I write to compliment and complement the superb Maine Sunday Telegram investigation into the activity of hate groups (“Hate groups are on the march in Maine,” July 23).

White nationalist and racist groups were increasing before 2008 but the election of the first black president spurred dozens more into action. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least 917 existed by 2016. The Great Recession created economic hardship and insecurity for millions. As President Barack Obama took office, the Tea Party emerged in opposition, claiming to be about economic policy and taxes but animated also by racial resentment; many supporters believed Obama to be a Muslim and criticized him on that basis. 

A coalition of Tea Parties riding a wave of racial populism reenergized a Republican base deflated by the Bush administration’s debacles. Egregious racism was on display at early Tea Party rallies. Pragmatic rally organizers blamed extremist fringe groups who had infiltrated the movement and cleaned up later rallies.

Dramatic demographic change had an impact. Nearly 14 million new immigrants (both legal and illegal) settled in the country between 2000 and 2010, raising the immigrant population to 40 million, the highest in the nation’s history. Many white people feared they were becoming a numerical minority. White people with negative attitudes to minorities feared loss of status.

The prime time hosts of Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine, Fox News – Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck among them – continuously incited white resentment. Public figures like these regularly accused minorities of taking jobs from white people and getting free benefits from the government.

The emergence of Black Lives Matter, as the Maine Sunday Telegram reporting noted, also fueled white nationalist sentiment. The backlash produced the slogans “White Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter,” and eventually “Blue Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter’s advent led white nationalist groups to increase their recruiting efforts on college campuses, in the military and among members of law enforcement.


In his 2015 and 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination and presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly not only violated democratic norms, he sought to normalize bigotry, incivility and sexism. Trump cozied up to white nationalists and Nazi racists, giving them a sense of legitimacy after decades of progress during which those cancerous elements had been pushed to the fringe.

When asked about racists supporting him, Trump’s responses did nothing to discourage them. Told of the support of David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan leader and now an anti-Semitic radio host, Trump eventually, impatiently spit out: “All right, I disavow, OK?”.

Trump has used the floating “I disavow” often in such situations, and prominent white nationalists have read them as acceptance. Richard Spencer, another prominent white nationalist, responded to Trump’s use of “disavow” by saying: “There’s no direct object there. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?”

Trump’s retweets during his first presidential campaign included fan tweets from racists and nationalists so that, as the New York Times observed in July 2016, “the border between Mr. Trump and white supremacists easily blurs. “In fact,” added Confessore, “Mr. Trump’s Twitter presence is tightly interwoven with hordes of mostly anonymous accounts trafficking in racist and anti-Semitic attacks.”

As president, Trump’s equivocation regarding the 2018 Charlottesville white supremacists “Unite the Right” march in a sense was the climax of his legitimizing white supremacists and anti-Semites. What about the violence of the counter-protesters, he asked, infamously adding: “You had some very fine people on both sides.”

Psychologists zero in on rapid cultural change, perceived loss of status and damaged self-esteem as fueling white nationalist resurgence. The internet and social media undeniably factor in. The pandemic then exposed, I believe, how inequality, “me-first” individualism and the lack of a sense of right and wrong have eroded bonds of human trust – and our sense of collective responsibility.

Comments are no longer available on this story