President Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on March 15 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Last year, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported:

The threat from right-wing terrorism in the United States—and Europe—appears to be rising. Of particular concern are white supremacists and anti-government extremists, such as militia groups and so-called sovereign citizens interested in plotting attacks against government, racial, religious, and political targets in the United States. The October 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue shooting by Robert Bowers, and the arrest a day earlier of Cesar Sayoc who sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, appear to be the most recent manifestations of this trend. Both perpetrators were far-right extremists. Although violent left-wing groups and individuals also present a threat, far-right-networks appear to be better armed and larger. There also is a continuing threat from extremists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. But the number of attacks from right-wing extremists since 2014 has been greater than attacks from Islamic extremists.

Likewise, the Anti-Defamation League’s report for 2018 concluded, “2018 was a particularly active year for right-wing extremist murders: Every single extremist killing — from Pittsburgh to Parkland — had a link to right-wing extremism.” The report said, “In 2018, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the U.S., a sharp increase from the 37 extremist-related murders documented in 2017, though still lower than the totals for 2015 (70) and 2016 (72). The 50 deaths make 2018 the fourth-deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970.”

The ADL also found that right-wing terrorists were stepping up their propaganda campaigns. “ADL’s Center on Extremism (COE) continues to track an ever-growing number of white supremacist propaganda efforts, including the distribution of racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic fliers, stickers, banners and posters. The 2018 data shows a 182% increase of incidents from the previous year, with 1,187 cases reported, compared to 421 in 2017.”

If nongovernmental entities can confirm the rising danger of right-wing terrorism, surely the government must know about it. (It does, but the Trump administration has misrepresented it.) And surely if the government has data about an alarming trend in extremist-related incidents that are taking the lives of Americans, the president must get that information in his daily briefing, right?

It’s therefore hard to fathom why, in the wake of the horrendous slaughter of 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, the president would declare that right-wing nationalism no big deal. The Post reported on Friday:

President Trump said Friday he does not believe white nationalism is a rising global danger after a suspected gunman who authorities say espoused that ideology killed 49 Muslims in New Zealand.

When asked at the White House whether white nationalists were a growing threat around the world, Trump replied: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.”

Well, let’s consider the possibilities as to why he should appear so glaringly uninformed on the key aspect of his job, performing the duties of the commander in chief.

First, some news reports suggest he’s not getting his presidential daily briefing every day. If so, and if he has missed the widely reported trend of white-nationalist terrorism (likely because Fox News doesn’t cover it very much), it would be a function of his irresponsibility and laziness.

Another possibility is that Trump gets the briefings, has been told about white-nationalist terrorism but cannot fully process or retain the information. One can imagine that someone who has dispensed his lawyer to threaten schools not to release his grades may have an academic record that is consistent with his current inability to grasp important material.

Another possible explanation — the most likely, I’d suggest — is that white-nationalism-inspired terrorist attacks don’t do anything for Trump. It’s all about him, so if the information doesn’t help solidify his base — or, worse, alienates them because they are defensive about harboring ideologies that can inspire violence (and already have) — the information must be ignored. It must be discounted and dubbed “fake.”

That theory sure might explain why he didn’t label the attack as anti-Muslim and condemn Islamophobia specifically. In fact, despite authorities’ possession of a 74-page manifesto from the alleged shooter outlining his white-nationalist views, Trump seemed to suggest there was some doubt as to his motives. “I guess if you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that’s the case,” he told reporters. “I don’t know enough about it yet. They’re just learning about the person and the people involved.” (It reminds one of his inability to confirm conclusive evidence Russia interfered with our election.)

The only terrorism Trump wants to hear and talk about is the terrorism that whips his base into a frenzy, justifies his xenophobic and Islamophobic policies (the Muslim ban!), and helps him sow dissension and bigotry, which like an orchestra conductor he can increase and decrease in volume, change the tempo of and hit the right pitch at the right time to maximize benefit to himself.

This is why he lies so much — as when he started to insist that Middle Easterners were coming over the southern border, or that immigrants are bringing “tremendous amounts” of crime (in reality, they commit less than native-born Americans), or that “thousands” of MS-13 gang members have been deported. Terrorism is not a problem to be solved to fulfill his obligation to protect the country; it’s a means for manipulating his Fox News-misinformed supporters.

Well, this certainly is dangerous. If the president is going to pursue made-up threats, spending time and money on phantoms, while letting real threats increase, he’s betraying the country for personal gain. That would be like flattering a Russian president to advance his own interests even if it requires he regurgitate the enemy’s propaganda. That would be like legitimizing a brutal dictator, pretending progress was being made on nuclear talks and yet doing nothing effective to prevent advancement of our foe’s nuclear weapons program.

We do have to contemplate the very real possibility that Trump’s policy is always Trump First — and he’ll sell our allies, innocents and his own country down the river if that’s what it takes to maintain power and insulate his mammoth ego. How much he believes his own lies is unknown and unimportant. What matters is that he makes us all less safe.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Now more than ever, Trump must protect and stand by Muslims

Jennifer Rubin: Demonizing Muslims and immigrants leads to predictable results

Anne Applebaum: Radicalism kills. Why do we only care about one kind?

Max Boot: Not all terrorism is treated equally