Donald Trump may have angered some in the so called “alt-right” with his debate jibe about a 400 pound hacker.
But most extreme-right activists were looking for other other code-worded racially loaded messages from Trump — and analysts who track white supremacists and anti-Semitic activists say they may have heard just enough to keep them happy.
There was at least one obvious dog whistle directed to “alt-right” listeners at the nationally televised showdown with Democrat Hillary Clinton.
During a discussion on racial tensions and violence, Trump pointedly used the term “inner city” neighborhoods, and suggested the need to restore “law and order” by increasing police enforcement. Analysts say those terms were used to reach out to far right-wing whites.
“When these people here politicians talk about ‘inner city,’ what they hear is people talking about black violence,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center who has been researching “alt-right” activity. “Donald Trump has been dog whistling the extreme right from the beginning.”
However, the mention of alleged African-American crime was not enough for some. Marilyn Mayo from the Anti-Defamation League’s center on extremism noticed that some “alt-right” activists had said after the debate they had hoped Trump would expand more on the issue and state that “most crimes are committed by black males.”
Still, by and large, experts agree that “alt-right” voters could be satisfied with what they heard from Trump.
He steadfastly refused to apologize for spending years promoting the canard that President Obama was not born in the United States, which white supremacists still relentlessly promulgate online.
When prompted by moderator Lester Holt to address the so-called birther issue in the context of racial tensions, Trump flat out refused, seeking to shift the blame to Obama himself.
“I say nothing, he should have produced [the birth certificate] before,” he said. Trump went on to accused aides to Clinton for initially questioning Obama’s birthplace in 2008 and proudly claimed he was “the one who got [Obama] to produce [his birth certificate].”
The veiled reference to alleged criminal activity of African-Americans, as well as his ambiguous response to the “birther” question, set the right tone for supporters from the extreme right seeking racially loaded references.
“The ‘alt-right’ still thinks Trump represents their interests and they don’t see him trying to distance himself from them,” said Mayo. But, according to Potok, these activists understand that as Trump battles to win over centrist voters, they may be the ones paying the price. “People in the extreme right,” he said, “believe that he will have to distance himself.”
One issue that far right-wingers would’ve liked to hear Trump address more was immigration.
This topic plays the biggest role in “alt-right” circles and in the past was used as the key rallying call for these activists to back Trump, especially his attacks on Mexican immigrants and his signature plan to build a wall along the border.
David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader now running for Senate in Louisiana, expressed disappointment with Trump for not bringing up the explosive issue of immigration in the debate.
Holt did not ask about immigration and the issue did not come up in the back and forth between Trump and Clinton. The lack of any discussion meant that many of Trump’s harshest and most obvious dog whistles that have rallied the “alt-right” and have made them among his strongest support groups, were left entirely out of the debate.
But analysts cautioned against interpreting Trump’s silence on the issue as heralding a kinder or gentler Donald.
“Trump sounded a little more moderate because the issue of immigration was not raised by the moderator,” said Peter Montgomery, senior fellow at People for the American Way. But he added he did not notice “any sign that Trump was trying to moderate.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.