The massacre in El Paso, Texas, has, for the moment, reminded Americans of the danger posed by far-right terrorists. Former national-security officials have demanded that the U.S. government “make addressing this form of terrorism as high a priority as countering international terrorism has become since 9/11.” Retired Marine General John Allen and the former senior U.S. diplomat Brett McGurk have argued that far-right extremism poses “an equal threat” as jihadist groups such as ISIS.
This is incorrect. White nationalism is a far greater threat to American democracy than jihadism, and always has been. But there are actually two challenges posed by white nationalism: One is the threat posed to American communities by attacks like the one in El Paso, which law enforcement can and should prevent. The other is the threat the ideology the attackers support poses to American democracy, which can be defeated only through politics, and only by the American people themselves.
“There’s an attack-prevention problem, and there’s also a political problem. These problems overlap and reinforce each other, although they are not exactly the same problem,” J. M. Berger, an author and security consultant who has written extensively on white nationalism, told me. “Policy makers can try to deal with this from an attack-prevention standpoint and avoid the political element, and there’s an argument to be made for keeping the law-enforcement response separate from the political response, but I think as a society we need to be pursuing this on both tracks simultaneously.”
The first national immigration law in the United States, in 1790, limited naturalization to “free white persons of good character.” The belief that nonwhites were not full human beings entitled to citizenship was core to the institution of chattel slavery, which nearly destroyed the Union itself in a conflict that took more American lives than any other before or since. This tenet animated the violent overthrow of Reconstruction governments after the Civil War, and the century of Jim Crow segregation that followed. This conviction motivated the racist immigration-restriction laws at the turn of the century that helped inspire the Nazis and exacerbated the Holocaust. It shaped American policy from the Declaration of Independence to the New Deal, and it continues to do so. And it lives on today, in the minds of extremists who, like jihadists the world over, see themselves as the true guardians of their heritage.
Former President Barack Obama was mocked by the right for treading carefully around phrases such as Islamic extremism in an effort to avoid lending religious legitimacy to terrorist groups. But given the history of American military intervention in the Middle East, an American president can do little to erode the religious legitimacy of extremist figures who support terrorism; rather, such an effort rests on religious communities and leaders themselves—and contrary to the stereotype, condemnations of terrorism among Muslim religious leaders are frequent and voluminous. In the United States, that dynamic is reversed: American leaders can do a great deal to diminish the appeal of white nationalism, because unlike with jihadism, white Americans are the primary demographic targeted for radicalization.
“I believe the primary challenge posed by white nationalism is political, not law-enforcement related,” David Gomez, a former FBI counterterrorism supervisor, told me. “That is because, like fascism of the 1930s, white nationalism has begun to enter the mainstream political arena, which tends to make their extremism palatable to disenfranchised political minorities who fear the rise of ‘the other.’”
The spike in white-nationalist terrorism is emerging from the extremist fringe of the American right, giving conservatives a special responsibility to use their authority to deprive white nationalists of their claim to represent America’s authentic heritage. In the past, conservatives have actively opposed such efforts—in 2009, the Department of Homeland Security disbanded an entire unit devoted to tracking far-right terrorism after a backlash in which conservative writers suggested that mainstream conservatives were the ones being targeted.
This time around, some conservative writers and outlets are pressing for action. Others, including those who have the greatest influence with the president, have dismissed the threat of white nationalism while echoing its principles. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has warned that immigration is “destroying America” and that “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country,” declares that white nationalism is a “hoax,” even as his programming echoes the very worldview held by white nationalists. That duality is clear to white nationalists themselves, who praise Carlson for amplifying their ideas even as he insists on their nonexistence.
Carlson and Fox News illustrate the present political incentives for the Republican Party. One of Donald Trump’s few consistent beliefs is his racial conception of American citizenship, which is why so many white nationalists have viewed his rise as a legitimization of their convictions. As long as the Republican Party and the conservative media view defending Trump as an imperative; as long as they speak of immigration and demographic change in the same apocalyptic language as the gunmen who target synagogues, mosques, and shopping centers; and as long as they view the presence of nonwhites as a threat to their political success, they will be unable to fulfill their responsibility to fight white nationalism. The left can deprive the right of power by winning elections, but it cannot extinguish this evil on its behalf.
The right’s increasingly obsolete framing of its politics around the concept of liberty was not immune to racism, just as the Democrats’ New Deal liberalism was not immune. But as long as mainstream Republican discourse echoes the frame of dominance or extinction, the logic of right-wing politics will trend toward radicalization.
The president’s own white-nationalist beliefs raise a distinct, but related, policy issue, beyond the prevention of terrorism. Trump has publicly praised acts of torture, police brutality, and lethal violence against religious and ethnic minorities. Those statements not only bolster white nationalists in their beliefs; they send the message to those with the responsibility to protect Americans from terrorism that extrajudicial violence against the very groups targeted by white nationalism is acceptable. This not only affects law enforcement’s ability to prevent such attacks; it legitimizes illicit state violence against minorities.
“My bigger concern with white nationalism is, you know, we treated it as if it’s somehow the same as ISIS and al-Qaeda when it’s not. It’s very different. White-nationalist ideology was an animating feature of the creation of our country. It permeates our society and impacts our policy,” says Mike German, a former FBI special agent, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a co-author of a recent report on far-right violence. “And that to me is far more dangerous, because when we’re talking about terrorist violence, we’re talking about these marginal groups who don’t really have much capability. But governments have extraordinary capability to do harm to people in its communities.”
Gomez told me he believes that the resistance to aggressively responding to white-nationalist terrorism is “coming solely from political leadership. The FBI that I was a member of and the FBI of today continues to be a professional law-enforcement agency that follows the elements of the crime and investigates without prejudice.”
German said that a lack of diversity can also impact what threats are considered urgent, even without conscious bias. “The groups that are victims of far-right violence are already marginalized by the government and by our social system,” he said, so they don’t have relationships that might help them raise their concerns with the FBI. “And in fact, when you look at how those communities are policed, they are often treated as suspect communities, rather than equal citizens deserving protection of the law.”
Nevertheless, there is troubling evidence that these agencies are not carefully policing the prejudices of their own members, or the ideological blindness such views produce. The journalist Ken Klippenstein reported recently that a tranche of FBI documents shows that, despite the fact that almost all domestic-terrorism deaths last year were caused by white-nationalist terrorism, among the FBI’s top priorities were so-called black-identity extremists, while white nationalists were considered a “medium threat.” This is sadly consistent with the FBI’s long history—during the height of the civil-rights movement, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover focused his resources on left-wing groups and civil-rights activists until President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered him to devote bureau resources to crushing the Ku Klux Klan. Former FBI Director James Comey famously kept a reminder of Hoover’s targeting of Martin Luther King Jr. on his desk as a symbol of how the bureau could go too far.
But the FBI is not alone in confronting this problem. The White House has repeatedly hampered efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to focus on white nationalism as a security threat. There are local police who frequently vent on social media about the sub-humanity of Americans whose rights and person they are meant to be protecting; the head of Border Patrol was part of a Facebook group with thousands of members, including former and current officers, where posts included racist and violent memes targeting Latin American migrants.
While increasing the diversity within these agencies might mitigate some of these issues—the FBI has ceased publicly reporting diversity numbers since they began dropping—law-enforcement agencies that retain or tolerate a culture of contempt for groups targeted by white nationalists will find it difficult to counter white-nationalist violence, or to uproot extremists who infiltrate law-enforcement and military organizations in order to obtain training. Curtailing the culture of racism and authoritarianism that has taken root in some corners of law-enforcement agencies—a culture that is capable of assimilating minority candidates as exceptions to the rule, and that promotes contempt for the very communities these agencies are bound by law and duty to serve and protect—is an urgent priority.
Terrorism in America remains relatively rare, and white-nationalist terrorism causes only a small fraction of the violent deaths in the United States each year. But these attacks are political acts that tear at the social ties that bind Americans together, cause immense psychological trauma to the communities they target, and inspire further acts of violence. The threat these attacks pose, however, extends beyond the violence itself and the wider pain it causes, to the further mainstreaming of the core white-nationalist idea that citizens of European descent are the only true Americans.
Although jihadists are capable of shocking acts of violence, terror, and mass murder, most notably the 9/11 attacks, Muslims compose about 1 percent of the American population. Despite the fevered dreams of the Islamophobia industry, there was never any possibility that the United States would somehow become governed by Taliban-style Islamic law.
By contrast, white supremacy was the governing philosophy of the United States until 1965, a core belief of most of the men who have occupied the Oval Office. Only since the end of the civil-rights movement has the American government truly attempted to be a state for all of its people. Between the Civil War, the violent overthrow of Reconstruction governments by white Redeemers, the thousands of lynchings of the Jim Crow era, and the lives lost in World War II, no single political idea has been responsible for extinguishing the lives of more Americans than white supremacy. Yet despite its long, violent history in the United States, the population it seeks to radicalize exceeds that of Islamist extremism by a couple hundred million.
The strength of white nationalism’s roots in American history is why it poses a different, and more dangerous, challenge—not just to American lives, but to democracy itself. Those roots are precisely why law enforcement has been slow to respond to the challenge posed by far-right terrorism, why most Americans have failed to recognize that such attacks dwarf the number executed by jihadists, and why the Trump administration itself has deliberately chosen to refocus resources elsewhere.
Democrats have proposed specifically criminalizing domestic terrorism under federal law. Any substantial changes to the criminal code should take care not to repeat the worst excesses of the War on Terror, or to criminalize radical speech. (If history is any guide, such speech restrictions would end up being borne not by white nationalists but by the communities targeted by them.)
White nationalism cannot be destroyed simply by imitating ill-advised policies adopted by the United States in an effort to defeat Islamist extremism, such as eliminating due process in the use of lethal force or imprisonment, disregarding protections against illegal search and seizure, criminalizing radical beliefs, or using torture in interrogation. In fact, all of those things would likely make the problem worse. Law-enforcement agencies cannot settle the existential arguments about the nature of American democracy, and it should not be their responsibility to do so.
The factors fueling violent white nationalism can be neutralized only by Americans themselves—by reaffirming that the United States is a multiracial democracy where no citizen inherits a greater claim to Americanness than any other. That will require enough of both left and right to unify in opposition to the bigotries that have plagued America since even before its founding, and rejecting the proposition that those bigotries are the only true, authentic expression of American heritage. That heritage includes not just John Calhoun but also Frederick Douglass, not just Madison Grant but also Emma Lazarus, not merely Jim Crow but also James Meredith.
It will also require those on the American right to turn from the path they have been walking, since even before Trump demanded that the first black president show his papers. Few of them seem prepared to do so.