But, whatever is to be in Ohio, we need to ask a broader question about all this: To what degree are the national security professionals in Trump’s own administration concerned that his use of racist and white nationalist tropes risks emboldening white supremacist and white nationalist activity?
We know those professionals believe such activity is a serious threat, because they’ve said so. FBI director Christopher A. Wray and other FBI officials recently said the bureau has recorded some 90 domestic terrorism arrests in the past nine months, and of the cases that involve a racial motive, a majority are thought to be driven by white supremacy.
More broadly, FBI officials have also said that of the hundreds of overall domestic terrorism cases being investigated, a majority of those that are racially motivated are thought to be white supremacist in nature.
But here’s what we need to know more about: what those officials think about the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on such activity.
Outside analysts sound the alarm
National security analysts outside the government see this as a serious factor. Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant FBI director for counterintelligence, has a new piece raising alarms about Trump’s fanning of white nationalist and white supremacist sentiment.
Figliuzzi cites reporting that indicates Trump’s recent rants against nonwhite lawmakers “emboldened white hate groups and reinforced racist blogs, news sites, and social media platforms.” Figliuzzi adds that Trump “empowers hateful and potentially violent individuals with his divisive rhetoric and his unwillingness to unequivocally denounce white supremacy.”
What exactly can be discerned about the role of Trump’s rhetoric is complicated. But as that analyst noted to me, the constant drumbeat of Trumpian tropes — build the wall, keep out the swarthy invaders, George Soros is behind the caravans — has them “energized,” because the president is “mainstreaming their message.”
Since then, we’ve seen Trump tell elected nonwhite members of Congress to “go back” to their crime-infested hellhole countries, even though three were born here, which recycled his opposition to admitting people from “s---hole countries.” He spent days attacking an African American congressman’s Baltimore district as “infested” with rats and crime, exaggerating absurdly to do so.
Trump, then, is moving effortlessly between “s---hole countries” and “s---hole districts.” The suggestion is that the nonwhite “Squad” lawmakers, tainted by roots in specific hellhole countries, are not fundamentally part of the American nation. Multicultural urban America, places run by and for nonwhites, are to be hated and feared as unclean, as “infested,” also a stereotype with deep roots in American history.
Perhaps the national security professionals in Trump’s administration who are tracking domestic right-wing extremism don’t think his rhetoric plays any role in emboldening such activity. It would be good to know either way. Congressional Democrats could hold a hearing and press them more aggressively on these points.
“Trump’s racist, xenophobic, and otherwise extremist language must be worrying national security leaders in our government, as they think about its potential to spark violence,” Joshua Geltzer, senior counterterrorism director at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017, told me. “Wray and others should be asked specifically whether Trump’s language contributes to that threat.”
A big question about Republicans
But this only raises further questions about the limits on the willingness of GOP officials to condemn Trump’s racist incitements. Little by little, the boundaries of what they will tolerate are expanding outward.
“Trump is making the unacceptable acceptable to them,” Geltzer told me. “He’s getting a wide circle of elected Republicans to acquiesce in his horrible language, and some even to excuse it.”
Democrats can bear down harder on this point — that is, on the consequences of Trump’s racism. As former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke put it, Trump’s racism is “changing this country.”
Or at least he’s changing what GOP voters expect from their elites, as political theorist Jacob T. Levy suggests, and with it, the conduct of those elites. GOP lawmakers condemned the “send her back” chants when they became too uncomfortable. One must ask whether they no longer see it as their role to reflect on the potential impact of Trump’s regular drumbeat of racism on the country.
Let’s hope Trump — and his rally crowd — does the right thing in Ohio. But either way, Trump’s use of racist and white nationalist tropes is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Neither will questions about what Trump’s own officials believe the potential consequences of it might be. Let’s ask those questions.