Remember how Donald Trump used to accuse the Democrats of political correctness on the subject of terrorism? “These are radical Islamic terrorists and she won’t even mention the word and nor will President Obama,” declaimed the then Republican presidential candidate in his second debate against Hillary Clinton in October 2016.
But what about Trump’s own political correctness? Over the course of his 14 months in office, the president has pointedly refused to use the term “white supremacist terrorist”. He has turned a blind eye to a wave of shootings, stabbings and bombings carried out not by radicalised Muslims but by radicalised white men. He has ignored the fact – documented in a range of studies – that Americans are much more likely to be the victims of a “white supremacist terrorist” than a “radical Islamic terrorist”. (According to the Investigative Fund, an independent journalism organisation, “far-right plots and attacks outnumber Islamist incidents by almost two to one.”)
And the reason for Trump’s PC position? It’s straightforward – if scary. “Radical Islamic terrorists” aren’t part of his base. “White supremacist terrorists” are.
Don’t take my word for it. “Donald Trump is setting us free,” wrote a jubilant Andrew Anglin, founder of a neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, last summer. “It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups and extremists, agrees. “If 2016 was the year of white supremacists being electrified by the rise of Donald Trump, his inauguration in January sent them into a frenzy,” it noted. “They believed they finally had a sympathiser in the White House and an administration that would enact policies to match their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist ideas.” The SPLC pointed out that “hate crimes in the six largest US cities were up 20 per cent from 2016”.
According to the Extremist Crime Database, the far right carried out nine fatal attacks in the US in 2017. In February of that year, Adam Purinton shot two Indian men, one of whom was killed, at a restaurant in Kansas, reportedly yelling “get out of my country” and “terrorist” before opening fire.
In March 2017, James H Jackson, an avid reader of the Daily Stormer, fatally stabbed an elderly African-American man in New York, after travelling from Baltimore to kill as many black men as possible and “make a statement”, according to the authorities.
In May, Jeremy Joseph Christian, an admirer of both Trump and the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was charged with stabbing two men to death on a train in Portland, Oregon, after they tried to prevent him from harassing two female passengers who appeared to be Muslim.
In August, James Fields Jr, a proud neo-Nazi, was charged with killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer after allegedly driving his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had gathered to protest against a white supremacist rally. (“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” Trump would later remark .)
In December, a 17-year-old boy who had mowed a swastika into the grass of a community field was charged with murdering his girlfriend’s parents after they objected to their teenage daughter’s relationship with the youth because of his neo-Nazi views.
Yet hardly any of these fatal attacks by radicalised white men dominated the news headlines in the US in the same way that shootings or bombings by radicalised Muslims tend to. Aside from the killing of Heyer in Charlottesville, how many of these incidents had you even heard of? Researchers at Georgia State University found that terrorist attacks “by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449 per cent more coverage than other attacks”. Muslims were responsible for 12.4 per cent of the terror attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 yet received 41.4 per cent of the news coverage. Is it any wonder that when most Americans think of terrorists they picture brown, not white, skins?
“Terrorism is one of the only areas where white people do most of the work and get none of the credit,” joked the comedian Ken Cheng in a viral tweet. But this is no joking matter for the Trump administration. Upon coming to office last year, White House officials briefed Reuters that they wanted to “revamp and rename a US government programme designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism… and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists.”
By June, the administration had announced it would be revoking federal funding for Life After Hate, a non-profit dedicated to deradicalising right-wing extremists, and a project by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that was supposed to counter both violent Islamists and white supremacists.
Yet in May last year, an intelligence bulletin prepared by the FBI and the department for homeland security was obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, which warned that “white supremacists had already carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years”. It concluded that white supremacists “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year”.
And so they have. Just as George W Bush ignored intelligence about a growing threat from al-Qaeda in his first year in office, Trump spent 2017 ignoring warnings about the “persistent threat of lethal violence” from white supremacists.
“To solve a problem you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least, say the name,” declared Trump in his October 2016 debate with Clinton. Maybe, just for once, the president should take his own advice.
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special