Analysis

White Supremacist Terror Is a Global Epidemic but Trump Won’t Name It, Let Alone Fight It

Downplaying and denying the damage caused by white nationalist radicalization, the Trump White House seems unable to provide a cure

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during a Make America Great Again rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 27, 2019.
Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP

During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump made it a point to say the words “radical Islamic terrorism” as often as possible, and slammed the unwillingness of President Barack Obama and other Democrats to name the specific religious ideology fueling violence in the United States and around the world.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 25Haaretz

So there is considerable irony in the fact that today it is Trump who is refusing to say the words “white supremacist terrorism” as he faces a phenomenon spreading like an epidemic across the country and the world. When asked if he views white nationalism as a worldwide threat after the Christchurch massacre in March, he responded: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”

While the U.S. president has condemned “hate” and “anti-Semitism” in general terms, he has yet to acknowledge that conspiratorial “white genocide” theories have become as deadly as the ideology that ISIS and its counterparts worked to spread across the globe.

“We need to recognize that white supremacy is a global terror threat,” Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in one of his many media appearances following Saturday’s Poway tragedy. “There is a throughline from Charleston to Pittsburgh to Christchurch to San Diego County.”

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As upsetting as the fact is that Trump and other politicians and world leaders are fanning the flames of such conspiratorial inclinations, they didn’t start the fire. And while putting an end to their anti-immigrant dog whistles and political policies would certainly be helpful, they wouldn’t end attacks on Jews, Muslims or racial minorities in the United States.

Like Islamic radicalization, the growing white nationalist extremist violence is based on old and deeply rooted ideologies whose newly frightening level of proliferation and power is fueled by technology.

Young men are being radicalized through their phones and laptops, creating an assortment of lone wolves who may be physically alone when they commit their acts of mass murder, but feel as if they have a community of fellow believers and fellow travelers cheering them on.

What are their beliefs? The media has been reluctant to focus on the content of the manifestos published on the internet by the perpetrators of these terrible acts. Understandably so — few want to be accused of popularizing and spreading the vile and often unhinged ranting. But failing to look at them also fails to show the direct links between what is happening in far-flung locations.

When the young marchers in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us!” they were referring to a conspiracy theory in which Jews are plotting to supplant white America with blacks and immigrants.

Hundreds attend vigil in Poway after synagogue shootingHaaretz

As Eric Ward explains in the article “How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism,” it is an ideology that shares the belief that a “secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education” and through this is “brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious.” It is the Jews whose “machinations have prevented the natural and inevitable imposition of white supremacy.”

Many of the perpetrators of violence have been inspired by the 1,500-page manifesto “2083 — A European Declaration of Independence,” by Anders Behring Breivik, the white Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in his 2011 “martyrdom operation.” The Washington Post noted that it was “the deadliest attack in Norway since World War II, the deadliest gun rampage by an individual anywhere in the world and the deadliest far-right onslaught in Europe since Italy’s Bologna railway bombing in 1980.”

Norway’s attorney general, arguing in 2017 to keep Breivik in near-isolated conditions in prison, said he was doing so because Breivik “still wants to inspire others” in the battle against what he called “cultural Marxism” — which Breivik blames for undermining Western civilization.

Disturbingly, he seems to be accomplishing his goal. Extreme-right activists who committed or attempted attacks in Poland, Britain, Germany and the United States were all open admirers of Breivik. These included Adam Lanza, the shooter in the 2012 massacre of 28 people at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The most explicit connection to Breivik was Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian man who massacred 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.

Tarrant’s own 74-page manifesto referred to Breivik as a fellow member of a brotherhood of “partisans/freedom fighters/ethno soldiers” who were fighting “ethnic and cultural genocide.” He also said he was inspired by Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African Americans at a Charleston church in June 2015.

The 19-year-old San Diego killer, John Earnest, adds his own manifesto to the list. His words will be added to the white supremacist, racist canon that will be circulated and discussed on platforms like Gab, the “free speech social network,” and bulletin boards like 4chan and 8chan — the dark corners of the internet that have become the campfires for racist ideology.

Strategies to combat this disturbing trend will have to be multifaceted, controlling the availability of weapons used to carry out such violence. But they will also need to focus on ways to stop the spread of the perpetrators’ deadly ideologies, both by the tech companies that provide their platforms, and by government authorities.  

The latter, suggested former senior Shin Bet security service official Arik Brabbing in an interview with Haaretz’s Amos Harel on Sunday, will involve closer monitoring of extremists on social media, as Israel’s military intelligence has done. He suggested that since so much is happening on open forums, potential terrorists — including white extremists — could be “monitored and filtered.”

Law enforcement can “integrate and cross-reference different types of information — for instance, a person preaching violence with that person’s violent past — [and as a result] warning signs accumulate that require monitoring,” Brabbing said.

Doing so, of course, takes money and attention — which is where Trump’s decision to downplay and deny the problem does real damage. As he has poured resources into curbing illegal immigration into the United States, which he claims endangers American lives, his administration has cut programs fighting both jihadist and white nationalist radicalization, for which he was taken to task after the Pittsburgh synagogue attack last fall.

With the Trump White House reluctant to fund in-person community efforts aimed at fighting extremism, it is doubtful they would be enthusiastic about a program to identify and target potential white supremacist terrorists, particularly when the sitting president isn’t yet capable of saying those words. Like any epidemic, it is hard to administer a vaccine if one is unable to name the disease.