Trump Embraces Extremism as He Seeks to Reclaim Office
WASHINGTON — Former President Donald J. Trump once again made clear on Thursday night exactly where he stands in the conflict between the American justice system and the mob that ransacked the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power nearly two years ago.
He stands with the mob.
Mr. Trump sent a video statement of support to a fund-raiser hosted by a group calling itself the Patriot Freedom Project on behalf of families of those charged with attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “People have been treated unconstitutionally, in my opinion, and very, very unfairly, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it,” he said. The country, he warned, “is going communist.”
The video underscored just how much the former president has aligned himself with forces that used to be outside the mainstream of American politics as he seeks to reclaim the White House through a rematch with President Biden in 2024. With the Justice Department targeting him as well as some of his violent allies, Mr. Trump’s antigovernment jeremiads lately sound like those once relegated to the outer edges of the political spectrum.
He has embraced extremist elements in American society even more unabashedly than in the past. The video comes as Mr. Trump has been using music sounding like a QAnon theme song at recent rallies and hosting for dinner Kanye West, a rap star under fire for antisemitic statements, and Nick Fuentes, a prominent white supremacist.
And it comes just two days after the conviction of Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, placed Mr. Trump at the spiritual heart of a seditious conspiracy to illegitimately keep power in a way that is unparalleled in American history.
Mr. Trump’s acceptance, if not outright courtship, of the militant right comes as the Republican establishment blames him for the party’s failure to do better during the November midterm elections. Republican officeholders, led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the party leader in the upper chamber, argue that Mr. Trump’s promotion of candidates based on fidelity to his false claims about the 2020 election cost them seats.
“Trump is doubling down on his extremist and cult leader profile,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present” and a history professor at New York University. “For someone of Trump’s temperament, being humiliated by people turning away from him will only make him more desperate and more inclined to support and associate with the most extremist elements of society. There is no other option for him.”
His former dinner guests fanned the flames on Thursday with fresh incendiary comments on the Infowars show of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist. “I like Hitler,” said Mr. West, who now goes by the name Ye, adding that “Hitler has a lot of redeeming qualities.” He added that “we got to stop dissing Nazis all the time,” and he denied that the Holocaust happened.
At another point, Mr. Fuentes voiced his support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, calling himself “very pro-Putin” and “very pro-Russia.” Ye agreed: “I am also.”
The verdict in the Oath Keepers case underscored Mr. Trump’s alignment with a right-wing militia deemed a danger by the government. The trial effectively established that there was an illegal plot to keep Mr. Trump in power despite his defeat in the 2020 election, whether the former president was directly involved or simply inspired it through the lies he spread.
What to Know About Donald Trump Today
Donald J. Trump is running for president again, being investigated by a special counsel again and he’s back on Twitter. Here’s what to know about some of the latest developments involving the former president:
Documents case. An appeals court removed a major obstacle to the investigation into Mr. Trump’s hoarding of sensitive government documents, ending a special master’s review of records the F.B.I. seized from his home and freeing the Justice Department to use them in their inquiry.
Embracing extremism. As he gets his 2024 campaign underway, Mr. Trump has aligned himself with forces that used to be outside the mainstream of U.S. politics. His dinner with Nick Fuentes, a prominent white supremacist, illustrated his increasing embrace of the far right.
Taxes. A House committee has gained access to Mr. Trump’s tax returns after the Supreme Court refused his request to block their release in the waning weeks of Democratic control of the chamber. The House had been seeking to obtain the documents since 2019.
The unanswered question remains what, if any, responsibility Mr. Trump had for the conspiracy, an issue to be addressed by Jack Smith, the newly appointed special counsel investigating the former president for his role in the Jan. 6 attack and the events that led to it. But if nothing else, the trial made clear that this was more than a peaceful protest that simply got out of hand.
Analysts and strategists see Mr. Trump’s pivot toward the far right as a tactic to re-create political momentum that the former president may be losing, with at least some polls showing him trailing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida for the Republican nomination in 2024.
But his Republican critics worry the move taints the party at a time when it needs to broaden its support. “It continues to damage the brand, especially with centrist and suburban voters,” said former Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida. “But it also makes it easier for Republican leaders to break away from him and start a new chapter.”
Mr. Trump has long flirted with the fringes of American society as no other modern president has, openly appealing to prejudice based on race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation, among others. He generated support for his 2016 presidential campaign by spreading the lie that President Barack Obama was secretly born outside the United States, then opened his candidacy by branding many Mexican immigrants rapists.
He vowed to ban all Muslims from entering the country and was slow to disavow support from David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. Most famously, he equivocated after the ultraright rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that turned bloody, denouncing neo-Nazis even as he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict.
But in the final days of his presidency, as he waged an all-fronts war to overturn the election he had lost, Mr. Trump increasingly was willing to entertain allies urging him to declare martial law while groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys mobilized to come to his aid.
In recent weeks, he has adopted QAnon themes, retweeting baseless conspiracy theories from a movement that believes he is a champion against a cabal of Satan-worshipping, pedophiliac elites. He has characterized those who attacked Congress to stop the transfer of power on Jan. 6 as patriots and promised to seriously consider “full pardons with an apology.”
“Trump’s inner orbit is keenly aware that he’s lost the excitement of 2016, and there’s a school of thought that ginning up the most die-hard part of his base is the key to bringing it back,” said Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as White House strategic communications director for Mr. Trump before breaking with him after the 2020 election. “The reality is, however, that means reaching out to fringe, racist elements that have traditionally been sidelined by the mainstream of the party.”
Asked on Thursday for his reaction to the conviction of Mr. Rhodes and a subordinate, Mr. Trump’s office responded by pointing to his video statement to the Jan. 6 families’ fund-raiser.
Mr. Trump made clear in the video that he planned to make his support for the Jan. 6 attackers a central part of his new campaign for the White House. “We’re going to be, as you know, looking about it and talking about it very, very strongly in the coming weeks, months and over the next period of a year, year and a half during the campaign,” he said.
The evidence at trial showed that Mr. Rhodes tried multiple times from Election Day until after Jan. 6 to get messages to Mr. Trump imploring him to invoke the Insurrection Act, which the Oath Keeper believed would make it legal for his militia to use force to keep the president in office.
In one message he tried to send after Jan. 6, Mr. Rhodes warned that if Mr. Trump did not stop Mr. Biden from taking office, there would be “combat here on U.S. soil.” But the trial did not establish that the message actually reached Mr. Trump, nor that he was directly involved in directing their activities.
The only president ever explicitly tied to sedition was John Tyler, but not for actions he took while in office. Long after his term ended in 1845, Tyler joined his native Virginia in abandoning the Union he had once led. He served in a secession convention triggering the Civil War as well as in the provisional congress of the breakaway Southern states, then got elected to the permanent Confederate House of Representatives, although he died before he could take his seat.
Franklin Pierce, another former president and a friend of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, was seen as a Southern sympathizer during the war. At one point, he was accused by Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state of being affiliated with a seditious organization, a charge Pierce heatedly denied. In another episode decades earlier, Aaron Burr, a former vice president, was tried for treason for allegedly seeking to lure Western states to leave the nation but acquitted by a jury.
For all that, Mr. Trump stands out. The trial of Mr. Rhodes and his compatriots raises questions that have not been seriously asked about a sitting president in anyone’s lifetime, namely whether he had gone beyond inspiring violent extremists in a way that violated the law.
Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism, said this week’s verdicts reinforced that Mr. Trump and his team had learned how to tap into the anger, racism and antidemocratic views of such forces.
“The convictions of Rhodes and his co-conspirators provide evidence of what has long been recognized — that the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and the thousands who traveled to the Capitol did so in response to the numerous calls to action by Trump and others in the lead-up to Jan. 6,” he said. “These were the foot soldiers of the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, who were determined to use force to prevent the certification of the electoral vote.”
Mr. Trump’s expanding embrace of extremism has left Republicans once again struggling to figure out how to distance themselves from him. While he has said he did not know who Mr. Fuentes was before he was brought to dinner at Mar-a-Lago by Ye, Mr. Trump knew that Ye was under fire for antisemitic statements and invited him anyway.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which has been supportive of Mr. Trump, issued a statement on Thursday denouncing Ye and Mr. Fuentes for their latest comments and implicitly rebuking Mr. Trump. “Conservatives who have mistakenly indulged Kanye West must make it clear that he is a pariah,” the statement said. “Enough is enough.” But it did not mention Mr. Trump by name.
Mr. Trump showed no signs of backing down. Whatever heat he takes from the establishment for his associations, he presumably reasons, it is surpassed by the support he enjoys from the fervent portions of his base. Whether he shares all of their views or simply indulges them, his test has always been whether someone supports him or not. And as many of his own former advisers abandon him, he is left with the most hard-core allies whispering in his ear.
“The question so many of us have asked ourselves for years about Trump is whether he actually buys what he’s selling, specifically on the election lies,” Ms. Griffin said. “I think as time has passed and he’s been out of office surrounded by a ragtag group of advisers, he’s more and more buying into the fringe conspiracy theories held by a vocal minority within the G.O.P.”