When President Trump and his staff talk about groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, they always come back to one argument: The need to call the Islamist threat by its name.
“These are radical Islamic terrorists,” Trump said in October. “To solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is, or at least say the name.”
Yet after the alt-right rally in Charlottesville on Friday, and even after a neo-Nazi plowed a car into counterprotesters on Saturday morning, the president merely blamed “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” It took him until Monday afternoon, after days of intense criticism from the press and even many Republicans, to condemn “the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”
Experts on extremism see this as part of a disturbing pattern: The president seems to love calling out Islamist violence but is curiously hesitant to call white supremacist violence by its name.
“It’s night and day,” says Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. “He pulls his Twitter finger in a second when there’s an [Islamist] attack like Manchester or Nice ... but he doesn’t apply the same standard to white supremacy.”
This is not a minor point. Trump’s insistence on using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” was always seen by terrorism experts as a mistake, as the phrase inaccurately implies that groups like ISIS speak for the entirety of the Muslim religion. They argued that using the phrase alienates Muslim allies in the fight against extremism.
By contrast, Trump’s unwillingness to label white supremacists as such encourages those groups and their followers. They see President Trump as a tacit ally; alt-right leader Richard Spencer once said the president has a “psychic connection” with his movement. Trump’s “all lives matter” approach to white nationalist violence sends a signal that he’s at least sympathetic to their views.
“The administration's fixation on saying ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ was always a popular talking point among white nationalists,” J.M. Berger, a fellow at the International Center for Counterterrorism who studies domestic American extremism, says.
“When combined with the president's obvious reluctance to criticize white nationalists, it's pretty obvious what's happening here.”
The Trump double standard
For as long has Trump has been in national politics, his reaction to Islamist terrorism has been swift and extreme.
His December 2015 proposal for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” was in direct response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack that had happened days earlier. After the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in June 2016, Trump tweeted that he appreciated “the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” and called for the federal government to begin surveilling “the mosques” inside the United States.
This pattern continued after he took the presidency — even extending to foreign terrorist attacks. After an Islamist extremist attacked Britain’s London Bridge and nearby Borough Market in June 2017, Trump commented immediately and aggressively:
We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 3, 2017
We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don't get smart it will only get worse— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
Trump has even condemned Islamist attacks that never happened, inventing a fake Islamist attack in Sweden and blaming a shooting at a hotel in Manila on terrorism despite police saying there was no link.
Through it all, the president continued to link this violence to a larger ideology, repeatedly using phrases like “radical Islamic extremism” or “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe the threat unifying this violence. This language appeared in his inaugural address, a speech to a joint session of Congress in February, an interview on the French election in April, and an address in Poland in July.
By contrast, here are a few events the president didn’t immediately condemn, link to a broader ideological challenge, or use as a pretext to propose new policies limiting civil liberties:
- In March 2017, a man named James Jackson traveled from Baltimore to New York City with the explicit aim of killing black men. He stabbed 66-year-old Timothy Caughman to death, and was charged with terrorism by New York state authorities.
- In late May, a man named Jeremy Joseph Christian started harassing a Muslim teenagers on a train in Portland, Oregon, telling them “we need Americans here!” Two men interceded; Christian then stabbed and killed them both.
- Nine days ago, unknown assailant(s) threw a firebomb at a mosque in Minnesota. The president still has not issued his comment; one of his top counterterrorism advisers, Sebastian Gorka, said the president was waiting to see if it was a “fake hate crime.”
The president has never given a high-profile address outlining a policy approach for countering white supremacist or far-right militancy. Instead, his administration has actually proposed cuts to the Department of Homeland Security’s program aimed at countering white supremacist movements.
To experts who study extremist groups, the pattern is clear: Trump treats the two violent extremist movements in radically different ways.
“When he sees people with swastikas and whatever other symbols of racism, he doesn’t get triggered,” says Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia who studies the far right. “That doesn’t mean that he agrees. But given how easily he’s triggered by almost everything else, I think it’s very telling.”
It matters much more for the president to call white supremacy by its name than “Islamic extremism”
The argument that you hear from Trump’s team, over and over again, is that to solve Islamist extremism, you need to be able to identify the root cause of the problem. By the same logic, failing to identify white supremacy as the root cause of the violence in Charlottesville would make it impossible for the administration to stop it. There is no reason the “call it by its name” logic would hold for the former and not the latter.
If anything, expert suggest, the president is doing things exactly backward. Labeling white nationalist violence as “white supremacy” would actually be effective in weakening these movements, whereas using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” actually detracts from the fight against jihadism.
Mainstream terrorism analysts are basically united in believing that the phrase “radical Islamic extremism” is both inaccurate and counterproductive. This kind of rhetoric misidentifies the cause of the problem as one of Islamic theology rather than the series of complex political and social factors that actually produce it, while insulting mainstream Muslims to boot.
“To Muslims, or for anyone familiar with the many strands of Islam, the phrase connotes a direct link between the mainstream of the Muslim faith and the violent acts of a few,” Emile Nakhleh, director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program under George W. Bush, wrote in a 2016 piece for Vox. “The term doesn’t enhance anyone’s knowledge of the perpetrators of terrorism or of the societies that spawn them, and it might hurt us in the global war of ideas.”
By contrast, it’s entirely accurate to blame “white supremacy” or “racism” for the terrorist attack in Charlottesville. The 20-year-old Ohio man arrested for ramming the crowd — killing 32 year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others — wrote a report for a high school class that his teacher described as “very much along the party lines of the neo-Nazi movement.”
Trump’s silence in clear-cut cases like this, even if it’s eventually followed up with a stronger statement after days of political pressure, is actively dangerous.
White nationalists have taken Trump’s refusal to condemn them, alongside his outlandish statements about Muslims and Mexican “rapists,” as a sign that America is trending in their direction. Beirich, who tracks hate group membership for the SPLC, says she’s seen concrete growth in several hate organizations in the last year, like the neo-Nazi and Trump-friendly website the Daily Stormer. She believes this is attributable, in part, to Trump’s emergence on the political scene.
“The groups that most attached themselves to Trump saw great growth in their ranks,” she says. “The Daily Stormer, in 2015, had one chapter in Ohio. Over the course of their campaign basically, they now have 30 chapters ... they made the leap from the keyboard from the real world.”
You saw this reaction play out in real time after the president’s statement on Saturday. Andrew Anglin, the Daily Stormer’s founder, told his readers that Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacists by name betrayed his true feelings.
“Trump’s comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together,” Anglin wrote. “When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
White nationalist groups take Trump’s refusal to condemn them with the same ferocity he uses for jihadists as evidence that the most powerful man in the world is on their side.
“President Trump is not solely to blame for the growth of this movement,” says Berger, “but he has certainly played a huge role in expanding its reach.”