WASHINGTON - Once a cohesive and menacing threat closely in tune with Trump administration policies, America’s white nationalists have grown deeply divided and marginalized in recent years – thanks largely to a massive public backlash and social media crackdown.
Broken and rudderless, they’re now bickering among themselves over the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign. While some white nationalists remain among President Donald Trump’s staunchest loyalists, others, disappointed with the president’s record on immigration and a host of other issues, are casting about for other candidates to support in the November election – going even so far as to praise some of the views of democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a fierce Trump critic.
“The extreme right is fractured right now in terms of their support for President Trump,” said Joshua Fisher Birch, a researcher at the Counter Extremism Project. “Many who originally supported him are disappointed with how the last few years have gone.”
Trump’s vow to build a “big, beautiful” wall along the southern border with Mexico is a work in progress that may never be completed. His promise to impose a total ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and to deport millions of others has fallen well short of the president’s pledge.
“They’re upset that that continues at all,” Birch said, referring to non-white immigration.
Four years ago, American white nationalists were a more united federation. Inspired by Trump’s populist message – on immigration, trade and political correctness – they embraced his candidacy with a fervor not seen since Republican firebrand Pat Buchanan galvanized many on the right with his anti-immigration, nativist presidential run in 1988.
“Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” white nationalist leader Richard Spencer famously chanted as he led his followers in a toast and raised stiff-armed salute to the new chief after Trump’s election over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Emboldened by Trump’s victory, dozens of white supremacist groups held their largest rally in decades when they converged on the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 ostensibly to protest the removal of a Civil War general’s statute from a public park. Things came to a head when a neo-Nazi drove his truck into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring dozens of other people.
Trump denounced the violence but not before insisting there had been “very fine people on both sides,” a comment that drew wide condemnation for suggesting moral equivalence between violent white supremacists and counter-protesters.
For the white nationalist movement, the fallout was immediate and ruinous. Many were kicked off major social media platforms and other sites. Lawsuits seeking damages escalated pressure on them pushing groups such as the white supremacist Traditionalist Workers Party and the National Policy Institute further to the fringes. The movement became increasingly splintered.
Their enthusiasm for Trump soon gave way to antipathy and even anger as Trump failed to deliver on key campaign promises: build a border wall paid for by Mexico, deport millions of illegal immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the country, end birthright citizenship. Trump’s pro-Israel policies have furthered angered the virulently anti-Semitic white nationalists.
“Pretty much across the board for white nationalists Trump isn’t turning out to be what they thought he was,” said Cassie Miller, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Trump supporters say this is evidence that Trump was never seeking to curry favor with white nationalists – as many Democrats contend – even if they bought into his rhetoric.
“We denounce white nationalism, bigotry, and racism in all forms,” said Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump’s re-election campaign, when asked to comment on white nationalists’ disappointment with Trump’s record.
Not all white nationalists have soured on Trump, however. Far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, white supremacist leader Patrick Casey and right-wing podcaster Nick Fuentes continue to back Trump.
“You will find people who will still say that the president is their best hope for what their positions are,” said Brian Levin, executive director of the center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.
But others have long since turned their backs on Trump. Last year, Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii received the endorsement of several prominent white nationalists such as Spencer and former KKK leader David Duke. She disavowed the endorsement.
Now some white nationalists are taking a close look at Sanders’ candidacy.
“I could definitely see myself either supporting or even voting for a candidate who I thought was authentic to himself or herself,” Spencer said in an online video last week. “I could see myself voting for Tulsi. I could see myself voting for Bernie in the sense that he is what he is: he’s an authentic person.”
At first glance, Sanders would appear as an improbable presidential choice for the far right. A self-described democratic socialist of Jewish faith, Sanders vowed last year that he would “go to war” against white nationalism if he is elected in November. Last week, Sanders expressed revulsion after a protester waved a Nazi flag at one of his campaign rallies.
But Sanders’ boosters among white nationalists have seized on his past tough-on-immigration statements to argue that the independent senator from Vermont deserves a close look.
In a recent online video, Jared Taylor, considered the “intellectual godfather” of white nationalism, argued that Sanders is not “the worst of the Democrats,” noting that Sanders had in the 1970s opposed allowing foreign guest workers into the country and as recently as 2016 called open borders “a Koch brothers proposal.”
“Donald Trump has been a disappointment in a lot of ways,” Taylor said in the video titled What Bernie Would Mean for Us. “But which man would be better?” Taylor said.
The commentary led white nationalist blogger Hunter Wallace to dismiss suggestions by others in the movement that Trump is the “lesser of two evils.”
“We took everything that Donald Trump said at face value,” Wallace wrote, recounting a litany of unfulfilled promises by Trump and claiming that “on most issues” Trump has continued the Obama Administration’s policies.
Wallace wrote that while Sanders is far from “pro-White,” some of his proposed socialist policies could potentially help white people.
“What is more likely to help young White people? Ending the burden of student loan debt OR four more years or Donald Trump’s inept immigration policies?” he wrote.
For white nationalists, Sanders’ criticism of Israeli policies is another draw.
“Bernie Sanders will be far less pro-Israel and pro-Wall Street than Donald Trump,” Wallace wrote. “He will be less willing to start a war with Iran.”
On the white nationalist website Stormfront, a discussion thread titled “A reason to vote for Bernie Sanders” unleashed a deluge of anti-Semitic comments. One poster gushed at the “potential benefit” of prison reform pushed by Sanders leading to the release of incarcerated neo-Nazis.
Megan Squire, a computer scientist at Elon University who tracks online extremism, says far-right support for Sanders may be little more than “a thought experiment.”
“The question is, how much are they going to overlook?” Squire said. “And as they’re debating right now, what’s the lesser of two evils? So they’re going to be spending a bit of time going around that.”