Trump’s White-Nationalist Pipeline

The most enduring scandal in and around the White House might not be corruption, but rather the administration’s constant embrace of bigotry from white-supremacist and far-right groups.

White-nationalist leader Jason Kessler poses with a flag across from the White House.
The white-nationalist leader Jason Kessler poses with a flag across from the White House. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters)

There is no “large-scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa. The government, led by the African National Congress and President Cyril Ramaphosa, is not currently dispossessing white farmers of entire countrysides’ worth of farmland. Claims that either of these things are happening are false. Claims that both are happening are part of well-worn white-nationalist talking points designed expressly to sound a global alarm of “white genocide,” recall the days of apartheid, and slander black people as savage, bloodthirsty, and unfit to lead.

Good news, then. President Trump made both of those claims on Twitter Wednesday night, apparently after watching an episode of Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News. Carlson had essentially parroted the white-nationalist talking points, repeatedly calling Ramaphosa a “racist” and criticizing former President Barack Obama for praising the South African leader. “I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers,” Trump thundered in a tweet after the show. “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.”

This is perhaps Trump’s most explicit appropriation of a white-nationalist trope yet. It’s unclear whether he really appreciates what he’s saying, or whether he has any understanding of South African politics beyond what he watched on television. But what is clear is that the Trump administration and its wing of the Republican Party are the chief launderers of white-supremacist and white-nationalist ideas in America today. Even with multiple investigations into Trumpworld currently under way, it’s worth considering whether the real lasting scandal from this administration—one that will truly shape and corrupt democracy for decades to come—might just be the elevation of plain old racism.

Carlson mangled quite a few facts in his statements, which concerned a land-reform program that has been promised for decades amid ongoing disputes about the difficult racial and class legacies of apartheid. The idea of land reform—the goal of redistributing land and natural resources that had been sequestered away from the public—is actually tied to apartheid. It’s part of a package of reconstruction reforms already enshrined in South Africa’s constitution.

In practice, the private kleptocracy of apartheid was never entirely dismantled. White people owned upwards of 80 percent of all the country’s farmland in 1994, and still own about three-quarters today, despite making up less than a tenth of the population. So while any land reforms involving the public appropriation of agricultural land could be said to be targeted at white farmers, that’s mostly because they’re virtually the only farmers.

South Africa’s original post-apartheid plan intended to expropriate about a third of all agricultural land—on a mostly paid basis—to black Africans, as reparation and restitution for theft, exploitation, and brutality during apartheid. It’s messy and complicated, and a subject that brings up bad feelings all around. It’s not necessarily a new problem, however—despite the hysteria of Carlson and Trump. The white-genocide and white-discrimination narratives, and the associated slander against black African governance and self-determination, are based mostly on fabrications from so-called “Afrikaner-rights groups” like AfriForum. Those groups have found a receptive ear in an American white-nationalist movement obsessed with the idea of white genocide, and a new conservative political and media establishment that has crept toward openly embracing the fear of white genocide as a platform.

Previous U.S. presidents might’ve sought a firm understanding of the situation on the ground in South Africa before reacting to a six-minute segment on a TV show, and reached out to the government before echoing the talking points of white nationalists. Previous presidents are not Donald Trump.

Trump is easily impressed by lies and falsehoods that appear to support the agenda of his mostly white base, and the backlash that he has received for repeatedly spreading misinformation from hucksters, hoaxers, and hate groups hasn’t seemed to phase him. In November 2017, just a few months after his lukewarm and controversial criticism of Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, he received an official rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May after retweeting videos from the far-right group Britain First purporting to show crimes committed by Muslim immigrants. He’s repeatedly shared tweets from garden-variety racists and bigots, and he once retweeted an actual Twitter account with the name “White Genocide.” Each time, the president has either done nothing or deleted the tweet with little explanation and no apology, and he’s rarely been pressed about it.

Of course, Trump is only the star player in a White House and an administration that have become a clearinghouse for all sorts of hate-group propaganda. Even an abridged list of the dyed-in-the-wool white-supremacist, white-nationalist, and hate groups that have been amplified recently by Trump associates would require a table of contents. Just this week, The Washington Post reported that Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow had hosted Peter Brimelow, a white-nationalist publisher of the racist website VDare, at his birthday party. Among other extreme positions, Brimelow expressed last year his belief that Latino people are more “prone” to committing rape than people of other ethnicities.

Earlier this week, Media Matters reported that, on his campaign website for the 2018 governor’s race, Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and the former leader of Trump’s ill-fated voter-fraud commission, cited a fake statistic about crime committed by immigrants. The stat was dreamed up by the white nationalist Peter Gemma, who has an avowed mission to prevent “race-mixing.” In June, the Trump-friendly Iowa congressman Steve King—who’s openly expressed his belief in the superiority of white culture and society—retweeted an anti-immigration message from a British Nazi sympathizer, and hasn’t deleted the tweet.

Carlson has himself often dipped into the pools of white-supremacist content. On his show, he’s recommended the social-media app Gab, which is often described as a white-nationalist haven. Last December—ironically, in a tweet thread attempting to lampoon progressives for calling out racism too often—Carlson tweeted a link to Red Ice TV, a white-nationalist blog. (He later deleted it.)

This list doesn’t even include any of the associations of the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and the current White House immigration guru Stephen Miller, both far-right activists who’ve worked to advance ideas and personalities that might’ve once been considered “fringe” to the center.

It would be, at best, naive to accept this steady stream of white-supremacist talking points as accidents. At a certain point, praxis is purpose, and an administration that regularly sympathizes with and amplifies white nationalists must be seen as doing so on purpose. This goes beyond the trepidation around calling Trump or any of his individual bigotries “racist,” and runs into a problem at the core of journalism’s current paradigm. Nonpartisanship has to assume some measure of good faith or essential goodness in order to work; today, some journalists  endeavor to create those conditions, bending Occam’s razor to its breaking point. Trump and his affiliates are often made into careless, insensitive, or just mildly bigoted figures, with no connection to a broader movement. And people are fooled, over and over.

But in reality, the pipeline that Trump and his allies have built between hate groups and the mainstream isn’t accidental, unwitting, or merely the product of being repeatedly taken in by grifters. This is what was always promised with the refrain of “Make America Great Again,” a dog whistle that many minorities were once ridiculed for properly hearing.

And it’s clear that this pipeline is a lifeline in moments of peril for Trump. When all else fails, when associates become witnesses and the political clouds darken, Trump is always aware that the live wire at the core of Trumpism—the energies he first wielded when demanding Obama’s birth certificate—will always be there. There’s a hard base of white support that he can always activate by selling the fear that white power will be usurped. Unfortunately for those who might be purged, interned, deported, disenfranchised, or disappeared should those fears be allowed to reign, many Americans are still buying into them, and will continue to do so.