An American flag and flowers are placed at a makeshift memorial outside the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso where 20 people were killed on Saturday. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

A mass shooting this weekend in El Paso has prompted comparisons between the shooter’s apparently racist motives of preventing a “Hispanic invasion,” according to a manifesto authorities think he may have posted, and President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Many are pointing to the president’s words and actions for encouraging the same anti-immigrant beliefs that apparently led to the massacre in El Paso.

Trump has regularly described immigration from Latin America as an invasion and an immediate threat to the United States. He began his 2016 presidential campaign by broadly denigrating Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” And he even laughed a few months ago when a supporter answered his question about how to stop migrants at the southern border by yelling, “Shoot them.”

Democratic presidential candidates are linking Trump’s rhetoric to the El Paso shooting

Democratic presidential candidates have been especially quick to point out the similarities between the president’s statements and the shooter’s motives. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who represented El Paso, blamed the president for the shooting because “he stokes racism.” Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) similarly stated that the president “is responsible because he is stoking fears and hatred and bigotry.”

Although other Democratic candidates stopped short of directly blaming Trump, they still accused him of emboldening white supremacists. Julián Castro, a former housing secretary, tweeted, “When Donald Trump fans the flames of hate and division, there are real consequences.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., likewise said that the president is “at best condoning and encouraging white nationalists.” And Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) respectively tweeted:

Many Americans were already concerned that Trump’s language encouraged white supremacists

It’s not just Democratic politicians who are criticizing Trump. Nor are concerns about his rhetoric simply an emotional reaction to the horrific violence in El Paso.

In fact, such concerns about Trump’s rhetoric were widespread even before he became president. In a December 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center, for instance, 54 percent said that Trump has done “too little” to distance himself from “white nationalist groups, who believe that whites should be favored in the U.S. over people of other races and ethnicities.”

Most Americans have also consistently said that Trump has encouraged white supremacist groups during his presidency. In August 2017, September 2018 and November 2018, pollsters asked nationally representative samples: “Do you think that President Trump’s decisions and behavior as president have encouraged white supremacist groups, discouraged white supremacist groups, or do you think his behavior and decisions haven’t had an impact either way?”


Graph by Michael Tesler. Sources: Quinnipiac University Poll, August 2017; Public Religion Research Institute Poll, September 2018; Quinnipiac University Poll, November 2018 (all results accessed from Roper’s ipoll). (Michael Tesler)

The graph above shows that 54 to 59 percent of Americans in those three polls thought Trump’s decisions and behavior have encouraged white supremacist groups. Only 3 to 5 percent of Americans in those polls said that Trump has discouraged them.

These results are consistent with more recent data, too. In a March 2019 Pew survey, 56 percent said that Trump has done “too little” to distance himself from white nationalist groups. And in a March 2019 YouGov/HuffPost Poll, more Americans said they thought he supports white nationalism than thought he opposes it (39 to 19 percent respectively).

White nationalists have eagerly embraced Trump and his rhetoric. White supremacist groups and leaders rejoiced when he called a caravan of Latin American migrants “invaders” in 2018. They have since cheered Trump’s racist tweets telling four nonwhite congresswomen to “go back” to where they “originally came from.” The gunman who killed 51 people at two mosques earlier this year in New Zealand even praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

It is impossible to say how much Trump’s rhetoric is to blame for the rise in white nationalist terrorism and hate crimes during his presidency. But it’s clear from the data above that he has a lot of work to do after the El Paso massacre to convince most Americans that he is not encouraging and emboldening white supremacist hate groups.

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