I’ve got a podcast to recommend. It’s called The Daily, from The New York Times. I listen often because the host Michael Barbaro takes an in depth look at one important story from each day’s NYT. The particular episode I want to recommend is from Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017 and its the story of a man named Derek Black.
Derek Black grew up in one of the leading families of the white nationalist movement. His mother was once married to David Duke. His father, once a grand wizard of the KKK, runs StormFront.org, the largest white nationalist website in the world. [within the last 24 hours the site has been taken down by the domain host] As a young man Derek was a promising young activist who was being groomed as a leader in the white nationalist movement. He appeared regularly on his father’s radio show, produced content for the website, and spoke at conferences. Derek Black was white nationalist royalty.
After the election of Barak Obama the white nationalist movement was crestfallen. Many thought there would never be another white president. So, they made a very intentional strategic decision about where to concentrate their efforts: “All this backlash which you eventually did see of white people against having a black president would have to go into the Republican party, because America is a two-party system and the Republican Party would become the white people’s party,” Black said.
This is about the time Donald Trump began to come to their attention. Trump began the birther movement to try and delegitimize Obama on the grounds that he was not born in America. Trump’s public statements around the time of the birther controversy seem to indicate that he was getting some of his talking points from the white nationalist movement. There’s no doubt that the white nationalists loved Trump’s efforts the issue, and began to organize squarely in his corner.
When Derek Black left home to attend college, a funny thing happened. He climbed outside the racist echo-chamber, began to discuss history and philosophy with people who had different views, and slowly things began to change. At first he tried to keep his two worlds separate. He kept his white-supremacist activism a secret from his college friends, but it eventually came out and he was shunned.
The turning point in Black’s life came when he was invited to share a Shabbat dinner with a Jewish friend on campus. Black met another young man at that dinner who was willing to engage on issues of race. His new friend would listen to his white supremacist arguments, like the way IQ tests supposedly show whites to be more intelligent than minorities. Black was always well armed with research gleaned from white nationalist websites. His friend would come back with a slew of more recent, more thoroughly researched studies saying just the opposite. His friend taught him about how statistics really work. They would talk and argue until finally Black would have to say, okay I don’t hold that belief anymore. Eventually his entire belief system came crashing down and Derek Black rejected white nationalism.
Cut to Charlottesville … Black says, how it works is that white nationalists hold a rally and they just know all the local politicians will denounce them. They just factor that in. Denouncing a white supremacist is the easiest thing in the world you can do. Then came the president’s remarks:
“George Washington was a slave owner … are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? … How about Thomas Jefferson … he was a major slave owner … You’re changing history. You’re changing culture… Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee … So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
What Derek Black knew in that moment was that the place you can go to get this sort of language, to get this line of reasoning, is the white nationalist movement. For Trump to say those things means that he has spent time reading or listening to white nationalists make this case, found it compelling, and made it his own.
Derek Black drew a stunning conclusion from Trumps Remarks after Charlottesville:
“I think Tuesday was the most important moment in the history of the modern white nationalist movement… if you were on the fence about whether y0u should get involved in this stuff or not, the president’s okay is the biggest thing that’s ever happened. And so I don’t want to be alarmist and say oh this is this movement that’s going to take over the world, but it’s more precarious now than any point in my life on whether this thing as a movement and as a dangerous ideology grows. Because we don’t seem to be as clear as we once were that we have to keep this suppressed, that we can’t let this be who we are.”