Radical Right-Wing Terrorism

The president blames incendiary rhetoric when a killer is Muslim. But not when the terrorist is racist or white.

Donald Trump speaks during an election rally.
Donald Trump speaks during an election rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, on Saturday. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, after a neo-Nazi killed a protester during a racist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Trump defended white people who had rallied with the racists. Critics complained that the president was going easy on racism, but he replied that liberals and the media were soft on Islam. “They have a double standard,” said Trump. He claimed that in the past, when Muslims had committed terrorism, “Barack Obama never said it took place because of radical Islamic terrorists.”

Trump was wrong about Obama: The former president did speak out against terrorists who murdered in the name of Islam. But Trump does have a double standard. When Muslims commit terrorism, Trump blames incendiary rhetoric. When whites commit terrorism, such as last week’s attempted pipe bombings and the mass murder at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Trump condemns the killers but excuses the ideologues who inspire them.

When Trump ran for president, he denounced the “extremism” that drove jihadis to violence. “Containing the spread of radical Islam must be a major foreign policy goal,” he declared in April 2016. The “struggle against radical Islam,” Trump warned, was “a philosophical struggle, like our long struggle in the Cold War.”

In June 2016, after the terrorist massacre at a nightclub in Orlando, Trump derided Hillary Clinton for calling Muslims “peaceful and tolerant.” The underlying pathology wasn’t just violence, said Trump. It was “persecution and intimidation by radical Islamic preachers.” Trump demanded strict vetting to block refugees and immigrants who “reject our values,” “share … oppressive views,” or “support radical groups and beliefs.”

In May 2017, on a presidential trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump celebrated the opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. He applauded the work of Muslim-led governments against “radicalization” and “the online spread of hate.” The challenge wasn’t just to thwart terrorism, said Trump. It was to defeat “the ideology that drives” terror attacks, by “confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism.”

Trump shows no such concern, however, about white extremism. In fact, he promotes it. On June 16, 2015, Trump launched his presidential campaign with a smear against Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The next day, a white racist murdered nine black worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer didn’t cite Trump, but he did say he was alarmed by black-on-white crime—a concern that Trump, using bogus statistics, has raised repeatedly on Twitter.

Clinton warned that “inflammatory” rhetoric like Trump’s could “trigger” unstable people to commit hate crimes like the one in Charleston. But Trump dismissed that suggestion. He called the tragedy in Charleston “incomprehensible.” And his campaign, in a statement, rejected Clinton’s attempt to blame “words for violence.”

After the killing in Charlottesville two years later, Trump again refused to blame words for violence. Having portrayed all Muslims as dangerous—during his campaign, he declared that “Islam hates us,” and he proposed a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”—Trump argued that not all of the whites who had rallied in Charlottesville were bad. Some “very fine people” were there “to innocently protest” the removal of a “very, very important statue” of Robert E. Lee, said Trump. He echoed their concerns, lamenting, “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.” Later, Trump used the confrontation in Charlottesville to rile up the crowd at a political rally. “They are trying to take away our history and our heritage,” he warned.

In the past two weeks, as Trump escalated his rhetoric against immigrants and “globalists,” the racist and anti-Semitic violence has accelerated: 11 Jews killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue, two blacks killed in a store in Kentucky, and 14 bombs sent to public figures—five of them black—whom Trump has vilified at campaign rallies. The alleged bomber, Cesar Sayoc, admired Trump and echoed his ethnic grievances. The alleged synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers, thought Trump was too soft on Jews but shared the president’s distrust of Muslims and immigrants. Two hours before he opened fire, Bowers cited Jewish support for immigration as his reason for “going in.”

If these terrorists had been Muslims, and if the grievances that inspired them had been promoted by an imam, Trump would have denounced the imam and demanded that he be prosecuted. But in this case, the propagandist isn’t an imam. It’s Trump. So the president excuses himself. On Friday, after Sayoc was arrested, reporters pointed out that he loved Trump and that he had a picture of the president on his van. They asked Trump, “Are you to blame at all for what happened, Mr. President?” The president replied: “Not at all, no. There’s no blame.”

The next day, after the synagogue massacre, Trump dismissed Bowers as a random “madman, a wacko.” He shrugged that the world had been violent “for many centuries.” On Monday, when Fox News host Laura Ingraham reminded Trump that Sayoc “was a fan of yours,” the president replied that the suspect “was insane a long time before” Trump became president. Trump excoriated the Washington Post for having “my name associated with this crazy bomber.”

At a White House briefing that day, reporters pointed out that Sayoc “went to Trump rallies” and “had a van covered with attacks on the media and praise for the president.” They noted that Bowers “was provoked, it seems, by the caravan the president has spent so much time talking about.” Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, erupted in indignation. She said it was “outrageous” to hold Trump accountable for “a pipe bomb that was not sent by the president.” “The only person responsible for carrying out either of these heinous acts were the individuals who carried them out,” she declared. “You can’t start putting the responsibility … on anybody but the individual who carries out the crime.”

The double standard couldn’t be clearer. When Muslims commit acts of terror, Trump blames radical imams and their ideology. When white racists commit acts of terror, Trump says racial propagandists have nothing to do with it. That’s because Trump’s beef isn’t really with incitement. It’s with Muslims and immigrants. He’s fine with incitement—very fine—as long as the incitement is his own.