Normalizing white supremacy
Last week, Donald Trump — the former president and leading candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024 — had dinner at his Mar-a-Lago club with one of the nation's most prominent white supremacists and antisemites, Nick Fuentes. In recent episodes of his podcast, Fuentes has called "for the military to be sent into Black neighborhoods" and demanded "that Jews leave the country." He is also a Holocaust denier and compared the murder of Jews in Nazi Germany to baking cookies. Fuentes rose to prominence after he participated in the 2017 white nationalist march in Charlottesville. "You can call us racists, white supremacists, Nazis, & bigots…But you will not replace us," Fuentes said after the violent demonstration. "The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming."
In response to Trump breaking bread with an unrepentant racist, top Republican elected officials have said nothing.
The silence of Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is seeking to be elected as the next House Speaker, is particularly notable. McCarthy is very familiar with Fuentes and his abhorrent views. In February, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Congressman Paul Gosar (R-AZ) participated in a white nationalist convention hosted by Fuentes. McCarthy told reporters that Greene and Gosar's association with Fuentes was "appalling and wrong" because "Republicans should not be associated, any time, any place, with somebody who is anti-Semitic." But McCarthy has not said anything publicly about Trump's dinner with Fuentes, and his office did not respond to a request for comment.
Today, Republicans have a very narrow House majority, and McCarthy needs the support of Republican members of Congress that are loyal to Trump (and potentially sympathetic to Fuentes) to be elected Speaker. McCarthy claimed to be appalled by Fuentes but is willing to look the other way if that is what it takes to gain power.
Other Republican leaders have taken a similar approach. In February, after Taylor Greene and Gosar participated in Fuentes' conference, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said there is "no place in the Republican Party for white supremacists or anti-Semitism." In response to Trump's dinner with Fuentes, McConnell has said nothing publicly and did not respond to a request for comment. McConnell needs the backing of Trump loyalists in the Senate to maintain his leadership post.
Congressman Jim Banks (R-IN), a Trump loyalist contemplating a run for Senate, blasted Taylor Greene and Gosar last February. "It’s unbecoming for a member of Congress to speak at an event that’s promoted by anyone who espouses those views," Banks said. But Banks has remained silent in the wake of Trump's dinner with Fuentes and did not respond to a request for comment.
The other members of Republican Senate leadership — Senators John Thune (R-SD), John Barrasso (R-WY), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) — have said nothing about Trump's personal meeting with a white supremacist. The same goes for the rest of the Republican House leadership — Steve Scalise (R-LA), Tom Emmer (R-MN), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and Richard Hudson (R-NC).
The silence delivers a loud message: Republicans are willing to countenance white supremacy and anti-Semitism if that is what it takes to maintain power and stay in the good graces of Trump.
Trump's standard excuse
In response to critical media coverage, Trump claimed that he "knew nothing about" Fuentes. According to Trump, he invited Kanye West to dinner, and West brought Fuentes along unannounced. Trump described the dinner as "quick and uneventful." West has embraced anti-semitism in recent weeks, tweeting that he was prepared to go "death con 3" on "the Jews."
Claiming ignorance is a tactic Trump has used previously to avoid criticizing white supremacists that support him politically. In 2016, Trump was endorsed by notorious former KKK grand wizard David Duke. In an interview with CNN, Trump refused to repudiate the endorsement, claiming that he didn't "know anything about David Duke" and didn't "know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy." Asked if he would condemn the white supremacists that support him, Trump said he would need to "do research on them and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong."
Trump's claim that he didn't know anything about Duke was not credible. He had disavowed Duke when he was contemplating a run for President as a Reform Party candidate in 2000. In August 2015, shortly after his initial campaign launched, Trump said he "wouldn’t want [Duke's] endorsement."
Similarly, Trump's alleged unfamiliarity with Fuentes is suspect. One of Fuentes' closest associates is far-right provocateur Michelle Malkin. In May 2020, Trump retweeted a clip from Fuentes' internet show, America First Clips, supporting Malkin. (The American First Clips account was subsequently banned from Twitter.) At the time, Malkin was under fire for defending Fuentes and other racists.
In February 2022, Trump's own social media network, Truth Social, verified Fuentes' account. Fuentes has been banned from most other networks, including those catering to the right wing. Since his dinner last week, Trump has not said anything negative about Fuentes or expressed any regret about his decision to have dinner with him.
Notably, Taylor Greene also defended her participation in Fuentes' February event by claiming she was unfamiliar with Fuentes. "I do not know Nick Fuentes. I have never heard him speak, I have never seen a video," Taylor Greene said. "I do not know what his views are so I am not aligned with anything that is controversial." Republican leaders were not convinced and condemned her anyway. Trump is being treated differently.
Media grants Republican operatives anonymity to defend Trump
Several major media outlets have granted sympathetic operatives anonymity to defend Trump. These operatives use the cloak of anonymity to engage in speculation or simply repeat claims made by Trump himself. Axios' story on the dinner included this passage, repeating Trump's dubious claim that he didn't know anything about Fuentes before the dinner:
Trump at one point turned to [West] and said, "I really like this guy. He gets me," according to the source.
"To be honest, I don't believe the president knew who the hell [Fuentes] was," the source added.
The Society of Professional Journalists cautions against the use of anonymous sources and says if an anonymous source is used, "the reporter owes it to the readers to identify the source as clearly as possible without pointing a figure at the person who has been granted anonymity." Axios provides no information about this source.
A similar passage was included in NBC's report:
A person familiar with the dinner conversation who is not involved in Trump's presidential campaign and two Trump advisers briefed on the dinner corroborated Trump's claim that he didn't know Fuentes' identity when they dined together. The three sources spoke on condition on anonymity given the nature of the controversy.
The Washington Post makes an unsourced assertion about what Trump has been telling aides, but does acknowledge that even some aides are skeptical:
Trump has insisted to aides since Tuesday that he did not know Fuentes, a Trump supporter active on Truth Social, the former president’s social media network, though some in his circle said they were skeptical.
All of these reports lack the full context of Trump's denials, including his history of suspect claims of ignorance, his defense of Malkin, and his retweet of Fuentes' video.
Trump's long history of defending and promoting white supremacists
Trump's dinner with Fuentes cannot be understood in isolation. Rather, it is part of Trump's extensive history of defending, promoting, and encouraging white supremacists.
In a September 2020 debate, Trump was asked repeatedly if he was willing to condemn white supremacists. Trump demurred, claiming that he thought the real problems was "from the left wing, not the right wing."
WALLACE: [A]re you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities as we saw in Kenosha and as we've seen in Portland? Are you prepared to specifically do that?
TRUMP: Sure, I'm prepared to do that. But I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing. If you look, I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
Pressed again, Trump resisted condemning white supremacists. Instead he asked for a "specific group" to condemn. When Biden suggested the Proud Boys, "a right-wing extremist group with a violent agenda" that includes "members [who] espouse white supremacist and antisemitic ideologies," Trump told them to "stand down and stand by." The Proud Boys were thrilled and put Trump's response on t-shirts.
Shortly after losing the 2020 election, Trump "appointed two men with well-documented white nationalist ties to government roles." One appointee was Darren Beattie, "a former White House speechwriter fired in 2018 after it was revealed he’d spoken at a white nationalist conference." Beattie was appointed to the "Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad." The other appointee was Jason Richwine, "a policy analyst pushed out of a conservative think tank for writing that Mexican and other Latino immigrants have lower IQs than white people." Richwine was appointed to "a senior position at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)."
Most famously, Trump defended some of the participants in the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of a counter-protester. Trump, however, claimed that some of the marchers were "very fine people."
Five years later, he had dinner with one of the white supremacist marchers on his patio at Mar-a-Lago.