Politics & Policy

Trump’s Milquetoast Distancing from White Supremacists

Trump speaks in Hanahan, S.C., February 15, 2016. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

Conservatives who write, blog, and tweet against Donald Trump have made almost a parlor game of sharing with each other the nasty responses we get from white supremacists for Trump. The racism from these goons is so outlandish that it’s almost self-satirical — except that it’s not funny; it’s sick and twisted.

In that light, it is no surprise that the man in America most famous for his KKK leadership and neo-Nazi ties and proposals, David Duke, came out the other day with a 20-minute-plus endorsement of the flamboyant billionaire (or alleged billionaire).

As it is, a well-known part of my biography (or at least well-known among those who actually know who I am) was my three years fighting against Duke when he seemed to have an ascendant political career in Louisiana in 1989–91, which culminated with his winning a spot in a general-election runoff for governor — halfway through which Duke was in a statistical tie (about two points down) with famous scofflaw governor Edwin Edwards.

For three years, Duke had played the media like a fiddle (he was the best media manipulator I had ever seen until Trump started running for president), claiming to have put his racist days behind him and pretending to be merely an anti-establishment, anti-tax, anti-political-correctness heir to Ronald Reagan. And for three years his supporters — only a minority of whom were motivated primarily by race — did the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil routine, refusing even to consider a single fact showing that Duke remained a neo-Nazi and also a shady businessman. Like millions of good Americans who support Trump, these good Louisianans wanted a vehicle to express their anger and shake things up (Louisiana, unlike the rest of the country, was not doing well economically then, because its oil-based economy had gone bust), and to have their frustrations heard and aired.

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And then, quite suddenly, the dam blessedly broke. Three years of accumulated information finally made it through the hear-no-evil routine once these good Louisianans really focused. It was particularly helped by a concerted focus from us anti-Dukesters on how Duke’s election would hurt Louisiana economically, hurting especially the “little guy” — an argument brought home particularly cleverly by an ad, sponsored by a forerunner of Citizens United, that featured a (fictional) Texan chortling about how all the Louisiana businesses would leave the Bayou State, for Texas, if Duke were elected.

In less than three weeks, Duke fell from a statistical tie in the polls to lose the election by 25 points.

#share#The same thing can happen with Trump. To be clear: Trump is absolutely no David Duke. He is no KKKer or Nazi. The similarity here is the mentality of those non-racist supporters of his, or rather the message they are sending, which is a middle finger to the establishment (which, it must be said, the establishment largely deserves). There is a caveat, though, to which I will return in a moment.

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But, first, another similarity: Just as with the Duke phenomenon, the Trump phenomenon is one that, being based on an emotional connection with his followers, is also subject to a very rapid collapse if and when the collapse starts. And last night’s debate showed that his opponents are finally beginning to understand that the way to make it collapse is with arguments based not on ideology or the candidate’s personal style (they like his style) but rather on voters’ self-interest. If the candidate’s success actually would hurt the ordinary Louisianan/American, rather than perhaps just hurting some “other” group, then the emotional connection ends. (That’s why I have spent months writing columns about how Trump’s history with his flim-flam university, his illegal-immigrant Polish workers, the grandmother threatened by eminent domain, and other obnoxious episodes in Trump’s life all show that he is not the tribune of the Ordinary Joe but rather Joe’s enemy.)

But if the vast majority of Trump’s supporters are legitimately frustrated, good Americans who (we think) are choosing the wrong messenger, there remains the reality, noted above, of what is clearly an inordinate number of, or an inordinate passion among, white supremacists supporting Trump and spewing their hatred as they do. The new endorsement from Duke is just the most public manifestation of this growing reality — albeit a particularly chilling one.

The question then arises, To what extent is Trump responsible for this? Implying guilt by association is often a cheap shot.

#related#In this case, though, it is not. While Trump has officially disavowed his support from these groups, he has done so in a way so mild that one observer has described it as “milquetoast.” Worse, Trump personally has made somewhat of a habit of retweeting messages from open white supremacists and from those with fairly obvious white-supremacist leanings.

While it is unfair to accuse Trump of direct racism, this clear pattern makes it eminently fair to say that Trump encourages this support with much more than a wink and a nod. And, given that Trump has refused to change his tone despite so many critics’ saying that his language and his message have been tinged with overtones of ethnic disparagement, his enthusiastic retweets of open white supremacists do make him, quite legitimately, responsible at least for encouraging this garbage to fester.

Trump is no David Duke. But he is edging ever closer to becoming a Dukester fellow traveler.

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