In the United States and abroad, there’s been a deadly uptick in white supremacist violence over the past six months. Although the incidence of far-right terror reads like a morbid catalog, the Trump administration has refused to acknowledge the threat.
On Saturday, a gunman with an assault weapons walked into the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego County and killed one person, injuring at least three others. The shooting, which some officials have characterized as a hate crime, took place during observances marking the eighth and final day of Passover.
But that’s just the most recent case.
Last October, a gunman inspired by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. Just one day earlier, the FBI arrested Cesar Sayoc, who had mailed a series of crude pipe bombs to prominent Democratic figures.
In February, federal agents arrested Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant who was revealed to have compiled a hit list of liberal politicians and journalists and to have amassed an arsenal of more than a dozen weapons. The following month, far-right terrorism again raised its ugly head when a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50.
Aside from the generic “thoughts and prayers” statement that now follows any tragedy, the Trump administration’s response to these incidents has been woefully inadequate. Asked after the Christchurch attack whether he thought white nationalism represented a growing security threat, President Donald Trump replied, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
Earlier this month, hearings on white nationalism convened by the House Judiciary Committee were scuttled by Republicans, who repeatedly yielded their time so that their star witness Candace Owens could go on at length about how the hearings were a sham and how Democrats were the real racists.
Republican inaction on far-right extremism, however, has presented an opportunity for the current field of Democratic presidential nominees, some of whom have called out the dangers of white nationalism and criticized the Trump administration for its inaction responding to it.
For the first time, rhetoric condemning white extremism has become a regular feature of candidate speeches on the campaign trail.
After the Christchurch shooting, for instance, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gave a speech at the Islamic Center of Southern California warning against “a difficult moment where we see a rise in hate crimes and where we see a growing tendency toward authoritarianism where demagogues are picking on minority groups.”
In a March interview with the Washington Post, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg – who has been surging in recent polls — called out white nationalism as a “clear and present security threat that folks on the other side of the aisle either refuse to acknowledge or decline to do anything about.”
Sanders and Buttigieg are far from the only candidates to highlight the dangers of white nationalism. At a March campaign stop in Tennessee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said that “in the same way that ISIS and Al Qaeda pose a threat to the U.S., so does the rise of white nationalism.”
Speaking at the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus Town Hall in Des Moines earlier this month, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) noted that the vast majority of terrorist attacks since 9/11 have been committed by far-right extremists, adding “we have a president whose language is being used by white supremacists as an example to do the hate they perpetrate.”
And in an interview with the podcast Pod Save America following the Christchurch attack, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said that “there’s this underworld out there in the Internet where people are getting radicalized” but that so far the issue has been discussed mostly in terms of Islamic extremism, instead of far-right extremism.
Democratic candidates haven’t forgotten Trump’s comments in wake of the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, either, when the president infamously declared that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
After that rally, where one counter protester was killed and dozens injured, Sanders said he was “disgusted by the news,” while Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News calling Trump’s response to Unite the Right “a disgrace to our country.” And in a February interview with the Root, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said that Trump’s comments in the wake of Charlottesville made her suffer “an incredible amount of pain and concern.”
The focus on Charlottesville re-emerged last week, when former Vice President Joe Biden used Trump’s appalling response to the white nationalist violence there as a springboard for announcing his own presidential campaign.
“It was there on August of 2017 we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open,” Biden said in a campaign announcement video. “That’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world…. with those words [Trump] assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
“In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden continued. “Everything that has made America, America is at stake.”
One candidate who’s found himself in a particularly difficult position when it comes to white nationalism is Andrew Yang. His central campaign promise of giving all U.S. citizens $1,000 a month has proven enormously popular to certain communities on 4chan and Reddit that act as incubators for far-right radicalization.
White nationalists like Richard Spencer, Faith Goldy, and Nick Fuentes have all helped — whether seriously or in jest — to spread #YangGang’s viral momentum, which in turn has led to the business entrepreneur — who is in no way a white nationalist — feeling compelled to publicly disavow them, telling the New York Times that “they’re antithetical to everything I stand for.”
“I don’t look much look like a white nationalist,” he told a CNN town hall in April. “It’s been a point of confusion.”
But for all the verbal outrage, Democratic candidates so far have offered little the way of concrete proposals for tackling white nationalism and far-right extremism.
Buttigieg and Yang, for instance, have both said that economic anxiety has led to a loss of community and identity, which is driving some towards far-right extremism – which sounds remarkably similar to the debunked thesis that economic anxiety and not racial resentment, was key in Trump’s 2016 electoral victory.
Similarly, Castro noted on Pod Save America that “Facebook and Twitter…have to bear some responsibility for cracking down [on white nationalism]” which is undoubtedly true, but rings somewhat hollow given the criticism Big Tech has come under this year for everything related to its data storing to its role in disseminating Russian propaganda to its absurd double standards in choosing which accounts to suspend.
Some candidates have offered some more concrete solutions, however. Warren, for instance, has frequently mentioned that if she were to become president, she would seek the “full prosecution” of white nationalists by the Justice Department. Harris, who has pledged to double the size of the civil rights division in the Justice Department, previously created a Hate Crimes Unit while she was San Francisco District Attorney to help prosecute crimes against LGBTQ teens — a template which could be useful bearing in mind that Hate Crimes have been rising for three consecutive years.
Harris, along with candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Booker, and Sanders have all cosponsored the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) at the end of March. The measure would revamp domestic terrorism intelligence sharing and training, require the DOJ, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to submit annual reports on domestic terrorism and establish an interagency task force specifically to combat the infiltration of the armed forces by white supremacists and neo-Nazis — which has been shown to be a persistent problem.
“For too long, we have failed to take action to combat the deadly threat [of far-right extremism] in our own backyard,” Durbin said in March. “While federal law enforcement agencies recognize that white supremacist extremism is on the rise, our legislation would require them to take the concrete steps needed to address it.”
Durbin’s bill is certainly a start, bearing in mind how the threat of far-right extremism has been summarily overlooked by the Trump administration’s Justice Department. Earlier this month, it was reported that DHS had shuttered a unit specifically designed to track domestic terror threats and share intelligence with local law enforcement.
The Trump administration also shuttered the Countering Violent Extremism program, which was designed to provide grants to grassroots groups working to combat far-right extremism. Last November, in the immediate aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Vanity Fair reported that Katherine Gorka, who has remained at DHS even after her husband Sebastian was forced from his White House advisory role, has been pushing the department towards a “Islamist-only approach to terrorism.”
Experts disagree about what makes the best strategy for combating far-right extremism, which is perhaps why the Democratic presidential candidates – even though they raise the issue on the campaign trail — haven’t formulated their own strategies quite yet.
For Heidi Beirich, leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Unit, the mere fact that far-right extremism and white nationalism is being discussed at all by presidential candidates is a welcomed development.
“It represents a sea change in taking the issue seriously both from the Trump administration but also from the Obama administration, so at least we’ve got this issue on the agenda,” Beirich told ThinkProgress. “That matters significantly in contrast to Trump’s comments after New Zealand and Charlottesville.”
In terms of policy, Beirich said a top priority is clarifying what resources are already devoted to combating domestic extremism — a straightforward idea, but one which has proved remarkably difficult under the current administration.
“We’ve had conversations with staffers on the House Committee of Homeland Security and one of the problems with devising a response is we have no idea exactly what it is that the government’s doing,” Beirich said. “We don’t know what agents and resources there are. Before you start deciding what policies should be you should find out what’s happening, or else somebody could use the laws in ways that you don’t want.”
The opaqueness to figuring out how the government is trying to combat far-right extremism on the day-to-day doesn’t just apply to congressional policy-making either, but extends to the courts and the collation of crimes. As Beirich pointed out, Christopher Hasson’s case only became public after the docket was discovered by a professor at George Washington University. The national process for collecting and analyzing hate crimes data, which represent the most frequent type of far-right extremism, also falls woefully short.
Beirich, who declined to single out a particular candidate for praise or criticism, was cautious on the issue of whether the eventual Democratic candidate could sustain a focus on the issue of far-right extremism during an eventual presidential battle with Trump. Still, she said, it is encouraging to see candidates recognize the threat early on.
“I’m glad to see Democrats talking about this,” Beirich said. “I wish Republicans took it seriously as a threat to all Americans.”