President Donald Trump was accused of racism and appealing to white supremacists throughout his 2016 campaign, and those accusations continued through his first year in office.
But inside the alt-right — a loosely defined movement of young, white racial ideologues — activists are still waiting on the president to make good on promised massive deportations and a wall along the southern border.
“I had hoped the deportations would kick in,” Cameron Padgett, a 29-year-old Atlanta resident who has gained prominence for his association with alt-right leader Richard Spencer.
America has been dealing with a rising tide of white extremist activism dating back to the June 2015 shooting spree in a Charleston, S.C., church by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and most recently, alt-right groups like Identity Evropa have emerged from the backwaters of internet chat rooms in an attempt to take their message mainstream.
The rise of the alt-right shocked many and I've kept an eye on its attempts to move closer to the mainstream of American politics. I was interested in how a young activist like Padgett felt about the past year, which white nationalists approached with great optimism. But the year turned out to be a mixed bag that began with high hopes and ended in disappointment and confusion.
A surprise win by their preferred candidate had many on the right fringe plotting ways to move their ideas into mainstream political debate. But many of Trump’s more traditionally conservative policies, his cozy relationship with Israel and his lack of progress on immigration have lowered those expectations.
“The campaign promises, I wouldn’t say he is not trying but he hasn’t fulfilled much,” he said. “I would give him like a five out of 10.”
Padgett surfaced as a figure in the so-called “identitarian” movement last April when he filled out paperwork sponsoring Spencer’s speaking engagement at Auburn University. Since then, he’s been Spencer’s regular booking agent, most recently as plaintiff in a lawsuit against Michigan State University.
Michigan State had attempted to block the appearance, but earlier this month the public university backed down and agreed to allow Spencer on campus at a time when classes were not in session. Padgett, who says he is a finance student at Georgia State University (he's blocked the school from releasing any information on him), called it a victory for free speech.
Disappointment in Trump
Like many young, educated extremists, Padgett calls himself an “identitarian,” rather than a white supremacist. He identifies with whites of European stock and decries the United States’ racial and ethnic pluralism, which he believes threatens the future of the country.
Padgett described his philosophy without irony while sitting in a hookah lounge in the center of a thriving, diverse metropolis.
“Does multiculturalism really work? Can it work?” he said. “I would love for it to work, honestly, but has history shown has it ever worked?”
From a policy standpoint, Padgett supports closing the borders and a program of massive deportation of all non-citizens. He calls it “re-migration.”
“If they are citizens I would never advocate for them going back home,” he said. “But the non-citizens need to go home to Mexico or North Africa or wherever they are from.”
Padgett said he would“never advocate for violent deportation,” but he allowed that many would not want to leave on their own. “It probably wouldn’t be voluntary,” he said.
Does he expect Trump to make this dream come true? He’s less confident on that.
Cas Mudde, an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia and an expert on far-right extremism, said he is interested in how far the expectations have fallen. In a recent tweet, Spencer said it would be a “win” if Trump secured funding for a border wall and an end of chain migration in exchange for a deal on DACA.
“That’s a very moderate position for an extremist,” he said. “I think they have come to terms with that Trump is not one of them and is influenced by a lot of people they really dislike but that he could do some good things.”
Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the alt-right has largely moved on from Trump.
“We’re talking about the white supremacist movement, an extremist movement,” he said. “The leader of any administration, to the degree that they are mainstream at all, there will be major segments of the white supremacist movement who will be disappointed with them.”
Charlottesville a rude awakening
And there have been other disappointments.
Last August's "Unite The Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., was a keystone event for the alt-right. For a mostly online movement, it marked the largest attempt at real-world activism and hundreds of white nationalists and white supremacists showed up with high hopes. The violence, including the death of counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer, resulted in massive backlash against the protesters.
“All eyes turned on who was at Charlottesville,” Pitcavage said.
Some activists who attended the rally were outed on social media and lost their jobs or their girlfriends and were subjected to public ridicule. Older white supremacists who attended the rally knew the risks, but it was a rude awaking for the alt-right, he said.
“This was something like a bruising coming out party,” he said. “For a lot of them, they realized that, ‘Wow society has not changed as much as we thought it had.’”
Padgett, who said he did not go to Charlottesville, agrees that the rally set his movement back, but he blames poor police protection for the violence and the media for who got the blame.
“It was bad. And the media put it on the white supremacists,” he said.
Mudde said the debacle of Charlottesville marked a retreat for the alt-right. Attempts to stage rallies later in the year failed to produce anything near the scope of Unite The Right.
“Their momentum has disappeared a bit,” he said. “They see themselves back in the rightful opposition, the heroic struggle, rather than part of a broad nativist, racist movement.”
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