Fringe helped elect Trump by crossing over into mainstream

by Lawrence Rosenthal Executive Director, Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, University of California 19.12.2016

The self-described “alt-right” represents what for many decades has been an offshoot of radical conservatism, mixing racism, white nationalism and populism. At its most extreme, we find virulently antiblack and anti-Semitic groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi political parties. Now, in an astonishingly short period of 18 months, white nationalism made the leap from the fringe of American politics to the commanding heights of the Republican presidential campaign and soon to a key role in the next administration.

In the Internet age, the “alt-right” formed like an online affinity group rather than a well-defined political movement with a platform and clearly acknowledged leaders. Some followers were simply alienated young men who were drawn to the playful antiestablishment memes like Pepe the Frog.

What held the participants together was a radical feeling of identity as white people. Some were white supremacists, considering non-“European” people inferior.

Some were white separatists, believing that whites in America should be able to live in white-only enclaves.

But across the “alt-right,” there was the intense feeling that the progress of minorities in American culture and politics — e.g., an African American president! — had left whites disenfranchised. Whites were the new identity politics.

Enter the Trump campaign, with his attacks on Mexicans as criminals and rapists, and his proposal to ban Muslim immigration. It requires no stretch of the imagination to think of how Trump’s campaign galvanized the “alt-right” fringe.

Sure, there had previously been the occasional run for elected office by Klansman David Duke in Louisiana. But with Trump, someone was talking their language and validating their views at the level of presidential politics.

The Internet provided the “alt-right” with an entree to American media. Internet sites such as the Drudge Report and, in particular Breitbart News, acted like hinges that moved views from the fringe into the mainstream media. The route went from Breitbart to right-wing talk radio, to Fox News and from there the leap often was made into Facebook news feeds and the mainstream press.

What often moved through these sites was what is called “fake news.” These are wholly made-up “news” stories often rich in conspiracy thinking. A recent example was the story that the Clinton campaign was running a child sex slave ring through a Washington, D.C., pizza joint. So credible was this utterly absurd story to a young male “alt-right” follower that he walked into the pizzeria and allegedly opened fire with an assault weapon in early December.

In August, Trump named the head of Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, as his campaign’s chief strategist. Bannon will now enter the White House in January, assuming the role once held by Karl Rove. Bannon was unsurpassed in his ability to move thinking from the “alt-right” into the mainstream press. He downplays the white nationalism of the group, preferring to call his politics “populist nationalism.”

This elevation to the heart of American power is reward for the role Bannon and the “alt-right” played in providing the Trump campaign the last voting bloc it needed to eke out its Electoral College victory in November.

Recall the furious “Never Trump” opposition of the Republican establishment to the Trump campaign. This was based on the establishment’s calculation that America’s demographic shift toward a multiracial and multicultural society meant the party could not win a national election without expanding its voting base. For the establishment, this meant an opening toward Latino voters and immigration reform.

Instead, a candidate whose rhetoric disparaged Latinos in an unprecedented manner seized their party’s nomination. And he won the election through his own unforeseen route to expanding the party’s base. He did this by appealing to two groups:

•Disaffected white working-class men, one of the most talked-about voters in the election cycle. Trump succeeded in conflating both the Republican and Democratic establishments into a single corrupt entity and presented himself as the opposition to both. This strategy turned out to have exceptional appeal to a class that has lived through a continuing decline of its life chances, combined with profound disappointment in the party establishments’ failures to turn things around.

• The “alt-right.” For decades this was a population indifferent to presidential politics. They were a nonentity in the calculations of candidates and their consultants (well, perhaps an occasional afterthought).

With Trump, the “alt-right” was mobilized to go to the polls. Their numbers were not great, but they were strategic. Trump may have lost the popular vote by 2.8 million, but his triumph in the Electoral College turned on just a little more than 100,000 votes combined in the three crucial states he won — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The “alt-right” turned out to be the final piece in the startling coalition that will put Donald Trump in the White House.

Lawrence Rosenthal directs the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at UC Berkeley.

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