Donald Trump’s refusal to disavow violent white nationalists during and after the first presidential debate with Joe Biden on Tuesday is only the latest reminder of how Trump has emboldened white supremacists.
There is so much to react to with Trump, not least the recent news that he has tested positive for the coronavirus that he failed to take serious measures against. Hence, it is often easy to forget that white nationalism has been the most consistent theme of his political career.
He rose to political prominence by promoting the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was born outside the US and he initially refused to condemn neo-Nazis who rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
White supremacists have too often been dismissed as parochial remnants from a bygone age
Trump inspires followers by insisting that the US is a fundamentally white nation threatened by immigrants from Latin America and disorder from Black Lives Matter protestors.
But it is not only American white nationalists who have been inspired by Trump. The Australian man who murdered 49 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand cited Trump as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”.
The specific group of white nationalists whose support Trump currently refuses to disavow, the vigilante Proud Boys, was founded by a British-Canadian and operates not only in the US but also in Canada, Britain, and Australia.
White supremacists have too often been dismissed as parochial remnants from a bygone age. In fact, they have been resilient and have consistently looked abroad while struggling locally. The white nationalism of Trump and his supporters worldwide may be in the ascendance today, but it has long historical roots.
The conjunction of Trump’s election with Brexit is striking. The morning after the 2016 Brexit referendum, Trump, after landing at his Scottish golf resort, tweeted that Britons “took their country back, just like we will take America back” (exactly whom their countries needed to be taken back from was left unsaid).
The first foreign politician Trump met after his election was Nigel Farage when the two celebrated with a memorable selfie taken in a golden elevator in Trump Tower.
Centrist politicians like Biden have helped enable white nationalists by failing to root out systemic racism
Since the second World War, white nationalists worldwide developed a common rhetoric of seeking to “take back” their nations from non-whites and treacherous internationalist elites.
Trump and Farage thus stand in a long line of leaders from an earlier generation such as George Wallace, the populist, segregationist Georgia governor and third-party US presidential candidate; Enoch Powell, the British MP who infamously warned of “rivers of blood” if Britain did not halt non-white immigration; and Ian Paisley, the Belfast minister who asserted the fundamentally Protestant nature of Northern Ireland and allied himself with American segregationists.
After the war, white nationalists worldwide adapted to the challenges posed by decolonisation and movements for racial equality. They rallied around common causes such as the fate of Rhodesia, the illegal regime that declared independence from Britain in 1965 in order to maintain white minority rule.
Rhodesia won the support of a transnational community of embattled whites who saw the regime’s existential struggle against a black liberation movement and a hostile international community as connected to their own local and national battles to maintain white privilege in the face of civil rights gains.
They were inspired by Rhodesia’s charismatic leader Ian Smith, who forthrightly declared to a popular American magazine: ‘The white man is the master of Rhodesia . . . [he] has built it and intends to keep it.” Some even came to Rhodesia to fight as mercenaries.
The Rhodesian regime fell in 1980 when Robert Mugabe, leader of the insurgent national liberation movement, proclaimed the Republic of Zimbabwe. Yet it remains an inspiration to white nationalists today. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, styled himself “the Last Rhodesian” in his manifesto and attire.
And in 2019 a clothing salespoint located outside Boston marketed a red-and-white patch proclaiming “Make Zimbabwe Rhodesia Again”.
If the US elects Joe Biden, white supremacism will hardly fade away. It is too deeply rooted. In any case, centrist politicians like Biden have helped enable white nationalists by failing to root out systemic racism and by abetting the gross economic inequalities that produce masses of embittered whites who make easier recruits for white nationalists.
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Trump’s re-election would further inspire white supremacists around the world.
Dr Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American History at Trinity College Dublin. He edited Global White Nationalism: From Apartheid to Trump with Camilla Schofield and Jennifer Sutton. The book will be launched with an online panel discussion hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub on Thursday October 8th that is free to the public