It looked like he was wincing.
Reading from prepared remarks Friday night in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Donald Trump raised two thumbs in the air, flashing a knowing smirk before he buried himself in the stilted notes he had brought with him.
“In our shared mission to make America great again, I support and endorse our speaker of the House, Paul Ryan,” Trump said.
The white nationalists didn’t buy it. Trump was coming off the worst week of his campaign, during which he insulted the mother of a fallen U.S. Army captain in Iraq, dragged a fire marshal’s name through the mud, and made a point of saying he was not ready to back the campaigns of Ryan and Sen. John McCain. To some of Trump’s most fervent supporters on the fringe, Friday night’s brief hat-tip to both men came off like a child pleading with a teacher to get out of timeout.
“It’s a boringly conventional move—but I just don’t think it will work, because it’s increasingly obvious that the Donorists will sink the ship rather than let a Nationalist candidate win,” said Peter Brimelow, the editor of VDare.com, a site that often argues for a moratorium on immigration to the United States. “And that goes for their subsidized Conservatism Inc. sock puppets like National Review and Red State, too. Trump already gave them [running mate Mike] Pence, who is a weak fool, and he let [Ted] Cruz speak even though he knew he wouldn’t endorse him. It’s got him nothing.”
Brimelow, who has been described as an “anti-immigration activist,” told The Daily Beast these sorts of establishment-kowtowing moves don’t help Trump gain voters. He needs to stick to what made him successful already.
“Trump’s only path to victory is a Brexit-type spontaneous popular surge,” Brimelow said in an email exchange. “In fact, that’s all he’s ever had going for him. To get that, he has to raise Nationalist issues, like immigration/TPP, that will terrify the GOP Establishment and enrage the MSM. These endorsements haven’t helped him with his voters at all.”
Brimelow suggested that Trump didn’t really want to endorse Ryan and that his belated move to do so runs the risk of diluting the Trump message, which is tinged by nationalism.
“I’d guess they had to break his arm,” Brimelow said. “I think it was a mistake, but what do I know? What does anyone know about this campaign?”
Trump is anything but subtle about his internal monologue, which he telegraphs to his 10 million Twitter followers. And days before his hand was seemingly forced to back two men with whom he agrees on little, Trump was sleeping with the enemy.
“Thanks to @pnehlen for your kind words, very much appreciated,” he tweeted at Ryan challenger Paul Nehlen on Aug. 1. Nehlen is a businessman, like Trump, who recently suggested that perhaps all Muslims should be deported from the United States. And he is staring down a tough primary against the hometown hero speaker of the House on Tuesday.
But Nehlen’s stances and his outsider pedigree align quite closely with Trump, something that is not lost on white nationalists who applaud a candidate like the Wisconsin long shot.
“I’m disappointed in Trump’s endorsement of Paul Ryan, who is exactly the kind of Republican politician the Trump movement should displace,” Richard Spencer, the president of the white nationalist think tank National Policy Institute, told The Daily Beast. “Trump probably telegraphed what he really thought this week by hilariously announcing that he ‘wasn’t ready’ to endorse the speaker.”
Echoing Brimelow, Spencer suggested that he understood the calculus but was disappointed in seeing it employed by Trump, who doesn’t normally use math to reach solutions.
“I understand why Trump made the endorsement,” Spencer said. “A similar calculation went into his picking of a dumb-but-loyal running mate, Mike Pence, who has supported so many of the things Trump opposes and vice versa.”
Spencer, a baby-faced figure in the white nationalist movement who has advocated for a strictly white homeland, said he didn’t think the Trump endorsement was necessarily disingenuous but that it was forced.
“A politician has to make compromises and weigh the relative good and bad,” he said. “Clearly, Trump did not view endorsing Ryan as an easy, no-brainer decision. He was reluctant.”
It’s not as if Trump and Ryan are chummy. The speaker first delayed his Trump endorsement and then condemned Trump’s assaults on Hispanic judge Gonzalo Curiel and war of words with the Muslim gold star Khan family. But Ryan, like many in the Republican establishment, has found himself in the unenviable position of trying to keep the peace while avoiding being a witness to the party burning.
Ryan told The Washington Post that he hasn’t even spoken with Trump since Friday’s endorsement and he was not there in person to receive it. He dismissed Nehlen’s support as being from “this alt-right crowd,” a day after conservative ice princess Ann Coulter spoke at a rally for the Ryan challenger.
Coulter and the “alt-right crowd” also happen to boost Trump on a daily basis, promoting memes of the real estate mogul as a godlike emperor throughout the fever swamps of the internet and normalizing a sector that was in hibernation until 2016.
So when Coulter heard that Trump had endorsed Ryan, she dismissed it as farce.
“It was hilarious!” she told The Daily Beast. “Had to do it for party ‘unity’—which he’ll promptly be betrayed on, just like the pledge—but was as if he was walking on broken glass.”
Coulter has called Trump’s party line-toeing pick of Mike Pence as his vice president his “first mistake.”
Trump has thrilled white nationalists across the country for the past year as he has publicly prioritized the dangers of immigration and touted a unique perception of nationalism to great success. He has inspired a Senate run from former KKK leader David Duke and initially allowed William Johnson of the white nationalist American Freedom Party to be a delegate for his convention. And even the chair of the American Nazi Party recently took time out of his radio program to praise Trump’s run.
But as he marches toward a final showdown for the highest office in the land, Trump has to leave these fervent fans out in the cold as he reluctantly bends a knee to some of D.C.’s biggest players.
“Trump has his campaign to run and we have ours,” Duke’s campaign manager, M.C. Lawrence, shot off in a dismissive text to The Daily Beast. Duke, who subscribes to the same social media messaging strategy as Trump, didn’t tweet about the Ryan endorsement, but his disdain for the House speaker is clear.
Beyond the white nationalist sector of the population, Trump’s endorsement served as a harsh reminder that outsiders can’t stay outsiders for long. And even if the words weren’t entirely genuine, the fact they were said at all has an impact.
“You’ll have to ask him why he did it. I don’t know,” Dr. Kelli Ward, McCain’s primary opponent, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview. Ward has frequently tried to tie herself to Trump’s campaign and even appeared at a rally on his behalf in Cleveland, as a warm-up act for InfoWars host Alex Jones and former Trump adviser Roger Stone.
Ward suggested that Trump’s tepid endorsement of McCain was halfhearted at best.
“I don’t think it was any kind of glowing endorsement from Donald Trump,” Ward said. “I didn’t ever hear him say he endorsed John McCain as a person. I still think that there’s probably something going on between the two of them.”
While candidates like Ward and Nehlen may have slipped by unnoticed in other election years, Trump’s open tent of anti-immigration nationalist sentiment has given them a bigger mouthpiece. He’s mainstream, and now they can be too. Just as white nationalists have felt legitimized in their beliefs by hearing Trump call some Mexican immigrants “rapists” and propose a ban on Muslim immigration, fringe candidates with similar views who challenge the political class have been rising.
And there will only be more in the future.
“I have been and still am a perennial losing candidate,” William Johnson told The Daily Beast. “I often run to get the message out. In fact, I tried to get on the ballot for U.S. Congress in the California primary, but the movement people gathering signatures—true to form—failed in their efforts. The bigger issue is how to make David Duke palatable to the general public. Is it even possible? I don’t know.”
First, Johnson wants to help out the candidates who can bring that dream closer to reality.
“On Friday, I got a call for Dr. Kelli Ward seeking my support,” Johnson said. “I told her I would support her financially, but she needs to understand that I am a white nationalist. She said, ‘I’ll get back to you,’ which sounded like a ‘I like you as a friend’ response in the dating context.”
They’re still ironing out the kinks.