From the moment he first declared his candidacy for the presidency of the United States on a strongly nationalist platform promising to “make America great again,” Donald Trump has been dogged by accusations that he is too cozy with explicitly racist, fringe-right figures and movements. Periodically, critics have seized on phrases or images in Trump’s communications that they argue send subtle messages of encouragement or solidarity to Nazis and white supremacists. This began during the 2016 campaign, when former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke expressed enthusiasm for Trump’s presidential bid. When asked for his attitude regarding the support, Trump at first equivocated and professed insufficient knowledge of Duke and his movement, before explicitly disavowing Duke and the Klan some days later. The issue arose again during Trump’s first year in office, when he asserted that there were “very fine people, on both sides” of clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia between anti-Confederate statue protestors and far-right elements. Trump’s defenders insist that the “very fine people” he was referring to were members of local heritage groups and not the violent extremists who descended on the city from outside (and, indeed, in the same press conference Trump clarified that he was “not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally”). The issue, however, has not gone away; over the last several years, critics have periodically spotted images in Trump administration communications that they allege hearken back to historical European fascism, and recently he has been accused of using phrases with regard to law enforcement and protests that echo American segregationists. Just recently, the Trump campaign drew criticism for retweeting a video of a parade of his supporters in Florida, during which one participant shouted “White Power!” While the campaign later removed the video and claimed that they had not noticed the offending phrase, the incident reignited critics’ claims that Trump is at best indifferent toward—and at worst actively solicitous of—white nationalist support for his presidency.
Given these incidents, what is one to make of the charge that Trump is sympathetic to the “alt-right,” welcoming and even courting their support? First, it is useful to define the term. Generally, the label “alt-right” is used for those who embrace explicitly white supremacist ideologies, whose primary focus is the preservation of white identity and interests against multiple perceived threats, and who reject mainstream political figures and ideas. They are most commonly young, male, and social media-oriented, and are typically virulently racist and anti-Semitic. In America, they would include various neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, and white nationalist groups. Collectively, these groups and their sympathizers are a very small segment of American society but, like many extremist movements, they have been boosted by the ease of communication and organization that the internet and social media have brought.
On one level, alleging that Trump is aligned with or actively courting these groups is quite dubious. Trump has appointed members of racial minority groups to many positions in his administration and, as his supporters will point out, has explicitly condemned right-wing extremism and white supremacy on multiple occasions. Moreover, multiple Trump advisors—including his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner—are Jewish, and Trump’s affinity for Israel has itself been globally controversial (clearly, judging from his approval ratings in that country, the people of the Jewish state do not believe that Trump is a secret Nazi). For these reasons and others, much of the core, doctrinaire alt-right and its most prominent leaders have soured on Trump, concluding that he has no real commitment to a systematically white nationalist agenda and that many of their favorites among his policies—like building a border wall—were more rhetorical posturing than serious priorities. Alt-right enthusiasm for Trump in 2020 is muted compared to 2016, as Trump has proven not to be the revolutionary, transformative figure that they had hoped for. Finally, simply from a political standpoint, assiduous courting of the alt-right would be politically idiotic. Their votes are so few in the grand scheme of things, they are so likely captive to Trump anyway, and they are so toxic in broader public opinion, that the costs of appeasing or signaling them would vastly outweigh the benefits.
At the same time, however, the repeated nature of these incidents suggests that something is going on here, that at a minimum certain elements within Trump’s campaign and administration, if not Trump himself, have an affinity for alt-right themes and concerns. To be sure, there is plausible deniability in each individual case, and some of the specific claims do seem like strained attempts by his critics to make the “Trump is a Nazi” case. Trump, however, invited this level of suspicion and scrutiny by bringing into his orbit advisors with clear sympathies for alt-right causes. Steve Bannon, who served as Chief White House Strategist during Trump’s first year in office, has sought to advance the global movement for populist nationalism, and provided a platform for alt-right views (among others) during his time as Chairman of Breitbart News. Stephen Miller, who continues to serve as a senior policy advisor to the president, is militantly hostile to immigration and has a history of promoting alt-right figures and tropes (though it is worth noting that Miller is himself Jewish). The presence of Bannon and Miller within the Trump administration, combined with his campaign’s strongly nationalist themes, have lent credence to the claim that his periodic apparent nods to the alt-right are more than accidental.
In the end, an assessment of Trump’s ties to the alt-right depends on how strongly one wants to make the case. Trump is by nature not an ideologue—he has, over the course of his career, expressed support for an incoherent mishmash of ideas and figures left, right, and center. He is much more interested in self-promotion and self-preservation than in advancing any programmatic worldview, white nationalist or otherwise. He has a penchant, maddening to the alt-right, of echoing their tropes one day, then undercutting their core policy goals the next (as when he recently endorsed a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children). Trump is, at the core, a fundamentally narcissistic and self-interested figure, willing to flirt with the alt-right (and just about anyone else) when convenient, but not committed to their worldview in any doctrinaire or consistent way. In terms that will be familiar to Italian readers, Trump is much more Berlusconi than Mussolini. His personality, however, is such that he is loath to repudiate anyone who offers him lavish praise, whether it be Kim Jong-un or unsavory characters on the alt-right. This trait may ultimately prove politically fatal. Trump’s dalliances with the alt-right tend to alienate exactly the kind of educated, moderate suburban voters that he desperately needs for re-election, and who vastly outnumber those drawn to a white nationalist ideology. In an election year where he is already battered by an ineffective COVID response and nation-wide racial unrest, these are voters that he simply cannot afford to lose.