Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, who has written at length about the popularity of Donald Trump among white supremacist groups, offers up a history of Trump’s winking and nodding (and notes that his strategy of blowing past questions about the KKK is not new):
For months, as Donald Trump developed his political repertoire, he adopted an uncharacteristic reply for questions about fascism and the Ku Klux Klan: silence, or something close to it.
He used the technique as early as last August, when his opponents, and the press, still generally regarded him as a summer amusement. On August 26th, Bloomberg Television anchor John Heilemann brought up David Duke, the former Klan Grand Wizard, who had said that Trump was “the best of the lot” in the 2016 campaign. Trump replied that he had no idea who Duke was. Heilemann asked if Trump would repudiate Duke’s endorsement. “Sure,” Trump said, “if that would make you feel better, I would certainly repudiate. I don’t know anything about him.” Changing tack, Heilemann pressed Trump about an article in this magazine, which described Trump’s broad support among neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and other members of the far right who were drawn in by his comments about Mexicans. Trump maintained a posture of indifference. “Honestly, John, I’d have to read the story. A lot of people like me.” The interview moved on to other topics.
As Jonathan Chait at New York points out, Trump’s strategy to say that he simply knows nothing about Duke or the KKK feels like a sick historical allusion to the Know-Nothing Party of the nineteenth century:
Four times in the interview, he repeats the phrase “I know nothing.” That is the exact wording used by 19th-century nativists. The “Know-Nothing Party” is sometimes misremembered in the popular imagination today as signifying ignorance. In fact, the phrase was used by nativists who belonged to secret societies pledged to support only native-born Protestants for public office. When questioned about the groups, members were instructed to state “I know nothing.” It is striking to see modern nativist Donald Trump repeat this precise formulation as an answer to an analogous question (his subterranean support from a politically radioactive secret society).
On the one hand, you might say that as much as Trump is trying to inch toward the mainstream, he’s trying to tread carefully and not offend a key constituency, some of his most loyal supporters: white voters with racial animus who fall somewhere along the white identity politics line (white populist/nationalist/supremacist).
But I think Trump is also cleverly playing to another subset of loyal support: white voters who might be relatively mainstream in their day-to-day attitudes on race — folks who would immediately tell you that the KKK is evil — but who think that “political correctness” is one of the country’s biggest problems and feel energized when Trump thumbs his nose at PC. It’s shocking how often I hear frustrations with “political correctness” when Trump supporters are interviewed. Trump’s refusal to engage the media when asked easy, cupcake questions, like will you disavow the KKK? — seems outright bizarre in 2016, in America, in public life. But that strangeness feels refreshing to people who believe that social mores around race are an oppressive feature of modern life. And do you know who has been feeding that attitude for some time? Those elements within the conservative movement that treat it is an article of faith that overzealous identification of racism is a bigger problem in this country than racism itself. The real victims are the victims of PC. If you swallow that business, Trump starts to look like the last honest man instead of an oily opportunist playing footsie with evil.
From my perspective, much of what people call “PC” simply amounts to being a decent human being, and the fact that social mores have driven most (not all!) overt racism out of public life is a good thing. But many Americans, people who would never think to call themselves white nationalists, believe that “PC” is everything that’s wrong with this country. And when Trump drops the dog whistle for the bullhorn, when he refuses to follow the modern norms of respectable, decent politics on race — they don’t look away in horror. They like it.