When Elizabeth Neumann went to work in counterterrorism in Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, she thought she’d be focused on Islamic extremism, as she was in George W. Bush’s administration. But as the assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at D.H.S., she soon realized that she had to take the threat of white-supremacist terrorism seriously.
“It was probably 2018 when we started to realize that this was not just a blip, that Charlottesville wasn’t just a blip,” she told me.
Even as she and her colleagues worked to understand how domestic white supremacists were being emboldened, there was a series of shocking attacks, including the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018. Europeans working in counterterrorism told their American allies that the threat of right-wing extremism was eclipsing that of returning Islamic State fighters.
“They were talking to us going: ‘Hey, you guys are the exporters here. You need to do something about this,’” said Neumann.
But combating white nationalism isn’t easy when you work for an administration that incites it. As she said in a recent Republican Voters Against Trump ad, the president’s language “gave permission to white supremacists to think that what they were doing is permissible.”
You’ve probably heard analysis like this from the left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. This is coming from someone who voted for the president and worked for him until April.
Such violence is the main terrorist threat facing America. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, right-wing extremists were behind two-thirds of terrorist attacks and plots in the United States last year, and over 90 percent of such attacks between Jan. 1 and May 8 this year. Trump has inspired and encouraged them.
Yet if you follow coverage of the presidential campaign, political violence appears to be seen, by Democrats and Republicans alike, as largely a problem for Joe Biden. Shortly after an apparent Trump supporter named Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with murder in the killing of two left-wing protesters in Wisconsin, a CNN headline said, “Why Democrats Are Worried About Kenosha.”
I’m not faulting CNN here. Democrats are worried. I’m worried. At least one presidential poll has shown tightening.
Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican, has conducted focus groups of largely disaffected female Trump voters, and has seen hints that urban unrest could be helping the president. There’s reason to fear that the president’s attempts to terrify suburban swing voters could work, especially if the media uncritically transmits his propaganda. But that only shows how much American politics is trapped in Trump’s alternate reality.
To try to break out of it, Biden’s campaign has gone on the offensive. On Sunday, he issued a statement condemning violence “of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right” and challenging Trump to do the same. On Monday he drove home the point: “This president long ago forfeited any moral leadership in this country. He can’t stop the violence because for years he’s fomented it.”
Biden is right. However violence plays politically, the reality is that only one of the two candidates cheers it. Trump has urged his fans to thuggery since his first presidential campaign. He invited Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple charged with felonies for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters, to speak at the Republican National Convention.
Recently he liked a tweet sympathizing with Rittenhouse, who has emerged as a macabre folk hero among some Republicans. During a Monday news conference, the president defended Rittenhouse, arguing that he was acting in self-defense.
“It’s not just the president, it’s the entire Republican Party right now, kind of implying that we’ve got to take matters into our own hands and seek law and order,” said Neumann.
This weekend, a convoy of Trump supporters in flag-bedecked trucks headed into Portland, Ore., to confront left-wing demonstrators. Once in the city, they shot paintballs and pepper spray at protesters. On Twitter, Trump called them “GREAT PATRIOTS.”
None of this means the left is blameless. During this weekend’s confrontation in Portland, Aaron Danielson, a member of a far-right group called Patriot Prayer, was shot to death, and a man who describes himself as “100 percent antifa” is reportedly being investigated for the killing. Whoever did it, Danielson’s death is a travesty and, unless he was killed in self-defense, a deep moral stain.
There’s no denying that some of the convulsive demonstrations of recent months have given way to violence and nihilistic destruction. When protesters in Seattle tried to set up a radically utopian police-free zone, there were six people shot in 10 days, two of them fatally.
But Biden is hardly a catalyst to left-wing extremism. Besides, at least some of the violence associated with the Black Lives Matter protests has been perpetrated by far-right provocateurs. In his speech at the R.N.C., Vice President Mike Pence condemned the murder of a federal officer, Dave Patrick Underwood, “who was shot and killed during the riots in Oakland, Calif.” He neglected to mention that the man charged in the killing, Steven Carrillo, was reportedly linked to the Boogaloo Bois, an outgrowth of the militia movement that seeks to incite a second civil war.
Like the Boogaloo Bois, Trump sees his interests served by the destruction of civic peace. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s departing senior adviser, told “Fox & Friends” last week.
If the president succeeds in making political violence a Biden liability, he’ll have all the more incentive to set this country on fire.