America’s far right is on a killing spree — but to judge from the actions of the Trump administration, the White House is too busy trying to score political points about the supposed threat of “Islamic terrorists” to care.
A report released this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tallies more than 100 people killed or injured over the past several years by perpetrators who were clearly influenced by the alt-right.
The SPLC counts Elliot Rodger as the start of the trend of alt-right killers. Rodger, a 22-year-old who took the lives of seven people in a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, had documented his misogyny and racist hate in his online writings.
The best-known recent example was the killing in August of activist Heather Heyer by white supremacist James Alex Fields, who drove his car into a crowd of anti-racists in Charlottesville, Virginia, as they marched in opposition to the far right. Heyer was killed and dozens injured in a horrific act that many on the far right subsequently celebrated.
Heyer had initially been reluctant to travel to Charlottesville because of the potential danger — but decided that she could not let the alt-right’s hate go unopposed. At her funeral, Heyer’s mother Susan Bro quoted from one of her social media posts: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” she added. “Well, guess what — you just magnified her.”
Heyer’s death is far from an isolated incident.
The SPLC notes that 2017 was the “most violent year” for the alt-right, with nine alleged perpetrators killing 17 people and injuring 43 more. Overall, according to the report, since Elliot Rodger’s rampage, “there have been at least 13 alt-right related fatal episodes, leaving 43 dead and more than 60 injured.”
The perpetrators were all male and, with two exceptions, under the age of 30.
Noting that several of today’s prominent alt-right figureheads, including Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, came to prominence in online communities that are a toxic stew of racism and sexism, the SPLC report makes the case that the resentments and hopelessness among this audience are being exploited.
Not only the Trump administration but the whole political establishment contributes to this dynamic with policies and rhetoric that scapegoat or smear women, Blacks, Muslims and others. This mainstream political climate is then amplified by the far right, as the SPLC points out:
[T]he dark engine of the movement is reactionary white male resentment…For a recruit, the alt-right helps explain why they don’t have the jobs or the sexual partners or the overall societal and cultural respect that they believe (and are told) to be rightfully theirs. This appeal is resonating at a moment in the United States when economic inequality is worsening and a majority-minority United States is forecasted for 2044 — developments exploited by racist propagandists.
Most of those profiled in the SPLC report incubated their hate online, in various right-wing internet forums that attract a wide variety of racists and bigots. But the SPLC notes that in five cases, the alleged perpetrators had specific connections to “Atomwaffen Division” — a group that openly embraces a neo-Nazi paramilitary ideology.
Different sources vary as to how many actual members the group has across the US — one ProPublica report suggested the number was as high as 80 members while others placed the figure at a few dozen or less. It has apparently been recruiting and growing since the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville where Heyer was murdered.
The racist and anti-Semitic group celebrates Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson, and fetishizes the idea of a breakdown of society and a race war, among other toxic aims. Some of the group’s writings encourage members to join the Armed Forces to get weapons and combat training, Keegan Hankes, an analyst at the SPLC, told the New York Times.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the group has been implicated in “alleged plots to attack civilians, nuclear facilities and synagogues.”
Among those with a connection to the group or its literature is Nicholas Giampa, a Virginia teenager who is alleged to have killed Scott Fricker and Buckley Kuhn-Fricker, his girlfriend’s parents, in December after they discovered his racist social media postings and made their daughter end her relationship with him.
A former Atomwaffen member told ProPublica “that the teen was more than a fan: He was in direct communication with the group.”
Another reported adherent of Atomwaffen Division is Samuel Woodward, a 20-year-old California man accused of the recent stabbing death of 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, who was both Jewish and gay.
As Jonathan Goldblatt, the CEO and national director of the ADL, wrote in Newsweekin early February: “This is all happening at a moment when white supremacist groups are attempting to gain a foothold in mainstream society via coordinated efforts on college campuses, in the media and at the ballot box.”
One message from the SPLC report especially deserves to be underlined. “Today, the audience available to alt-right propaganda remains ‘phenomenally larger’ than that available to ISIS-type recruiters,” the report said, citing research from a group that counters online radicalization.
US law enforcement agencies have said the same thing. Last May, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI reported in an intelligence bulletin that far-right racist groups had carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years — and were likely to carry out more attacks over the coming year, a prediction that was borne out.
If more than 100 people across the US had been killed or injured in multiple attacks by people with ties to reactionary Islamic groups — or if such groups were heavily recruiting on college campuses and distributing flyers calling for violence — you can bet the Trump administration would be promising action, and the FBI and every other law enforcement agency in the US would be making numerous arrests.
Nothing of the sort has happened to the far right, though.
At the top of the federal government, the Trump administration continues to largely ignore the increased threat posed by the far right — except when it’s encouraging such groups, implicitly or explicitly, as when Trump himself talked about the “good people” among the white supremacists and Nazis who turned out in Charlottesville.
On the contrary, soon after Trump took office, the new administration considered renaming and changing the focus of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, an Obama-era initiative that channeled grants and other resources to community groups and law enforcement efforts to identify and divert those deemed at risk of committing terrorist acts.
The effectiveness and politics of the program have always been suspect, as Emma Green noted last year in The Atlantic. Among other things, from its inception, the program raised civil liberties concerns that it was being primarily used by law enforcement to target Muslims, whether there was any evidence of “extremism” or not.
Even before the current upsurge identified by the SPLC, far-right violence claimed more victims than that connected to reactionary Islamist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. So you would think that right-wing terrorism would be the major concern of the program.
But after taking office, the Trump administration changed the focus of the CVE program to make it even more explicit that the main goal was to monitor and profile Muslims.
The administration rescinded funding for Life After Hate, an organization dedicated to rehabilitating former neo-Nazis, as well as a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill program that aimed to counter propaganda from multiple sources, including the far right. To top it off, the White House proposed renaming the program “Countering Islamic Extremism.”
The name change never materialized, but it’s abundantly clear that the Trump administration continues to define terrorism as solely a “Muslim” phenomenon. It doesn’t care about the threat of far-right violence.
The administration’s Islamophobia serves a political purpose, bolstering the case for continued war abroad and anti-Muslim repression at home. Meanwhile, the toxic collection of racists, sexists and neo-Nazis emboldened by Trump’s attacks will continue to pose a threat — which is why we need to organize and mobilize at every opportunity to stop them.