A series of mass shootings carried out by deranged men animated by white nationalist ideology — along with the arrests of others allegedly hellbent on carrying out their own carnage — has raised two critical questions.
First, does the Trump administration have a comprehensive plan to combat the rising threat of white supremacist and white nationalist terrorism?
And second, to what degree does President Trump’s regular trafficking in racist and white nationalist language and tropes — and his tacit winking at such activity — fuel the threat?
House Democrats are set to hold hearings this fall that will intensify the focus on these questions, by posing them to officials in Trump’s own administration who are grappling with the rising menace of white nationalist violence.
In an interview with me, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said that Democrats are planning to bring in senior national security officials to question them about these matters.
“The threat has grown tremendously,” Raskin told me. “We want to find out from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI what are their strategies and tactics for identifying and preempting white supremacist-inspired violence. We want to know that there is a plan.”
At another recent hearing along these lines that got little attention, a senior Homeland Security official conceded that while the administration has done a lot to combat the white supremacist threat, an overall strategic approach still needs to be fully developed. That official promised to brief Congress on the plan at the end of the summer.
Getting officials to tell Congress whether this plan has been developed — and what it entails — is the first order of business at this fall’s hearing, which is still being planned. Raskin said his aim is for it to be run jointly by the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee — which he chairs — and the National Security Subcommittee, both part of the Oversight Committee.
Questions about Trump’s role
The second order of business at the hearing could get pretty fraught — because it concerns the role that Trump himself might be playing in fueling the rising threat.
Multiple national security experts outside the government have sounded the alarm about Trump’s language — his constant painting of migrants as invaders; his suggestion that George Soros (hint, hint) is behind the migrant caravans; his demand that nonwhite U.S.-born lawmakers go back to their hellhole countries; his refusal to unambiguously condemn white supremacists. They note that Trump might be helping mainstream white nationalism and emboldening such activity, contributing to a climate that makes violence more likely.
Which raises a question: Do the national security officials in Trump’s own government who are grappling with this problem agree that Trump risks making the problem worse?
Raskin told me this will be a key question.
“I don’t necessarily think Trump is the fountain of white supremacist ideology,” Raskin said, but he added that Trump has absorbed the “great replacement” worldview that white civilization is under siege, and that his megaphone is amplifying it: "He gives it special power and disseminates that message more effectively than just about anyone.”
“The president’s role is an absolutely legitimate question to address,” Raskin noted, confirming that this would be raised with administration officials and outside experts alike.
“Extremist groups believe they are in the middle of a race war in America,” Raskin continued. "The president’s language at best does nothing to dissuade them from that conviction. At worst it exacerbates the problem by talking about foreign invasions and demonizing and scapegoating members of minority groups.”
Just this week, a self-described white nationalist with a large arsenal of weaponry was arrested in Ohio for allegedly threatening a Jewish community center. An alleged neo-Nazi was arrested in Miami after threatening to “exterminate” Hispanics and thanking God Trump is launching a “Racial War.”
Trump and his advisers have shown no discernible concern about whether there is even any risk that Trump’s language might exacerbate the tinderbox atmosphere. Fox News’s Chris Wallace recently asked acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney what Trump thinks about the fact that the alleged Christchurch mass murderer hailed Trump as a “symbol of white identity.” Mulvaney brushed off the question.
What’s more, the Trump campaign has refused to stop using the word “invasion” in its TV ads, despite the fact that multiple alleged mass murderers — in El Paso and in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting — have used that language.
Trump has, of course, condemned the shootings. But there are no serious signs he’s that troubled by the ideology that might be driving them, let alone his potential role in fueling it. The New York Times reports that officials have been reluctant to bring up domestic terrorism and white supremacist violence with Trump because he’s not interested. It’s hard to say whether Trump’s own white nationalism is the reason for this, but it’s a legit question to ask.
“Our goal is to bolster the conviction in law enforcement that we have a serious and pervasive threat in our society,” Raskin said. “Our goal is not to target the president,” but rather to focus on his “role in exacerbating” that threat.
Civil liberties concerns
Raskin also noted that law enforcement will be pressed on how they balance respect for the right to merely espouse extremist views with the need to “monitor what’s going on so that when there’s incitement to terrorism, they are able to act swiftly.”
The Times reports that Homeland Security agency culture prioritizes foreign over domestic terrorism, slowing efforts to counter white supremacist terrorism. Raskin confirmed that the hearing will address the need to treat the “Islamist threat” and the “white supremacist threat” both as terrorism.
“We have a similar method of recruitment and inspiration,” Raskin told me. “There is violent propaganda online, which alienated and psychologically troubled people fasten on to. And they both have global networks behind them.”