Two years ago, President Donald Trump stood before an inauguration crowd in Washington, D.C. and warned of “American carnage,” claiming he alone could stop it.
“Crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” he said. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now…. We will make America safe again.”
Now, midway through his presidency, it has become increasingly clear that the real danger is one Trump himself has both fomented and chosen to ignore: far-right extremism.
Since his inauguration, the president has repeatedly used his bleak, fear-mongering vision of the country to advocate for building a border wall between the United States and Mexico, suggesting U.S. law enforcement was totally outgunned by drug smugglers and that the threat of a migrant caravan was enough of a threat to justify sending the U.S. military to the border. He has suggested Black Lives Matter protesters, fighting police brutality, pose a violent threat to Americans, and blamed so-called “alt-left” activists for inciting violent clashes with right-wing and white supremacist protesters.
Meanwhile, both the president and the Republican Party have emboldened violent far-right extremists through their inaction; over the last two years, Trump has barely acknowledged the explosion of far-right activity, much less done anything to combat it.
2017 was marked by tragedy when, at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 17, far-right extremist James Alex Fields deliberately drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman. Fields was found guilty of first-degree murder last December and sentenced to life in prison, and has separately been indicted on 30 federal hate crimes charges.
In the immediate aftermath of the Charlottesville attack however, Trump infamously said that there was violence “on many sides.”
“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” he said, speaking during a planned infrastructure announcement days after the attack. “…You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it.”
Trump also blamed activists for trying to remove a Confederate monument, which had supposedly been the impetus for the white nationalist rally. “George Washington [was] a slave owner. So will George Washington lose his status?” he said. “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? […] You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.”
Trump’s comments, celebrated in their immediate aftermath by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, ushered in a new wave of far-right violence in 2018.
On October 12, a group of “Proud Boys,” a far-right gang, left the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City following an event featuring their founder, Gavin McInnes, and began violently attacking people protesting the even in the street, in one instance yelling, “Do you feel brave now, faggot?” The NYPD eventually charged nine Proud Boys with assault.
Ten days later on October 22, pipe bombs were sent to the home of liberal philanthropist George Soros, a frequent Twitter target of Trump, as well as the offices of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Hillary Clinton, and CNN. Authorities eventually arrested Cesar Sayoc for the attack, a registered Republican and Trump fan who had attended the president’s rallies and echoed much of his racist, incendiary rhetoric, including his anti-Semitic attacks on Soros.
The worst attack took place on October 27, when anti-Semite gunman Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire, killing 11 worshipers before being arrested by police. Bowers later told police bluntly, “All Jews must die.”
Just three days before the shooting, the FBI Agents Association had tweeted that it was “time to treat domestic terrorism as the national threat that it is, and track, analyze and punish political violence at a federal level.”
Despite this, following the attack, Trump’s response was to blame the media. “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news,” he tweeted. “The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly.”
Since Trump’s inauguration, far-right groups have flourished, including Atomwaffen, an extremely violent neo-Nazi terror organization responsible for five murders in eight months through the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018. The group, whose name means “Atomic Weapons” in German, also planned to attack a nuclear power plant.
There have also been multiple lone wolf attacks. The same day as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, two black people were killed at a grocery store in Kentucky. The shooter, Gregory Bush, allegedly told a bystander that “whites don’t kill whites” and was indicted on hate crimes charges in November.
These incidents represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the shocking rise in far-right extremism over the last two years. According to a November 2018 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the mean number of far-right attacks jumped from 11 between 2012 and 2016 to 31 in 2017. A Washington Post analysis that same month found that right-wing extremism, already climbing under President Barack Obama, surged in 2017. Statistics from the FBI also show hate crimes have risen for three years consecutively.
Multiple far-right plots have also been disrupted and foiled by law enforcement since Trump’s inauguration. In January 2018, for instance, a member of the Nationalist Socialist Movement was charged with terrorism after boarding an Amtrak train in Nebraska with a weapon. In November 2018, three militia members in Kansas were convicted of trying to bomb a mosque and apartment complex popular with Somali immigrants.
FBI director Christopher Wray told the Senate Appropriations Committee in May 2018 that the bureau had approximately 1,000 active domestic terror investigations, a significant number of which were focused on far-right extremists and lone wolves.
Law enforcement was warning of the dangers of far-right extremism long before Trump ever set foot in office. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report which warned that America’s political and economic climate was creating a fertile opportunity for far-right groups to recruit new members, especially among veterans who are “facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities.”
The warning was not heeded, however, because Republicans objected to it and forced the Obama administration to shelve the report.
The Trump administration has continued that tradition, to devastating effect. Just a few days before the Pittsburgh shooting, for instance, the administration bewilderingly pulled funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program, which allocated $10 million for law enforcement agencies across the country to specifically deal with far-right extremism.
The decision has since filtered down to local law enforcement, who have no idea of a broader-based plan for countering right-wing threats. As The New York Times reported, when Gainesville Police Lt. Dan Stout was entrusted with preparing the University of Florida for a speech by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in September 2017 and ensuring there was no repeat of Charlottesville, he could find no intelligence at a local, state or federal level which he could use.
“So you’re telling us that there’s nothing?” he said at the time. “No names we can plug into the automatic license-plate readers? No players with a propensity for violence? No one you have in the system? Nothing?’’
An adequate response never came.
What Trump has been more than happy to do is use dog-whistles to stir up the far-right, which has happily embraced the attention given to their pet concerns, most of which are baseless. In August 2018, for instance, Trump tweeted that he was instructing the secretary of state to examine “the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers,” a common — and de-bunked — white nationalist talking point.
The move angered South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who said through a spokesperson that Trump was “misinformed.”
“South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past,” an official government Twitter account wrote.
A few months later, when the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement held a rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, demonstrators told ThinkProgress they were delighted that Trump had touched on the issue.
“What boggles my mind is that the mainstream American press was billing it as a hoax until President Trump started tweeting about it and some others like Tucker picked up on it,” NSM member Kynan Dutton said at the time. “Whites colonized that area and made it what it was. They took a desert and made it into a society only then did the others start intruding and want their own piece.”
Whether Trump intends to create division by ignoring the far right’s violent tendencies and simultaneously emboldening its members is no longer up for debate. Two years into his presidency, the rise in far right attacks, threatening dialogue, and foiled extremist plots proves his action — and inaction — have caused enough damage to long outlive his tenure.