The white nationalism that remains a virulent strain throughout Donald Trump’s MAGA base received a jump start with the election of a U.S. president.
But white nationalism alone didn’t bring the man now known as “Inmate #P01135809” into power in 2016.
It was the election of President Barack Obama eight years earlier.
When Obama made history by becoming the nation’s first Black president, he also reignited an ugly part of America’s past: fear of “the Great Replacement.” That’s the theory, dating back to the 19th century, that white people faced grave danger, with the severity of the danger increasing in direct proportion to the expansion of freedom for Black people.
Jacob Ware, a national expert on right-wing militant movements who works as a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Raw Story that the rise of Trumpism was rooted in the explosion of white nationalist backlash to Obama’s election.
“Great Replacement theory has been floating around in the U.S. context since the Civil War – it was one of the justifications for the Civil War,” said Ware, the co-author of “Guns, God and Sedition,” a book about far-right terrorism due to be released later this year. “This is a very dangerous ideology that has been growing over time.
“But the one really big factor that cannot be overlooked is that before Trump, there was the election of Barack Obama,” Ware said. “A Black person being elected president and things that followed sent a message to an unfortunately quite large population in America that they were being replaced by minorities.”
A group of Republican leaders famously gathered on the night of Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 to plot a campaign of obstruction to ensure he would fail — and become a one-term president.
That meeting didn’t come to light until 2012 in a book by journalist Robert Draper. But in retrospect, it was a precursor to the backlash to Obama's election.
The plotters at that meeting at a D.C. steakhouse included 13 members then serving in Congress – seven from the House and six from the Senate. A little-known fact? Only two still hold office: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (at the time an obscure second-term congressman) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who lost re-election for his Dallas-area district in 2018 only to reinvent himself as a congressman now representing a district about 100 miles to the south.
No one at the meeting has been known for trafficking in the Great Replacement theory, specifically. But might such an extraordinary event have been related in some way to the arrival of America’s first Black president?
“Although I cannot say for sure that this meeting was driven by ‘great replacement’ theory, much of the backlash to Obama's election certainly was,” Ware says. “The most conspicuously racist reactions included allegations that Obama was Muslim and foreign-born. Unsurprisingly, this led to a substantial increase in hate crimes and terrorist incidents perpetrated by white supremacists both inside the U.S. and beyond.”
The racist birtherism conspiracies would help launch Trump’s political career. The stage was also set for Trump’s racism by Black Lives Matter protests and what many whites saw as “a permissive environment for that kind of activism” under Obama.
During the same period, when Obama was president, an immigration crisis in Europe related to unrest and wars in the Middle East had exploded. By the time Trump descended his golden elevator in 2015, and announced his presidential bid, he had plenty of xenophobic winds at his back.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t come as a shock that a defining characteristic of the Trump presidency was his tacit embrace of Great Replacement theory.
“Donald Trump used that,” Ware says. “He used that in his campaign, at Charlottesville and throughout his administration. And a huge factor here as well is the way that these individuals, these extremists, perceived themselves to be suffering replacement.
“The really important thing about that is that when you're being replaced and it's active, there is an urgency to act. Otherwise, it’s an existential threat to your survival. And that leads to a lot of violence and we see that language in a lot of terrorists’ manifestos,” Ware said.
Trump inspired racists and extremists long before the January 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, Ware added.
“The message received from the movement was that sometimes violence was going to be protected from the very top of the American political system,” Ware says. “Everyone knows what Trump says about there being fine people on both sides at Charlottesville” where the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally led to death and destruction.
“Richard Spencer, the white supremacist, said Charlottesville would not have happened without Trump. I think that’s a good way to look at this: A lot of what we’ve seen would not have been possible without Trump. That you’ve got a Confederate flag being paraded through the U.S. Capitol on January 6 wouldn’t have been possible without him.
“They felt they had permission from the White House,” Ware said.
But how does an expert on counter-terrorism explain Trump’s ability to connect with so many more far-right extremists than anyone else?
“Trump’s ultimate genius can be seen in two things that he said from the very start and then repeated tens of thousands of times, and those are the phrases, ‘fake news’ and ‘deep state’,” Ware says. “Because of that repetition, any counter-arguments or anything that didn’t go his way could easily be dismissed as fake news, or having come from the deep state.
“And tens of millions of people just believe him.”