DALLAS — In Oct. 2016, a couple of days after the election of Donald Trump, former Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was videoed at a karaoke bar singing “America the Beautiful” while others gave the Nazi salute. As the camera panned the small gathering at One Nostalgia Tavern in northeast Dallas, alt-right leader Richard Spencer was among those gesturing along to the song.
A bartender quickly seized the mic and demanded the group leave, as a few in the crowd began chanting, "Trump! Trump! Trump!”
For many who opposed Trump, the incident was a confirmation of their worst fears: A new emboldened far-right would bring racism and white nationalism into the mainstream. Trump’s words and actions in the subsequent weeks, months, and years have only stoked those anxieties, according to a Yahoo News poll on the president's handling of race relations.
Establishment Republicans and undecided voters around the country saw the recently concluded Republican National Convention as an opportunity for Trump and the Republican Party to speak to what they see as the GOP’s hard-right pivot, the country’s long-simmering racial tension, and to rebuke the far-right policies and rhetoric that have oozed into the party’s platform.
While standing on a stage outside the White House, Trump accused demonstrators of bringing anarchy to the nation’s cities. He blamed immigrants for myriad problems. To many of Trump’s critics, the RNC didn’t so much present a record of America and an administration as it invented one. A parade of Black and brown faces sought to soften or even erase Trump’s overt history of pushing alt-right polices. They presented an American story in which Trump has been an exemplar on racial inclusion, and his defeat would usher in an era of racial division.
Howard Graves, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Trump’s words and deeds have empowered and enabled an upsurge of white nationalists and extremist organizations. The president’s detractors can credibly claim that he has goaded hardline supporters into taking violent action. They say everything about Trump’s discourse – the words he uses, the things he is willing to say, when he says them, where, how, how many times – is deliberate and intended for consumption by what Trump refers to as the “new right.”
As the administration seeks out judges and appointees whose views are largely regarded as anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQ, many believe the destruction of political and social norms are on the ballot this year.
The Overton Window is a frequently discussed buzz-term in white nationalist circles. The concept is based on the idea that there are goal posts on either end of our left-right political spectrum regarding acceptable political discourse. Shifting the window is the goal of the alt-right – if their rhetoric and actions are so far beyond normal, then that moves the goal post farther to the right.
Graves said this notion of shifting the window underpins why the alt-right was so vicious and outspoken in the early days of the Trump administration.
“There wasn’t this concern over optics early on,” he said. “The idea was that if we get out and say the most heinous things that we can, then that allows people who are in positions of power who are sympathetic to us to be a little bit more outspoken because they can always point to the literal Nazis and say, ‘Well, we’re not those guys.’
“Within that framework, that can in some ways make sense of why we’re seeing some politicians operate so brazenly,” he continued.
For example, Graves said, Stephen Miller’s immigration ideas seem tame compared to people who want to turn American into an all-white ethnostate.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center researcher, after Trump’s election, the alt-right began to see themselves as an ascending political force. They were the earliest group to jump on the Trump bandwagon and believed that they were a determining factor in his election – though polling data doesn’t support that claim.
Generally, the alt-right movement is far removed from the levers of power, with a few notable exceptions, including former state department employee Matthew Gebert, who the Southern Poverty Law Center identified as the pseudonymous host of a white nationalist podcast.
Though many on the alt- and far-right believe Trump has let them down in many areas, immigration is the issue that the fringe cares most about. On that topic, Graves and others view the Trump administration’s policies as something akin to alt-right incrementalism.
Though right-wing extremism is nothing new, Graves said, it is usually tempered by someone in a position of authority within the Republican party who is willing to push back against it.
“We saw right in the aftermath of 9-11, President Bush went and spoke and stated American Muslims are just that, they are Americans,” he said. “We saw a decline in violent incidents against people perceived as being Muslim in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. That gets to the effect that positive leadership can have.
“What we’re witnessing with the president himself is there is not a willingness to stand firmly against this,” he continued.