Stop me if you’ve heard this one: There’s a dangerous threat to United States security. It’s widely acknowledged by many top officials in the Trump administration. But the government remains stuck in neutral, paralyzed by a fear of offending the president.
This is the story of Russian electoral interference, but it is also the story of white racist violence. In the face of a verified—and lethal—threat, President Donald Trump has been slow to deal with the threat of domestic extremist violence inside the U.S., The New York Times reports, because aides are nervous about bringing it up. The problem of domestic terror has new relevance now, after the massacre in El Paso, Texas, but already the president’s attention has wandered to other topics.
The problem is, at heart, political correctness. Although that epithet is most often lobbed at the left by conservatives, it fits Trump’s behavior. Discussion of domestic terrorism and white violence has become politically incorrect within the president’s vicinity. The problem is not factual inaccuracy—it’s that bringing the issue up triggers Trump’s sensitivities so seriously that speaking the truth becomes taboo.
“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.
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.”
The FBI disagreed. In testimony in July, Director Chris Wray, a Trump appointee, said that his agents had made nearly as many domestic-terrorism arrests as global-terrorism arrests over the previous nine months, with most of them related to white supremacy. That number may obscure more than it tells, too: Since the federal government has been more focused on global terrorism, it stands to reason it would have made more arrests in that area as well. But Trump doesn’t trust the FBI, even after cleaning out its previous leadership—another legacy of the president’s fury about the Russia investigation.
One part of the problem is insufficient resources and attention. As I have written, Trump tends to view DHS as almost exclusively an immigration-enforcement agency, which means that other concerns of the kludgy department, including cybersecurity, election safety, and domestic terrorism, get scant attention. But the Justice Department has still managed to find resources to investigate supposed “black-identity extremists.”
This reluctance to confront white racist violence occurred before 22 people were killed in El Paso. Could that prove a turning point for Trump on domestic terror? Sure—but it probably won’t be. That’s just not Trump’s style. The president has refused to even acknowledge the fact of Russian interference, let alone respond to it, despite unanimity among his aides—a refusal that would be slapstick were it not so dire.
White racist violence is a real political liability for Trump. A large majority of Americans say that white nationalism is either an important or a critical threat, and a majority also say that Trump’s actions and behaviors have encouraged white supremacists. A typical politician, faced with such a situation, would take some steps to inoculate himself, ranging from the largely symbolic (a blue-ribbon commission) to the more substantial (major new programs or funding). For Trump, even acknowledging the problem is anathema. In this White House, protecting the president’s feelings comes before protecting citizens’ lives.