The threat of white radical extremism in the age of Trump
Just weeks before President Trump won the 2016 election, three white men in Kansas were arrested for fomenting a terror plot. Patrick Stein, 49, Curtis Allen, 50, and Gavin Wright, 50, were accused of conspiring to bomb a mosque and building that was home to many Somali Muslim refugees. They intended to strike a day after the election.
A few months later, in the week after Trump took office, a white ultranationalist in Quebec City opened fire on some 50 congregants at a local mosque, killing six people and injuring 19 others. The shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, was a Trump-sympathizer from afar, inflamed by anti-Muslim sentiments bubbling up over the previous year. While Canada mourned, Trump remained conspicuously silent, setting a troubling precedent that has lingered through the first fifteen months of his presidency.
This week, both these cases returned to the news cycle. On Monday, prosecutors presented a 45-page document during Bissonnette’s sentencing hearing that outlined the depth of the 28-year-old’s ideological radicalization. Survivors and relatives of the victims appeared in court, urging the judge to deliver a maximum life sentence for Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to six charges of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder.
On Wednesday, a federal jury convicted the Kansas trio of plotting to massacre Muslim refugees; it found them guilty of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiring to violate the civil housing rights of others. The decision followed a four weeks-long trial before a largely white jury. They could face life in prison.
“The defendants in this case acted with clear premeditation in an attempt to kill people on the basis of their religion and national origin,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement commending the verdict. “That’s not just illegal — it’s immoral and unacceptable, and we’re not going to stand for it.”
But the rhetoric of his boss has not quite matched these convictions. Trump, as we’ve long chronicled in this space, has no problem taking to Twitter to denounce even a trace of jihadist perfidy somewhere in the world. The acts of often isolated Islamist extremists repeatedly prompt him to cast suspicion on whole communities of Muslims at home and abroad, and form the basis of his apathy toward Syrian refugees as well as calls for sweeping immigration bans.
But Trump has been far more circumspect about nativist or white nationalist hate crimes, which have seen a worrying uptick under his watch. He even struggled to condemn committed neo-Nazis who rallied in his name last year, describing some of them as “very fine people.”
On the day of the Kansas verdict, Trump made no mention of a case that saw federal law enforcement thwart a potentially devastating terrorist attack on American soil. But he did find time to continue his political battle with California’s liberal governor over “sanctuary cities” — jurisdictions where undocumented migrants can, in theory, report crimes to police without fear of being detained.
The president tweeted the lurid language of the casual bigot, invoking “crime-infested” cities “breeding” more unwanted, violent aliens.
In a grim irony, it was Trump’s anti-migrant politics — or rather, the Canadian prime minister’s rejection of it — that might have set Bissonnette off on his killing spree. “In a video of his police interrogation shown to the court last week, Bissonnette is heard telling officers that his three-minute-long attack was set off by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message of welcome to refugees in the wake of President Trump’s entry ban, which was issued two days before the mosque attack,” reported The Post’s Amanda Coletta.
“I was watching TV, and I learned that the Canadian government was going to take more refugees, you know, who couldn’t go to the United States, and they were coming here,” Bissonnette told police in the video. “I saw that and I, like, lost my mind. It was then that I decided it was time to go.”
Prosecutors also pointed to his extensive social media activity, where he tracked Trump’s Twitter feed and “obsessively visited” — as Coletta put it — the accounts of figures like Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones of Infowars, white supremacist David Duke, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer and others who populated the far-right vanguard of Trumpism.
In Kansas, a similar phenomena was also at work. The three right-wing extremists dubbed themselves “Crusaders” and compiled a handwritten manifesto that echoed some of the dominant right-wing talking points of the election campaign, bemoaning a loss of jobs, the supposed weakness of border security and the overreach of the Obama administration.
“All of those statements reflect the political talk in 2016,” one of their defense lawyers said during the trial, referring to their manifesto. “There is nothing in that document that is outside the political talk going on.” But that talk went hand-in-hand with darker visions, including a blanket desire to kill Muslims, even babies, according to investigators.
It’s a mercy that, unlike another Trump-influenced assailant in Kansas last year, their convictions didn’t lead to the deaths of innocents. But both this case and Bissonnette’s shooting rampage have spawned an outcry from rights groups in both countries, who warn of rising Islamophobia, white nationalism and threats to minority communities.
“You should be worried about the Dylann Roofs of the world as much as the Omar Mateens,” Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told my colleague Abigail Hauslohner — referring, first, to an alleged white nationalist who killed nine people in a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and then to the American-born shooter of Afghan origin who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub in 2016. (Guess which one Trump has tweeted about?)
Some analysts contend that white nationalism is as much a threat to Americans as Islamist militancy. “Much like global jihadism, there is a global extreme-right movement that has its own network of writers and thinkers and activists and groups,” counter-extremism scholar Amarnath Amarasingam told HuffPost, referring to Bissonnette’s radicalization. “It’s about time that we start thinking about these individual cases as part of that broader network as well.”
But if Trump did that, he may end up having to look in the mirror.