The men eased past the picketers and police barricades, through a security-studded lobby and up to the eighth floor of a federal building named for Ronald Reagan. Inside an airy rotunda, guests in jackets and ties mingled over pork sliders and seafood tacos served by black waiters in tuxedos. There were celebratory speeches during dinner, crème brûlée for dessert. Apart from the racial epithets wafting around the room, the Saturday-night banquet seemed more like a wedding reception than a meeting of white nationalists.
The event was sponsored by the National Policy Institute (NPI), a tiny think tank based in Arlington, Va., dedicated to the advancement of “people of European descent.” NPI publishes pseudoscientific tracts with titles like “Race Differences in Intelligence,” runs a blog called Radix Journal (sample post: “My Hate Group Is Different Than Your Hate Group”) and holds conferences on topics like immigration and identity politics. This time it had gathered a group of 150 sympathizers in downtown Washington to discuss what the rise of Donald Trump has meant for the far right.
Since the start of the 2016 campaign, Trump has built a broad coalition of supporters, attracting voters with his forceful personality and his willingness to challenge party doctrine. And while the vast majority are driven by reasons other than race, Trump has also emerged as a hero to white nationalists. “Trump has energized us,” says Richard Spencer, president of NPI. For the first time since George Wallace in 1968, far-right activists in the U.S. are migrating toward mainstream electoral politics, stepping out of the shadows to attend rallies, offer endorsements and serve as volunteers. “It’s bound to happen,” Spencer says of white nationalists’ running for office one day. “Not as conservatives but as Trump Republicans.”
Extremists have latched on to Trump as a rallying cry and recruiting tool. Attendance at NPI events has jumped 75% over the past year, Spencer says. The white-supremacist website Stormfront reportedly had to upgrade its servers to handle a Trump-driven traffic spike. William Johnson, chairman of the racist American Freedom Party, paid for pro-Trump robocalls in six primary and caucus states. “Trump was the spark we needed,” he says, citing a surge in membership.
This is a story line that could shape more than the 2016 election. Trump’s success with disaffected whites is a sign that the forces of xenophobia and nationalism, which fueled the rise of far-right populist parties across Europe, are gathering strength in the U.S. as well. At a moment of rising racial tensions, Trump’s rhetoric of resentment has redrawn the boundaries of political speech in new and troubling ways. “This is a phenomenon that we haven’t really seen before,” says Marilyn Mayo, a co-director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “White supremacists and others on the extreme right have felt like they’re kept in the distance during election cycles. They don’t feel that way with Trump. They’re right in the conversation.”
THE ALT RIGHT
A billionaire mogul from multicultural Manhattan makes an unlikely tribune for a white-grievance movement. But in more than a dozen interviews, extremists described why they feel galvanized by Trump’s candidacy. They love his calls for walling off the southern border and barring Muslim immigration. They find his salvos against political correctness refreshing. And they interpret his laments of national decline as a dog whistle about demographic change.
Now they’re hoping a powerful and ubiquitous messenger can spread their ideas. “It used to be that nobody would say these things,” says Richard, a Maryland resident in his 20s wearing a wispy beard and a black knit tie. “Trump has opened the door to nationalism in this country–not American nationalism but the white race. Once that door has fully swung open, you can’t close it.”
Trump’s ascendancy comes at a moment of reinvention for the far right. A new generation of leaders like NPI’s Spencer are trying to recast white nationalism as a 21st century movement steeped in social media. The NPI meeting was dominated by young men under 30, many of whom said they were part of an online network known as the Alt (for Alternative) Right. Originally rooted in antipathy to mainstream conservatism, the Alt Right has morphed over the past year into a virtual pro-Trump army. It’s a loose collection of furies who range from provocative Twitter trolls to white-rights activists, garden-variety anti-Semites, protofascists and overt neo-Nazis.
Like any other movement that peddles belonging to the alienated, the Alt Right has developed its own lexicon. The protesters holding antiracist signs on the sidewalk below were classic “SJWs” (a derisive acronym for social-justice warriors). Establishment Republicans are known as “cuckservatives,” a term designed to connote emasculation. Both groups fall into the category of people whom members of the Alt Right refer to on Twitter and in blogs like the Right Stuff as “ovenworthy.”
Though they often disagree on tone and tactics, members of the Alt Right are bound by a few core beliefs. They regard most Republican politicians as Zionist puppets, captive to corporations seeking cheap labor. They tend to be protectionist on trade, isolationist on foreign policy and unmoved by cornerstone conservative issues like free markets or the Constitution. They reject the benefits of diversity and view demographic trends as an existential threat.
Over $10 cocktails at the NPI event, white nationalists described U.S. population dynamics with a sense of dread. “In a democracy, the majority rules,” said Jeffrey, a 27-year-old soap entrepreneur from Louisiana. “If we become a minority in our own country, we will be stripped of our power.” Others suggested that they could face systemic persecution if white birthrates remain low and immigration isn’t curtailed.
“Diversity brings differences, and sometimes those differences are so irreconcilable, they cause conflict,” said Nathan Damigo, a 29-year-old student from Oakdale, Calif., who blogs about incidents of alleged antiwhite bias. To Damigo, a former Marine who fought on the sectarian battlefields of Iraq, the rise of a candidate like Trump was inevitable. “This is what happens in all multiracial, multireligious, multiethnic societies,” he said. “Identity politics trumps everything else.”
The migration of extremists from Internet message boards to the campaign trail has produced ugly scenes. Racial slurs have tainted Trump rallies from Alabama to Nevada. In Ohio and Missouri, his supporters urged protesters to “go back to Africa” and “go to Auschwitz,” respectively. At the same time, Trump’s events have been tainted by episodes of racially charged violence. At an event in Kentucky, a prominent white supremacist shoved and shouted at a young black woman. Melees between Black Lives Matter activists and Trump’s backers forced the cancellation of a rally in Chicago. At an event in Fayetteville, N.C., a Trump fan named John McGraw, 78, was charged with assault for sucker punching a black protester. “The next time we see him,” said McGraw later, “we might have to kill him.”
How much blame Trump deserves for this is a complicated question. He has never endorsed the tenets of white supremacy or espoused explicit racism on the campaign trail. Even when promoting a ban on Muslims or linking Mexican immigrants with rape and violence, he heaps praise on both groups as a whole. Right-wing extremists don’t think Trump shares their views. “Donald Trump is not a white nationalist. I don’t think he’s a racist,” says John Friend, a Holocaust denier from Southern California who argues that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were a Jewish plot. But “he’s pushed the political discourse in our direction.”
Trump has done more than tap into the anxieties of his supporters. He’s turned campaign rallies into tribal warfare. When bad behavior flares up, he has been slow or unwilling to repudiate it. He promised to pay the legal bills of backers who scuffle with protesters and snarls orders for dissidents’ removal like a stereotypical Southern sheriff. When he suggested that riots might erupt at the GOP convention if the nomination eludes his grasp, it struck many who have witnessed the chaos at his events as a credible threat.
White nationalists believe Trump has courted their support through a series of subtle signals. To his 7.5 million followers on Twitter, Trump has retweeted racist fans, including accounts that promote #WhiteGenocide–the idea that the bipartisan push for diversity is designed to subjugate whites. (The tweets themselves did not contain racist content.) Some of his staffers follow popular Alt Right figures whose tweets are littered with racist remarks. Trump has retweeted debunked statistics that posit an epidemic of black-on-white crime.
On the campaign trail, Trump has touted an Eisenhower-era deportation program known as Operation Wetback. He’s pointed to the deaths of Kathryn Steinle, a young white woman murdered in San Francisco, and Jamiel Shaw, a black high school football star killed in Los Angeles, as examples of the threat posed by undocumented immigrants. “We’re being attacked,” Trump said last August. “People are coming through the border that are really bad hombres.” His campaign issued press credentials to James Edwards, a white-supremacist radio host who interviewed one of Trump’s sons. In some interviews, Trump declined to repudiate racist supporters like former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks says he has no knowledge of or affiliation with his far-right fan club. Trump, who composes his tweets on a Samsung smartphone, doesn’t always vet the profiles of the supporters he retweets, says Hicks, who notes the campaign was unaware of Edwards’ political views. “He has been very strong in his disavowal of all groups that espouse hatred,” she tells TIME.
White nationalists still think Trump is winking at them. “It would be difficult for all this to be an accident,” says Andrew Anglin, editor of the Daily Stormer, a website with sections on the “Jewish problem” and “race war.” To Anglin, Trump represents a bridge to a new, pro-white populism. “Something has changed,” says the 31-year-old neo-Nazi from Columbus, Ohio. “He’s proven the Republican Party can no longer push an agenda that’s against white Americans for the benefit of the special interests they represent.”
THE WHITE ETHNOSTATE
Richard Spencer is ready to seize the moment. Spencer, 37, has devoted much of his adult life to forging a new path for white nationalism. “We need to present ourselves as serious and attractive,” he explains. “The type of people who can rule a country one day.”
Spencer is clean-cut, polite and solicitous. He spends his days on Twitter and Slack and peppers his paragraphs with academic jargon picked up during postgraduate studies at Duke and the University of Chicago. At the NPI meeting, where the tables were decorated with images of Trump’s golden mane, he wore a dark suit, a purple vest over a pink dress shirt and a distinctive haircut–shaved on the sides, longish on top–that has been widely mimicked by white nationalists.
Spencer strives to soften the edges of his ideology. He says he rejects white supremacy and considers slavery “abhorrent.” He calls himself an “identitarian,” a belief system that emphasizes racial identity and has much more in common with European far-right movements than anything cooked up by William F. Buckley and his cohort. But the preppy demeanor belies a radical vision: the establishment of a whites-only “ethnostate.”
It’s still just a fantasy, Spencer admits. But he’s not wrong to suggest that the rise of Trump, coupled with demographic trends and social crosscurrents, has imbued this cause with new momentum. The Black Lives Matter movement that took root in Ferguson, Mo., has fed a broader white-persecution complex. About 4 in 10 Americans–and nearly 75% of Trump supporters–say discrimination against whites is now as big a problem as discrimination against blacks, according to a November study by the Public Religion Research Institute. Attempts to stifle free speech on college campuses–where students seek out “safe spaces” and complain that chalking “Trump 2016” on the quad is an act of intimidation–seem to validate the candidate’s jeremiads against political correctness. Meanwhile, the GOP’s perpetual pursuit of policies like free trade, entitlement cuts and lower taxes for the wealthy has widened the gulf between party bosses and the base. “Conservatism is committing suicide,” Spencer says. “We want to fill that space.”
In the age of Trump, the emergence of a new nationalist third party no longer seems impossible. The GOP front runner has shattered so many taboos, smashed so many conservative idols, that to Spencer it feels as if a movement rooted in race and identity, rather than the Constitution and capitalism, is gathering steam. It may take years of fitful progress, he predicts, capped by some seismic shock–a sudden war, a stock-market crash. Or maybe just the arrival of a candidate like Donald Trump.
This appears in the April 25, 2016 issue of TIME.