WASHINGTON ― White nationalists tried repeatedly throughout the presidential campaign to sanitize their language to appeal to mainstream voters as they threw their efforts behind electing Donald Trump.
White nationalists who tried to play down their white nationalism won a victory this week as the president-elect not only chose Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon as his chief strategist ― a man who heads a website that regularly airs white nationalist viewpoints ― but many news outlets also are reluctant to use the specific label “white nationalist,” instead calling Bannon a “flame-throwing outsider” and a “nationalist media mogul.”
Of course, calling a person a “white nationalist” who hasn’t self-identified as one is somewhat fraught. In Bannon’s case, the website he runs peddles racist and misogynist conspiracy theories and is a go-to resource for white nationalists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. Whether or not Bannon personally holds white nationalist views, it’s indisputable that his website has perpetuated them.
As David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan, said, it’s useful to look at an individual’s statements, associations and sentiments. “It becomes one of those ‘if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck’ kind of things,” he said.
The Trump campaign denies allegations that Bannon is a white nationalist or a part of the so-called alt-right, the movement’s latest preferred moniker. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and it’s irresponsible for anyone to even make such a baseless accusation,” said Jason Miller, communications director for Trump’s transition team, in a statement provided to The Huffington Post.
It’s helpful first to parse the various terms that have been thrown around. “White supremacy” refers to a “full-fledged ideology” that asserts whites should have dominance over people of other races, according to the Anti-Defamation League. “White separatists” promote physical separation of races. A “white nationalist” emphasizes that countries or regions should be defined by a white racial identity. Other ideologies under the nationalist umbrella ― Neo-Nazi groups, for example ― openly praise Adolf Hitler. The founder of Aryan Nations, Richard Butler, wanted an all-white homeland in the Pacific Northwest.
But delving into the specifics of each of these subgroups can sometimes miss the point. “Very often it’s useful to call people what they are: racists or white supremacists,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Complicating these distinctions even further, white nationalist groups often use euphemisms to make their ideas appear less repugnant. Jared Taylor, publisher of American Renaissance, a website that regularly features racist screeds, says that he is not a white supremacist, a Nazi or a racist. “A ‘racist’... is always considered to be a moral inferior,” he wrote in an email. “I totally reject that view.”
Terms that Taylor and others who hold similar views prefer: “race realist” or “white advocate.” They may also refer to themselves as advocating for “Western civilization” or “European heritage,” or say they are merely combating white “dispossession” or the “administrative removal of Americans of European extraction.”
They also love the term “alt-right,” which SPLC defines as “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals” who believe white identity is under attack. The term is merely “a relabeling of white nationalism for the digital age,” said Potok. “It’s a little more pitched to young people,” he said. (Millennials may be well aware that being seen as a racist is a bad thing, even if they embrace racist viewpoints.)
Breitbart has published a glowing guide to the alt-right, suggesting its members are different from “old-school racist skinheads” because they are “a much smarter group.” In a post earlier this year, a headline described political analyst Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew.” Another article published last year, weeks after the mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina, celebrated the Confederate flag, a symbol embraced by racists.
“I am very frustrated by the normalization of these ideas and the notion that they are finding acceptability in mainstream discourse,” said Ted Shaw, a law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill. He noted that it should be “terrifying” that the alt-right has found legitimacy in Bannon’s appointment to serve in the White House.
Taylor strongly denies that Bannon is a white nationalist. But many self-identified individual white nationalists told The Huffington Post that they are excited that he was picked to serve on Trump’s team.
The Trump campaign has sought to distance Bannon from the website’s posts that traffic in white nationalism. “Here’s what folks need to know about Steve Bannon: He’s worked with people of all backgrounds and has embraced diversity throughout his career,” Miller said Thursday.
In response to a HuffPost inquiry, the Trump transition team also referred to a statement from Republican Jewish Coalition board member Bernie Marcus, who defended Bannon’s appointment and said the charges against him are false.
Earlier this week, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told the “Today” show that Bannon is “not as scary” as he has been portrayed and that the “charges are very unfair.”
But anti-extremist groups, such as the SPLC and the Anti-Defamation League, disagree with the Trump camp’s characterization of Bannon. “[He] was the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill,” SPLC said on Twitter this week. Breitbart News is “the premier website of the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists,” said ADL.
After Bannon’s appointment, progressive commentators criticized some news organizations for using euphemisms to describe him. They argued that not explicitly referring to him as a “white nationalist” ignored or downplayed Bannon’s role in promoting extremist rhetoric.
Conservative media organizations also defended Bannon, calling him a “brilliant strategist” and “a patriot.” They said the allegations that he promotes white nationalism are “smears” and “slander,” and claimed Breitbart’s publications should not be linked to Bannon because that content is merely “designed to attract audiences.”
But Cheryl Harris, a UCLA law professor who focuses on civil rights and race, said, “These debates obfuscate the issue with respect to Bannon, which is whether Bannon self-consciously and explicitly created a platform for white nationalism to flourish, and it seems that he did, proudly and by his own admission.
“There is also a great danger of normalization as Trump takes state power. Many will be reluctant to call out the president for racism, either in his tactics or his policy.”
Jim Crow Museum founder Pilgrim said he has “no doubt” that as time goes on, alt-right adherents will be seen as promoting white nationalism, even if they’re not dressed up like neo-Nazis or wearing Klan hoods. “We’ve allowed someone, and I’m not sure whom,” to restrict the use of the term “white supremacist” “to only the guy in the racist uniform.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said Breitbart’s confederate flag article was published after a church shooting in North Carolina. The shooting was in South Carolina.