When pressed, Donald Trump has mostly disavowed his support from the racist fringe of the American electorate.
Sometimes — most notably, in a Sunday interview with CNN — Trump has demurred on the issue, claiming that he did not know anything about Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. But even then, under attack later in the day, Trump tweeted out a video of Friday's statement, when he said, "I disavow, OK?" before blaming his earpiece on Monday.
The disavowals aren't deterring white nationalists, however.
Duke says he's "not bothered at all" by Trump's disavowal, and other white nationalists aren't convinced that Trump is refusing their support because he rejects their ideas. They say he is just being practical in navigating a hostile media environment--and some hope to more fully earn Trump's sympathy once he's in the White House.
"I think he was being political and doing what he needs to do and I understand that he's in the cauldron right now," Duke said of Trump's vacillations. "And you know there are very powerful forces that be... We have a McCarthyism going on in this country today that's much more political correctness, that's much more powerful and more brutal and more oppressive than anything that went on in the McCarthy era."
He went on, illustrating his point, "You wouldn't say Beelzebub used toilet paper, therefore using toilet paper is bad, you know what I mean? It's really kind of a crazy scenario we have."
Duke, who says he opposes certain parts of Trump's platform, such as his opposition to the Iran deal and support of torture, precipitated the controversy on Wednesday by saying voting against Trump was "treason to your heritage."
Andrew Anglin, who runs the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, where Trump is often referred to as "Glorious Leader," agreed with Duke's assessment of the media.
"Clearly, Duke's support is an awkward issue, because the Jews have spent so much energy attacking him," Anglin said. "In these news pieces, they are saying he is the leader of the KKK, when he hasn't been a member for four decades. They are saying, 'Do you denounce the KKK?'"
Duke also objects to being characterized as affiliated with the KKK. He says he left the KKK because of its association with "idiots" who did "hateful things or crazy things or violent things." (Duke calls himself a "human rights activist," instead of a "white nationalist.")
Still, William Johnson, the head of the white nationalist American Freedom Party, says Duke's reputation makes Trump's distancing of himself the right call.
"I think that in today's society it's important to disavow things that are so disliked and people that are so disliked by the general public. And I think it is beyond question that David Duke is disliked by the vast majority of Americans," he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News, arguing that Trump showed "character" in his initial reluctance to condemn Duke by not giving a "knee-jerk reaction."
Johnson, whose pro-Trump American National super PAC was disavowed by the candidate in January, feels the same way about Trump's rejection of his own group.
"It is unrequited love," he said. "We like Donald Trump and Donald Trump doesn't like us. And that's the way it should be."
Jared Taylor, who runs the site American Renaissance and made robocalls for Johnson's super PAC, wrote to BuzzFeed News that he didn't know what to make of Trump's comments on Duke. But after Trump's disavowal of his own support in January, Taylor said that Trump is "too smart to accept my endorsement."
"Even if, in his heart, he doesn't want whites to become a minority it would be a mistake for him to accept the support of someone who openly opposes that process," Taylor said. "In disavowing me he did exactly the right thing."
Taylor, who also noted then that Trump's disavowal came in "the gentlest possible terms," did not discount the possibility that the Republican frontrunner might say he wants the U.S. to remain majority white — a core tenet of white nationalism, and the reason white nationalists say they support Trump's stance on immigration — after he wins the presidency.
"It's impossible to know how unpopular (or popular) it would be for a politician to say that he preferred that the United States remain majority white," Taylor said. "I think most whites would be quietly delighted to hear someone say it. But the media would shriek so loudly you could hear it on Mars, and that would be the only thing the poor candidate could talk about for the next month. Trump will have plenty of time for that after he's in the White House — if, in fact, that is something he cares about."
Johnson of the American Freedom Party — who says he is personally against building a wall at the border with Mexico due to concern that "it hurts all the animals that can't go back and forth, so why should we hurt the environment because of the vast numbers of Mexicans and Cubans that are coming across the border?" — thinks a President Trump could be lobbied to come more fully on board with the white nationalist immigration agenda.
"He says that he favors immigration from the subcontinent into Silicon Valley because of their good engineering qualities," Johnson said. "And white nationalists are dramatically opposed to that. We want to stop all immigration. So Donald Trump has to be schooled. We have to educate him on that point."
While he doesn't think Trump is yet "in our camp with regards to maintaining the integrity of the founding stock of America," "we're more sanguine about lobbying him than other candidates."
Trump's past repudiations of white nationalists isn't turning away some of America's most extreme elements, either. The American Nazi Party's monthly report in February said an effect of Trump's campaign was to lay the groundwork for "Aryan Activists."
"Comrades, I feel that 2016 will be a wonderful year of opportunity for Aryan Activists, what with all of these White folks coming out of the woodwork, and feeling empowered by Donald Trump's explosive un-PC statements," wrote Rocky Suhayda, the head of the American Nazi Party. "Trump's rallies have PROVEN that out there is a HUGE percentage of White men AND women who WE can tap into, IF we operate carefully and intelligently."
"And IF he wins, which is a real possibility, these MILLIONS of empowered, un-PC White people will STILL exist - and IF he loses, they will STILL be in EXISTENCE...we need to get off of our duffs and REACH, EDUCATE and ORGANIZE a fair amount of them asap!"
The Daily Stormer's Anglin, meanwhile, argued that, though Trump probably does not agree with Duke on some things, such as "the Jewish issue," he is more extreme in other ways.
"Trump's rhetoric is a lot more hardcore on immigration and especially on Moslems [sic], though this is basically a stylistic issue rather than an ideological one," Anglin said in an email. "Duke is soft-spoken in his presentation, Trump is much more incendiary."
Though Duke said he does not know where Trump truly stands ideologically, he contended that the billionaire has shown a "natural affinity for the heritage in our country" and in Europe.
"He's the only candidate that's there to speak out against the absolute destruction of Merkel and Germany," Duke said. "And he's talked about the fact that Europe is being destroyed, literally, and it doesn't look like Europe anymore."
"And so I don't think — I don't think there's a racist bone in his body. Of course, I don't think there's one in mine either."
Christopher Massie is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Christopher Massie at Christopher.Massie@buzzfeed.com.
Andrew Kaczynski is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Andrew Kaczynski at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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