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Trump's extremist supporters feel like winners either way

  • Author: Jonathan Mahler, Julie Turkewitz, The New York Times
  • Updated: November 7, 2016
  • Published November 7, 2016

Jared Taylor, founder and editor of American Renaissance, a white supremacist magazine, in Oakton, Va., July 7, 2016. Donald Trump’s candidacy has brought out of the woodwork extremist groups that say they won’t be going anywhere, regardless if Trump wins the election. Taylor said traffic to his site was up 30 percent since the beginning of the Trump campaign. (Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times)

Ten years ago, Jim Gilchrist was waging a lonely battle.

His organization, the Minuteman Project, which sent volunteers, often armed, to patrol America's southern border, was widely considered a fringe vigilante group with alarmist views about the dangers posed by Mexican immigrants.

Today, Gilchrist feels vindicated.

"I never thought I'd see the day where illegal immigration was included in a presidential candidate's top three issues," Gilchrist, a supporter of Donald Trump, said. "For me personally, my mission has been accomplished."

While Trump seems likely to lose the election, many of his most extreme supporters say they believe that they have already won. Whether the subject is immigration, military intervention, the news media or federal government corruption — and even the entire democratic process — their views, long thought to be well outside the political mainstream, have been given a voice inside it. And that voice belongs to the presidential nominee of a major political party.

Of course, Trump's populist candidacy has energized ordinary Americans across the country who previously felt alienated from the political system, but it has also emboldened extremist groups that say they believe he has validated their agendas.

It is unclear how much legitimacy these organizations can realistically expect to gain, given the extreme nature of their views to most Americans. But if they are able to maintain even a measure of influence on the right after the election, this could be Trump's most enduring legacy.

"Trump has shown that our message is healthy, normal and organic — and millions of Americans agree with us," said Matthew M. Heimbach, a co-founder of the Traditionalist Youth Network, a white nationalist group that claims to support the interests of working-class whites. It also advocates the separation of the races.

Whatever happens Tuesday, Trump's candidacy has brought groups like Heimbach's out of the shadows, and they say they have no intention of returning.

"For racists in this country, this campaign has been a complete affirmation of their fears, worries, dreams and hopes," said Ryan Lenz, editor of the Hatewatch blog at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups from its headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama. "Most things they believe have been legitimized, or have been given the stamp of approval, by mainstream American politics to the point now where it's no longer shameful to be a racist."

Steve Bannon, head of the news website Breitbart News, was branded in a Bloomberg article as “the most dangerous political operative in America.” REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File

The biggest beneficiary may well be the alt-right, the once obscure and now ascendant white nationalist movement with close ties to Breitbart News, the website operated by Trump's campaign manager, Stephen K. Bannon.

"If Trump loses, I am going to be a little bit sad, but I'm certainly not going to feel like all is lost, because he sling-shotted us a long way," said Richard Spencer, who is credited with coining the term alt-right in 2008. "We can just look at 2015 and 2016 as the beginning of a new stage."

Some on the far right say they believe the election of Hillary Clinton could prove to be its own sort of boon, further embittering and maybe even radicalizing some disappointed Trump supporters.

"There will be people who will say, 'There's nothing we can do to change this system from within,' and they are going to look to perhaps alternative options," said Nathan Damigo, the founder of Identity Europa, a California group dedicated to fighting what it calls the "dispossession" of white Americans.

Damigo envisions building a protest movement along the lines of Black Lives Matter — only to promote the interests of whites. Others on the far right talk about working from inside the political system, lobbying Congress or getting behind Republican candidates who espouse similar views. Some even draw parallels to the post-2008 period, when roiling anger at Barack Obama's election gave birth to the Tea Party, which ended the political careers of Republican moderates from Washington to state capitals.

In short, they say they believe that Trump's campaign has turned them into a force that the Republican establishment cannot ignore.

"What you can't say is that we're just a bunch of marginal loons," Spencer said. "The truth is that we have a deeper connection with the Trumpian forces and Trumpian populism than the mainstream conservatives do. They're going to have to deal with us."

Spencer predicted that the conservative movement's broader embrace of the far right could start with news media outlets adding what he described as "alt-lite" hosts. These would be people who did not consider themselves members of the movement, but shared the conviction that policies on immigration were threatening the country's identity and well-being.

To members of the alt-right, Trump is a transformative figure. It has been a long time since a mainstream politician, let alone a presidential nominee, talked about the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and warned about "international banks" plotting "the destruction of U.S. sovereignty." Trump has given them the legitimacy they long craved.

"Trump reaffirms what we say," Heimbach said. "He has brought to the forefront the policies of nationalism and secure borders."

While he made headlines in the spring for shoving a young black woman at a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky, Heimbach said he had not formally endorsed Trump because "he is not a white nationalist." But he added that he and other white nationalists were grateful to Trump for championing ideas they support.

For his part, Trump has not expressed support for the white nationalist groups that have rallied to his candidacy. But neither has he distanced himself from them, with the exception of David Duke, the former Klansman whom Trump disavowed after some initial wavering last winter.

They are now beginning to grapple with how to best harness the energy that his campaign has stirred up. Spencer's group, the National Policy Institute, which says it is "dedicated to the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world," is organizing a valedictory conference in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington shortly after the election.

The aim is to take stock of the presidential campaign — "when our ideas began invading the mainstream" — and figure out what's next. In addition to Spencer, the speakers will include Peter Brimelow, the founder of Vdare.com, an anti-immigration website named for Virginia Dare, the first white baby born in the English colonies.

Many of these groups say they have seen a significant surge in interest in the last year. Jared Taylor, a prominent white nationalist, said traffic to his website, American Renaissance, was up 30 percent since the beginning of the Trump campaign.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, suggested that these extremist groups might be trying to rationalize the growing certainty of a Trump loss for their supporters.

"They need an optimistic message for their followers, lest there be demoralization and dropouts," he said. "They are less likely to be willing to talk about how a Trump defeat might hurt their cause."
(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)
It is possible that without the organizing force and urgency of his candidacy, these groups will lose much of the momentum that they have gathered over the past 18 months. Other politicians may try to replicate his success, but Trump was in many ways a unique figure, between his name recognition and his embrace of provocative and even offensive language and ideas as a campaign strategy.

Whether they are able to build on the success of the Trump campaign will depend in part on what Trump decides to do after the election. It is unclear whether his America First platform was largely a product of political opportunism, or if he is truly committed to the nativist cause. It is equally unclear whether he will try to remain an active political force, most likely through his own media organization, after the election.

In the meantime, Trump's candidacy has served as a call to arms for extremist leaders who usually have little use for electoral politics.

Taylor, who has not supported a presidential candidate since Pat Buchanan sought the Republican nomination in 2000, recorded robocalls for Trump during the Republican primary. And Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, endorsed Trump days after he issued his first promise to build a wall to keep out Mexican criminals and "rapists" in June 2015.

"I basically agree with everything Donald Trump advocates," Anglin wrote in an email. He went on to say Trump has made it "socially acceptable" to talk about thing that were once off limits, such as "the globalist Jewish agenda."

Even in the age of Trump, not everything is socially acceptable. The Daily Stormer recently featured a post urging its readers to make one final push for Trump via their social media feeds.

"ONLY NORMIE FRIENDLY STUFF," it specified. "NO Nazi stuff, just intense anti-Hillary stuff."

Trip Gabriel and David Zucchino contributed reporting.

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