“Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.”
These were the words spoken by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke when he threw his support behind Donald Trump in February 2016 and urged other white Americans to do the same.
Duke’s show of support was a turning point in the Trump campaign, sparking a slew of endorsements from leaders of the white supremacist movement. By September 2016, Trump’s campaign had drawn support from some of the most virulent far-right extremists in the country, including at least 15 representatives of known hate groups.
Throughout all of this, Trump responded with deafening silence. The only extremist leader he ever distanced himself from was Duke — and he only did so when public pressure became too great to ignore.
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the president could barely bring himself to condemn those responsible for the extremist violence that led to the brutal death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, mowed down Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., as she bravely did what the president finds so hard to do: Publicly and definitively denounce white supremacy.
As a candidate, Trump courted the votes of white supremacists, most of whom viewed him as a vehicle for their ideology. Heidi Beirich, head of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Associated Press last August that white supremacists saw a Trump presidency as “their last stand for controlling the country.”
He hasn’t let them down. They could not have asked for more than his assertion that there were "very fine people" among the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville. And he's delivered a lot more than words.
In February, Reuters reported that Trump was planning to drastically revamp the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violence Extremism program, a $10 million grant program aimed at combating all types of extremist ideologies. It would no longer target white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other far-right extremist groups. Instead, it would focus only on “radical Islamic extremism.”
White supremacists heard the dog-whistle loud and clear. “Donald Trump is setting us free,” wrote Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, a popular neo-Nazi website named after the infamous Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, “It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines. This is absolutely a signal of favor to us.”
In late June, the president fulfilled his promise to white supremacists when the Department of Homeland Security released an updated list of organizations receiving grants. They included groups focused on combating terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but left out initiatives targeting white supremacist and other right-wing extremist groups.
In the final days of the Obama administration, DHS awarded a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, one of the only groups in the nation devoted to deradicalizing neo-Nazis. The organization, which has seen a 20-fold increase in requests for help since the 2016 election, was told it would receive the grant money within 30 days. But things changed when Trump took office. Five months later, without explanation, Life After Hate was notified it would not receive any funding from the federal government. It was among a handful of organizations focused on combating white supremacist and right-wing extremism approved for funding by the Obama administration but removed from the list of grant recipients by the Trump administration.
That dog whistle didn’t go unnoticed, either.
A few weeks after the announcement, Michael Peinovich (better known as “Mike Enoch”), creator of The Right Stuff, an alt-right podcast network, said in an interview that Trump was giving the alt-right movement free rein to act without worrying about interference from law enforcement.
“He’s going to give us space to destroy,” Peinovich said during a July 23 appearance on the popular alt-right podcast Fash the Nation.
As Trump was giving white supremacists an implicit seal of approval, his own national security agencies were sounding the alarm on the growing threat of right-wing extremism. According to an intelligence report obtained Monday by Foreign Policy, the FBI and DHS warned in early May that white supremacist groups were responsible for more violent attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years and would “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.”
A month after the memo was released, Trump defunded Life After Hate. Two months after that, Heather Heyer’s life was taken as she stood up to that hate.
It’s too late to save Heather, but it’s not too late to turn the tides on the ugly resurgence of white supremacist violence in American society. But first we need a president who is willing to acknowledge that the threat exists, and who has the courage to confront it — even when it wears a MAGA hat.