Trump and the rise of the extreme right

Leaders of extreme right and hate groups say they feel empowered by President Trump, who gives them confidence to speak openly.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
Tom Garing cleans up graffiti painted on the side of a mosque in what officials are calling an apparent hate crime Feb. 1 in Roseville, Calif.

Church Militant makes no apologies. Its goal, after all, is “fighting against evil and trying to restore the palace guard and the Kingship of Christ,” it proclaims in a recent video. In such a fight, it adds, “extreme and fringe” is the only place to be. 

A nondescript brick building here in the Detroit suburbs is where those videos are produced – the command center of an ultraorthodox Catholic organization that called the recent women’s marches a “disgusting scene” and argues that the role of the state is only to protect the civil rights of Catholics.

Church Militant’s criticism of Judaism and Islam is such that it is “on the spectrum” of hate groups, according to the Taskforce on Hate and Terrorism in Washington.

But this year, its coffers are fuller than ever, says group leader Michael Voris. As Donald Trump made his way toward the White House, the organization doubled its revenue from $1 million to $2.2 million, marking what Mr. Voris calls “our best year ever.”

“The enthusiasm level has really taken off in this last year,” he tells the Monitor. “It’s really off the chart.”

The enthusiasm for Church Militant mirrors a shift in hate-related activity since the start of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Hate-related incidents spiked after his election, though inconsistent reporting made it hard to determine the extent of the trend.

More clear has been the rise in the number of hate groups the past two years, with the Southern Poverty Law Center writing on its website that the increase is “in part due to a presidential campaign that flirted heavily with extremist ideas.” The number of anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripled between 2015 and 2016, according to SPLC data.

For his part, Trump has condemned recent threats against Jewish organizations and has visited and extolled the new National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington. He has said his proposed temporary ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries is not based on religion.

But his talk of a Muslim ban during the campaign, combined with his broad characterizations of many undocumented immigrants as violent criminals, bears what one scholar calls “a family face resemblance” to ideas supported by hard-right groups. Indeed, a broader surge in hate groups since 2000 has been “driven in part by anger over Latino immigration” and the declining whiteness of the United States, SLPC argues.

In that context, experts are watching to see how this rise in energy and organization on the extreme right plays out. The question is whether some Americans are feeling empowered to use the confrontational stance of the Trump administration to radicalize an emotional and existential debate over America’s fundamental character.

“What is novel about the current moment is that these groups … see Trump as someone giving them hope that the state will act on their interests,” says Carolyn Gallaher, a political geographer at American University in Washington and author of “On the Fault Line: Race, Class and the American Patriot Movement.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens to memberships in [far-right] groups: Will it only get bigger as they feel they now have a conduit to the White House? Or do people say, ‘Now we can just do it on our own, say what we want to say, and enjoy protections for it’?" she adds. "It will depend in large part on what the administration’s posture is going forward.”

The trend lines 

The number of hate groups has risen dramatically during the past two years, marking an abrupt new trend. Before 2015, hate groups had been declining. While their numbers more than doubled from 1999 to 2011 (from 457 to 1,018), they then declined to 784 in 2014. By 2016, they had shot back up to 917.  

More recently, the SPLC found more than 1,000 post-election hate-related incidents, though it concluded that some were hoaxes and that the total pace of incidents slowed as the administration transitioned into power.

The reports have created an atmosphere of fear in some communities.

In Kansas, the Federal Bureau of Investigation this week joined a probe into a man who yelled, “Get out of my country” before killing an Indian man and injuring a friend and one other after mistaking the man for being “Middle Eastern.” Last October, the FBI arrested three Kansas men and said they were plotting to blow up an apartment building filled with Somali Muslims.  

Earlier this month, a letter sent to mosques by “Americans for a Better Way” suggested that, under Trump, “You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.” This weekend, vandals toppled nearly 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery outside Philadelphia, mimicking a similar incident over Presidents' Day weekend near St. Louis.

The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect called for Trump to give a major address on hate crimes.

“Mr. President, it's time for you to deliver a prime-time nationally televised speech, live from the Oval Office, on how you intend to combat not only #Antisemitism but also Islamophobia and other rising forms of hate,” the organization posted Sunday on Twitter. “Whether or not your intention, your Presidency has given the oxygen of incitement to some of the most viciously hateful elements of our society.”

Then there are incidents that don’t make national headlines.

The Triad City Beat, a newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., reported on a recent meeting of right-wing groups in Kernersville, N.C., in which one participant noted that, “We need to talk about how we can get things done peacefully. [But] be ready for the worst.” Another attendee remarked: “I am beyond that point. I’m ready to start taking people out.”

Asked about a spike in anti-Semitism, Trump recently said that under his administration “You’re going to see a lot of love. OK?” Vice President Pence helped with a cleanup effort at the Jewish cemetery near St. Louis.

But observers say the increase in incidents and threats is striking.

“One hundred percent, these are the kind of visible threats to the [religious] community that have not been felt in a generation,” says Mark Weitzman, director of the Task Force Against Hate and Terrorism at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“I’m not sure how you can quantify it, but the reports we’re seeing – impressionistic and statistical – all seem to indicate that there’s a climate in the country, and a lot of it is fear – fear, frankly, on all sides,” he adds. “We’re seeing [an increase in attacks on religious adherents] across the country. Part of it is that everything in this age gets recorded and transmitted. But the reality is that there is a sense now that some people feel they can say things that were previously socially unacceptable and get away with it, [fueled by] hostility, resentment, and a lack of accountability.”

The view from the far right 

For their part, some right-wing groups have questioned whether research and media organizations are overhyping confrontations for a liberal agenda.

Breitbart recently tut-tutted a CNN story on hate crimes that included somebody chalking the words “Trump,” “Build Wall,” and “[expletive] your safe space” in front of a library.

Derogatory comments are regrettable, but are “a world apart from the wave of ‘hate crimes’ and violent attacks that many are conjuring up,” wrote Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown after Trump’s election.

By using broad criteria for what constitutes a hate group or hateful incident, groups like the SPLC pad statistics in order to imply, dishonestly, “that there’s a Nazi behind every tree in America,” says Michael Hill, president of the secessionist League of the South in Killen, Ala., which the SPLC lists as a hate group.

He says he sees open, confrontational speech as beneficial if it’s rooted in self-preservation and self-interest – and agrees that Trump has empowered such speech.

“I think it’s the good old American way to put your ideas out there and confront people with them,” he says. “We’ve had for so long one side with a muzzle on and one side with an open mouth free to say whatever they want to.”

“What you’re seeing now is that a lot of people feel more emboldened – because someone like Trump is in the White House – to speak their minds on topics that formerly had been taboo,” he adds. “As long as that doesn’t break out into any sort of illegal activity, I don’t see what the problem with it is. I really see this as kind of healthy.”

Mr. Hill and Voris offer a window into the kind of speech that is gaining currency under Trump, and which they insist is not hateful.

Hill says his approach to religious minorities “is a quid pro quo. You stay in your place and I won’t do anything but wish you well, but you’ve got to afford me the same thing.”

Voris says his criticism of Islam is not a blanket denunciation of all Muslims. “Is there a threat to the stability of the West? Yes,” he says. “Is that largely coming from believers in Islam? Yes. Does that mean that the whole religion and every person in it is a threat to Western civilization? No.”

At the root of his complaint is that progressive and secular forces are wresting the country away from its Christian roots. The tensions of the Trump era, he says, are tied to a sense that the state is ready to roll back what many Americans have presumed are personal rights in order to safeguard the country.

“Whenever liberals wanted something they just go to the courts and they cry, ‘Civil rights! Civil rights!’” says Voris. “Not everything is a civil right.”

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