Last week, when President Biden declared “the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland is white supremacy,” conservatives grumbled. Wilfred Reilly, writing in National Review, complained that Biden exaggerated the scope of the white-supremacist threat, since it only results in a small number of murders: “Stop race-baiting and fearmongering, and let’s widen our focus broadly — across avenging not merely the 20 or so annual victims of white-supremacist hate, but also the other 20,000 people murdered here every year.”
It is true that Americans of any race have a statistically tiny chance of being murdered by a white supremacist. But the main threat of white supremacy is not random terrorist violence. It is that the movement is gaining actual political and state power.
A generation ago, this would have seemed far-fetched. In 1996, Bob Dole’s presidential nomination acceptance speech declared: “If there’s anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the Party of Lincoln. And the exits which are clearly marked are for you to walk out.” In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman acknowledged and formally apologized to the NAACP for the party’s Nixon-era Southern strategy, which deliberately courted racists.
There was enough ideological distance between the GOP and white supremacists that Jonah Goldberg could write a book, Liberal Fascism, positing that Nazi ideology was not on the political right at all. The thesis was never correct, but it retained a surface-level plausibility for a time. (After January 6, 2021, Goldberg conceded that fascism indeed has a home on the American right.)
One of Donald Trump’s enduring contributions to American politics has been to give white supremacists a stake in Republican politics. They do not control the party, but they now have a role in it.
The evidence of the white-nationalist right’s growing influence comes in slow drips, with every new revelation merely blending in to the landscape. Just in the week since Biden’s speech, several stories have underscored how terrifyingly normal this phenomenon has become.
Talking Points Memo discovered that Wade Searle, the digital director for Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, is a follower of Nick Fuentes, the leader of a Nazi-like organization. Far from expressing any remorse at the news, Gosar has remained defiant.
Also this week, the FBI announced it had revoked the security clearance of three agents who had expressed sympathy for the January 6 insurrection. One of the agents refused to participate in an arrest of Tyler Bensch, who the bureau alleged belonged to a right-wing militia group connected to the Three Percenter movement.
On Friday came the most terrifying news of all. The supervisor of the intelligence branch of the police force in Washington, D.C., Shane Lamond, was indicted for allegedly tipping off former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio about his pending arrest in conjunction with January 6. The indictment alleges that Lamond and Tarrio communicated at least 500 times on an encrypted app.
All these stories are horrifying, but none of them are surprising. Organizations and ideas that were once too far from the political system to have any hope of influence, or didn’t even exist at all, have gained a foothold in the system. They have allies in the security system and a voice in the conservative movement’s political network.
So no, maybe white supremacists don’t kill as many people as regular street crime. It is nonetheless true that the threat it poses to Americans is profound and growing. And the conservatives who refuse to acknowledge it, and who complain about Biden invoking the danger while doing nothing to marginalize the extremists in their midst, are complicit.