Joe Biden’s Looming War on White Supremacy

The insurrection could spur a federal-government crackdown on white-nationalist groups, as well as strengthen the case for systemic police reform.

A member of the Ku Klux Klan points and shouts at counterprotesters during a July 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Confederate and American flags are seen in the background.
A member of the Ku Klux Klan shouts at counterprotesters during a July 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty)

For four years, Donald Trump downplayed the risk of white-supremacist violence and denied that racial bias is pervasive in law enforcement. In a single, searing day, the assault on the U.S. Capitol exposed the price of both of those choices—and may have provided Joe Biden new political momentum for reversing direction on each front.

At once, the rioters demonstrated how much the threat of white extremism has metastasized under Trump, while the restrained police response vivified a racial double standard in policing. The attack could strengthen the case for systemic police reform, both through congressional action and a revival of Justice Department oversight of local police practices that the Trump administration essentially shelved. Representative Karen Bass of California, the lead sponsor of a police-reform bill that passed the House last summer, told me she believes that the lower chamber will approve a new version “within the first quarter” of 2021. “This was yet another example in the disparity of treatment between African Americans and others,” Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, told me. “This is yet another example of how police agencies viewed citizens differently.”

The attack could also make it tougher for congressional Republicans to resist the Biden administration’s expected efforts to dramatically increase enforcement against white supremacists through the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. “This isn’t just a Trump thing that goes away when Trump goes away,” Elizabeth Neumann, the former DHS assistant secretary for threat prevention under Trump, told me. “And this isn’t just a bunch of really crazy Trump people. This is something darker and deeper that has been around a very long time. We have aroused the sleeping giant … and we’re now going to be dealing both with [Trump’s] radicalized supporters and this white-power movement on steroids for the foreseeable future.”

Biden signaled his intent to invert Trump’s law-enforcement priorities when he unveiled his top Justice Department nominees at a press conference the day after the Capitol assault. When Biden introduced Merrick Garland, his attorney-general nominee, the president-elect pointedly noted that the Justice Department was formed to enforce the post–Civil War constitutional amendments ending slavery and promising equal rights under the law. The department’s founding mission, Biden said, was “to stand up to the Klan, to stand up to racism, to take on domestic terrorism. This original spirit must again guide and animate its work.” When identifying their priorities, Garland and Biden’s other top DOJ nominees pointed to the same two issues: tackling the threat of violent domestic extremism and confronting systemic racial bias in law enforcement.

The nominees bring unusually relevant credentials to each side of that equation. Garland, a federal judge, helped lead the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, in the mid-1990s. Lisa Monaco, Biden’s nominee as deputy attorney general, served in Barack Obama’s administration as assistant attorney general for national security and his White House adviser on counterterrorism. The other two nominees Biden announced were selected from the heart of the civil-rights legal establishment: Associate-attorney-general nominee Vanita Gupta, another Obama alumna, is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Kristen Clarke, the nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights, is the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Yet on both the white-extremist and policing fronts, the magnitude of the Biden administration’s challenge is formidable. The white-nationalist threat has been on “an upward trajectory” over the past four years, Neumann told me. Although white-supremacist organizations have always existed, and their efforts accelerated after Obama’s election as the first black president, Trump acted as a “kind of an accelerant,” she said. “There was already a fire, and he was adding fuel to it. He was expanding the number of people who were participating in the extremism.”

Greg Ehrie, a former section chief of the FBI’s domestic-terrorism operations center and now the vice president for law enforcement at the Anti-Defamation League, told me that throughout Trump’s presidency the white-nationalist movement has also felt more comfortable stepping out into public. “It is certainly growing in identified numbers, people who are coming out openly and saying ‘I believe in it,’” he said. “You are seeing people become emboldened.” At the same time, extremist groups are solidifying their organization, with more clearly identified leaders and something more akin to a chain of command. “Their structure is actually codifying itself, which is a really scary development,” Ehrie added.

While experts I spoke with agree that Trump’s rhetoric has dangerously encouraged these groups, they disagree on federal law enforcement’s response. Ehrie said federal agencies have made “some inroads” in combatting them. But others told me that the catastrophic attack on the Capitol made clear that the government has not treated the threat with sufficient gravity—either because of Trump’s own downplaying of any problem or because of cultural and racial blind spots in their own ranks.

“From what I watched, they made changes, they adjusted, but they were a little too slow, in my book,” including DHS, said Neumann, who resigned last year and publicly supported Biden during the election. “I still wonder, based on what happened on January 6, if there is kind of an unconscious bias—an assumption that a bunch of white guys like to yell at each other on the internet and play dress-up with militia [gear] but there are only a handful of them that we actually have to worry about.”

Many African American leaders see nothing to wonder about. Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil-rights advocacy group Color of Change, argues that federal law enforcement puts much more emphasis on monitoring and pressuring racial-justice advocates than white nationalists. Under Trump, federal officials “have treated NFL players who kneel as national threats and white men who are talking about overthrowing the government with guns as patriots,” Robinson told me.

“I don’t think they’ve dealt with it at all,” said Bass, referring to the Trump administration’s approach to white nationalism. “I don’t think they consider it a problem, and that’s a part of our history.”

Despite the heroism of individual officers resisting the mob, the Capitol Police’s strikingly muted response—as well as the presence of law-enforcement personnel from around the country among the rioters—raises a larger, often unspoken issue: the presence of white-nationalist sympathizers in law enforcement. The force’s reaction “brings [up] a lot of questions” related to whether there were “people internal to the [Trump] administration, within the Capitol Police, and others who were in collusion” with the attackers, Johnson, the NAACP president, told me. Adds Bass: “I think when all is said and done, you will find that [among] members of the Capitol Police, my Republican colleagues, and their staff, there was involvement at different levels and participation in what happened.” (Although no specific evidence has emerged, House Democrats have said they are investigating the possibility of collusion.)

More broadly, the lax response, as well as the decision to allow the rioters to leave the Capitol unmolested, dramatized in an unusually visceral way a key complaint from Black communities: that law enforcement treats white people differently in any kind of encounter—in this case, even an armed and violent attack on a foundation of the American government. The stark contrast between how the rioters were treated and how Black Lives Matter protests were handled last summer “further cements for people of color [that] America, for all of its good, has a long way to go in achieving its promises of equality under the law,” Sakira Cook, the Justice Reform director at the Leadership Conference, told me.

The Capitol riot could spur a new effort to overhaul police departments, including through Bass’s police-reform legislation, which the House passed in June without a single dissenting Democratic vote after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (The Senate did not take the bill up for a vote.) Among other measures, that bill would have banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level; established a national registry of police misconduct; and scaled back the “qualified immunity” legal defense for officers accused of wrongdoing. Under Gupta and Clarke, the Biden Justice Department is certain to revive its oversight of local police departments through “pattern or practice” investigations of systemic bias, which can result in judicial consent decrees.

More contentious is whether Congress needs to provide federal law enforcement with expanded legal authority to confront domestic terrorists. Neumann and some other terrorism experts say yes, while many civil-rights advocates fear that law enforcement could turn such authority against minority communities. “Addressing white supremacy does not require creating a new statute,” Becky Monroe, who heads the Leadership Conference’s hate and bias program, told me. “It requires the will and investment in existing statutes and existing authority to ensure that these insurrectionists are held accountable.”

Robinson said that truly defusing white nationalism’s rising threat will require more than prosecuting direct participants—or even pursuing sympathizers in law enforcement. Instead, the incoming administration and civil-rights advocates must look at the broader range of institutions that extremist groups rely on to grow, including social-media companies that spread their message and financial institutions that process their fundraising efforts. “Some of the biggest, most profitable institutions have also played a role in getting us here, because they have looked at so many of the people behind these groups and they have not seen them as a threat,” Robinson said. “They see people that look like them, that look like members of their families, and they don’t take the threat seriously because it’s not targeting them.”

Neumann pointed to another dimension. Because extremists are relying so heavily on Trump’s unfounded claims about the election to mobilize support, stunting them will be extremely difficult unless more Republican officials publicly refute him. “The biggest thing that could help the scope of the problem is for the bulk of Republicans to come out and say, ‘The election was not stolen, Donald Trump lied, I was complicit in that lie, and I apologize,’” she told me. An internal federal intelligence bulletin disclosed yesterday by The Washington Post also warned about more violence if the lie about the “stolen election” isn’t dispelled.

The responsibility for confronting this mounting threat now falls to Biden and his team. The president-elect has not appeared particularly enthusiastic about imposing consequences on Trump for his role in the Capitol attack through impeachment, and many legal experts believe that he will resist pursuing criminal charges against his predecessor. But throughout the campaign and the tumultuous transition period, Biden has focused on racial inequities more consistently and forcefully than even many civil-rights advocates expected.

By demonstrating both the danger of white nationalism and the bias in policing, last week’s assault has not only elevated those issues even further, but also exposed their common roots. “At its core, police brutality against people of color and white supremacy … in the way we have seen it displayed by Trump supporters are part and parcel of the same thing,” Cook told me. “What we want members of Congress to understand is that to address both of these problems, we must deal with the root causes of inequity and racial discrimination in this country.” Amid the wreckage of last week’s right-wing insurrection, and the ongoing threats of more violence looming over next week’s inauguration, that assignment looks only more urgent.