Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
Tucker Carlson would like you to know that white supremacy is “not a real problem in America.”
Four days after a white nationalist targeted Latinos in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso — and three weeks after the director of the FBI confirmed that white supremacist ideology is the leading driver of domestic terrorism in the U.S. — the Fox News host assured his viewers that white supremacy was a “hoax.”
“The combined membership of every white supremacist organization in this country would be able to fit inside a college football stadium,” Carlson observed. “This is a hoax. Just like the Russia hoax. It’s a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power.”
It’s worth noting that college football stadiums seat tens of thousands of people; the University of Michigan’s has room for 107, 601. “White supremacists are not a real problem because there are only tens of thousands of them” would be an odd argument for anyone to make. But it’s especially suspect coming from a prime-time news anchor who has devoted entire segments to the perils of MS-13, antifa, and “gypsies” who defecate in the street.
That said, Carlson has a scintilla of a point, one that the Federalist’s David Marcus makes a bit less demagogically: White supremacy may be a leading driver of domestic terrorism, but domestic terrorism is a marginal evil in American society. In the 18 years since 9/11, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have claimed the lives of 229 Americans — roughly the number who die as a result of texting while driving every four weeks. Of course, spectacular acts of mass violence take a toll on civil society. But then, so do heavy-handed attempts to prevent them. If Carlson’s argument had been that the scale of the white supremacist terror threat does not justify an expansion of domestic surveillance, his stance would be hypocritical, but not self-evidently wrong.
But Carlson isn’t downplaying the threat of domestic terrorism out of concern for preserving Americans’ civil liberties; he’s doing so out of desire to defend the right of the president (and himself) to carry on describing asylum seekers as invaders, immigrants as “infesting” insects, and migrant caravans as a Soros-orchestrated plot to irrevocably rig our democracy against real Americans.
This is the animating grievance of both Carlson’s monologue, and Marcus’s Federalist column: to make white supremacy seem like a bigger threat than it actually is, the left is cynically (and absurdly) accusing Donald Trump of being a white supremacist.
It is true that our president has never (explicitly) endorsed the forced relocation of nonwhite Americans, the creation of white ethno-state, pogroms, or a revival of laws against interracial marriage. Trump is not an avowed white nationalist, let alone terrorist one. He is something much more dangerous than that.
Most white nationalist terror groups know that a “race war” isn’t built in a day. The movement’s immediate goals are to increase the salience and intensity of white racial identity in the United States, while simultaneously discrediting and delegitimizing the U.S. government in the eyes of white Americans. And Donald Trump has done more to advance those aims with his bully pulpit than any psychopathic “shitposter” has ever done with an AK-47.
As Carlson correctly observes, there is no mass base for violent white nationalism in the United States. There is, however, such a base for the Republican Party. Lone-wolf terrorists will never win many converts to white nationalism by committing mass murders at garlic festivals. But a GOP president can persuade a great many white Americans to trust their anxieties about demographic change — and to consider Hispanic immigrants a threat to their nation and way of life — by informing them that such “invaders” are infesting our country and changing its culture. Similarly, the Oklahoma City bombing was never going to persuade a critical mass of Americans that their government was illegitimate. But a Republican president willing to accuse his political rivals of shepherding “illegal immigrants” to the polls — or a cable news host willing to accuse the Democratic Party of orchestrating a coup, using migrants as its shock troops — just might.
By now, the overlap between the ideology articulated in Trump’s tweets or Carlson’s monologues, and that promulgated in white nationalist manifestos, has been widely observed. Given the power of willful amnesia in the contemporary U.S., however, it is worth recounting how far these men and their allies have gone. Trump has warned that Democrats “want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they are, to pour in and infest our Country, like MS-13” because liberals “view them as potential voters.” Last fall, he insisted that the formation of a migrant caravan “didn’t just happen,” and that “the Democrats had something to do with it.” Republican congressman Matt Gaetz suggested that such migrants had been paid — possibly by George Soros — to “storm the US border @ election time.” Conservative commentator Erick Erickson made the same point less equivocally, tweeting, “It is not a coincidence that this caravan to the south of us is happening 2 weeks before our federal elections.”
Around the same time, Carlson warned his viewers that Democrats were plotting a coup: By flooding the U.S. with “illegals,” then granting them amnesty en masse, the party hoped to make it impossible for genuine Americans to ever reclaim their government through democratic means.
Trump has repeatedly suggested that all may already be lost; in his telling, millions of illegal votes were cast and counted in the last two federal elections. (Which is why the “invasion” at our southern border poses such an existential threat to our nation’s survival.)
Through all this, Fox News’ daytime anchors vigorously affirmed the president’s claim that Central Americans asserting their legal right to seek asylum were committing an act of war.
Months later, the president informed Sean Hannity that legal limitations on the government’s authority to use violence against migrants were undermining efforts to beat back this existential threat to America’s survival.
“Now we are capturing these people,” Trump said. “We are getting them but we don’t do it like other countries. Other countries stand there with machine guns, ready to fire.”
The president clarified that he “wouldn’t want to do that” — but immediately added, “It’s a very effective way of doing it.”
In sum, the president and his mainstream, conservative allies have been telling millions of Americans that:
• The (Soros-funded) Democrats are orchestrating an invasion of the United States by Latino immigrants, so as to replace the traditional American electorate with one more predisposed to socialist tyranny.
• If they succeed, the America we know and love will be irrevocably lost.
• The most effective way to beat back this “act of war” would be to open machine-gun fire on the invaders, but laws do not allow our military to do so.
Nothing that transpired in El Paso, Gilroy, or Pittsburgh has caused Trump or his Fox News brethren to rethink their rhetoric. As the New York Times reported Tuesday:
The Trump campaign was unapologetic on Tuesday about a New York Times report on its Facebook advertisements that use the word “invasion,” which featured prominently in the El Paso suspect’s manifesto. A senior Trump political adviser had a single-word answer — “no” — when asked if the campaign would change the tenor of its ads.
Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, defended the ads.
“At any given moment, there are 100,000 migrants making their way through Mexico to attempt to break our immigration laws,” Mr. Murtaugh said. “By objecting to an accurate description of the situation, Democrats and the media are trying to make it impossible to oppose illegal immigration without being called racist.”
Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade, meanwhile, reaffirmed that there was no more accurate word for the phenomenon of migrant families crossing the border illegally — and then immediately turning themselves over to authorities, so as to pursue an asylum claim — than “invasion.”
Whenever anyone suggests that such rhetoric might inspire violence, the president’s apologists will cry foul, and ask whether Berie Sanders is to blame for one of his supporters shooting up a congressional baseball game in 2017 — as though there couldn’t possibly be any distinction between the senator accusing Republicans of trying to take away people’s health insurance, on the basis of CBO reports, and Trump accusing Democrats of orchestrating an invasion of the United States, on the basis of nothing.
White supremacist violence predates our republic’s independence (let alone Donald Trump’s election). It’s possible that the horrors witnessed in El Paso and Pittsburgh would have happened even if Trump was still a private citizen tending the flame of his fading celebrity. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s election may have inspired a bigger uptick in white nationalist organizing than the one we’ve seen: After all, according to former Trump administration official Michael Anton, a Clinton win would have ensured “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” and thus, the left’s “permanent victory” over traditional America.
But even if the combination of Trump’s demagogy and a contested 2020 election never sows mass racial violence and civil unrest in the U.S. (an exceedingly unlikely hypothetical, and yet, one more plausible that any white-nationalist terror cell’s plot for achieving the same ends), he will have done more damage to America’s social fabric than an army of 8chan racists ever could. Hateful whites very rarely rain bullets down on the “others” they fear and loathe. But by most accounts, in the Trump era, they’ve grown far more comfortable spewing racist bile at every brown person who dares to frequent their community pools, or walk their streets, or shop at their Home Depots.
There is comfort in casting heavily armed neo-Nazis as the primary threat to racial equality and social peace in the United States. Americans would have no difficulty uniting in opposition to such an enemy. No mass political movement is invested in empowering the likes of Patrick Crusius. No cable news host makes his bread by rationalizing the homicidal acts of self-avowed white nationalists. But that is precisely why they pose a less formidable threat to multiracial democracy in our country than Donald Trump does.
The movement that imperils our republic is not skulking across the dark web; it is marching through the halls of power. And it cannot be thwarted by the FBI, DHS, or NSA — but only by the politics of cross-racial solidarity it exists to destroy.