The president of the United States finally condemned white supremacist violence in Charlottesville on Monday, two days after an initial statement that blamed “both sides” for violence largely instigated by far-right activists (including a car attack on counterprotesters that killed one person and injured 19).
But the only part of his remarks that appeared to promise that he was devoting not just words, but action, to the problem of right-wing extremism in America — “We will spare no resource in fighting so that every American child can grow up free from violence and fear” — was actually the most hollow.
On Saturday, too, Trump promised to get to the root of the problem: “We want to get the situation straightened out in Charlottesville, and we want to study it. And we want to see what we're doing wrong as a country where things like this can happen.” The problem is that his administration has already indicated that it thinks it knows the answers to these problems. It’s cut funding for outreach to counter white supremacism, while pushing punitive “law and order” responses to civil unrest.
Trump’s willingness to explicitly say that white supremacism is bad (even if it’s only offered in response to criticism) is worth at least something — it’s a nod in the direction that white supremacism is an ideology that ought to be ostracized. But his administration’s actions threaten to undermine any value in countering white supremacism that Trump’s rhetoric might have had.
The Trump administration has systematically rejected efforts to counter right-wing violence
Barely a week after President Trump was inaugurated, rumors began to swirl that he was going to change the name of the federal “Countering Violent Extremism” task force, located in the Department of Homeland Security, to “Countering Islamic Extremism” — and that the task force would accordingly “no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.”
The task force’s name hasn’t changed. But its function has. After a review of grants provided by the task force, the Trump administration preserved most of the grants (which involved Islamic communities) — but killed a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate, a group that attempts to “deradicalize” young men drawn to white supremacism.
It’s not that the Trump administration didn’t have evidence that right-wing extremism was a potential problem for public safety. According to Foreign Policy, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI issued a report on May 10 called “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence,” which noted that white supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 … more than any other domestic extremist movement.”
But among conservatives skeptical of “identity politics,” there’s been a longstanding resistance to any government warnings about far-right extremist groups. When the Department of Homeland Security published a report in 2009 warning of increased racist extremism after the election of President Obama, the backlash was so intense that the department had to formally retract the report.
So it’s not surprising that weeks after the FBI/DHS bulletin, the Trump administration pulled funding from the one grant that attempted to address that strain of extremism. And it’s not surprising that weeks after that — days before the violence in Charlottesville — homeland security adviser Sebastian Gorka told a television interviewer that the focus on white supremacist violence was “overblown.”
Trump’s promise, now, to “spare no resources” in solving the problem doesn’t inspire much confidence when his administration has shown so little interest in hearing that the problem might be a problem to begin with.
The Trump administration sees this as a problem that “law and order” can solve
The Trump administration is making policy based on who it assumes are the “real” extremists. But it’s also making policy based on how those “extremists” can best be dealt with.
Take the violent extremism task force, for example. The Trump administration’s ultimate goal is to dismantle it entirely — in its proposed budget, funding for the task force would be zeroed out after 2019.
Trump advisers like Gorka have been skeptical of the community outreach approaches that the task force supported — viewing them as soft on terrorism. Last month, the director of the task force resigned, telling the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart that “there were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims.”
There’s been a similar turn away from community engagement and toward punitiveness on other fronts. Under Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (who’s now White House chief of staff), Trump administration officials were indifferent or hostile to concerns that aggressive immigration enforcement might be discouraging victims of crime from reporting to police. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice has stopped supporting legal “consent decrees” between police departments and local governments to rebuild public trust, while Sessions himself has advocated for a return to maximal punitiveness in criminal punishment and explained that African-American communities need to do a better job of trusting police to protect them.
In both his initial statement Saturday and his remarks Monday, President Trump presented the violence in Charlottesville as primarily a problem of social disorder — something that more and better policing, and more public trust in policing, could solve. It’s an old theme for Trump; “law and order” has been the theme of some of his biggest public moments on the campaign trail and as president. According to the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, Trump was particularly insistent that his Saturday statement on Charlottesville adhere to a “law and order” theme, because he remembered it fondly from the campaign.
Trump may see “law and order” as the solution to everything because it reminds him of his electoral success. Other members of his administration see it as the solution to everything because they believe the fundamental problem is “social disorder,” not racism or white supremacism.
Trump’s willingness to criticize white supremacists by name is welcome and important. But if his administration has already decided what caused the problems in Charlottesville over the weekend, it’s hard to imagine that their attempts to “spare no expense” will get to the root of the problem — and won’t end up targeting the same nonwhite Americans and immigrants that the white nationalists themselves wish to intimidate.