After Bannon Appointment, Southern Poverty Law Center Steps Up Fight Against Hate

Trump said he was 'saddened' by the surge in racist incidents, but the organization is looking for less talk and more action.

Demonstrators hold placards at a protest against President-elect Donald Trump outside the U.S. Embassy in London, November 9, 2016.
Ben Stansall, AFP

As America was tuning into “60 Minutes” Sunday night, a group of Jewish philanthropists and friends of the Southern Poverty Law Center gathered for what was supposed to be a hopeful fundraiser and information brief on the state of racism and bigotry in the country. Planned six months ago, when the promise of a Hillary Clinton victory seemed a safe bet, the meeting took on a serious if not urgent tone in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s presidential victory and as news spread that Stephen K. Bannon had been appointed senior counselor and West Wing chief strategist.

“We‘ve seen this all before,” said SPLC’s president Richard Cohen, who’s taken civil rights cases to the Supreme Court since joining the organization in 1968. “George Wallace fought integration, Pat Buchanan campaigned with the motto ‘America First,’ so this is nothing new. But we will fight this appointment.”

It’s been a busy six days for SPLC, which has tallied more than 300 instances of hate crimes in the wake of Trump’s victory. The center also launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #ReportHate, urging the public to help it track new instances of hate, and circulated a petition calling for the president-elect to repudiate racism and bigotry. The petition gathered 125,000 signatures in just two days.

Though Trump told “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl on Sunday that he was “so saddened to hear” about the uptick in swastikas, racist threats and bigotry-fueled attacks against minority groups since his Tuesday night victory, the SPLC isn’t buying it.

“In his victory speech, he called for a ‘binding of the wounds of division,’ but then appoints as chief strategist a man who has sown those very wounds of division – completely contradictory,” says Cohen, speaking to Haaretz on Monday. “Our petition is a way to put pressure on Mr. Trump to live up to his pledge. Talk is cheap. We’re looking for action. His initial steps are not encouraging.”

SPLC's digital campaign, intended to combat the spread of hate, is a relevant step considering Trump’s disclosure on last night’s “60 Minutes” interview that social media helped him win the presidency. 

“These platforms claim that racist speech is not allowed but they don’t enforce that,” says Cohen. ”They’re private businesses so they’re free to do what they want, it’s their business, but if you’re trying to claim you’re fair-minded, you should live up to those claims.”

Cohen says the organization's work with iTunes, Apple and Amazon is progressing well, and they have meetings planned at Google. They have more work to do with Facebook and Twitter, which he calls “the worst” in terms of perpetuating hate speech, championed by those affiliated with Breitbart’s CEO Bannon. 

According to the SPLC, Stephen Bannon is responsible for the rebranding of white supremacy as ‘alt-right’ through his media site, Breitbart News, and his appointment to such a leading role in the Trump administration will further mainstream hate speech. 

The Anti-Defamation League issued a fast and furious response Sunday night. "It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the 'alt-right' — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the 'people's house,'" said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. "We call on President-elect Trump to appoint and nominate Americans committed to the well-being of all our country's people and who exemplify the values of pluralism and tolerance that make our country great."

For the Montgomery, Alabama-based SPLC, a group that’s been on the front lines of civil rights litigation, the Bannon appointment is a reversal in democratic values.

“It’s nothing short of racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant ideology, the type championed by people like Richard Spencer, who calls for a ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ in America, who believes black people are intellectually inferior,” Cohen adds.

He's also concerned that Trump named Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to his transition team. 

“He’s at the forefront of the anti-immigrant movement and helped enact the types of legislation that sanction racial profiling, like Arizona’s SB 1070 law which allows police to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant and forcing them to show papers,” says Cohen. In addition, SPLC reports that Kobach spoke at a white nationalist conference last year, organized through a foundation that champions Holocaust denial and other race-baiting views. For many years, Kobach has worked as a lawyer for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which the SPLC listed as a hate group in 2007. “He’s a dangerous man,” says Cohen. “I don’t think people understand the types of people Trump is naming to his administration. And these are appointments that don’t require senate approval.”

Bannon, who took over Breitbart News from its founder, Andrew Breitbart, four years ago, has turned it from a conservative news outlet to a “cesspool of white supremacists,” in the words of his former colleague Ben Shapiro. 

“He has published attacks on women, African Americans and immigrants,” Cohen says. “He has said truly incendiary things. For example, last year within two weeks of the massacre at the Westboro Baptist Church in South Carolina, Bannon encouraged his readers to fly the confederate flag high with pride.”

Breitbart has also published various anti-Semitic stories, including attacks on Jewish journalists like The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum, peddling the types of conspiracy theories that were the provenance of the Nazi party in Germany. 

In his personal life, too, Bannon has been accused of anti-Semitism. His ex-wife Mary-Louise Piccard claimed in court documents related to their divorce in 2007 that he didn’t want their daughters to attend private school in Los Angeles because there were too many Jewish students there.

Perhaps more troubling, says Cohen, is Bannon’s whitewashing of some of the leading exponents of the alt-right movement, holocaust deniers and eugenecists whom he calls “intellectuals.” Not for nothing, Bannon’s appointment was met with great enthusiasm by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, currently running for a Louisiana Senate seat. On Monday, Duke told Don Advo, a radio host and contributor to the neo-Nazi blog Daily Stormer, that white supremacy is gaining a foothold in the Republican party.

While many discount the KKK and the American neo-Nazi party as a fringe few, Cohen estimates their membership numbers to be closer to a quarter million. And that’s not counting all their new followers thanks to Trump’s appointment of Bannon as campaign chairman over the summer.

“Just last month, we counted 47 million unique visitors to Breitbart News – that’s an enormous megaphone,” says Cohen. “I don’t want to call everyone who voted for Trump a racist, but there’s something Mr. Trump needs to do and that’s to put a stop to this, to live up to the promise he made to the American public that he won’t have anything to do with hate and that racists won’t have anything to do with his administration.”

As for Trump calling on those targeting minorities to “stop it” during his “60 Minutes” interview, Cohen calls it a belittlement of the gravity and extent of the hate and harassment SPLC is witnessing and trying to combat.

“Trump attempted to minimize what’s happening out there, saying he had only heard of one or two instances of hate,” he says. “The reality is that there are more than 300 and while it’s nice to say you’re saddened, he didn’t say ‘racism and bigotry has no place in our country.’ 'Stop it' is not enough.”

President George Bush, on the other hand, didn’t try to minimize the anti-Muslim hate that was running rampant after 9/11, notes Cohen. “He called it what it was – un-American. I haven’t heard anything like THAT from Trump."

“From the first days of his campaign, Trump has traded on racist rhetoric, and Bannon is the natural extension of that,” says Cohen. “It’s hard for the public to realize the depths of the ugliness of someone like Bannon. I hope people take it more seriously than Trump is by putting people in power in his administration who are opposed to the principles in which our democracy is based.”

What does this say about president-elect Trump?

“The charitable way of putting this is that Mr. Trump has decided to dance with the person who brought him to the party,” says Cohen. “Another way of putting is that Mr. Trump is holding Steve Bannon close because his beliefs mirror his own.”