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Less than a week before Donald Trump’s election, we wrote a piece provocatively entitled “CVE for White People: The Trumpist Movement and the Radicalization Process.” The article, whose title referenced the approach of “countering violent extremism” or CVE, argued that the Trump movement should be understood in a fashion roughly similar to the way scholars of extremism understand the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—that is, as an illiberal movement embedded in a country’s electoral system that has an ambiguous relationship to violence and an overtly violent fringe. “Trumpism, like the Brotherhood, is a political movement built on the mass mobilization of faith—in the one case religious faith and in the other case faith in a single charismatic individual,” we wrote. “Like the Brotherhood, it is a movement that exists within an electoral system but which has a deeply ambivalent relationship with the democratic norms of that system, a movement which both formally rejects violence yet manages also to tolerate or encourage it.” On “the fringes of both movements are radicals, some of whom are violent,” we argued. “The line between the Brotherhood and certain ultra-conservative Salafist and even violent Islamist groups in Egypt is a somewhat fuzzy one. This is more similar to than different from the Trump campaign which has, and often cheerfully accepts, the overt support of domestic white supremacists and members of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement.” And, of course, “Both movements have also spawned terrorists.”
The piece goes on to propose understanding the process the more violent Trump supporters go through as akin to the process of radicalization described in a detail in the literature about jihadist terrorism. And at the end of the piece, we offered a simple test of our theory:
There’s a simple measure for whether our basic theory here is, in a general sense, right: If it is, we will see a significant spike in white supremacist violence over the next few years. The Trump campaign has provided a baseline undemocratic ideation to hundreds of millions of people and also provided a platform through which extremists, both violent and non-violent, can recruit and cultivate. If our collective understanding of the process of violent radicalization is correct, the result will be blood.
The past few years have unfortunately provided a dramatic test of this theory; more unfortunately still, the theory has held up well. By nearly any metric, white supremacist violence is up significantly, the lethality of attacks has risen dramatically, and the link between the ideation and action has become particularly clear. President Trump plays a key role in this ideational cauldron—though pinning down the precise role of his rhetoric in any one incident is a mug’s game.
Consider first the raw data. According to FBI data, 2017—the most recent year for which data are available—saw a sharp jump in hate crimes over 2016. Crimes motivated by race, ethnicity or national origin leapt from 3,489 in 2016 to 4,131 in 2017. Crimes based on religion jumped from 1,273 in 2016 to 1,564 in 2017. Data for 2015 are roughly consistent with the data for 2016 and follow a gentler rise from 2012, 2013 and 2014, when levels fluctuated. While these numbers don’t specify the particular political valence of the attack, around 70 percent of crimes motivated by religion are consistently directed against Jews and Muslims, and around 60 percent of crimes motivated by race, ethnicity or national origin are consistently directed against Black and Latino victims.
2017 FBI Hate Crimes Statistics
Hate crimes are a crude measure. They include lots of offenses well short of violence against people. Thirty-seven percent of all 2017 offenses, for example, involved what the FBI terms “crimes against property”—which includes vandalism and the like.
That said, what the FBI terms “crimes against persons” rose in 2017 as well. In 2016, the FBI reported 3,765 incidents, affecting 4,720 victims, and committed by 4,353 offenders. By contrast, in 2017, there were 4,090 incidents of crimes against persons, affecting 5,084 victims, and committed by 4,442 offenders. (These numbers include all hate crimes, not just those motivated by race and religion.)
Then there are the most violent attacks—the ones that blur the lines between hate crimes and terrorism.
An April 2019 analysis by the New York Times, relying on data from the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, reported a “surge” in “white extremist” attacks in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand dating back to a spurt of anti-immigrant violence in Europe in 2015 and possibly sparked by the 2011 attack in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik. While the raw numbers for 2017 and 2018 remain below that of 2015, the numbers of white extremist attacks are still high. Most of this surge is the result of anti-immigrant violence in Europe and has little to do with conditions in the United States. But it’s also clear that an international ecosystem of far-right racism has emerged that has contributed as well.
In the United States alone, “attacks jumped” in 2017, the Times writes, with nine deadly acts of violence that year; preliminary data for 2018 show five deadly attacks. The data presented by the Times suggest that the deadliness of white extremist attacks may be rising, too, particularly in North America. Until 2018, the deadliest white extremist attacks in the U.S. included a 2012 shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple that killed six people and the 2015 shooting at a Charleston, South Carolina, church that killed nine. Compare this to the El Paso shooting this past weekend, which killed 22 people.
Certainly, there is no body of attacks in the recent pre-Trump era like the current period—in which we have multiple mass shootings in a compressed period of time conducted on the express basis of hatred of foreigners, immigrants, or religious minorities. According to the database cited by the Times, far-right extremists perpetrated three deadly attacks in 2015 (in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; in Charleston, South Carolina; and at Umpqua Community College in Oregon). No deadly attacks took place in 2016.
The list of attacks in the years since Trump’s election is quite striking. Before El Paso was the March 2019 shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 50 people. Then there was the April 2019 shooting at a synagogue in Poway, California, in which one person died; in that case, the letter posted by the shooter blamed Jews for “white genocide.” Before that was the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, before which the shooter posted about Central American immigrants as “invaders” assisted in entering the country by Jews. Eleven people died in that attack.
The FBI is aware of the problem. According to the office of FBI Director Christopher Wray, the bureau has recorded about 90 domestic terrorism arrests in 2019 so far; a majority of those cases motivated by racial hatred “are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence,” Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the wake of the attack, the FBI released a statement announcing that the bureau “remains concerned that U.S.-based domestic violent extremists could become inspired by these and previous high-profile attacks to engage in similar acts of violence.”
Relatedly, the FBI has also gotten concerned about conspiracy theorizing, warning in an intelligence bulletin from the Phoenix field office that “anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity.” Among the violent incidents identified by the bulletin as motivated by conspiracy theories was the Tree of Life shooting—and the bulletin also pointed to synagogues and mosques as “popular conspiracy theory targets.” Not all the conspiracies listed in the bulletin fall under the rubric of white supremacy, but there is certainly an overlap.
“This report is a call to action—and we will heed that call,” said then-Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker when the FBI’s 2017 hate crimes report was released in November 2018. Well, the president has certainly heeded the call, and taken action: He has serially stoked the fire.
The question of how best to read a document posted by a killer in the time before a violent attack is a difficult one, but it’s impossible to ignore that the Christchurch shooter described Muslims as “invaders” and wrote of Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” Before the 2018 Tree of Life shooting, the attacker wrote on the far-right social network Gab that the Jewish organization HIAS was “bring[ing] invaders that kill our people”—a reference to a conspiracy theory that HIAS was coordinating the entrance of Central American immigrants into the United States. The El Paso shooter also wrote of the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” though he added that his views on the matter “predate Trump.” Throughout this whole period, the president was referring to immigrants as “invaders” and warning of an “invasion of Illegals” from the southern border.
This on top of his having inaugurated his campaign for president with claims that Mexico was sending its rapists to the United States and conducted his campaign with near-daily attacks on Muslims and Islam. He has continued his occasional flirtation with violence in his speeches and rallies, most recently in response to a rally attendee in Florida who yelled out, “Shoot them,” when Trump asked rhetorically, “How do you stop these people?”—meaning Central American immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump smiled and commented that “only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement,” as the crowd cheered.
To what extent does Trump’s rhetoric have any impact?
“I blame the people who pulled the trigger.... Goodness gracious, is someone really blaming the president?” declared White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend. “Was Bernie Sanders responsible for, for when my friends got shot playing baseball? I don’t think that he was. Was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responsible when someone drove up to a DHS facility with a homemade bomb and an AR15 and tried to blow the place up calling it a concentration camp, the same rhetoric that she used, was she responsible? I don’t think that she was.”
Kellyanne Conway made a point of tweeting that the Dayton shooter had a “leftist Twitter feed.” And later declared herself “hopping mad” that the press wasn’t covering his apparently left-leaning views while devoting substantial attention to the relationship between Trump and the violence in El Paso.
They do protest too much. Yes, as a general matter, it’s a bad idea to attribute the actions of disturbed people to the ideas they imbibe. Violence often looks for a text to justify itself. And people who want to kill will find a reason, sometimes political. So one should generally refrain from attributing a particular incident to a particular leader’s rhetoric.
That said, it’s also a bad idea to attribute any specific extreme weather event to climate change. Yet when a pattern of extreme weather events emerges that fits precisely within the pattern one would expect from rising global temperatures and is not accompanied by countervailing patterns that climate change would not produce, it is reasonable to observe the shift and the aggregate trends.
Something similar is happening here. No one incident can be laid at President Trump’s feet. Yet when a president talks the way Trump talks over a long period of time, when he deploys rhetoric routinely that can be expected to stir the pot of violent extremism, when one can predict—as we did—prospectively the manner in which such rhetoric will interact with a political community and yield violence, and when violence then materializes in precisely the hypothesized fashion, it would be unreasonable to deny that there is a connection.
We certainly don’t let the Muslim Brotherhood off so easily.