When President Donald Trump unleashes his racist attacks on public figures of color like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Al Sharpton, it provides direct comfort and support to the most repugnant and dangerous parts of the white supremacist movement.
But while unabashed racism has become ubiquitous in Trump’s rhetoric, a couple of remarks in his recent Twitter tirades jumped out at me as particularly strong dog whistles for darkest corners of the bigoted right-wing.
As part of his recent attacks, Trump said — without explanation — that Cummings is “racist.” Targeting Sharpton, he was even more specific about what he meant, saying the he “Hates Whites & Cops!”
There is, of course, blatant hypocrisy in these remarks, because while the president and his defenders say it’s ridiculous to call him racist, Trump feels no compunction about lobbing such accusations at others without explanation. But aside from this obvious hypocrisy, it seemed to me there was something deeper and more nefarious going on in these accusations. It’s a step beyond his accusation that Omar and her allies in the “Squad” supposedly “hate America” — an accusation that is steeped in racism and bigotry but also reflects feeds off a long-running political argument in the United States about political divides over patriotism.
The accusation that Cummings and Sharpton actively hate “Whites” — not America generally, but only “Whites” — stood out. And white supremacist contributors to the hate site “Stormfront” picked up on the wording as well, taking it as a signal that the president is on their side.
“Is this the first time DJT has explicitly stood up for White folks?” one asked. “Or has he apologized yet? More of this, Donnie, and you might win next year!” (The president has not apologized.)
Others on the site agreed, echoing the sentiment that Sharpton hates white people, with some adding that all black people hate white people and that the feeling is “mutual.” One added a hopeful note about what Trump’s comments mean: “For an American President to call a black person racist will hopefully embolden thousands of Whites to do the same against other non-Whites.” Yet another said Trump got “bonus points” for his tweet capitalizing the word “Whites,” as is often a custom in these forums.
As has been repeatedly observed, many white supremacists who contributor to forums like Stormfront are skeptical and critical of the president because of his relationships with Jewish people. Anti-Semitism, Nazism, and Holocaust denial run deep in these circles, and while Trump has sometimes employed anti-Semitic rhetoric, he doesn’t go nearly as far as some of these bigots would like and he has Jewish family members. In the discussion of Trump’s remarks, some of the Stormfront contributors continued to express skepticism about the president for being “close to the jews,” but they welcomed his attack on Sharpton and “blacks in general.”
Jessie Daniels, a sociology professor at the City University of New York and expert on internet manifestations of racism, told me that the president’s comments were “egregious and obviously racist” and that she was “stunned” there was any debate about the question.
“If the white supremacists are giving you thumbs up, then that’s a good sign that what you’re doing is racist,” she said.
With these types of comments, she said, the president is clearly “emboldening” the far right.
“There’s this history and this consistency in this presidency of saying things that signal to white supremacists that he’s on their side,” Daniels said. She pointed to another moment during the 2016 campaign when Trump retweeted a user with the handle “WhiteGenocideTM.” Some white supremacists, she said, took this as a signal that he was on their side, even if they didn’t see him as an anti-Semitic ally.
By accusing prominent black figures of being racist toward white people, Trump feeds into the white supremacist myth that white people are the true victims of racism. This partisan nature of this belief is reflected in polling data, which shows that Republicans are significantly more likely to say whites are subject to “some” or “a lot of” discrimination.
Daniels said this has long been a part of the white supremacist narrative opposing civil rights and equality for African-Americans.
“Whites saw themselves as under attack because of the calls for equality,” she said.
“It goes through til today,” she continued. “We’re living in a moment of white backlash against the Obama presidency.”
Most people who voted for Trump or plan to vote for him again likely don’t see themselves as allies of the people who contribute to sites like Stormfront. But Trump seems to think his best chance at re-election is by tapping into the fears at the core of the ideology that drives white supremacy, which may be shared by many people who would explicitly reject the label. And by echoing the type of rhetoric and beliefs favored in some of the most bigoted recesses of the far-right movement, Trump is doing his part to give these people a voice on the national stage.