Meet the shock troops of Trump’s America
The Portland State University Students for Trump gathered on a Friday afternoon in June on the downtown campus to build a replica of “the great wall of Trump.” The wall was four pieces of plywood painted to look like red bricks, and plastered with a black “T” and photocopies of Trump’s head. The Facebook post for the event announced, “Mexico and Black Lives Matter are going to need help paying for the wall so we’ll be holding a collection.”
The wall was propped against a concrete ledge in a grassy mall that cuts through the campus. The dozen or so participants were all white, all male but one, and from the late teens to early 30s. They spent hours milling about, taking selfies, confronting lone protesters and angry passersby, all under the watch of campus police and left-wing activists videoing them. Sam Hyde, 20, a computer science major at PSU said, “The wall fell apart, it’s wobbly. If Donald Trump hires us to build the wall, it’s a lost cause.”
Hyde said he joined the group because “When Milo Yiannopoulos goes on tour and gets hundreds of protesters, we’re not going to back down.” Yiannopoulos is the gay Brit darling of the “alt right” that is repackaging white nationalism for millennials.
Matt Duffy, 19, wearing an Infowars tee shirt, supported building a wall to “keep out illegal immigrants and drugs.” He liked Trump because “he’s a nationalist and a populist and puts America First.” Turning to Muslims, Duffy said, “We have Muslims invading Europe. They are out-breeding us.” When asked about Trump’s attacks on the impartiality of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel because of his Mexican heritage, Duffy said, “There is definitely a conflict of interest. Lots of Mexicans have illegal family members or friends.”
As for African-Americans, Duffy said, “The majority of them want social programs, free stuff.” He concluded by asking, “Do we want single moms and minorities deciding who the president is? Because that’s where we’re heading.”
Others also talked of political power in sexual terms. Timmy Matlock, 24, a high-school dropout who claims to work in security in Europe and Asia, said “I don’t give a f*ck about the wall” but supported the movement behind Trump. “It’s ending 30 years of cuckoldry the country has been subjected to, with the United States capitulating to the Saudis, Europe, and NAFTA. Our move away from American nationalism is going to cripple us economically and socially in the end.” A reporter present labeled them “angry nerds” and added that Matlock was around the Bundy militia occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon in January.
After the first meeting of the Students for Trump was confronted by nearly a hundred protesters, including Black Lives Matter, in April, Duffy appeared on Infowars, where the conversation focused on how the left is oppressing whites and the right with “cultural Marxism” and “neo-segregation.” Duffy said many on the right are “afraid of being called a racist.” But with Trump supporters “that doesn’t affect us. It bounces right off of us. … We don’t apologize for being white. We don’t apologize for being a man.”
Duffy’s message that Students for Trump are oppressed and “standing up for free speech” was echoed by others at the build-the-wall event. Michael Christiansen, 22, said he was drawn to the group after an “intolerant left” violated the free-speech rights of Trump supporters at his college in Iowa.
Tylor Phelps, 32, who was recruited online, works at US Bank. He wore a white tee shirt with rainbow-colored lettering reading “Gays 4 Trump” and a sign stating “SJWs
are a cancer.” Phelps said, “You have the left storming the meetings of conservatives on college campuses, taking the mic, shutting them down.” He had a second sign, “Fags for Trump,” straight out of Yiannopoulos’s playbook of making slurs cool.
While the Students for Trump have latched onto the right-wing trope that conservatives and whites are victims, they revolve in a different political orbit than many Trump voters. At Trump’s public rallies attendees are overwhelmingly white and disproportionately male, but they skew older, tend to have working-class occupations, and are focused on bread-and-butter issues. They talk about jobs, trade, and immigration refracted through race, and which is expressed as enthusiastic approval for Trump’s wall.
The Students for Trump members are children of the Internet and molded by raw ideology. They find each other online, have a megaphone in Infowars and Breitbart.com, are versed in alt-right memes, and some cruise dark digital recesses like subreddits that are “a worse black hole of violent racism than Stormfront,” and 4chan, notorious as an incubator of violent misogyny. Some in Students for Trump delight in spreading the 14/88 meme, too. The former refers to the 14-word-long white supremacist slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” the latter is code for “Heil Hitler” as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.
On one level their provocations are trolling that’s crossed from the virtual into reality. But claiming it’s all in jest is dubious when the 2016 election is occurring in a crucible of domestic terrorism, gun culture, Islamophobia, mass deportations, and Black Lives Matter.
Students for Trump gleefully incite the left in the lineage of college-right provocations like “affirmative action bake sales.” But these days the stakes are much higher. In May about 150 students under the banner of “Disarm PSU” held a walkout in protest of a decision by the university in 2014 to arm campus police. Students for Trump were there, including co-founders, Volodymyr Kolychev, 20, and Stephen Johnston, 20, waving a sign, “Thug Lives Don’t Matter.” They set off a micro-altercation, which was the goal. One sympathetic reporter described it as, “Yet another unhinged liberal caught on a clip with the potential to soar among the wider online Trump community.”
Kolychev’s family emigrated from Ukraine to Silicon Valley when he was a child and places their income in the “upper 5%.” “I have a massive social media presence,” he says. “When I’m joking around on Facebook, it’s 4chan culture.” But he is also trying “to shift the Overton Window,” meaning the range of political discourse. One post he is proud of is a photo of himself with a flyer reading, “Every single BLM Martyr is a THUG.” Kolychev says, “It’s a really edgy sign, but it does point out that Michael Brown and Trayvon assaulted their respective ‘killers.’”
Facebook posts by Kolychev and his friends are a flood of anti-Semitism, gay-bashing, racism, and admiration for dictators like Pinochet and killing communists. The exchanges can be seen as aggressive male banter among friends and the frisson of violating P.C. culture, but there is no either-or here. Kolychev’s digital play also matches his real-world politics and support for Trump.
Well-read in the authoritarian right, Kolychev says he supports the liberal values of the Enlightenment. He wraps liberalism around his advocacy against “forced segregation and forced integration,” by describing it as “free association.” He refers to white nationalist Jared Taylor as the source of his ideas. Taylor hit the spotlight in January by placing robocalls to Iowa voters in support of Trump. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Taylor wrote, “Blacks and whites are different. When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization—any kind of civilization—disappears.”
In addition to naming Jared Taylor as an influence on his ideas, Kolychev lists Ron Paul, Milton Friedman, Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Thatcher, Joseph McCarthy, Pinochet, Spanish fascist Francisco Franco, South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee, Zionist fascist Meir Kahane, and William Luther Pierce, an American neo-Nazi who influenced both Timothy McVeigh, who bombed Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 168, and Thomas Mair, who allegedly murdered British Member of Parliament Jo Cox on June 17, 2016.
The most prominent face of Portland State Students for Trump, Kolychev says, “I have Black and Hispanic friends,” and people should be judged as individuals not on “group aggregates.” He also says “There are biological differences between Blacks and whites. There are I.Q. differences, a lower ability to postpone gratification. A quicker gestational period.” After receiving a quizzical look, Kolychev clarified, “Blacks breed quicker.”
Aping Taylor, Kolychev says, “Diversity weakens a country. When you have people of different cultures and ethnicities in the same place you have conflict. It’s natural.” When asked about the socio-economic status of African-Americans, he said, “For some reason Blacks don’t accept American values and culture. There’s high ethnocentrism among Blacks. It’s natural. Bats are with other bats.” For Kolychev race is biological destiny, “Africans have an IQ of 70, Blacks in America have an IQ of around 85 because they’re one-quarter white. Whites have an IQ of 100, Asians 108, and Ashkenazi Jews are 117.”
Tylor Phelps struck a similar note about Mexico, “The I.Q. there is about 80,” attributing it to a lack of resources.
For now they are all talk. Taking their rickety wall off-campus, hoping for cheers and honks of support, instead they received confused and angry looks, middle fingers, and a man taunting them with goose-stepping and “Sieg Heils!”
Kolychev says Students for Trump have no plans going forward, sounding disappointed their antics had not made them “a juggernaut on campus,” but their presence is telling of the historical moment Trump has created. Kolychev says Trump’s candidacy brought the student group into being and he “is pretty much all that unites the alternative right.”
Observers ask if the alt-right is a genuinely new phenomenon or a warmed-over version of old-time racism spewed at the corner store. Scratching the surface, Students for Trump ooze crude scientific racism. It’s a sign the alt-right is a recessive gene that skipped a generation or two. The obsession with breeding, preserving white culture, and biological determinism could be out of 1950s Alabama. Except it’s 2016 in Portland—one of the most liberal cities in a country where diversity has spread exponentially along every axis: race, nationality, religion, gender.
The anti-Black racism drowns out the chatter Trump will have “surprising success” with African-Americans. Trump’s appeal to Blacks, like his appeal to the LGBT community in the wake of the Orlando massacre, is based on the notion he can wall off his bigotry. When top Republicans are forced to admit Trump’s comments about Mexicans are the “textbook definition” of racism and flee from his Islamophobia, it’s impossible to hide the white-hot racism powering his presidential bid. But the GOP hopes to keep the virus contained.
But once some bigotry is legitimized, every vile belief pours out. In a Facebook post saying of the killings in Orlando, “that’s 20+ less homos we gotta worry about,” Kolychev responded, “50 less pedos tbh,” meaning “50 less pedophiles, to be honest.” A friend added, “50 less minorities.” Kolychev also posted a meme mocking the Orlando killings as designed to overshadow Black Lives Matter with a picture of Harambe the gorilla. He and his friends are fond of anti-Semitic slurs, images, holocaust jokes, and the 14/88 meme.
In a Facebook group Kolychev administers, the morning after the California Democratic primary, he uploaded a picture of Bernie Sanders redrawn as a “greedy Jew,” the most common anti-Semitic image on the internet, with the caption, “Good job American people for avoiding Judeobolshevism.”
When I asked Kolychev if he was a scientific racist, he responded, “I’m not a racist, I’m a race realist.” That is the exact wording on an “Alt-Right Bingo” meme he recently posted and apparently grabbed from a subreddit called “Forwards from Hitler.”
Not everyone has gone as far down the hole as Kolychev. Michael Christiansen said, “I could have turned out to be a Bernie Sanders supporter.” Nonetheless, the group is a study in radicalization through the Internet. Even if they are fond of talking about guns, death squads, and murdering leftists, they are not the typical ethnicity, religion or politics the feds are prone to investigate.
The danger is if Trump becomes president. His policies and temperament would almost certainly roil the international economy and American society. He would rule like he Tweets, insulting, attacking, instigating one crisis after another to deflect from his mismanagement and shift the blame onto others.
But he would do it with the federal bureaucracy, not words, in an climate supercharged with bigotry and demands for ethnic cleansing. Police forces would have a free fist to crack down on Black Lives Matter and other protesters. And whereas George W. Bush’s presidency emboldened and funded the Christian Right, a Trump presidency would likely do the same for the white-nationalist right.
It’s hyperbole to say there would be a Kristallnacht around every corner under Trump, but he would unleash the sinister elements of America’s id that are now taking shape across the country.
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press. Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_dot_com.