Cross-posted at U.S. News and World Report
It pains me to think that my experience as an FBI undercover agent working inside white supremacist groups might give me relevant insights into a U.S. president’s policy choices.
My time spent underground with neo-Nazis and anti-government militias gave me an ear well-tuned to pick up dog whistles – the coded messages many conservative politicians have long peppered into speeches and policy positions to appeal to the racist far right. I didn’t need that skill for candidate Donald Trump. He broadcast racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Latino sentiments through a bullhorn rather than a dog whistle. But now that he’s won, will President Trump cater to these angry and intolerant supporters? And what will that mean for the rest of our country?
Just two weeks in, Trump has given white supremacists plenty of reasons to feel he’s copacetic with their agenda.
Trump retained alt-right promoter Steve Bannon and Islamophobic conspiracy theorist Michael Flynn as advisers and gave them dominant roles on the National Security Council. Although Flynn didn’t last long, it wasn’t because of his extreme views. Trump selected Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general, who reportedly called the ACLU and NAACP “un-American” and has a long record of opposition to voting rights and immigration reform. These picks sent a clear message that the Trump administration would be as hostile to minorities as the Trump campaign, but that was just the start.
Trump’s combative first phone call with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto elevated an insulting campaign pitch to make Mexico pay for his border wall into a potential trade war. His executive order increasing border and immigration forces and stripping funds from sanctuary cities raised fears of a crackdown that didn’t take long to materialize.
Hardcore white supremacists were initially leery of Trump because of his supportive statements regarding Israel and his many Jewish friends and associates – particularly his closest confidants, daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. But once in office, the White House issued a Holocaust Remembrance Day message that failed even to mention its Jewish victims. If playing into the dark rhetoric of Holocaust-deniers was meant to send a message of solidarity with neo-Nazis, it was well-received.
Trump also made good on his promise to enact a “Muslim ban,” even though, as former Mayor Rudy Guliani confided to Fox News, he had to narrow its scope to make it “legal.” From the far right extremist viewpoint, the policy had the intended effect of sending a clear message to Muslims that they are the enemy in Trump’s America. The nationwide protests against the policy have not dampened the extremist right’s enthusiasm for this action; rather, they have sharpened the divide these extremists see between those who defend their nation’s security and those who threaten it. Even though the protests were nonviolent, the image of disorder and resistance to authority is one extremists can twist to galvanize support from traditional law and order conservatives.
While the influence of the far right on Trump’s administration and policies is clear, the question of whether Trump’s presidency will embolden increased far right violence is harder to answer. There are early indications that racists have felt empowered to act out in harmful ways since Trump mainstreamed racial and religious bigotry. His demand to “stop it” during a post-election spike in hate crimes was welcome but late, and his failure to even acknowledge the Canadian mosque attack that killed six Muslim worshipers reinforced the message that right-wing terrorism somehow isn’t “real” terrorism. Republican Rep. Sean Duffy made this argument more explicitly, ignoring the hundreds of victims of far right violence in this country since 9/11, including six killed in a Sikh temple in his home state of Wisconsin in 2012.
Still, it’s hard to make predictions about a rise or fall in hate crimes because the government doesn’t bother to keep accurate records. The good news is 74 percent of police agencies surveyed in 2014 ranked far right extremists the number one threat, and most address these crimes with the seriousness they deserve even if some politicians don’t. This is understandable because far right extremists often target law enforcement, killing more than 50 police officers since 1990.
At the same time, the FBI has raised concerns about white supremacists inside law enforcement. Any level of involvement of law enforcers in organized hate groups is horrifying, of course, but garden-variety bias might be as big a problem. Authoritarian regimes the Trump administration seems to be emulating have always relied on a combination of sanctioned and unsanctioned violence. Aggressive and discriminatory law enforcement actions are meant to spread fear and intimidate political opposition just as much as any inaction against unsanctioned racist violence would. Anti-Muslim law enforcement training has been on ongoing problem and the overzealousness with which some customs and immigration officials enforced Trump’s Muslim ban, including handcuffing a 5-year-old U.S. citizen, suggests an inappropriate level of vindictiveness. Similarly aggressive immigration enforcement actions throughout the country last week and the hostility some law enforcement officials have expressed toward the Black Lives Matter movement raise legitimate worries that there may be increased police violence as Trump’s tough-on-crime policies are implemented.
So what can Americans do to resist the divisive rhetoric, policies and violence? First, all of us must make a concerted effort to look out for one another. Go to your local mosque, synagogue, church, immigrant services and LGBTQ support center and let them know you care about their safety and well-being. Find out who in your local police department and FBI office are responsible for investigating hate crimes. Make sure all hate crimes and police abuse are documented and reported to the proper authorities and the local media. Hold them accountable.
Second, make sure your state and local governments are responsive to your concerns. In the civil rights era the federal government had to step in to ensure state and local authorities adhered to the law. Now it is the opposite. Sixteen state attorneys general filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s Muslim ban. Sanctuary cities are vowing to resist Trump’s harsh immigration enforcement policies. The San Francisco Police Department suspended their participation in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force over concerns about civil liberties and religious freedom.
The politics of fear and division will fail if we join together in response.