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White supremacists could be wild card for Trump in general election

Trump built his improbable rise in the GOP ranks to a certain degree on his talent for being unpredictable, but his supporters also can't be boxed in either.

As Donald Trump makes the transition from GOP front-runner to likely presidential nominee, there will inevitably be more scrutiny on his past statements and policy proposals – including the candidate's history of racially insensitive rhetoric and propensity to draw white supremacist support, a fact that has largely flown under the radar as his dominance of the GOP field has overshadowed many unsavory headlines. But a recent NBC affiliate interview with a purported "imperial wizard" in the Ku Klux Klan from Virginia who praised the real estate mogul as the "best for the job" has resurrected concerns about the kinds of supporters Trump's candidacy attracts.

“The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes, we believe in,” the unidentified white supremacist told WWBT anchor Chris Thomas. Prior to this alleged KKK figure's endorsement, there have been robocalls in favor of Trump by individuals identifying as white nationalists, members of supremacist organizations have attended and even broadcast from the GOP front-runner's rallies (one was even caught on camera shoving a black protester), and the candidate himself has retweeted comments from apparent white supremacists on multiple occasions.

Trump has also shared debunked statistics claiming 81 percent of white murder victims are killed by black assailants. When confronted about the inaccuracy of the data, Trump didn't apologize, saying it came from sources that were "very credible." It turns out the graphic he retweeted originated on a neo-Nazi website.

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When David Duke, arguably the most famous figure associated with white supremacist ideology, encouraged listeners of his radio show to vote for Trump, the candidate publicly disavowed him, after initially claiming to not know who he was. However, Trump has not been asked to account for the fact that despite his repeated insistence that he does not condone their ideology, white nationalists seem to keep gravitating towards his campaign. For example, on Wednesday, the supremacist website The Daily Stormer posted a video parody of the movie "300" portraying Trump as a hero "leading an army of the white race against the barbarian hordes" and Duke continued to praise Trump on his radio program, this time for exposing the “Jewish supremacists who control our country."

This week, his campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks told MSNBC, "Mr. Trump has disavowed and continues to do so" and confirmed the candidate's statement to The New York Times about Duke's latest remarks: "Anti-Semitism has no place in our society." But while hate groups have infiltrated presidential campaigns before -- Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and former Sen. Rick Santorum have all been forced to return donations from white supremacist organizations -- the sheer volume of their activity in support of the Trump campaign should give the candidate and his backers pause, if for no other reason than because it will likely provide fodder for his opponents.

For instance, on Tuesday, shortly after Trump's Indiana victory, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted: "There's more enthusiasm for @realDonaldTrump among leaders of the KKK than leaders of the political party he now controls."

"Trump's ridiculous reaction to the endorsement of David Duke could certainly come back to haunt him in the fall," Corey Ealons, a former communications director in the Obama White House, who now works for Vox Global, told MSNBC on Wednesday. "While Hillary Clinton has done extraordinarily well with minorities, she or the Democratic Party will make hay of that connection if they need it."

There is also a moral component as well. No presidential candidate in the last 50 years has willingly made room in their big tent for hate-mongers. "Now that Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee ... he has to disavow not just groups, not just individuals but ideologies that divide and frankly, put in danger not only our Constitutional values, but literally the lives of American citizens," Cornell Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP told MSNBC on Wednesday.

"Every candidate for president should be held accountable to a standard with simply asserts that 'we the people' includes all the people," he added.

Brooks suggested the spike in white supremacist activity in this year's race is a "disturbing" trend and, although his organization remains non-partisan, it will be holding its annual convention in Cincinnati the same week as the RNC holds their 2016 convention in Cleveland. The group intends to hold both major party's nominee's feet to the fire for their positions on issues affecting people of color.

"Non-partisan does not mean non-opposition to racism and we will call out the ideas, the ideology, the policies and platform of any candidate for president that contradicts the Constitutional and moral values of the country and the mission the NAACP," said Brooks.

Meanwhile, civil rights advocates are reeling from the rise of Trump. "We haven't seen anything like this since at least 1968, George Wallace's run for president," Mark Potok, a Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center told MSNBC on Wednesday. "Pat Buchanan was a white nationalist and the truth is he was vastly more careful about what he said."

RELATED: Trump's rhetoric calls back to historical figures

This is part of why white supremacists haven't taken the Trump campaigns disavowals very seriously, Potok said. "[Trump's] disavowals are incredibly weak and made only to satisfy certain people in the media essentially," he said. "Trump is lying, to say it plainly. He is playing a word game here, he does not want to alienate people who essentially have white nationalist views."

And even though Potok believes that white supremacists had no use for Trump in the past (they perceived him as too cozy with the Jewish community, Potok claims) they now see him as the "real deal" and someone who can provide "the best shot they've had at getting their ideas into the larger society in 50 years."

According to a February report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, first published in the Washington Post, the number of hate groups rose by 14 percent last year and the number of KKK chapters in America more than doubled from 2014 to 2015 to nearly 200.

"They have a very, very sorry record," said Potok. "They essentially are on a 40 to 50 year losing streak and its only gotten worse. These are people who are used to losing, living in the margins and being despised by mainstream America. They see in [Trump] someone who legitimizes the idea of America being a white civilization."

"I would say overall Trump has done more good for white supremacists that white supremacists have done for Trump," he added.

Arguably, Trump began his uncomfortable public dance around the race issue decades ago. At the height of hysteria over the racially-charged Central Park Jogger case in 1989 -- when five black and brown youths were accused of raping and brutally beating a white woman -- the real estate mogul, who had already earned a reputation for allegedly engaging in racially biased housing practices, took it upon himself to take out full page ads in The New York Daily News and other Big Apple newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated so the teen suspects could be executed.

“He was the fire starter,” Yusef Salaam, one of the accused, who was 15 when Trump argued he should receive the death penalty, told The Guardian in February. “Common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that we were guilty.”

The young men were later fully exonerated, after not only the real perpetrator confessed, but also once it was determined that their initial guilty confessions were illegally coerced. Even after the city of New York awarded the so-called Central Park Five a multi-million dollar settlement for their ordeal (they all spent significant time behind bars for a crime they did not commit), Trump remained recalcitrant, tweeting: "Tell me, what were they doing in the Park, playing checkers?"

In 2011, Trump essentially launched his career as a politician by spending months claiming that President Barack Obama was not only not an American citizen, but not smart enough to gain entry into the Ivy League schools he graduated from. After the president reluctantly released his long form birth certificate to quash the conspiracy theories once and for all, Trump never admitted he was wrong -- instead he only vacillated between bragging about how he'd forced the president's hand and questioning whether the document was actually legitimate.

"When Donald Trump called into question the president’s legitimacy as an American it was seen as the musings of a idiosyncratic and cranky billionaire. Now that he’s running for president and has proposed immigration policy by tweet, that has global and national implications, people will take it more seriously," said Brooks. "The game has changed."

The candidate, who has boasted of having a "great relationship with the blacks," insists he will win the African-American and Latino vote in the general election. But if he continues to draw support from people who traffic in hate speech it could prove to be an unwelcome distraction for his campaign. Trump has built his improbable rise in the Republican ranks to a certain degree on his talent for being unpredictable, but his supporters also can't be boxed in either, which could prove costly come November.

"It’s almost as if people are prepared to underestimate the degree to which campaign rhetoric, policy and platform is actually racist, as opposed to other forms of bias," said Brooks. "[The NAACP] on the other hand have tried to be very consistent in calling it all out."

"This is not a matter of being nicer and more polite in espousing positions that fuel extremism," Brooks added. "This is a matter of disavowing ideas and ideology that fuel and feed extremism. This is not a moment for the country to go into a kind of depressive funk ... this is a moment for sober judgment."