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Donald Trump’s Coded Message to White-Nationalist “Accelerationists”

Far-right extremists may be souring on Trump as a political leader, but he’s resolutely making the world a better place for the worst among them.

Members of a white nationalist group at an alt-right rally in Portland
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Even as his campaign stumbles through these bleak late-summer months, beset by a nationwide health and economic crisis that’s largely of his own making, President Donald Trump is blowing full-bore on his racist dog whistles. The president has, in recent weeks, accused his Democratic opponent, Vice President Joe Biden, of wanting to destroy “our beautiful suburbs.” He’s repeatedly made derisive comments about black public figures and floated racist “Kung Flu” conspiracy theories. He’s even threatened to designate Antifa as an official domestic terrorist group, despite the fact that no such designation actually exists.

It’s nothing new for Trump to traffic in racist tropes and false notions; these were, after all, present at the birth of his presidential campaign. But as a pandemic decimates communities and economies, and police clash with protesters on the streets of America’s major cities, there’s a different tenor to Trump’s latter-day rhetoric. In place of the border-wall fearmongering that Trump used to summon traditional conservatives to his side four years ago, there’s something more nihilistic, more slash-and-burn, about his declamations now. The man who once claimed that “I alone can fix it” now seems largely bent on pouring gasoline on every conflagration. The president who once decried “American carnage” now seems to want to play a strong role in facilitating it.

For those who have become acclimated or inured to Trump’s typical blend of incompetence, corruption, and giddy divisiveness, these most recent days of his presidential tenure may not seem altogether distinct from any of the months that preceded them. For those who study the ideas underpinning white nationalism, however, what’s been lately emerging from the White House is a distinct strain of rhetoric known as “accelerationism,” and it’s being heard by a uniquely dangerous faction of America’s far-right fringe.

It might not be enough to save his electoral fortunes. As a new report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center on the far-right rallies of the Trump era notes, “Right-wing extremists have increasingly lost confidence in President Donald Trump,” as well as in the political process more generally. As a result, “they have resorted to more authoritarian means of achieving their political goals,” with accelerationists in particular calling for “violence to speed the process along.” But even if Trump is no longer the darling or savior figure of the far right, his rhetoric is continuing to give accelerationist ideas a prominence they’ve never before enjoyed and is setting the stage for future violence and illiberalism long after he quits the stage. 

Originally born of the academic left, “accelerationism” is a loosely coherent set of social theories built on the precept that action can and should be taken to “accelerate” the assumed-to-be inevitable degeneration and collapse of capitalism. Such collapse would then act as a kind of prescribed land burn, prepping the soil for the emergence of a more economically equitable government. Beginning in the 1980s, however, white supremacist propagandists latched onto the accelerationist story, adding their own dark twist to the final chapter in which the imagined post-collapse government becomes an authoritarian, whites-only ethnostate­.

“We’re in a moment of historic political polarization, and President Trump is very much intentionally stoking that tension and trying to make it worse,” says Cassie Miller, a researcher who tracks far-right militants for Southern Poverty Law Center. “Accelerationist white supremacists are very happy to see that because they know they can thrive in an atmosphere of political instability and uncertainty. So, anything that will add to that is something they’re in favor of.”

Accelerationism is experiencing a renaissance in recent months, and that comes as no surprise to Miller and researchers like her, who follow the white nationalist movement. Sparked by the devastation of Covid-19 and fueled by “race war” fantasies stemming from the Black Lives Matter protests, accelerationism seems tailor-made for a moment in which widespread crisis makes it easy to contemplate the idea of a further future collapse.

Trump clearly still sees value in the sort of amped-up racial and militaristic rhetoric that accelerationists crave. In a May 30 tweet, he asserted that if Black Lives Matter protestors had tried to “breach” the White House fence, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” Far from tamping down the disorder, the president is seeking to aggravate and instigate more protests and more confrontations. It’s a distinctly accelerationist calculation that suggests the president is still comfortable going to considerable lengths to gain the affections of the far-right. Or rather, to try to regain them in the run-up to the fall elections. “There’s actually a lot of frustration with Trump and feeling like he hasn’t fulfilled the authoritarian promises he made,” says Miller. “That’s driven many in the white supremacy movement to reject mainstream politics entirely.”

Many on the extremist right have become disillusioned, if not wholly dismissive, of Trump’s base campaign message. The idea that he alone can prevent liberals from destroying the country has been substantially undermined by the widespread perception, borne out of four years of failure, that Trump lacks either the skills or the willpower to actually fulfill that promise. Even Trump’s incursions into Portland, by way of Department of Homeland Security irregulars, are seen by most as pure political theater, not a commitment to brutally putting down leftist agitators.

White nationalist leader Richard Spencer, in an email interview with The New Republic, confirmed this disappointment. “After the alt-right burst onto the scene in 2016, I fully expected serious funding to enter the movement—to the tune of tens of millions—much like the left and conservatives enjoy. I was mistaken and naïve.” Spencer and others complain that Trump’s personal pettiness, scattershot leadership, and perceived lack of ideological purity have undermined their efforts. According to Spencer, divides have “resulted, in part, from the infighting and jockeying for power that came after Charlottesville and the attacks on those of us who withdrew from ‘Trumpism’ early and began strongly criticizing him.” Eric Striker, another influential voice in white supremacist circles, looked ahead to the election: “From now until November, Trump has no choice but to start pulling live white rabbits out of his hat. He can’t win without the white nationalist vote, and his campaign from here on out will make this obvious.”

Trump is saying the sorts of things he imagines white supremacists want to hear, but to hear people like Spencer and Striker tell it, it’s not working. It makes a certain kind of sense: They know better than anyone that a string of random racist utterances is not the same thing as a coherent strategy to expand the political power of white supremacists. Moreover, Trump’s current cadre of advisors—with Jared Kushner and Steven Miller at the helm—lack the same sophistication and deft alt-right fluency of his 2016 campaign director, Steve Bannon, who was better at singing the siren songs of white nationalism. Trump has largely been left to dump his racist bait on the pier. And Richard Spencer, for one, isn’t biting. “I will never vote for Donald Trump. I wish him the worst.” He added, “I’m not exactly enthusiastic about voting for Joe Biden, but in all likelihood, I will.”

Spencer and the white supremacist movement hardly depend on Trump to flourish. Accelerationist rhetoric is codified within a robust canon of propagandist “race war” literature, which thrives just outside of mainstream view but is nevertheless widely available via hand-to-hand sales—often at gun shows—or through online self-publishing platforms like Amazon. These works are meant to do more than entertain. The most infamous of them, The Turner Diaries, is sure to be found on the bookshelf of any “respectable” white supremacist. Published in 1978 by physics professor turned neo-Nazi William Pierce, the novel gained mainstream attention after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when pages torn from the book were discovered in the car of perpetrator Timothy McVeigh. His actions were found to have mirrored several scenes described in the novel.

Today, full-text PDFs of The Turner Diaries and other racist propaganda are freely exchanged in online forums that have simultaneously become both increasingly militant and decreasingly visible to those tasked with tracking those conversations. Twitter’s 2018 purge of hatemonger accounts led to the creation of Gab, a Twitter-esque platform that encourages racist hate speech. Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, has also become a hotbed for these exchanges. There, anonymous users share information with thousands of likeminded followers, often on previously verboten topics like how to build a bomb, shoot a Glock, or board a plane when you’re on the FBI watchlist.  

Amid this frenzy of newfound freedom, a collection of essays from the 1980s, entitled SIEGE, is becoming more widely read and disseminated. SIEGE is a neo-Nazi polemic, penned by James Mason, who is credited by many to be the father of white-supremacist accelerationism. The book’s introduction, written by publisher Ryan Schuster, who reprinted it in 2003, praises Timothy McVeigh and overtly calls for readers to take violent action, using SIEGE as a “cookbook and guide.” Schuster lays out Mason’s bleak worldview:

At this juncture social malaise cannot be halted, only accelerated onward to the abyss, capitulating the whole vile episode of this end cycle … the secret to fomenting implosion is to route the System’s own nefarious momentum against itself and reflect every bombardment of nihilism back to the instigative source to stoke frenzy, and reap greater sabotage. In short, championing the System to OVERDOSE on its own virulent poison! When this transpires en masse, Mason has repeatedly stressed that most will die along with the System. More poignant still, most already have expired, and represent the very antithesis of life: living cadavers. A fitting coup de grace and burial are long overdue. Previously dug graves beckon. What remains a preponderant complexity is just when optimal dirt shoveling occurs.

Trump has already broken ground. His repeated, deliberate attempts to undermine the upcoming elections have created a set of conditions that could encourage violence from two burgeoning fronts: white-supremacist terror cells and lone wolves, and the Trump administration’s own federal forces. If this sounds far-fetched, one need only look to the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso and the confrontations between Trump’s de facto secret police and Portland protesters. These events speak rivetingly to those who marinate in accelerationist white nationalism. But they also take up residence in the minds of non-adherents as the possible pattern of a “new normal,” creeping in quietly on kittens’ feet.

“We tend to see the white power movement as a kind of political aberration and assume that it’s not really connected to the larger political landscape; and that is fundamentally wrong,” warns Miller. “They are very much a reflection of our larger political culture. The fact that they are shifting toward more violent political ends is indicative of the fact that, as a whole, our politics are becoming more authoritarian and we are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of political violence. I think that should frighten us.”

The excitement on Telegram is palpable. There, white nationalists quote passages from Mason and Pierce to each other. Some offer campaign advice for Trump and the wider Republican party: “If you want to win you must embrace your extremists. You don’t have to like them, you just have to show support for them. Because without extremists, you’re just openly racist conservatives.” They idolize the “saints” of their movement­, such as Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, by listening to the “Bowlcast” podcast, so named for his haircut. Together, they swim in a river of aggressively bigoted memes, animated gifs, Pepe cartoons, gun porn, and weightlifting videos.

It’s all a bit surreal. But it’s also underscored by a dark, collective assumption that they as a community are preparing for a day of reckoning that will come regardless of November’s election results—a day in which all Jews and people of color will be murdered alongside their liberal white allies. “Accelerationism appears to be working. That is to say: shit’s going to hell in a handbasket,” gloats a writer on the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, before rallying his readers’ zeal for this new kind of domestic military adventurism. “We’re hurtling towards an actual civil war here, lads. And I, for one, welcome it.”