How the President, the Police, and the Media Embolden the Far-Right

A Q&A with Brennan Center fellow Michael German, a former FBI special agent and counterterrorism expert

Charlottesville, Virginia protests
White nationalists clash with a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.  (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

When former FBI agent Michael German heard President Trump characterize the deadly violence that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, after white nationalists rallied in support of a Confederate statue as the fault of “both sides,” he saw it as part of a broader pattern.

“I do think there’s blame on both sides,” the president said during a press conference on Tuesday, referring to the deadly events of Charlottesville. “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” the president asked. On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

According to German, the president’s response to Charlottesville is the latest in a series of actions he has taken to side with, and endorse, the viewpoint of far-right ideological movements, and, in the process, push them into the American political mainstream.

The counterterrorism expert, who spent time undercover with American militia movements and neo-Nazi groups as an FBI agent, argues that endorsement emboldens the far-right, an umbrella term he uses to encompass a range of ideologies from white nationalists to neo-Nazis to militias to self-described alt-right conservatives.

I spoke with German, who is now a fellow in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, about the violence in Charlottesville, the way police and the administration responded, and how the media covers white nationalism. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, appears below.

Clare Foran: What do you think the consequences will be of the president’s response to Charlottesville?

Michael German: The framing that he used endorsed a far-right viewpoint, the viewpoint of people who would self-identify as neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists, and who see themselves as victims of multiculturalism, political correctness, or other forces. They portray themselves as victims who are simply defending what they would call their culture, and it’s important to note that the president used some of the buzzwords, like the word “culture,” that the far-right uses to describe their worldview.

This is an audience that’s used to picking up on dog whistles, subtle winks and nods. But he went further than that. He overtly endorsed their views in a way that reinforced this extremist narrative of victimization. That helps make those views more mainstream, and encourages their spread. When the president says it, it also sends the message that these are appropriate views for anyone in government to express.

Foran: If you were to situate the president’s remarks on Charlottesville in a larger context of how he campaigned and has governed so far, what do you think is worth noting?

German: Trump put away the dog whistle and picked up a bullhorn, in terms of elevating these far-right movements, a long time ago. During his presidential campaign, he talked about terrorism as though it were a Muslim phenomenon, when we have empirical evidence that many different kinds of groups of people engage in violence that we call terrorism, including white supremacists. By doing that, he sent a message to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists, as well as a segment of the population that wouldn’t identify with any of those labels, but is nevertheless willing to look at the problem of terrorism from a racist or nationalist perspective, that he agreed with them.

It’s easy to point at the guy with the Nazi flag and say “that’s not us” without acknowledging that there are a lot of ideas and policy that have a far broader base of support in American politics than just the far-right. If you support immigration policy that is designed to keep non-white immigrants out of the country, for example, or expel them by harassing them through law enforcement, those are policies that line up with the goals of white nationalists. Just because a person isn’t attending an alt-right rally doesn’t mean that they don’t support policies with a discriminatory impact.

Foran: What did you think about the criticism that there wasn’t an adequate police response to the violence in Charlottesville?

German: Well, what I believe we’ve seen over the past several months, and what we saw take place in Charlottesville, too, is that police are not aggressively policing these protests to prevent violence. In April, nearly a dozen people were injured in Berkeley when self-styled alt-right activists promoted and engaged in acts of violence and militia members showed up to tell reporters they would “enjoy” attacking counter-protesters. Violence broke out at a pro-Trump rally in Huntington Beach, California, in March. And in Portland, at an alt-right rally in June, a militia member reportedly aided the Department of Homeland Security in making an arrest.

These militia groups show up saying that they are there to serve as security at these protests, and we saw that in Charlottesville, too, but even in an open-carry state you can’t set yourself up as a security force or a security guard without a license to do so. That’s not legal, and it’s not legitimate. So why is the state allowing them to serve as security at these protests?

It’s also clearly very different than the way we’ve seen police react to nonviolent protests like the Occupy Movement, or the protests at Standing Rock, where we saw an extremely aggressive policing take place. We did not see that kind of a police response in Charlottesville.

Foran: What do you attribute that to? Do you think police officers are afraid to confront armed militia members? Or do you think it’s bias on the part of law enforcement?

German: I think it’s all of the above, but neither is acceptable or satisfactory. I think it’s incumbent on state, federal, and local authorities to do public examinations in the aftermath of Charlottesville to determine why was there such an aggressive response to nonviolent protests in places like Standing Rock while far-right protesters in Charlottesville adopted tactics that were threatening and confrontational and were treated with kid gloves.

Foran: Do you think that kind of police response further emboldens what you’re describing as far-right movements?

German: Yes, the fact that the police did not aggressively police the protest sends a message to these far-right groups that they will interpret as, “We’re allowed to and we’re authorized to act this way in the future.” So the next time they’re likely to bring more people and more dangerous weapons and push the limits even further. I would expect to see violence escalate as a result. That kind of policing response may also attract people who are not necessarily ideologically motivated but are just attracted to violence.

Foran: What else do you see as a problem in contributing to, fueling recruitment for, and emboldening white-nationalist groups?

German: I think it’s important to talk about the role of the media as well. There are individuals associated with far-right movements who are trying very hard to bring attention to themselves as a way to legitimate and mainstream their ideas. That’s their goal, and it’s very disheartening to see the media putting microphones in front of these people. Journalists may think that interviews are a way to expose these views for what they are, but there’s a large segment of the population that is likely to be energized by these views, not repelled by them. And in the end, it gives an enormous boost to the stature and reach of these people to give them media attention. It also positions them as though they are, by default, a legitimate and mainstream figure. In some cases, people describe themselves as a leader of a movement and they’re really not. It’s completely self-appointed, but then when the media interviews them and describes them as such, and adopts their own labeling, that has the effect of creating the credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public that that person is seeking in the first place, but didn’t really have.

Foran: But isn’t it important to understand the point of view of people who subscribe to some of these ideologies, especially at a time when their viewpoints appear to be gaining traction within the administration? And don’t journalists need to do that, not by ignoring this, but by reporting directly on it?

German: I agree that we can’t ignore it. Absolutely. But the way the media reports on it matters. And I don’t think that going straight to people who identify as leaders of far-right movements and talking to them directly is all that helpful, especially because they have an agenda that they are pushing. I would encourage journalists to never interview anyone who says they are a leader of these movements, but instead to seek out and talk to researchers and academic experts who have studied far-right movements and ideologies, and talk to them to help contextualize and explain what’s taking place.