said a “great, great wall on the southern border” was needed to keep out Mexicans who were “rapists” and “criminals.” The border wall -- and the sentiment behind it -- has long been a talking point for white supremacists and others on the far right.
Then there was the time on national television when Trump was asked about the endorsement of longtime white nationalist leader David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke,” Trump said at the time, in a manner that would be criticized by mainstream pundits but celebrated by white nationalists.
In total, Levin said the message to white nationalists is: “You have a friend in the White House.”
“Even if he’s not a ‘white nationalist’ himself, white nationalists see their message retransmitted in people like Bannon, [Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian] Gorka, and Stephen Miller,” Levin said. “Even if they personally can’t get access, their harmful messages are both making their way to the president and coming from the president.”
“We are seeing the mainstreaming of extremism,” Levin added.
Trump's Comments, and Conspiracies in Defense of Suspect in Charlottesville Killing
Trump’s comments about needing time to understand “the facts” in the Charlottesville killing have abetted white nationalist propaganda, as it suggests there could be other motives or explanations for the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Even though there is video that shows a car driving straight into a crowd of people in Charlottesville, white nationalists like Damigo have circulated smaller video clips to construct false counternarratives -- in this instance, that the driver was trying to escape an angry mob.
“As of [Monday, Aug. 14], more pictures and video came out that really make what happened kind of too ambiguous to really make a judgment call,” Damigo told KQED when asked about the driver’s culpability in running over the protesters.
That idea that it was too soon to rush to judgment was a common narrative of extreme right-wing websites immediately after video of the car surfaced. Other hard-right conspiracy theorists, like Mike Cernovich of Orange County, have also suggested that other people -- all of whom are Trump’s political enemies -- are to blame for the killing of Heather Heyer.
“Clear now that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered police to stand down, to harm alt-right, and it led to a murder,” he tweeted.
Trump initially also suggested people shouldn’t rush to judgment when he blamed “both sides” in these confrontations.
“There are two sides to every story,” Trump said. “It takes a little while to get the facts.”
While the idea that “both sides” are somehow culpable might outrage even members of Trump’s own party, it is a boon to the recruiting efforts of Damigo and other white nationalists -- who are looking to capture the minds of a few, not the majority.
“Simply because every time there is a major incident like this, people will look to the media,” Damigo told KQED. “And then a handful of them will go online and see what they weren’t being told by the media. And they’ll say, ‘Wait a minute? Why is the media trying to manipulate my perception on this?’ And they realize they’re being lied to.”
Media coverage of white supremacist rallies, experts say, attracts new members while reinforcing an important narrative -- that they somehow are the victim as a result of events counter to their interests.
“Narrative control is critically incredibly important to any group,” said Charles Davis, chief strategy officer at the USC Race and Equity Center. “I think white victimhood has long been a strategy to maintain membership and recruit new people.”
But while Trump’s words may aid white nationalists, and satisfy his base, Davis said it is damaging to the public at large.
“Like Toni Morrison said, the very point of white supremacy is to be distracted,” Davis said.
“And Trump’s a master of manipulating the media," Davis continued. "He’s been distracting them his entire career. I also think he believes what he’s saying. So it all works out for him.”