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The "Unite the Right" march in Charlottesville has brought the issue of white nationalism to the top of the nation’s agenda -- specifically, whether white nationalists are part of the White House staff.
Remarks by liberal commentator Joy-Ann Reid on the Aug. 13 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press crystallized these questions. Reid, the host of MSNBC’s AM Joy, wondered whether Trump’s initial downplaying of white nationalists’ culpability stemmed from alt-right influence among his staff:
"Who's writing the talking points that he was looking down and reading from? He has people like Stephen Miller, claimed as a mentee by Richard Spencer, who is an avowed open white nationalist. He has Steve Bannon, who's been sort of allowed to … meld into … the normalcy of a governmental employee, but who ran Breitbart.com, which I reread today, the post that's still on their website, where they self-describe as the home of the alt-right.
"What is the alt-right? It is a dressed-up term for white nationalism. They call themselves white identitarianism. They say that the tribalism that's sort of inherent in the human spirit ought to be also applied to white people.
"That is who is in his government. Sebastian Gorka, who wore the medal of Vitézi Rend, a Nazi organization, being paid by the taxpayer, in the government of Donald Trump. The former Publius Decius blogger Michael Anton in the government.
"He is surrounded by these people. It isn't both sides. He's in the White House -- they're in the White House with him."
Fellow panelist Rich Lowry, who edits the conservative National Review, which has taken strong exception to Trump, pushed back.
"I want the alt-right to be as limited as possible -- I want it to go away and die -- but you aren't doing folks on my side any favors by defining it so widely that it includes Stephen Miller and Mike Anton," Lowry said on the show. "That's what they want. You're helping them by defining it so widely."
It’s important to note that Reid did not explicitly accuse any of the four individuals she named of being white nationalists or alt-right members per se. But she suggested that the four were sympathetic to people who do fall into that category.
We decided to take a closer look. Because of the complexities of this issue, and because some of the evidence is in dispute, we’re not applying a Truth-O-Meter rating to Reid’s comments.
First, we’ll look at the general question of defining the alt-right and white nationalism. Then we’ll look at the four specific individuals Reid cited, and weigh her evidence. The White House and Reid shared evidence that we have included in the analysis below.
The boundaries, and degree of overlap, between the alt-right, white nationalists, and older white supremacist groups such as the KKK or neo-Nazis -- all of which had a presence in the Charlottesville march -- is debated territory.
Two anti-extremist groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, offer similar definitions that differ somewhat in wording.
The ADL calls white nationalism "a term used by white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy," while the SPLC calls it the belief in "a white nation for and run by whites. White nationalists believe race and IQ are related and that black people are inherently inferior in IQ."
Meanwhile, SPLC calls the alt-right "a recent rebranding of white nationalism," while the ADL calls it "a loose network of people who promote white identity and reject mainstream conservatism in favor of politics that embrace implicit or explicit racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy."
The reality is that "there is no agreed-upon definition of the borders between these groups," said Joshua Green, author of Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, which delved into questions about the alt-right and Trump’s presidential campaign. "I think most people make their judgments in much the same way that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart explained his definition of obscenity: ‘I know it when I see it.’ "
Thomas J. Main, a professor at Baruch College-CUNY and author of the forthcoming book Rise of the Alt-Right, said the defining characteristic of white nationalists is "anyone who boldly steps forward and says that all people are not created equal," particularly on the question of whose voice should be counted in the political sphere.
Often, the main differences between various categories "are matters of style and tactics," said Nicole Hemmer, a University of Virginia professor and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.
Neo-Nazis, for their part, typically rely on the imagery of Nazi Germany, while neo-Confederates focus instead on imagery of the Confederacy.
To Hemmer, one of the most notable aspects of the alt-right is that it "has largely emerged online," and that "the alt-right positions itself as a response to political correctness, arguing that the aggressive defense of white rights and men's rights is a byproduct of liberal identity politics."
When political scientist Carol Swain was researching her 2002 book, The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration, she noticed the beginnings of today’s alt-right.
"They were well-educated, and they did not espouse public violence in interviews and did not use racial epithets," said Swain, who is African-American and who has spoken out against political correctness on campus. "But they felt like there were racial double standards and they felt that white people were discriminated against."
Miller, a former aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. -- now Trump’s attorney general -- currently serves as senior adviser for policy in the White House and has periodically represented the administration on television. His key issue -- and Sessions’ -- has historically been immigration, namely tightening it.
In describing Miller, Reid has carefully chosen her words.
For starters, experts we checked with agreed that Richard Spencer, who heads a group called the National Policy Institute, is fairly categorized as a white nationalist.
Media outlets including Vanity Fair have noted that Spencer, at a 2016 alt-right conference, said, "To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward. And we recognize a central lie of American race relations. We don’t exploit other groups -- we don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us, and not the other way around. ... America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us."
Reid is also correct that Miller was "claimed as a mentee" by Spencer.
According to Vanity Fair, Spencer says he became aware of Miller when both were at Duke University and was "impressed" with his communications ability.
"Being a few years older and in graduate school, Spencer says, he mentored Miller. ‘But I do think that Stephen probably would’ve ended up exactly more or less where he is today whether he had met me or not,’ he adds. ‘He is his own man. ... He is a strong American nationalist, you could say. Certainly not a white nationalist, but he is an American nationalist and a civic nationalist or a public nationalist."
However, Reid’s telling leaves out that Miller has aggressively disputed Spencer’s account. The Vanity Fair article added that Miller emailed Mother Jones in October 2016 that "I have absolutely no relationship with Mr. Spencer. I completely repudiate his views, and his claims are 100 percent false."
Green said Miller told him the same thing as he was researching his book on Bannon.
Bannon, a senior counselor to the president, did previously run Breitbart.com before joining the Trump presidential campaign. And he did tell Mother Jones, "We’re the platform for the alt-right," during an interview at the 2016 Republican National Convention. (Update: Bannon left his job at the White House on Aug. 18, 2017.)
But Reid incorrectly attributed that sentiment to an article on the Breitbart site, "An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right," authored by Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos. That piece -- while controversial -- is a March 2016 taxonomy of the various corners of the movement, not a manifesto of Breitbart’s place in it.
Bannon has sought to offer a more nuanced definition of his views. In his book about Bannon, Green understood his term "platform" to mean a meeting place for a broad cross section of the right -- one that ranges from relatively mainstream to relatively fringe.
"Asked at the 2014 Vatican conference about the racist element found in many far-right parties, Bannon replied that ‘over time it all gets kind of washed out,’ " Green wrote. "He seemed to regard it as an unavoidable evil, a kind of way station on the path to populist triumph. ‘When you look at any kind of revolution -- and this is a revolution -- you always have some groups that are disparate,’ he’d said. ‘I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement.’ "
Green said that Bannon (and Miller) "have made impassioned arguments to me that the policies they espouse, including the deportation of undocumented immigrants, would have beneficial effects for blacks and Hispanics." Bannon also denied that the alt-right is racist in his Mother Jones interview.
"He describes its ideology as ‘nationalist,’ though not necessarily white nationalist," the article said. "Likening its approach to that of European nationalist parties such as France’s National Front, he says, ‘If you look at the identity movements over there in Europe, I think a lot of (them) are really "Polish identity" or "German identity," not racial identity. It’s more identity toward a nation-state or their people as a nation.’ "
Gorka serves as deputy assistant to the president and also appears on television to represent the administration. But Gorka has attracted controversy for, among other things, wearing symbols of a successor group to Vitézi Rend, an honorary order that had originally been founded in 1920 by Miklós Horthy, a Hungarian ally of Adolf Hitler.
To say that Gorka "wore the medal of Vitézi Rend" is accurate. However, calling today’s incarnation of the group specifically "a Nazi organization" is in dispute.
Gorka’s father was jailed and sentenced to forced labor by Hungary’s Soviet-aligned government during the Cold War, and he later received an honor from the successor group for his anti-Communist activities. At times, Gorka has worn a medal of the group, including at Trump’s inauguration. Gorka has said the medal merely honors his father. (Gorka was born in London after his parents emigrated there.)
Reporting by the Jewish publication the Forward suggested that Gorka’s ties to the group went further -- that he had sworn a lifetime oath. The Forward also reported that from "2002 to 2007, while he was active in Hungarian politics and journalism … he had close ties then to Hungarian far-right circles, and has in the past chosen to work with openly racist and anti-Semitic groups and public figures."
Gorka has forcefully denied any sympathies for Nazism, and he took issue with the Forward’s reporting and inferences.
He told Tablet, another Jewish magazine, "I have never been a member of the Vitézi Rend. I have never taken an oath of loyalty to the Vitézi Rend. Since childhood, I have occasionally worn my father’s medal and used the ‘v.’ initial to honor his struggle against totalitarianism."
Gorka rejected an NBC investigation of the issue and said he had "completely distanced" himself from white supremacist and Nazi ideology groups.
Anton is easily the least-known figure of the four Reid mentioned. He serves as director of strategic communications at the National Security Council.
After he joined the White House staff, it was revealed that Anton was the writer behind a series of opinion pieces that had been signed "Publius Decius Mus," named after a fallen consul in ancient Rome. They were considered a form of intellectual ballast for Trump at a time when few conservative academics were in his corner.
Portions of the Publius Decius Mus column titled "Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism" do address themes common of the alt-right, including racial politics:
"In their hearts, nearly all ‘conservatives’ long for absolution on the charge of ‘racism.’ Like the atheist caricature of the devout husband guilt-wracked for coveting his own wife, the modern conservative believes the leftist lie that his natural affinity for people who look, think and speak like himself is shameful and illegitimate, to be internally repressed and publicly denied."
Later, the article says, "Yes, it is true that ‘all men are created equal.’ But Lincoln adds the crucial caveat: All men are not ‘equal in all respects’ (emphasis in the original). They are not ‘equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments or social capacity.’ People from different nations with different circumstances, histories, beliefs and traditions will — by definition — hold very different conceptions of good government, some irreconcilably opposed to our own."
So, Anton was Publius Decius Mus, as Reid said. But the significance of one’s anonymous blogging is open to debate.
When we asked this question of several independent experts, they all agreed that none of the four were white nationalists themselves. However, several said that they had placed themselves uncomfortably close to white nationalists.
Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told PolitiFact "we would not consider" any of the four to be white nationalists.
George Hawley, a University of Alabama political scientist and author of the forthcoming book, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, said he "would probably not describe any high-ranking White House officials as white nationalists." He added, however, that "important members of the Trump administration can definitely be described as right-wing populists and nativists. These are ideological stances that deserve criticism, but white nationalism is a much more extreme ideology."
Bannon does try to "maintain the appearance that the particular entity he’s referring to is the nation, rather than a race," said Main of Baruch College. "Do I think that’s a tremendous improvement? Not really. But I think it’s a distinction that has to be made."
And Hemmer, the University of Virginia professor, said the term she would use is "white nationalist-adjacent. Their biographies and rhetoric signal to white nationalists that they have friends in the White House. Put another way, they're not Richard Spencers or David Dukes, but they make the Richard Spencers and David Dukes feel more comfortable with the administration."
Indeed, as the New York Times noted in December 2016, "While he does not consider either Mr. Trump or Mr. Bannon alt-right, Mr. Spencer has expressed hope that the press’s describing them as such will help his own group grow."
Joy-Ann Reid, remarks on NBC’s Meet the Press, Aug. 13, 2017
Anti-Defamation League, "From Alt Right to Alt Lite: Naming the Hate," accessed Aug. 15, 2017
Anti-Defamation League, "Defining Extremism: A Glossary of White Supremacist Terms, Movements and Philosophies," accessed Aug. 15, 2017
Joshua Green, Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, 2017
The Atlantic, "His Kampf," June 2017
Vanity Fair, "How Stephen Miller Rode White Rage from Duke's Campus to Trump's West Wing," summer 2017
Mother Jones, "How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists," Aug. 22, 2016
Mother Jones, "We Talked to Experts About What Terms to Use for Which Group of Racists. Surprise: They don’t always agree either," Dec. 8, 2016
Breitbart.com, "An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right," March 29, 2016
The Forward, "Nazi-Allied Group Claims Top Trump Aide Sebastian Gorka As Sworn Member," March 16, 2017
The Forward, "Senior Trump Aide Forged Key Ties To Anti-Semitic Groups In Hungary," Feb. 24, 2017
Tablet, "Tale of Trump Adviser’s Alleged Nazi Ties Unravels," March 16, 2017
Times of Israel, "Nazi-linked group ‘proud’ of Trump adviser for wearing medal," April 9, 2017
Slate.com, "Gutter Trash," March 16, 2017
Publius Decius Mus (Michael Anton), "Toward a Sensible, Coherent Trumpism," March 10, 2016
Publius Decius Mus (Michael Anton), "The Flight 93 Election," Sept. 5, 2016
Anti-Defamation League, "Stephen Bannon: Five Things to Know," accessed Aug. 15, 2017
NPR, "What You Need To Know About The Alt-Right Movement," Aug. 26, 2016
Thomas J. Main, "What's the Alt-Right?" Aug. 25, 2016
Christopher Caldwell, "What the Alt-Right Really Means," Dec. 2, 2016
The Intercept, "Dark Essays by White House Staffer Are the Intellectual Source Code of Trumpism," Feb. 12, 2017
Email interview with Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, Aug. 14, 2017
Email interview with Carol Swain, former Vanderbilt University political scientist and author of the book, The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration, Aug. 14, 2017
Email interview with George Hawley, University of Alabama political scientist and author of the forthcoming book, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, Aug. 15, 2017
Email interview with Nicole Hemmer, University of Virginia professor and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, Aug. 15, 2017
Interview with Thomas J. Main, professor at Baruch College-CUNY and author of the forthcoming book Rise of the Alt-Right, Aug. 15, 2017
Email interview with Joshua Green, author of Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, Aug. 15, 2017
Email interview with Joy-Ann Reid, host of MSNBC’s AM Joy, Aug. 14, 2017