WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump is waffling on a hardline immigration policy that has been central to his presidential campaign. But his white nationalist supporters aren’t giving up on him yet. Some of Trump’s friends on the so-called alt-right say the supposed pivot only indicates he’s a savvy politician, while others are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Trump’s “rhetorical shift on immigration is NOT troubling,” said William Johnson, a Los Angeles-based attorney and white nationalist who was briefly a Trump delegate. “It demonstrates that he now grasps the magnitude of the enormous task ahead of him.”
Trump has promised to aggressively deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, policies that white nationalists embrace. But he has faced pressure to moderate as he struggles in polls, and this week, he indicated a willingness to soften on large-scale deportation, a policy considered by many to be infeasible and inhumane. (He has since walked backed his comments.)
Some Republicans fear such a pivot will damage his base, which includes the “alt-right,” a group that mostly lurks on the web and seeks to distinguish itself from mainstream conservatism by openly embracing racist and anti-Semitic policies. White nationalists tend to be skeptical of mainstream political candidates, and some have worried Trump won’t live up to his promises. But the real estate mogul has so successfully courted them, they’re willing to look past his recent remarks.
“He must tone down his rhetoric sometimes in order to somewhat neutralize constant media demonization,” said Tom Sunic, who has spoken at meetings sponsored by Klansmen, Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. “If some right-wing critics of him, having surreal hopes about D. Trump, don’t get it — it only proves they have no sense of what political realism is all about.”
“We of the alt-right will never abandon Donald Trump,” Johnson added.
Trump has a history of publicly denouncing white supremacy, while winking to its supporters. He initially failed to disavow former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, later blaming his remarks on a “very bad earpiece.” He also shared tweets from a white supremacist at least six times, a user listed as “WhiteGenocideTM” living in “Jewmerica” and an anti-Semitic meme about Hillary Clinton.
Even if Trump is softening his positions, not merely his words, some white nationalists will still give him the benefit of the doubt. “It is impossible to imagine Mr. Trump backtracking so far on immigration that the people who support him because of his immigration policy would vote for Mrs. Clinton instead,” said Jared Taylor, editor of the white nationalist publication American Renaissance.
Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank, told BuzzFeed that “Trump has been so good for my cause that I’m able to be very tolerant and patient with him.” But he noted that if Trump truly allows “millions of Hispanics to stay — with or without citizenship,” then he’s “off the train.”
One white nationalist who has complained from the beginning that Trump isn’t the hero the movement is looking for is Bob Whitaker. He ran for president on the American Freedom Party ticket, before he resigned on the basis that the party was too focused on Trump and was moderating the “white genocide” message in order to attract his supporters.
“I would not be at all surprised if Trump went into desperate reverse on immigration and desperate groveling that would embarrass even the Republican National Committee,” he wrote on his blog on Thursday.
Even if Trump loses some of his most ardent white nationalist followers in a last-minute bid to moderate his candidacy, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s given the fringe movement an unprecedented boost. In a speech on Thursday, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sought to link Trump to the racism of the alt-right, and discussed them at length on national TV.
“Well guys. We’ve made it,” wrote Andrew Anglin, founder of Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. “Hillary Clinton is giving a speech about us today.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.