Biden vowed to “restore the soul of the nation” as president, meaning he won’t use the power and influence of the office to carry out a white nationalist agenda or to lend support to right-wing extremists and white supremacists, instead “uniting” the country.
But what does all this mean in practice? It means many things, from purging immigration policy of naked bigotry to rolling out an agenda that takes systemic racism seriously to having a president who doesn’t actively encourage police and even vigilante violence.
But one of the most thorny problems Biden faces will be how to reverse the failures of the previous administration when it comes specifically to violent domestic extremism and white supremacy.
A massively complex challenge
This is a complicated challenge that will entail action on many fronts. They include a look at whether federal law needs to be revamped to treat white nationalist and white supremacist mass killings as a form of domestic terrorism.
Another imperative, as former National Security Council official Joshua Geltzer points out, will be to take seriously the transnational nature of global white nationalist and white supremacist groups and ideologies. Numerous recent domestic mass shootings were inspired by white supremacist mass murderers abroad, and social media has created transnational networks espousing white supremacist violence.
All this would require determining whether this sort of law enforcement activity can be done — and this is absolutely crucial — without violating civil liberties. Only the pursuit of political aims through violent means should be the focus, and all violent ideologies must be targeted. Civil libertarian groups must be fully included in discussions of any legal reorientations.
This will also pose a big communications challenge to the new president. And here’s where the Trump trap comes in.
Trump’s failings on right-wing extremism
Trump’s own Homeland Security Department declared this fall that violent white supremacy is “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” Trump’s own FBI director has testified to the same thing.
But all this came after Trump and his administration systematically downplayed (or actively encouraged) the white nationalist and white supremacist threat. Former senior Homeland Security analyst Elizabeth Neumann has revealed that officials vainly tried to get Trump to take right-wing extremism seriously for months.
What’s more, Neumann has suggested, Trump continued to make public statements lending tacit support to such groups despite surely knowing that this type of rhetoric encourages them, such as his infamous call for the extremist Proud Boys to “stand by.”
And a Homeland Security whistleblower revealed top-down pressure to downplay intelligence on the white supremacist threat. Numerous top Trump officials hyped impressions of organized leftist terrorism to eclipse right-wing violence in keeping with his reelection message.
Obviously, one big change will be that Biden will not make public statements tacitly encouraging or downplaying violent right-wing extremism. But the big problem Biden faces is how to successfully communicate and level with the public about the threat in a way that’s constructive, not destructive.
Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general, told me that this challenge involves several components. One involves communicating to those vulnerable to violent right-wing radicalization that they have “another way,” McCord says, which entails giving them a stake in a larger “purpose” other than such causes.
“I see fear as motivating some of the white supremacist organizations and movements — fear of a loss of white privilege, economic and educational privilege,” McCord told me.
Another entails drawing careful distinctions between adherents of violent right-wing extremism and those who might be at much earlier stages of radicalization, to preserve the possibility of communicating with the latter. Still another entails dealing with online disinformation, but that’s a whole other massive problem.
The trap Trump set
Labeling the threat itself carries perils that Biden will have to avoid. Recall that in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, a Homeland Security analyst produced a report on right-wing extremism that caused an explosion of controversy among conservatives. That led to a quick retreat on the topic.
It’s easy to see the same happening again. However Biden does seek to address the threat, we’ll likely see another effort by right-wing media to label it a tyrannical attack on conservatism.
This time, retreat is not an option. Trump has aligned himself with various strands of right-wing extremism. He continues to assert the election was stolen from him. He will continue to claim measures against the coronavirus pursued by Biden constitute tyranny (such measures may have partly motivated the plot to kidnap Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer).
All this will be designed to keep a pro-Trump insurgency as active and as angry as possible. There may be all kinds of overlap between that violent white supremacist activity and continued resistance to the Biden administration and anti-virus measures on the invented grounds that his victory was illegitimate.
The trap Trump set is to activate this insurgency, making it more fiendishly challenging for Biden to make good on his vow to take the white supremacist threat far more seriously than Trump ever did. Biden will be tempted to retreat in labeling that threat in the interests of “unity.” But that would be a retreat on a core rationale of his victorious candidacy.
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