Opinion

Charlottesville, Virginia: Can White Males Be Terrorists in Trump's America?

Will public pressure ultimately force Trump to order the investigation and prosecution of white male right-wing terrorists? If the political will is there, the staff and mechanisms are already in place

Members of a white supremacist militia at the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
Members of a white supremacist militia at the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017. JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

Had ISIS conducted the same kind of recruitment efforts in the United States as the armed militias that descended on Charlottesville this weekend, the Department of Justice would already be investigating and prosecuting them. So will it?

That is the key question now, when even GOP standard bearers like Senators John McCain and Cory Gardner (chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee), plus House Speaker Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush have become willing to use terms like “terrorist” and “white supremacist” to describe the hundreds of white, right-wing majority male radicals who kicked off their Friday night in Charlottesville with a torch-lit rally where they chanted “White lives matter,” "One people, one nation," “Jews will not replace us” and that time-honored Nazi-era favorite, "Blood and soil” (or Blut und Boden” in the original German).

Charlottesville chaosOne dead as car rams protesters against white nationalist rally ■ On the ground: 'When so many demonstrators come out armed, it only takes one to ignite a fire' ■ Rabbis, Jewish students face down white nationalistsFrom Swastikas to David Duke: Nazism takes center stage

Their ranks included James Alex Fields Jr., the white man who weaponized his car to kill anti-fascist protestor Heather Heyer and wounded 19 others. Will public pressure ultimately force President Trump to order the Department of Justice’s special counsel on domestic terrorism matters to investigate and prosecute white majority male radical right-wing terrorists with a fervor this administration has previously reserved for leakers, baseless allegations of voting fraud and Harvard?

If the political will is there, the staff and mechanism are already in place. This administration made the decision back in March to retain Thomas E. Brzozowski, who heads the U.S. Attorney's offices on domestic terrorism matters first created under the Obama administration, and was its original hire in 2014. Brzozowski is empowered to provide members of the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee (DTEC) with information on domestic terrorism matters. Ditto for providing advice and counsel to U.S. Attorney's Offices and DOJ National Security leadership as needed with respect to those matters. Empowered, that is, if his boss, who reports to Jeff Sessions, who reports to President Trump, gets the go-ahead to put the weight of the office of domestic terrorism behind the effort.

Early signs are not promising. The Twitter-happy Leader of the Free World, who has risen early much of the past week to threaten North Korea with a nuclear holocaust and spank Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not repealing the Affordable Care Act on, has gone silent for over half a day now. That was after most of the globe criticized his infamous “violence on many sides” and “There is no place for this kind of violence in America” statements. "Alt-right" poster boy Richard Spencer, who knows a dog whistle when he hears one, greeted Trump’s equivocation with, “Did Trump just denounce antifa?” Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, responded with a story titled, “Hate on Many Sides” – CNN is Pissed Trump Didn’t Denounce White Nationalism” and a tweet where he crowed, “DID NOT CUCK!”

But white supremacists are not the only people with an ear for a dog whistle. Said Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, “Had Isis driven a truck through a crowd, or whipped up and presented the risk of hate that the white supremacists did on Friday night before Saturday’s tragic events, this president would have the National Guard in there. He would be mobilizing the entire department of homeland security. And yet the same president who goes after Rosie O’Donnell and the cast of Hamilton and his own AG can’t even attack terrorism in Charlottesville.”  

Capacity is not the issue here. There’s plenty of evidence other than Twitter of Trump’s well-documented, well-honed ability to threaten and chide. Notes David Neiwert, the Northwest Correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center and author of the forthcoming “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump”, in his first address to Congress, the president got a standing ovation with the line, “We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”

So let’s discard White House Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert’s claim on CNN earlier this morning that Trump didn’t name hate groups on Saturday because he didn’t want to “dignify” them. He had no such worries even as a candidate. In the same piece, “Home is where the hate is,” Neiwert reminds readers that “Trump frequently had excoriated his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and his chief political opponent, Hillary Clinton, as naive, even gutless, for preferring ‘violent extremism’ to describe the nature of the global and domestic terrorist threat.” At one campaign speech in Ohio, Trump roared that “Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country.” During another, in Philadelphia, he drove home the attack: “We now have an administration and a former secretary of state who refuse to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’

Will anyone from the DOJ ever use the database that Neiwert created, in cooperation with four other colleagues from the Center for Investigative Reporting — the one that explores 9 years of domestic terrorism plots and attacks? “There’s no history of the DOJ investigating radical right-wing terrorists,” said Neiwert when we spoke. “It’s generally considered a free speech issue.”

Now that there’s evidence that white supremacist groups are also clearly conspiring to create violence, there’s a chance for all that to change.

Someone Tweet the president.

Nancy Goldstein's work has appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post and The Nation. Follow her on twitter at @nancygoldstein