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As Trump Disavows “Alt-Right” Support, Critics Question If He Will Still Normalize White Supremacy

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As President-elect Donald Trump’s victory and early Cabinet picks embolden white supremacists and threaten reproductive rights, we speak with Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia University. Her recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books is headlined “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President-elect Donald Trump met with journalists and editors at The New York Times Tuesday for a wide-ranging conversation that covered the election, Hillary Clinton, climate change and foreign policy. One question focused on the growing movement in the United States that calls itself the alt-right. Critics say the group has been energized by Trump’s win. When asked about the movement, Trump answered, quote, “I don’t want to energize the group. I’m not looking to energize them. I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group. … What we do want to do is we want to bring the country together, because the country is very, very divided … and I’m going to work very hard to bring the country together.” Concerns about the so-called alt-right were heightened after a conference that took place over the weekend in Washington, D.C., where hundreds gathered to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory, and some attendees raised their arms in the traditional Nazi salute as leader Richard Spencer spoke.

RICHARD SPENCER: America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Leaders of the self-proclaimed alt-right movement were also emboldened after Trump named Steve Bannon to become his chief strategist after first being his campaign manager. Bannon is the former head of the right-wing news outlet Breitbart Media.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Katherine Franke, director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia University. Her recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books is headlined “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Katherine Franke. Could you tell us about this piece, “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again.” You wrote it in response to a New York Times opinion piece by your Columbia University colleague, Mark Lilla. Tell us what you found objectionable in the arguments he articulated in his piece, which was headlined “The End of Identity Liberalism.”

KATHERINE FRANKE. Well, thank you for having me on the show and for engaging this piece.

You know, the arguments that Lilla makes in The New York Times op-ed are not new. They resonate with arguments that were made in the late 1990s by the likes of Todd Gitlin or Michael Tomasky, who really felt like “enough already” of being bothered by special interests, whether that was women, people of color, gay and lesbian people. “Let’s get back to what made America great,” which was liberal democracy that our Founding Fathers had in mind, and that these—this attention to racism, sexism, homophobia is really a distraction, and it kind of surrendered a self-indulgence that is counterproductive.

For my colleague, Professor Lilla, to issue this kind of op-ed in The New York Times at this time just struck me as enormously insensitive, both to the political situation we’re in now, where Donald Trump’s election signals these—the invitation of a kind of new white supremacy in this country, but even more than that, or parallel to that, what’s going on at Columbia. I feel—I’m worried about his students, as he issues this op-ed in the same week that a number of men, young men, on our wrestling team at Columbia were chastised and then discharged from the team for issuing the most ugly, sexist, racist and homophobic tweets among themselves. So, there’s ugly hatred going on on our campus. There’s ugly hatred going on in this country. And Lilla is collaborating and facilitating and rendering that hatred respectable again.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to ask you about a specific point that he makes in the article, which is that, during her campaign, Hillary Clinton explicitly referred to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters, but in so doing, he writes, a large percentage of the American electorate were excluded, and, according to Lilla, this accounts in part for her defeat, since white working-class and evangelical voters voted almost across the board for Trump. Do you agree with that assessment?

KATHERINE FRANKE. I do. And, you know, as my wise friend Suzanne Hoover said to me yesterday after she read the piece in the L.A. Review of Books, in a way, what we’re seeing here is a kind of seductive argument to well-intentioned liberals who are tired of feeling uncomfortable. They have a kind of identity fatigue. They’re tired of being called out for their privilege. “Let’s get back to the kinds of forms of governance we’re comfortable with.” And those are the forms of governance that are white, white-led, and where the interests of white people figure at the center as the neutral norm.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s turn to President-elect Trump. Your response to the fact that yesterday, to The New York Times, he said that he disavows the alt-right movement and that Steve Bannon is not a part of it? Why do you think—first of all, why did he say that? Because that’s not exactly what he’s said in the past. And do you think it indicates a shift away from Trump’s association with white supremacy?

KATHERINE FRANKE. I guess we’ll see. You know, on Monday he says one thing, on Tuesday he says another, on Wednesday we’ll hear another thing. I don’t have any faith, from watching this man on a national political stage, that any of this he feels deeply in his heart and will remain consistent in repudiating white supremacists like Richard Spencer or like Steve Bannon or like Breitbart News. Indeed, he’s baking them into his administration with the kind of appointments that he’s making of right-wing supporters of white supremacy and/or appointing people with absolutely no experience or expertise to things like the U.N. representative—or, excuse me, the U.S. representative to the U.N., or Ben Carson at HUD, who knows absolutely nothing about housing. I mean, I guess I could do brain surgery, but very badly. Just as Dr. Carson could run HUD, but, surely, quite badly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what about Mike Pence, the second in command, his—the vice president-elect? There’s speculation that, in fact, he may be the most powerful vice president in history in the United States?

KATHERINE FRANKE. Well, he actually knows a little something about how government works, both on the state level and on the federal level, which—it’s a low bar, but he certainly passes it. But if we can understand Donald Trump as a kind of robber baron who uses crony capitalism to undermine democracy, what we see in Mike Pence is the ascent or the victory of evangelical Christianity as a way to overcome underlying long-term commitment to democracy and pluralism, value pluralism in this country. So, what I think—what we certainly saw with Governor Pence in Indiana and, I think, what we’ll see with Vice President Pence in Washington is the turn to religious liberty as a kind of delivery system for white Christian nationalism.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to thank you very much, Katherine Franke, for joining us. Katherine Franke is director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia University.

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