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.