President Trump and Republicans are lashing out at the notion that they bear primary responsibility for the climate of rage and hate that has consumed our politics, now that a man has allegedly gunned down 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, after expressing hate-filled diatribes against Jews for helping settle refugees in the United States, people he referred to as “invaders.”
On Twitter, Trump raged that the “division and hatred” that have been unleashed are the fault of the “Fake News,” which is “doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me,” and repeated that news organizations are the “true Enemy of the People.”
Meanwhile, multiple prominent Republicans are rejecting the idea that Trump’s daily hate and vitriol represent a uniquely toxic threat to the country. They insist Trump isn’t to blame for the Pittsburgh carnage, or for the spate of bombing attempts aimed at Democrats and the media launched by a Florida man with a van festooned in adoring Trump stickers.
But Trump has adopted a closing midterm argument that has employed all kinds of disgusting lies to hype the Central American migrants as a national emergency, which he has suggested is the work of “corrupt, power-hungry globalists.” He has claimed George Soros is bankrolling Democratic mobs, and numerous Republicans have suggested Soros is behind the migrant exodus.
I spoke to Daryl Johnson, the former Department of Homeland Security analyst who created a big stir when he authored a leaked report in 2009 warning of a rise in right-wing extremist activity. Conservatives reacted with outrage, and the Obama administration decided it needed to do damage control. But Johnson was onto something, and he has since launched a consulting company that studies domestic extremism and advises law enforcement about it.
An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.
THE PLUM LINE: Your 2009 report talked about the rise in right-wing extremism as a reaction to Barack Obama’s election and the financial crash. What are the ingredients now?
DARYL JOHNSON: We’ve had almost eight years of far-right groups recruiting, radicalizing and growing in strength. Typically during Republican administrations we see a decrease in activity. But under this administration they continue to operate at a heightened level. One reason why is the rhetoric coming from Donald Trump.
Building a border wall, deporting immigrants, a travel ban on Muslim countries — these are themes discussed on white-nationalist message boards and websites for years, now being endorsed and talked about at the highest levels of the government. He’s retweeted messages about Muslims from conspiracy sites. What keeps these groups energized and active is the fact that the administration has mainstreamed their message and tried to put it forth as policy.
PLUM LINE: Why do these groups usually go into decline during other Republican administrations?
JOHNSON: Militias and anti-government groups get energized under a Democrat because of fear of gun control; the hate groups get active because of liberal Democratic policies extending rights to immigrants, gays, and minorities. During Republican administrations the fear and paranoia get dialed back because they feel the administrations are not going to repeal gun rights or extend rights to minority groups.
PLUM LINE: This is different.
JOHNSON: Yup. Because of the viciousness of the rhetoric painting Democrats as evil and corrupt. And the different themes that resonate with extremists.
PLUM LINE: How does the Pittsburgh shooting fit into all of this?
JOHNSON: The conservative media has echoed the president … about how Democrats are contributing to this migrant exodus coming up from Central America. There’s a conspiracy theory that the Jews are controlling that. There’s been a mainstreaming of the extremist narratives. Things that were once on the outer fringes are now being brought to the forefront by Trump.
PLUM LINE: In the 2014 midterms, you did see race-baiting and anti-immigrant messaging from Republicans. But it seems different now, with the Soros angle. Trump has added explicit white-nationalist messaging to it.
JOHNSON: Soros is funding the Democrats and he’s basically in control of all of these things that they attribute to the evil Democrats.
PLUM LINE: The pushback has been “Trump isn’t really an anti-Semite.” But the whole depiction of a globalist plot to manipulate these dark hordes to infest and weaken the “real” people — that is white-nationalist ideology, right? He doesn’t have to be overtly anti-Semitic.
JOHNSON: No. When he says those things, he’s planting the idea, and those who are conspiracy-minded will attribute it to the Jews. He doesn’t have to come out and say it. It’s understood. If you’re a white nationalist and you hear “globalism,” you hear “new world order” and the “Jewish conspiracy to control the world.”
PLUM LINE: Having him do this is what emboldens these groups?
JOHNSON: Yeah, and those who are mentally ill and on the cusp of violence hear this type of rhetoric and it gets them thinking, “Hey, I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to retaliate.” That’s when you get people start mailing the mail bombs and shooting Jews.
PLUM LINE: Is Trump’s “many sides” comment also the language of white nationalism?
JOHNSON: It sends a message to the white nationalists that, “Hey, I’ve got your back, I’m gonna deflect the blame from you on to other people.” It doesn’t deter the violence. It actually encourages future violence, by not calling it out for what it was and who instigated it.
PLUM LINE: When Republicans echo the Soros messaging, or when Republicans don’t do enough to call out Trump’s white nationalist dog-whistling, what impact does that have?
JOHNSON: When no one says, “that’s not how we feel as a political party,” that in a sense endorses it through silence. By not condemning or challenging the rhetoric of the president, you’re in a sense giving him a green light to continue making those statements. That mainstreams the message.