Why Are White Nationalists So Fond of President Trump?

Why Are White Nationalists So Fond of President Trump?

In the wake of last week’s arrest of a Trump supporter and self-described “patriot” who threatened to “put a bullet” in the head of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, today the House Judiciary Committee will hold a critical hearing on hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism.

The hearing will shed some much-needed light on what is behind the recent rise in this lethal ideology, the impact it is having on American communities, and what social media companies can do to stem this poison. Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) deserves great credit for taking the threat of white nationalist violence seriously, in contrast to President Donald Trump’s supine dismissal of the danger as just coming from “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess."

But the need for this hearing, driven by a spate of murderous attacks on churches, mosques, synagogues, Sikh temples and vulnerable people around the world, raises the question of how we found ourselves in this position, where an old enemy of civilization has returned as a growing menace. CBS News reported that the 50 murders linked to white nationalists in the US in 2018 represented a 35% increase over 2017 while far right attacks in Europe jumped 43% from 2016 to 2017.

Fortunately, past counterterror efforts have taught us some useful lessons that can help to contain the threat. Effective intelligence can expose the ideologies that inspire the terrorists, map their funding and recruitment networks, and provide an understanding of their patterns of behavior, from initial radicalization to violent action. Law enforcement can apply this knowledge to look out for radicalized individuals planning attacks, infiltrate violent groups, recruit informers, identify organizers, recruiters and propagandists and ultimately prosecute them.

The FBI’s recent arrest of U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, pre-empting his alleged plot to kill prominent Democrats, is an impressive example, but even the best policing work can only mitigate the danger. To end it, we need to deal with the underlying trends that motivate white supremacist violence.

For the past few years, civil rights groups have been warning of the danger of online radicalization. Under intense social pressure, the main Internet platform companies have tightened their terms of service and are enforcing them more effectively. These give the companies the right to ban violent and dehumanizing speech and to refuse service to those who promote racial hatred. In addition, third party groups have enforced effective advertiser boycotts against the most egregious propagandists, reducing the commercial incentives for purveyors of hate speech. Major platform companies continue to struggle to define appropriate rules, as shown by Facebook’s decision after the Christchurch massacre to reverse its earlier policy and finally ban all white nationalist content while some more marginal platforms, such as 4chan and 8chan, attempt to evade responsibility altogether for radicalization that occurs on their sites. 

There is more to be done, particularly on algorithmic approaches that promote ever more radical content. Today’s hearing will doubtless, and rightly, press the companies to increase their efforts, while acknowledging the technical challenges they face.

But all this still begs the question: why has this problem grown now, and in such a virulent form? The answer lies in the broader political environment. Rhetoric that dehumanizes immigrants, refugees, people of color and foreigners may be useful to scare voters and win elections, but such rhetoric has consequences.

President Trump and his fellow demagogues in the United States and around the world have emboldened and encouraged white supremacists, echoing their rhetoric of invasion and ethnic replacement and refusing to call out their violence. The American people have taken notice, with 54 percent of respondents to a Public Religion Research Institute poll in October 2018 finding that Trump’s behavior encouraged white supremacists.

Now it is time for decent politicians of all parties to take a stand. This is far from a partisan point — all decent Americans need to return to our more honorable traditions if we are to combat this common enemy successfully. They can learn from former Arizona Sen. John McCain who, after the disgrace of Charlottesville, was clear that “White supremacists aren't patriots, they're traitors — Americans must unite against hatred & bigotry.”

Senator McCain was reminding us of an older and nobler American tradition, dating back to the founding a of a nation that, in George Washington’s words “gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Only by returning to this true American tradition and uniting across political divides against rhetoric that seeks to divide us can we reject the politics of fear, hatred and violence. It’s time to bring back the politics of civility, tolerance and mutual respect that reflect the best of our historical inheritance.

Simon Clark is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Katrina Mulligan is managing director of National Security and International Policy at CAP. Danyelle Solomon is vice president of Race and Ethnicity Policy at CAP.

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