White nationalism can’t be pretended away any longer.
It is engendering a previously unseen high tide of terroristic crimes against vulnerable minorities. It is fueling street violence fomented by gangs of right-wing thugs. And, gaining momentum through organizing levels we’ve never seen before, it is threatening to radicalize a generation of young white men into its anti-democratic, hate-filled ideology.
White nationalism is a global problem, but it is especially an American problem. This is why every candidate for the 2020 presidential election needs to do more than just denounce white nationalism and hate groups—they need to explain what they intend to do about them.
The recent terror attacks on mosques in New Zealand, inspired at least in part by the rhetoric and ideas of American Islamophobes, underscore what we already know from the Pittsburgh synagogue slayings, the horrors of Charlottesville, and dozens of other domestic-terrorist attacks in the United States dating back more than a decade: Hate-filled white nationalists are extraordinarily capable of wreaking significant havoc in modern society.
Not only is that their intent, but it is increasingly their design, as they step up both recruitment and their innately violent form of political activism. It is a national threat, and deserves the attention of every candidate for the presidency.
For the past three years, hate crimes have soared to record levels—and even so, it is certain that the numbers reported are severely undercounted. The Anti-Defamation League also recorded a dramatic increase in propaganda incidents involving white nationalists, particularly as they have focused much of their efforts into recruiting on college campuses.
The tide is cresting. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that it had recorded an all-time high in numbers of hate groups operating in America, 1,020, much of it attributable to the apparent toxic influence of Donald Trump, to whom white nationalists have been pledging allegiance since well before the election.
Trump has minimized their presence. After the Christchurch attacks, he opined to the press that he didn’t see white nationalism as a “rising threat” globally: “I don’t really, I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
It’s difficult to get a handle on just how large the numbers of identifiable white nationalists have grown to be both in the United States and globally, but Charlottesville demonstrated that they have real numerical strength and the ability to inflict real harm. Experts who have grappled with the problem estimate, from internet traffic numbers alone, that participants number in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, if not millions.
Some candidates have already noticed, particularly Elizabeth Warren, who brought the subject up at a CNN town hall. "It starts with the fact that we have to recognize the threat posed by white nationalism. White supremacists pose a threat to the United States like any other terrorist group, like ISIS, like Al Qaeda and leadership starts at the top,” she told host Jake Tapper.
Warren later tweeted out: “We have to recognize the threat of white nationalism. We’ve got to call it out. As President of the United States, my Justice Department would go after white nationalists with full prosecution.”
Other Democratic candidates have spoken up. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand chastised Trump on Twitter for his post-Christchurch remarks: “Time and time again, this president has embraced and emboldened white supremacists—and instead of condemning racist terrorists, he covers for them. This isn't normal or acceptable. We have to be better than this.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris, another leading Democratic candidate, had previously reprimanded Trump for his remarks after Charlottesville blaming the violence “on many sides,” and later said she concluded from them that Trump is a racist.
Both Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke criticized Trump after the New Zealand attacks, with Booker noting that “hate is on the rise,” much of it due to Trump: “We have a president that can’t stand up with any moral authority and remind us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and it’s despicable.”
Other candidates have spoken up previously against white nationalism, particularly around the time of Charlottesville: Bernie Sanders posted a long, stern denunciation of the marchers there, and ripped Trump for his remarks afterward. Joe Biden similarly attacked Trump’s “phony nationalism.” Booker had previously gone after Trump following the president’s description of third-world regions as “shithole countries,” calling out the high levels of white right-wing domestic terrorism.
Perhaps least helpfully, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg has attributed the rise of white nationalism to “disruption” of blue-collar industries. "That void can be filled through constructive and positive things, like community involvement or family. And it can be filled by destructive things, like white identity politics,” he said. Merely denouncing white nationalism, however, will be pointless. It will be important for candidates to elucidate concrete policies that will work toward turning the tide back.
It will also be necessary for them to navigate the nuances of free-speech rights in America. It won’t be possible, of course, to outlaw white nationalist speech or organizing under the protections of freedom of speech and association afforded by the Bill of Rights. Already, objections to Warren’s recommendations for increased prosecutions have been raised along those lines.
However, what Warren appears actually to be suggesting—namely, prioritizing enforcement at the FBI and Justice Department to place investigation of criminal activity by far-right extremists at the same level as other antiterrorism efforts, so that the current skew favoring a focus on Islamist terrorism is balanced out—is well within the normative reach of any chief executive.
Moreover, as cases such as the federal arrests of key players in the Charlottesville tragedy, such as the California-based Rise Above Movement, indicate, there is a broad swath of criminal activity already associated with white-supremacist organizing in the United States and elsewhere.
There are, indeed, a number of other policy proposals that candidates could propose to effectively combat white nationalism while still remaining within the parameters of the First Amendment:
- Make right-wing domestic terrorism a federal crime. Current federal law allows prosecutors to charge radical Islamists with terrorism, but because of a loophole created after 9/11, they have no ability to charge homegrown perpetrators with domestic terrorism. Closing such a loophole would take a relatively simple legislative fix, and would be low-hanging fruit for any program intended to attack white nationalism.
- Revive the programs, discontinued by the Trump administration, that aimed at “countering violent extremism” by finding ways to counter the online radicalization process, which previously focused solely on Islamist radicals. It could and should be expanded to include programs designed to prevent the radicalization of young white people currently occurring online on a large scale.
- Encourage technology companies, particularly social media platforms, chat rooms, gaming systems, and search engines, to eradicate the spaces that white nationalists have taken over within the online world in order to effectively recruit, such as the broad conspiracy world of YouTube or the vile white-nationalist message boards at 4chan and Reddit, and to eradicate the algorithms that permit and encourage the formation of such spaces.
These steps and others could signal to Americans that Democrats, at least, take the threat to American democracy that white nationalism represents seriously, and are prepared to take concrete steps to confront it.
They also would create a stark contrast with the Republican policy voiced by Trump when he minimizes the presence of white supremacists and describes “some of them” as “very fine people.”