Three days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan announced that they would be holding a parade to celebrate. Two weeks before the election, a KKK-run newspaper called The Crusader filled their front page with an article espousing the virtues of Trump. Earlier in the year a white supremacist organization in Iowa paid for robocalls encouraging people to “vote Trump” because “we need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture.” In February former KKK grand wizard David Duke told the listeners of his radio show that “voting against Donald Trump…is really treason to your heritage.” Throughout his campaign, Trump has also found support from his large online following of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

According to many of his supporters, however, Donald Trump is not a racist.

He tells it like it is. He eschews political correctness. He acknowledges the threats our country faces. These threats, of course, consist of illegal Mexican immigrants, America-hating Muslim terrorists, and African American criminals living in inner cities. It’s fine if dealing with those threats means deporting millions of immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the country, or bringing back police practices previously banned for being discriminatory. It doesn’t matter if his words confirm stereotypes white people have about people of color, if the vision of security he offers is one where white Americans can be safe from the threat of dark-skinned people.

It’s possible that many of Trump’s enthusiastic supporters are not racist themselves, that they insist he is not a racist because they don’t want to think they are supporting one. Perhaps they genuinely don’t understand how perfectly he plays on the racial anxiety and xenophobia of white America. Perhaps they are unaware of the racism that underlies every mechanism of our society and lurks in the mind of every white American raised to think this country belongs to them. Perhaps they don’t realize that when most people hear Donald Trump say that Mexicans are rapists and Muslims are terrorists and African American people are “living in hell” they make another check beside their preconceptions and strengthen their stereotypes of scary non-white people. Perhaps they don’t see that to millions of white Americans, making America great again means returning to a time when they were allowed to be open about their disdain for people who don’t look like them.

Donald Trump’s approach to racist rhetoric is not new; he is a modern practitioner of an art developed in the sixties. Realizing that blatant racism was becoming distasteful, the Republican Party created the southern strategy to appeal to the racist views of white people without being obvious. They shifted from directly attacking people of color to attacking behaviors or ideas associated with them, trusting that their audience would make the connection. If we follow the logic of Trump supporters, Richard Nixon, the pioneer of the strategy, was apparently not a racist, despite running a campaign on “law and order” that appealed to people’s racist fears, and beginning the war on drugs to target and imprison African American people (a fact later acknowledged by one of Nixon’s advisers). Ronald Reagan was, apparently, not a racist, despite opposing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the establishment of Martin Luther King Day, because he never talked about race, only “welfare queens” who were leeching off the system and “states’ rights,” leaving “to segregate” implied.

Likewise, Donald Trump is, apparently, not a racist, because his meaning is thinly veiled in the spaces between his words, because he stirs racial hatred with a wink and a nudge and pretends no one will notice. He portrays Mexican immigrants as drug users and rapists coming to murder our children; he says a judge can’t hear his case because the man’s parents are Mexican; he suggests that Muslims are terrorists who hate America; he proposes banning all Muslims from entering the US and patrolling Muslim neighborhoods; his response to an audience member who says that Muslims are “a problem in this country” and asks “when can we get rid of them?” is that “we’re going to be looking at a lot of different things”; he tells “the blacks,” as he calls them, that they are “living in poverty” and “have no jobs” and can’t “walk down the street” without being shot. But Donald Trump is, apparently, not a racist. According to him, in fact, he is “the least racist person you’ve ever encountered.”

This shift in the rhetoric of racism mirrors a shift in the way racism presents itself in society; it hides away in words the same way it hides in our social structures. What previously declared itself boldly in Jim Crow is now hidden in the justice system and traffic stops and the war on drugs and prejudiced hiring practices. It becomes more challenging to find, a subtle, sinister force that infects our institutions and our thought processes, that entangles itself in our lives and demands we critically examine our society and the way we think. An inability to understand this shift is what leads white Americans to claim that racism no longer exists and Trump supporters to ask, baffled, “What racist things has he ever said?” Trump’s supporters don’t see him as racist because they have a narrow definition of the word, because they only see overt racism as such, and these days racism is rarely overt. The white supremacist movement prefers to call themselves “white nationalists” or “race realists” because the latter terms sound more neutral. The Ku Klux Klan deny that they are racist; David Duke says he is “for equal rights for all people,” that he “simply defend[s] the heritage of European-American people.” He thinks that Trump, like him, “is not a racist,” but that “Trump is talking implicitly” while he is “talking explicitly.”

Ultimately, the debate over whether Trump himself is a racist is meaningless. It makes no difference what he believes. Words have impact, and Trump’s words, regardless of their sincerity, encourage the bigotry and xenophobia of many white Americans. Trump has presented himself as the electoral manifestation of the pent-up hatred and fear that has been building in white America for decades as the country has become more diverse. Many of his supporters don’t like to be labeled as racist. But they feel unease at the fact that America no longer looks exactly like them; they are unnerved by the idea that so many people are immigrating from Mexico and taking their jobs; they are afraid that the mosques they walk by are full of terrorists; they worry that the African American people they pass on the streets are murderers. They don’t like politically correct liberals criticizing them for making racially insensitive remarks. They insist, again and again, that they are not racist. “Racism is dead,” they say, and the white supremacists cheer, because this is exactly the attitude that has allowed them to slip unnoticed into our political conversation.

Donald Trump’s candidacy has brought white nationalists out of the fringes and into the mainstream. He has shown white supremacists they have a place in politics and given them positions in his administration. His revitalization of the southern strategy proves to future candidates that dog whistle tactics are both acceptable and effective. Millions of white Americans have had their racist fears validated by the most visible role model in the country, and millions of people of color have been told that they do not belong here. During his presidential tenure, he will likely continue to vilify people of color and turn Americans against each other. The lasting legacy of President Donald Trump will be his poisoning of political discourse and the irreparable damage he will cause to race relations in America.