President Trump chose to hold his first campaign rally since the COVID-19 lock down in Tulsa on Juneteenth.
Tulsa is the city where the largest single act of American racial violence took place: the Greenwood massacre in 1921 that left 300 dead and 8,000 homeless. For decades the massacre was scrubbed from the public records and kept out of history books.
Juneteenth is the commemoration of the end of slavery. After an outcry, the campaign moved the rally by one day. But still on Juneteenth weekend, and still in Tulsa.
This followed weeks of Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest, and it came in the same week that Facebook banned a number of Trump campaign ads that included a Nazi image.
It is unlikely that the Trump campaign’s decision of where and when to hold the rally is an accident: Trump has a history of appealing to white supremacists. He follows a predictable pattern. And now is the time for civic leaders, engaged citizens, and public officials to name the pattern and to hold him accountable. Otherwise he will intensify his racially divisive language as the presidential campaign moves into full swing.
White Supremacists Took Credit for Trump’s Win
I am a communication and leadership professor at New York University and Columbia University, and have spent the last two years studying Trump’s language for a forthcoming book. In Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It, I document what I call Trump’s dance with white supremacists.
Trump’s dance began with his revival of the “birther” conspiracy that President Obama was secretly Kenyan and Muslim. Private citizen and candidate Trump pounded that theme for five years. Under pressure just before the 2016 election he half-heartedly admitted that Obama was born in the U.S. but blamed Hillary Clinton for the birther rumors.
In 2016 Trump was endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David.
He was also supported by prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer, who had coined the phrase “alt-right” as a more palatable name for white nationalism. The phrase was popularized on the conservative media site Breitbart News. Breitbart co-founder Stephen Bannon called his news organization the “platform for the alt-right” before he left Breitbart to lead the Trump campaign in August 2016. He later became chief strategist in the White House. In this way, the alt-right had a direct channel into the White House.
On the day Trump was declared the winner in the 2016 presidential election David Duke tweeted:
“This is one of the most exciting nights of my life -> make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump! #MAGA”
Richard Spencer tweeted:
“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback. #Trump.”
Several days later Spencer said in a speech to fellow white nationalists:
“We willed Donald Trump into office. We made this dream our reality. And if we will it, it is no dream . . . And this Trumpian dream is only the beginning . . . We demand to live in the world that we imagine.”
The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer wrote:
“We won, brothers. All of our work. It has paid off. Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor. Make no mistake about it: we did this. If it were not for us, it wouldn’t have been possible… And the great news is, we’re going to be given credit for it.”
Dancing with White Supremacists
Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has followed a recognizable pattern: He signals to white supremacists, and they signal back. Andrew Anglin, editor of The Daily Stormer, has frequently referred to it as a “wink-wink-wink” relationship.
For example, although Trump and others insisted that the 2017 Charlottesville protest was about the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, it was much more.
One of the organizers, Michael Hill, president of the white nationalist group League of the South, tweeted to his followers:
“If you want to defend the South and Western civilization from the Jew and his dark-skinned allies, be at Charlottesville on 12 August.”
The Daily Stormer posted on its Facebook page:
“Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”
On its website The Daily Stormer admitted that the Charlottesville protest was much more:
“Although the rally was initially planned in support of the Lee Monument, which the Jew Mayor and his Negroid Deputy have marked for destruction, it has become something much bigger than that. It is now an historic rally, which will serve as a rallying point and battle cry for the rising alt-right movement.”
“Battle cry” is not a casual reference. The Daily Stormer live-posted during the protest, including this:
“THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A WAR! WE HAVE AN ARMY”
After counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by a neo-Nazi, President Trump said that there was hatred and bigotry on many sides. The Daily Stormer wrote:
“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.”
Two days later President Trump said there were “very fine people, on both sides,” David Duke tweeted a thank-you note to the President.
Mother Jones magazine described the pattern this way:
“Signal to the extremists; deny it when forced to, but with a transparently meaningless excuse; wait for the media to move on; leave the extremists reassured that you didn’t really mean it.”
Trump: I am a Nationalist!
Following that pattern, just over a year after Charlottesville, in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections, Trump declared himself to be a nationalist:
“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am, I’m a nationalist, OK. I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word!”
After a journalist asked whether calling himself was a nationalist was coded language for white nationalist, Trump feigned ignorance:
“No, I never heard that theory about being a nationalist. I’ve heard them all.”
But note that he had initially admitted that “we’re not permitted to use that word,” and he did not reverse course. Wink-wink-wink.
The following year, when Trump called for four congresswomen of color to “go back to where you came from,” The Daily Stormer wrote,
“This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for.”
The pattern is there to see. And part of the pattern is that Trump intensifies his language if he isn’t forcefully called on it. Tulsa is the beginning of the rally phase of Trump’s re-election campaign. White nationalists say that they elected him. And maybe they did. But clearly he needs to energize them to assure his re-election.