“Officials at [DHS] have felt they could not broach topics like domestic terrorism and white supremacist violence with Mr. Trump because he was not interested in those concerns,” the Times reports. Aides are right to be nervous. Trump has shown in the past that he has little patience for aides who tell him hard truths he doesn’t want to hear.
Following the August 3 shooting in El Paso, the president briefly acknowledged the alleged shooter’s motivation. “The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online consumed by racist hate,” Trump said at the White House. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
Yet within days, the president had moved on to fuming about coverage of his trip to El Paso, spreading conspiracy theories about the death of Jeffrey Epstein, and picking fights with the comedian Bill Maher. He has also gestured toward the possibility of expanding background checks for gun ownership, but dropped talk about white supremacy.
Despite a long record of racist remarks and actions, Trump is infuriated by any suggestion that he might be a racist. He seems to believe that acknowledging a serious problem of white racist violence during his presidency would reflect poorly on his leadership, just as acknowledging Russian interference in the 2016 election would call the legitimacy of his victory into question. In both cases, he is correct. But ignoring the problems will not make either go away, so the president’s thin skin is preventing him from dealing with a genuine threat to the nation.
The federal government’s inadequate response to white racist violence predates Trump. Early in the Obama administration, a Department of Homeland Security report warned about a rise in the phenomenon. But Barack Obama’s team bowed to pressure from conservatives who accused the government of political correctness. Trump was among the right-wing figures who complained that the Obama administration wouldn’t name “radical Islamic terror” as a threat. DHS withdrew the report.
Under the Trump administration, the government has remained flat-footed, now because of Trump’s antipathy to the topic of domestic terrorism and white supremacy. In effect, he is guilty of a mirror image of the accusation he made against Obama. Trump said Obama wouldn’t name “radical Islamic terror” out of fears of political correctness, but his own sensitivities mean his administration has looked away from the threat of domestic terror out of its own sense of what is politically correct.
Read: An oral history of Trump’s bigotry
White racists were an important part of Trump’s winning coalition in 2016, although by no means all of it, and Trump has signaled that exacerbating racial tensions will be a central part of his 2020 reelection campaign, too. The president has downplayed the threat posed by white nationalists and white supremacists. After a violent white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, the president focused on what he insisted were “good people on both sides.” After a white-supremacist shooter killed 51 people in New Zealand, Trump said he was not worried about the threat posed by the ideology, saying, “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”