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Trump Is Tinder for the White Nationalist Explosion That John Tanton Stoked

The late John Tanton acted as a bridge between explicitly white nationalist groups and the public policy realm.

President Trump speaks at Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center, October 3, 2019, in The Villages, Florida.

After a decade of avoiding addressing the growth of white nationalist violence, the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged its threat and issued a “Strategic Framework” document that clarifies “the dangers posed by domestic terrorists, including racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremists, particularly white supremacist violent extremists.” The department will, among other “priority actions,” form partnerships with local stakeholders, seek partnerships with private sector tech companies to combat the spread of violent ideologies online, and increase grants to local law enforcement to combat all kinds of “extremism.”

The move runs contrary to President Trump’s repeated minimizing of white nationalism and seems to be the result of both years of prodding from researchers and the sheer amount of carnage inflicted. The pivot should be welcomed, but we must recognize that it is not just white nationalist violence that is a problem, but also the related politics of racial and ethnic exclusion that have animated the current administration from its inception.

The Trump administration has now reached agreements with three Central American countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — that requires would-be asylum seekers passing through those countries apply for asylum there instead of proceeding to the U.S. This comes fast on the heels of a Supreme Court decision that paved the way for the Trump administration to block most asylum seekers at the southern border — one of dozens of policies, from limiting immigrants’ access to services to increased detention, recommended by anti-immigrant groups founded by the late John Tanton.

Since his death in July, Tanton has been eulogized as the architect of the contemporary anti-immigration movement. Tanton was an ophthalmologist based in Petoskey, Michigan, whose dread of so-called cultural contamination, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, led to his founding or funding of 13 organizations, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), dedicated to restricting the flow of immigrants to the U.S. or protecting “American culture” from foreign influences.

Twenty-five years before the El Paso gunman wrote a manifesto opposing a supposed “invasion” of immigrants and killed 22 people and injured two dozen more, Tanton co-authored The Immigration Invasion with Holocaust denier Wayne Lutton. Tanton acted as a bridge between explicit white nationalism obsessed with race as a biological reality and the realm of public policy. The line between policies that seek to restrict immigration flows for environmental, economic or “cultural cohesion” reasons and open racists who see the influx of immigrants of color as the greatest threat to white people both racially and culturally is often anything but clear. Tanton himself circulated a memo intended only for movement insiders in which he wrote, “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”

Explicitly white nationalist organizations have, in symmetry with the work of the groups Tanton founded, increasingly seen non-white immigration as both the biggest threat to their vision of a “whites only” homeland and their best chance to win allies in the political mainstream. Much of the traction gained by the anti-immigrant policy organizations in the 1990s (and supplemented in the following decade by the Tea Party) led the Tanton-founded and funded groups to disavow explicit white nationalism. This does not mean, of course, that the more mainstream groups never slip into racist rhetoric, such as CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian’s analysis that, “Haiti’s so screwed up because it wasn’t colonized long enough,” or NumbersUSA President Roy Beck’s assertion that immigrants are “enabling pools” of crime and terrorism. FAIR’s current president, Dan Stein, has said that repealing explicitly racist immigration laws from the 1920s is a “way to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance” that “will continue to create chaos down the line”

What should astonish us is that President Trump and his supporters are now far less discreet in their white nationalist dog-whistles than movement stalwarts like Krikorian and Beck. With Trump’s references to Mexican “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” condemnation of immigrants from “shithole countries,” justification for excluding refugees from Muslim-majority countries because he claims they are “terrorists,” and most recently, turning away Bahamian refugees after Hurricane Dorian and maligning them as “very bad people,” “gang members” and “drug dealers,” Trump has lowered the bar all the way to ground on fear-mongering and resentment of immigrants. And, just so it is clear whom he means by immigrants, the president — echoing Pat Buchanan, another bridge figure between white nationalism and the more accepted “anti-immigrant” movement — noted that, “We should have more people from places like Norway.”

If Tanton was warning of an explosion resulting from whites believing that their lives are declining (read: losing demographic majority), Trump waging an explicitly anti-immigrant and obviously racist rhetoric campaign is tinder. The manifesto writers and mass murderers who have inflicted so much carnage in places such as Pittsburgh, Poway and El Paso, throw Trump’s words back at him when they assess no one is going far enough to protect the U.S. from what they imagine as “white genocide” being plotted and enabled by Jews, liberals and socialists.

They are communicating that if there is really an “invasion,” then it’s time for violence.

Those of us for whom such delusions trigger dread and revulsion, however, must not rest in outrage. Tanton’s vision of defending an imagined “white culture,” shared with the explicit white nationalists, is now being realized in both U.S. border policies and bigoted violence. Anyone and everyone who believes in inclusive democracy is now under a heavy obligation to work together to stop white nationalism, whether we find it in the form of racist violence, the enabling rhetoric or the policies that treat those seeking a new home as “enemies.”

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