the national interest

Why Trump Is Soft on White-Supremacist Terrorism

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Last week, President Trump repeated his absurd claim that he had never called the Nazi protesters who descended on Charlottesville in 2017 “very fine people.” On Saturday, yet another white-supremacist attack, on a synagogue in California, demonstrated the point that Trump and his allies wish to obscure: Right-wing terrorism is a more extreme version of Trump’s own political style. It draws inspiration from his ideas and some measure of protection from his political power.

Conservatives have long denied any links whatsoever between the brand of white supremacy represented by Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan and Republican-style conservatism. Conservative books like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning and Dinesh D’Souza’s The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left have tried, absurdly, to identify these movements with the left side of the ideological spectrum.

The rise of Donald Trump has made this strained argument preposterous. Trump is not a white supremacist; if I showed you a block of text from one of his speeches side by side with a speech by David Duke, you would be able to tell the difference. But Trump’s rhetoric has excited and mobilized white supremacists because it teases the same theories that they make explicitly. Trump paints unauthorized immigrants as bloodthirsty rapists and murderers and touts their arrival as part of a geopolitical conspiracy to demographically transform the United States.

“A lot of people say” the caravan he hyped was funded by George Soros, Trump suggested last fall. (Trump favorite Lou Dobbs is one of the people who was saying this.) Trump’s closing campaign ad railed against “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities,” juxtaposing this inflammatory claim over images of Soros and other Jewish figures.

The message is surely lost on the vast majority of Trump’s voters, but not on the white-supremacist movement. The shooters in New Zealand, Pittsburgh, and California all articulated this nativist theory in their manifestos.

To be sure, Trump formally denounces terrorist attacks on Jewish and Muslim worshippers. But he is not very good at masking the difference between those condemnations he offers grudgingly and those that have real passion behind them. When asked last month if he considered white-supremacist terror a growing threat, he demurred, “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.” Trump portrays white supremacists as a tiny force disconnected from politics. In contrast to his rhetoric about ISIS or other Islamist terrorism, which he insists must be labelled Islamic, Trump shrinks from placing white-supremacist terror in its ideological context. Just a handful of crazy nuts with big problems.

Some apologists ascribe the president’s reticence to mere stubbornness: Trump resents being pushed into a corner by the media, they say, and so he refuses to back down from any statement. The problem with this theory is that a certain softness about white-supremacist terror is official Republican doctrine.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security wrote a classified report highlighting the dangers of right-wing domestic terrorism. The report outraged conservatives by predicting, accurately, that the election of a black president would stoke far-right violent extremism. One hook Republicans used to discredit the report was its claim that white supremacists would target service members and law enforcement for recruitment, which they claimed was a slur against veterans.

The right’s primary objection to the report was in the link it posited between violent extremism on the one hand and the backlash against Obama and the federal government on the other. “It’s no small coincidence that Napolitano’s agency – referring to Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano – “disseminated the assessment just a week before the nationwide April 15 Tax Day Tea Party protests,” argued Michelle Malkin. The Drudge Report hyped the story with a banner warning, “She Is Watching You.” John Boehner insisted Napolitano “owes the American people an explanation for why she has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.”

This episode took place at a time when Republicans were committed to presenting the tea party as a movement of principled deficit hawks sincerely concerned about inflation and debt-financed outlays. Yet their backlash against the Homeland Security paper reflected their recognition of a political affinity between their brand of anti-Obama panic and the violent kind identified by the department. The paper did not make the connection between tea-party protests and paranoid or violent extremism; Republicans drew the connection themselves.

The dynamic has only intensified in the Trump era. At a hearing on white-supremacist terrorism earlier this month, Republicans kept derailing the conversation. “Every time Democrats talked about President Trump’s anti-immigrant remarks, or how government agencies should do more to fight the spread of white nationalism, Republicans pivoted to criticism of identity politics, anti-Semitism on the left and off-topic foreign policy issues,” reported NPR.

Republicans do not wish to defend white supremacists, but they feel enough kinship with them to treat them as political allies and to consider measures directed against them as a shared threat. The way you can tell Republicans are soft on white-supremacist terrorism is that white-supremacist terrorism is a partisan issue.

Why Trump Is Soft on White-Supremacist Terrorism