Derek Black—son of Don Black, founder of the white supremacist website Stormfront, and godson of KKK Grand Wizard David Duke—grew up schooled in racist ideology. The heir apparent to the movement, by age nineteen he hosted his own nationalist radio show, unknown to his fellow students at New College Florida. When his cover was blown, he was largely ostracized, but a few people approached him, wanting to understand rather than blame. Forced to confront and question his beliefs, Black repudiated them, and apologized to those he’d hurt. Drawing on extensive interviews with Black, his estranged family, the students who reached out, and white nationalist leaders, Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post staff writer, details Black’s extraordinary transformation, answering the question of how we can talk to people we passionately disagree with.
Eli Saslow is a Washington Post staff writer and author of Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2014 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2013, 2016 and 2017. He lives in Oregon with his wife and children.
Once again expressing hostility toward entire groups of immigrants, he further damages American political culture.
.. The president of the United States should not, by word or deed, communicate that he is hostile to or disdainful of entire classes of the American population. It doesn’t matter if such divisive rhetoric helps him win elections, nor if the reaction of his opponents is often overblown. As president, his obligation remains the same: Make your case without demonizing whole groups of people.
This shouldn’t be difficult for conservatives to understand. It’s an argument they’ve been making against Democrats for the better part of a decade. It’s the argument against identity politics.
Virtually every engaged conservative knows the term “bitter clinger.” When Barack Obama spoke at a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008 and offered his amateur sociological assessment that some Americans become “bitter” about social change and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them,” conservatives didn’t hear dispassionate analysis. They heard contempt.
.. Among the terrible effects of negative polarization is the widespread perception — often created by presidents and presidential candidates themselves — that a president governs for the benefit of his constituents alone.
.. Indeed, in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” comment and her declaration that Republicans were her “enemies,” millions of conservatives were motivated to go to the polls. (Remember “charge the cockpit or die”?)
.. First, if you’re spending your time defending the notion that some countries are truly bad places to live, you’re missing the point entirely. Of course some countries are worse places to live than others. But Trump wasn’t talking about which countries he’d most like to visit or retire to. He was talking about which countries’ immigrants should be most and least welcomed by the United States.
.. Second, these comments must be understood in the context of Trump’s relatively short history as the country’s most visible political figure. From the opening moments of his presidential campaign, Trump has made sweeping, negative remarks about immigrants from third-world nations.
.. Even when he qualifies those remarks (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”) the qualification is weak.
.. As my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out this morning, the president’s businesses have been credibly accused of racial discrimination, he claimed that an American judge couldn’t do his job fairly because of the judge’s Mexican heritage, he delayed condemning David Duke as long as he possibly could, and after the dreadful alt-right rally and terrorist attack in Charlottesville, he went out of his way to declare that there were “very fine people” on both sides. One doesn’t even have to delve too deeply into Trump’s alleged comparison of Norway with the “sh**holes” of Africa to understand why a reasonable observer would believe that he has problems with entire classes of Americans, immigrants, and citizens of other nations.
.. But it’s just as ridiculous for conservatives to pretend that the outrage over Trump’s comments truly centers around his assessment of Haiti and Africa when it clearly centers around his assessment of Haitians and Africans.
At this point I simply can’t see how a conservative could look a concerned third-world immigrant (or descendent of a third-world immigrant) in the eye and assert that this president judges them fairly and without bias. The intellectual and rhetorical gymnastics necessary to justify not just Trump’s alleged comments yesterday but his entire history and record of transparent hostility to certain immigrants are getting embarrassing to watch. Some of his comments may “work” politically — divisive comments often do — but that doesn’t make them any less damaging to American political culture as a whole.
A week after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August, we at “The Daily” found ourselves still grappling with what seemed like a simple question: Who are the members of the White Nationalist movement, and how did they come to those beliefs? In an effort to answer that question, one of our producers, Lynsea Garrison, reached out to Derek Black.
Derek had been on track to become a powerful figure in the American white nationalism movement — his father was the creator of Stormfront, the internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, and his godfather was none other than David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Derek was called the “leading light” of the movement. But he rejected that destiny, turning away from his family and upbringing. If anyone might help explain the movement’s recent emboldening, and the perception by its members that, after decades on the fringes, they had an ally in the country’s highest office, it seemed it would be Derek.
My dad often gave me the advice that white nationalists are not looking to recruit people on the fringes of American culture, but rather the people who start a sentence by saying, “I’m not racist, but …”
.. The most effective tactics for white nationalists are to associate American history with themselves and to suggest that the collective efforts to turn away from our white supremacist past are the same as abandoning American culture.
.. It’s a message that erases people of color and their essential role in American life, but one that also appeals to large numbers of white people who would agree with the statement, “I’m not racist, but I don’t want American history dishonored, and this statue of Robert E. Lee shouldn’t be removed.”
On Tuesday afternoon the president defended the actions of those at the rally, stating, “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” His words marked possibly the most important moment in the history of the modern white nationalist movement. These statements described the marchers as they see themselves — nobly driven by a good cause, even if they are plagued by a few bad apples. He said: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”
.. But this protest, contrary to his defense, was advertised unambiguously as a white nationalist rally. The marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us”; in the days leading up to the event, its organizers called it “a pro-white demonstration”; my godfather, David Duke, attended and said it was meant to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”; and many attendees flew swastika flags. Whatever else you might say about the rally, they were not trying to deceive anyone.
.. decisions over the past several months that aligned with the white nationalist agenda, such as limiting or completely cutting off legal and illegal immigration, especially of Hispanics and Muslims; denigrating black communities as criminal and poor, threatening to unleash an even greater police force on them; and going after affirmative action as antiwhite discrimination. But I had never believed Trump’s administration would have trouble distancing itself from the actual white nationalist movement.
.. Yet President Trump stepped in to salvage the message that the rally organizers had originally hoped to project: “George Washington was a slave owner,” he said, and asked, “So will George Washington now lose his status?” Then: “How about Thomas Jefferson?” he asked. “Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue?” He added: “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
.. Until Trump’s comments, few critics seemed to identify the larger relationship the alt-right sees between its beliefs and the ideals of the American founders.
.. While we all know that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal,” his writings also offer room for explicitly white nationalist interpretation.
.. My father observed many times that the quotation from Jefferson’s autobiography embedded on the Jefferson Memorial is deceptive because it reads, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these [the Negro] people are to be free.” It does not include the second half of the sentence: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”
.. It was only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s that the national origin quota system was abolished and Congress fully removed the restriction favoring white immigrants.
.. And then President Trump intervened. His comments supporting the rally gave new purpose to the white nationalist movement, unlike any endorsement it has ever received. Among its followers, being at that rally will become something to brag about, and some people who didn’t want to be associated with extremism will now see the cause as more mainstream. When the president doesn’t provide condemnation that he has been pressed to give, what message does that send but encouragement?
.. The United States was founded as a white nationalist country, and that legacy remains today
.. The president’s words legitimized the worst of our country, and now the white nationalist movement could be poised to grow. To challenge these messages, we need to acknowledge the continuity of white nationalist thought in American history, and the appeal it still holds.
It is a fringe movement not because its ideas are completely alien to our culture, but because we work constantly to argue against it, expose its inconsistencies and persuade our citizens to counter it. We can no longer count on the country’s leader to do this, so it’s now incumbent upon all of us.
1. The President of the United States cannot control himself. I know, this isn’t really news, but good grief, it is hard to imagine a president who does more damage to himself by not being able to handle his own temper. Even if he 100 percent believed the things he said today, he ought to have enough sense than to say them publicly. If I worked for this administration, I would send my resume out tonight — if not out of a sense of self-respect, then out of a sense of self-preservation. Trump’s temperament is going to bring his presidency crashing down. It has already started.
2. Trump is openly trying to legitimize people who should never be legitimized. Look at this exchange from today’s press conference
.. Now, let me be clear: there really are very fine people who are opposed to taking down Confederate statues. I know some of them. Their kind would not have gone anywhere near that far-right event in Charlottesville.
Among the far-right groups engaged in organizing the march were the
- clubs of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer,
- the neo-Confederate League of the South,
- the National Policy Institute [Richard Spencer’s think tank],
- and the National Socialist Movement.
Other groups involved in the rally were
- the Ku Klux Klan,
- the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights,
- the 3 Percenters,
- the Traditionalist Workers Party,
- Identity Evropa,
- the Oath Keepers,
- Vanguard America,
- the American Guard,
- the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia,
- the New York Light Foot Militia,
- the Virginia Minutemen Militia,
- the Nationalist Front,
- the Rise Above Movement,
- True Cascadia,
- and Anti-Communist Action.
Prominent far-right figures in attendance included
- Richard B. Spencer,
- Baked Alaska,
- Augustus Invictus [an occultist, by the way — RD],
- David Duke,
- Nathan Damigo,
- Matthew Heimbach,
- Faith Goldy,
- Mike Enoch,
- League of the South founder Michael Hill,
- AltRight.com editor Daniel Friberg,
- former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson,
- Daily Stormer writers Johnny Monoxide,
- self-described “white activist” and organizer Jason Kessler, and
- radio host Christopher Cantwell.
.. Who among this crew is a “very fine” person? The rally was called “Unite The Right,” so named by organizers because they wanted to bring together all the far-right groups. If you went down to that protest this weekend and marched alongside neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, you deserve to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
3. Trump was right about the role of the antifa provocateurs, and he was right about this:
It is perfectly legitimate to raise the question of where this ends. Once the anti-Confederate crusaders remove all those statues, they’re going to turn on the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Why wouldn’t they? And on what principle will they be stopped?
.. Christine Emba in the Washington Post. “It’s privileged status, not history, that’s being protected.” If this is a war on symbols of “privileged status,” it can never end.
.. Trump’s point is perfectly legitimate, and an important one. But the aftermath of Charlottesville is not the time or the context in which to discuss it. It is also perfectly legitimate to discuss the role of violent antifa provocateurs — but not when you are the President of the United States, and you are under fire for being unable to straightforwardly condemn neo-Nazis and Klansmen.
.. The Left is emboldened now, and fired up. Trump is an accelerant. They will get nastier and more confrontational.
.. People on the Right — ordinary people, not far-right activists or people who identify with the far right in any way — will become angrier and more afraid of what the Left in power means for them.
.. watch the reaction to Mark Lilla’s book The Once And Future Liberal, which exhorts the left to abandon identity politics so they can start winning elections.) The radicalized Left will overreach, and we will see even angrier, more conservative Republicans elected to Congress.
.. 5. The Left — including in the media — will now despise all Trump voters equally, without qualification.
.. The liberal journalist Chris Arnade has been doing incredible work actually traveling the country and visiting Trump voters among the down and out. He’s made the point over and over again that a lot of people voted for Trump not because they’re bigots, but because they are in desperate straits, and have concluded that they have been forgotten by elites.
6. Trump has definitively made his brand pure poison. Anybody who stands by him going forward is going to suffer for it. Look at this:
7. The nation is at an extraordinarily weak moment. Nearly two out of three Americans disapprove of the president. That’s bad news for any president, but in Trump’s case, it’s worse, because he’s so polarizing. If this country were to face a serious crisis — a war, in the worst case — do you really see the nation uniting around Donald Trump? If I were an enemy of America, I would see this as an opportunity.
UPDATE: Here is a link to a 22-minute VICE report on the weekend’s events in Charlottesville. Warning: it is not safe for work, because of language. But you need to see it if you have time. These far-right provocateurs are demonic. At the end, Christopher Cantwell, one of the leaders (and a heavily armed dude from New Hampshire) tells the reporter that the killing of the female protester by the fascist kid driving a car was justified — and that by the time they’re done, there will be a lot more dead. Watch it. It’s chilling.
President Trump sees himself as the antithesis of President Obama, and that’s true in ways large and small. Both men, however, share a fondness for the identity politics that continue to poison U.S. race relations.
.. his initial reaction also evinced an Obama-like reluctance to denounce despicable behavior forcefully and in no uncertain terms.
- When five policemen were gunned down in Dallas last year, Mr. Obama said there was no justification for violence against law enforcement—but then he added a comment about racial inequity in the criminal-justice system.
- After violent demonstrators pillaged Baltimore in 2015 following the death of a black man in police custody, Mr. Obama dutifully condemned the rioters—but not without also noting that “we have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals, primarily African-American, often poor, in ways that raise troubling questions.”
What we heard from Mr. Trump on Saturday, when he said “many sides” were to blame for what took place in Charlottesville, was more of the same equivocation.
Both presidents were less interested in moral clarity than in placating fringe groups out of political expediency. The difference is that Mr. Obama’s caucus mostly indulged his racial innuendo, while Mr. Trump’s called him on it. That’s why the president reluctantly issued a more forceful second statement on Monday.
.. When Mr. Trump took his time last year disavowing David Duke after the former Klan leader endorsed him for president, Mr. Bannon had yet to join the campaign. Perhaps Mr. Trump’s problem is not his staff.
.. Mr. Obama’s attempts to advance black interests through heightened group identity and us-against-them rhetoric didn’t help. He embraced openly antiwhite groups like Black Lives Matter and racially polarizing figures like Al Sharpton. The subsequent rise of the alt-right may be history repeating itself.
.. Maybe the president is convinced, like many of his liberal opponents, that the alt-right carried him to victory. His behavior so far certainly suggests at much.
President Trump buoyed the white nationalist movement on Tuesday as no president has done in generations — equating activists protesting racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rampaged in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend
.. angrily asserting that so-called alt-left activists were just as responsible for the bloody confrontation as marchers brandishing swastikas, Confederate battle flags, anti-Semitic banners and “Trump/Pence” signs.
.. But members of the president’s staff, stunned and disheartened, said they never expected to hear such a voluble articulation of opinions that the president had long expressed in private. National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who are Jewish, stood by uncomfortably as the president exacerbated a controversy that has once again engulfed a White House in disarray.
.. And of the demonstrators who rallied on Friday night, some chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans, he said, “You had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.”
Since the 1960s, Republican politicians have made muscular appeals to white voters, especially those in the South, on broad cultural grounds. But as a rule, they have taken a hard line on the party’s racist, nativist and anti-Semitic fringe. Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush roundly condemned white supremacists.
.. In 1991, the first President Bush took on Mr. Duke, who was then seeking the governor’s seat in Louisiana, saying, “When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society.”
.. But his unifying tone, which his staff characterized as more traditionally presidential, quickly gave way to a more familiar Trump approach.
No sooner had he delivered the Monday statement than he began railing privately to his staff about the press. He fumed to aides about how unfairly he was being treated, and expressed sympathy with nonviolent protesters who he said were defending their “heritage,” according to a West Wing official.
.. Mr. Trump prides himself on an unapologetic style he learned from his father Fred Trump, a New York City housing developer, and Roy Cohn, a combative lawyer who served as an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
.. The president was about to revert to his initial, more defiant stance. As Mr. Trump approached the microphone in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday, aides winced at the prospect of an unmediated president. With good reason.
.. the hiring of Mr. Kelly, who was to impose discipline on a chaotic West Wing.
.. He added that efforts by the president to equate the actions of the counter-protesters, however violent they may have been, with the neo-Nazis and the driver of the car that murdered a protester were “unacceptable.”
“There’s no moral equivalence,” Mr. Cantor said.