Domestic Terrorism in the Age of Trump
Harassment, intimidation, and physical violence against religious and ethnic minorities is on the rise. And some experts worry the Trump administration is making things worse.
The attack on a Portland commuter train by a knife-wielding white nationalist who was screaming anti-Muslim insults overshadowed other recent crimes apparently motivated by bigotry — including a machete attack against a black man in California and the killing of a Native American man by the driver of a pickup truck who was terrorizing a group of picnicking friends.
Just outside Washington, D.C. recently, an African American student on the verge of graduating from college was murdered by a white student who was reportedly a member of an online “alt-Reich” group. Nooses have been placed in a number of prominent locations, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Southern Poverty Law Center documented almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. “Many harassers invoked Trump’s name during assaults,” the SPLC reported, “making it clear that the outbreak of hate stemmed in large part from his electoral success.”
Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017. There’s also been a surge in violent attacks on Indian Americans and Sikhs, sometimes by people mistakenly identifying them as Muslims or Arabs.
What’s going on?
Violence motivated by bigotry obviously didn’t begin with Trump. But there’s no question that Trump’s rise has inflamed racial resentments and unleashed something dangerous. His campaign excited white nationalists, beginning with his first speech vilifying Mexican immigrants and continuing with his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Trump’s suggestion that the Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t rule fairly because of his family’s Mexican origins sent a signal: Real, trustworthy Americans are white. Trump’s close alliance with some conservative Christian leaders sends another signal: Real Americans are Christians.
Some hateful people take these signals as permission to openly express and act on bigotries that were previously understood to be unacceptable.
Indeed, by putting Steve Bannon in senior campaign and White House positions, Trump made it clear that promoting bigotry is no bar to service in his administration. Bannon’s leadership of a right-wing website was praised by a prominent neo-Nazi leader for making the site “hardcore.”
These signals were amplified by the appointment of Jeff Sessions, a Voting Rights Act critic and promoter of anti-immigrant policies, to be U.S. attorney general.
In the face of a growing bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform, Sessions is trying to take the country in the opposite direction, pushing aggressively for mass incarceration and undermining previous Justice Department efforts to hold police accountable for racially motivated violence.
Arlie Perliger, a Massachusetts professor who works with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, argues that right-wing violence grounded in white supremacist ideology should be treated as domestic terrorism.
But the Trump budget proposal released in May zeroes out funding for a Homeland Security program that gives grants to communities to counter violent extremism. Reuters reported that the administration has also frozen $10 million in grants that had already been allocated.
Generations of Americans have struggled and continue to struggle to make liberty and justice for all a reality in our increasingly diverse society. But with Trump as their leader, opponents of pluralism are demanding a return to some undefined period when America was “great.”
They’re at war with what America has been becoming. And while the Trump administration may give proof to the axiom that truth is the first casualty of war, it’s sadly not the last.