Trump’s enabling of right-wing terrorism foreshadows disaster for the country

Note: This article was written before the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Such a chilling, distasteful, disgraceful, and dangerous event necessitates unequivocal denunciation. President Trump’s responsibility for this event illustrates the importance of this article, and its relevancy.

After a contentious election, Democrats can cautiously exhale and welcome Joe Biden into the White House. However, though Trump will be removed (forcefully if necessary) in January, his legacy of polarization, divisiveness, and hatred will remain, sewed deep into the minds of Americans on all sides of the spectrum. In particular, Trump’s passive and sometimes active radicalization of right-wing activists is extremely dangerous to the peace and safety of the nation. The assassination attempt aimed at Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is the latest example of the danger of President Trump, as it is no coincidence his bombardment of “Liberate Michigan ” tweets and slamming of “Blue State’s” lockdown policies line up with the ideology of the domestic terrorists. At the very least, his inflammatory rhetoric normalizes the sentiments of more violent radicals, and his repeated downplaying of the right in favor of left-wing violence is unjustified. In this article I plan to take a deep dive into Trump and his administration’s handling of right-wing terrorism (or rather, negligent failure to handle), exposing an underbelly of the American public Biden will have to remain vigilant of, lest atrocious acts of violence continue to occur. 

The Danger of Far-Right Extremism 

While Trump may have pushed dangerous right-wing ideology into the open, it has existed in America for generations. The Klu Klux Klan has been committing heinous acts of violence against Black Americans since 1865. The KKK are not alone: American right-wing terrorists tend to be united under the umbrella of white supremacy–or at least, the targeting of those they see to be a member of an “alien” community. An example of this sort of attack occurred in 2017: the far-right extremist Jeremy Christian murdered two men in Portland who objected to his harassing two black teenage girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab. On Aug. 3rd, 2019, the gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, published a manifesto saying he wanted to kill as many Hispanics as possible. 

White supremacists are by far the most prevalent terror threat to the United States. The Center for Strategic and International Studies — a centrist Washington think tank — ranked right-wing violence as the most significant terror threat in the US. In 2019, right-wing extremists were responsible for two-thirds of terror attacks, and in the first four months of 2020 they were responsible for 90 percent of terrorism. The Department of Homeland security, created in the wake of 9/11, concluded in its 2020 annual threats assessment that “right-wing extremism is the greatest terrorism danger in America today”. 

Trump and Right-Wing Terrorism

Though the danger of right-wing terrorism is widely accepted, the Trump administration has continuously overlooked and enabled it. He botched the White House’s response to the hate crime in Charlottesville, North Carolina with his now-infamous statement that there are “fine people, on both sides,” falsely equating the actions of protestors and the violent white supremacist. Though Trump condemned White Supremacists after this comment and has intermittently condemned Neo-Nazis, his inability to continuously and unequivocally denounce their actions as a threat to American citizens is extremely negligent, as any sort of ambiguous rhetoric leaves space for white supremacists to interpret his words as tacit approval. Trump again sent dangerously mixed signals at the first presidential debate, when he answered a request to denounce right-wing terroism by telling the Proud Boys–an extremist right-wing group– to “stand back and stand by”. Including the phrase “stand by” seemingly encouraged these groups to continue their operations before the election, and after the debate, the Proud boys celebrated his rhetoric. One even wrote “”President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA… well sir! we’re ready!!”. Trump’s words were interpreted as an activation by right-wing extremists, which is dangerous and unacceptable coming from the President of the United States. After this concerning statement in the debate, Trump then immediately pivoted to fiercely criticizing “antifa and the Left,” saying there was a  “left wing, not a right wing problem.” His continual evasion from dealing with the danger of the right and falsely equating them with protestors on the left–who are not the leading cause of terroism in the US–demonstrates his failure to effectively deal with the scope of right-wing extremism. 

The administration also undermined domestic terror prevention efforts behind the scenes, with the administration’s hesitancy to use the term “domestic terrorism” to discuss right-wing violence. A Homeland Security official filed a whistleblower complaint alleging top Trump officials directed analysts to downplay the threat from white supremacists to avoid making the President look bad. For a party that talks so much about  law and order and national security, the Trump White House actually undermined the work of law enforcement officials and normalized a racist ideology that activated an extremely dangerous right-wing. 

Trump has denounced white supremacists, but his brief and occasional statements should not give him a pass for the violence he enables. More than just re-tweeting white supremacists on twitter, Trump has repeatedly failed to concretely and decisively shut down his linkages with the far right. The most recent example of shooter Kyle Rittenhouse perfectly illustrates what a leader of a diverse nation should not do. After killing 2 BLM protesters in August, Rittenhouse was valorized by the Right, culminating in Trump insisting he was justified in his killings (video of the shootings can be found here). Trump then pressured the Department of Homeland security to depict Rittenhouse as a hero, even though there was no justification for him bringing a gun to the protest. 

The message Trump leaves for extremists is a terrifying one; if you enact your manifesto or terrorize my political opponents, you will be celebrated and glorified. No matter your politics, it is inexcusable for a President to both claim he denounces White Supremacists while at the same time actively manipulating law enforcement to let them kill others. 

But what about the Left?

Implicit in any discussion of right-wing terrorism is the common critique thrown at the Left, be that Antifa or violent protestors, especially utilized as a tool by President Trump to shift focus away from the right. The two sides cannot and should not be equated for the levels of danger they pose to American citizens, and Trump’s continual pivot to the Left is both negligent and threatening to core principles of our democracy. 

Antifa— short for “anti-facist”— is a decentralized collection of activists who organize around the opposition of facism. This is different from the right-wing groups like the Proud Boys, who organize together and have known leadership figures. An NPR analysis of federal court records in June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd found “no sign” of anti-fascist links in court charges of protestors even as President Trump tweeted that they  would be categorized as a terrorist organization. Left-wing terrorism more broadly has also been limited in comparison to other forms of terroism, with attacks peaking in the early 2000s by eco-terrorists like the Animal Liberation Front, who targeted research centers. 

A key difference that emerges between left and right-wing extremists is their ideological motivations for violence: left-wing violent extremists seek to dismantle a corrupt and racist system, whereas right-wing violent extremists seek to sustain White Supremacy. Violence against people of color is the cornerstone of right-wing extremism, where violence by the Left is never targeted at specific racial groups , an important distinction that speaks to the divergence of motivations, even if their means to achieve their goals are sometimes similar. Comparing the two ideologies and their inclinations towards violence is a ruse of an analogy that only seeks to downplay the horrific ideology of the violent Right, which seeks to brutally murder minorities. While all violence is bad, only focusing on this truism ignores the fact that right-wing extremism has far worse motives. 

Left-leaning protest movements should also not receive the same amount of reprimand for violence as right-wing terrorists, which the Trump White House seems to misunderstand. Protesting is the lynchpin of American democracy, with the expressed goal of utilizing popular support to pressure decisionmakers. Violence at protests is not universal;it tends to be sporadic and reactive, as opposed to terrorism, which is intentional acts of lethal violence and intimidation used to exert power. Protest movements shouldn’t have to answer for those that violently co-opt them, and conflating these movements with terrorism or violent extremism undermines a central pillar of our democratic system—protest. 

Further, this equation manipulates legitimate dissent as a tool for opposing political agendas; this summer, the President focused on BLM protests in an effort to paint blue states as “out of control” and dysfunctional. It goes without saying that violence should be countered on both the left and the right. However, the President’s equation of the two, and even the prioritization of left-wing violence at the expense of the larger right-wing terrorism, threatens to divert focus from the acute danger white supremacists pose. 

President-elect Biden must act decisively to combat the threat right-wing terrorism poses to the nation. While unity and compromise are important messages to spread to a portion of President Trump’s base, Biden cannot sacrifice the safety of minorities to appear welcoming to both parties. He must draw a line in the sand against right-wing domestic terrorism and crack down on groups who attempt to use violence to dispute the results of the election or take out their anger on citizens. Re-orienting the DHS’s policies towards domestic terrorism and undoing any other bureaucratic damage President Trump has done to undercut responses to right-wing violence must be done immediately when he enters office. President Biden will have a lot of work to do to undo the years of hatred Trump sewed in this country, and a focus on right-wing terrorist groups could  be the difference between life and death for hundreds of Americans in the coming years.