The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump administration is showing white nationalists it won’t fight them at all

The dangers in rebranding a program to stop extremism so it only focuses on “radical Islamic terror."

President Trump’s administration is reportedly planning to rebrand an initiative to fight extremists. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The Trump administration is reportedly planning to rebrand a government effort to combat violent extremism into one that focuses only on terrorists acting in the name of Islam.

The program, launched by the Obama administration in 2011, is counterterrorism by other means. It seeks nonkinetic ways to prevent terrorism through various kinds of “soft power” initiatives, from messaging campaigns and community intervention to jobs and education programs. Theoretically, up to now, it’s been targeting all forms of violent extremist ideology, from radical Muslim groups to domestic white nationalists. In practice, though, even under Obama, the focus was almost entirely on Muslims, aside from a tiny handful of mostly invisible grants and programs.

But there was still a powerful symbolic statement behind saying the government wanted to fight all extremists, no matter what ideology they espoused. And it would be an equally powerful symbolic statement if the Trump administration decides to drop all non-Muslim interventions and rebrand the effort as Combating Islamic Extremism.

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And in this case, it would be a statement that should alarm anyone who believes in fundamentally American values such as equal rights and freedom of religion.

Just two weeks in, the new administration has seized one opportunity after another to fracture the United States along racial and religious identity lines. From the infamous Mexican border wall to the disastrous implementation of the “Muslim ban” in defiance of all the overwhelming consensus of expert opinion, to the omission of Jewish victims from a statement memorializing the Holocaust, to ludicrous fear mongering about Muslim Brotherhood infiltration, to the president’s defense of alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos even as his administration studiously ignores a lone wolf-style attack on Muslims in Quebec, to the elevation of anti-Islam partisans Mike Flynn and Stephen K. Bannon — the Trump administration’s short tenure has already been a bonanza for the white nationalists that the Trump campaign assiduously courted on the road to the White House.

This toxic brew of actions joins a host of other worrisome developments around the administration’s increasingly apparent view that our national identity is primarily white and Christian. Taken individually, some of the controversies and debates over the administration’s staff choices might be considered politics as usual, but it would be foolish to separate them from the typhoon of signals emanating from this White House at every turn. It would be foolish to ignore what the administration is trying so hard to tell us. It would be foolish to let the significance of its message sink beneath the daily eruptions of both legitimate controversy and bizarro world nonsense.

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And its message is stark. It is a message of religious and racial exclusion: the demonization of Islam, slowly moving from coded language to more overt steps, such as declaring that violent extremism is exclusively a Muslim problem; the demonization of vulnerable refugees, especially those who are nonwhite and non-Christian; and targeted attacks on voting rights.

That worldview is shared by the domestic extremist groups the Trump administration no longer wants to focus on. This slippery slope ends with defining American identity as primarily — and eventually exclusively — white and Christian. Extremist identity movements rarely begin with explicit arguments for exclusion. They start with justifications based on distorted perceptions of economic and national security.

Which is why changing the focus of the anti-extremist program is so pernicious. In practical terms, the program is of little importance; it’s not even clear such programs succeed in the context of broad government enterprises. The Obama administration’s symbolic nod to the toxicity of white nationalism is not a bulwark holding back a new generation of racist extremists.

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But it would cost President Trump’s administration virtually nothing to maintain the status quo, and literally nothing to quietly let these few existing programs die of neglect. Instead, the administration is taking advantage of yet another opportunity to ratify white nationalism and white supremacy.

Since Trump began his campaign for president, white nationalism has enjoyed media exposure and mainstream political support at levels not seen since the 1960s. There was never any reason to hope a Trump presidency would be different or better than his dog-whistling campaign, and his first two weeks in office have made that painfully clear.

Rebranding the government’s work as “Countering Islamic Extremism” instead of “Countering Violent Extremism” will not empower white nationalism by ending some specific and effective program, but rather by shouting to the world that America’s political leadership will not oppose white nationalism — even in the flimsiest and most ephemeral way imaginable.

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