Trump’s Rhetoric Is Raising the Risk of Right-Wing Terrorism

We need to have a serious debate about the causes of political violence, before the next attack.

Donald Trump and Melania Trump place stones and flowers on a memorial.
Donald Trump and Melania Trump place stones and flowers on a memorial at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 30 following the deadly shooting there. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Politics quickly eclipsed horror after Robert Bowers allegedly gunned down 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. The shooting, the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history, almost immediately became intertwined with Donald Trump’s divisive presidency. While the president appropriately condemned a “wicked act of murder” and anti-Semitism in general, he also quickly veered toward his own domestic political agenda, telling reporters that the shooting was not related to permissive gun laws and, in fact, “if they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation, but they didn’t. And he was able to do things that unfortunately he shouldn’t have been able to do.”

Progressive Jews in Pittsburgh expressed their anger at the president, circulating a petition asking him not to visit the city because he had failed to condemn white nationalism and had targeted minorities in general. Trump then, of course, tweeted against the “Fake News” media for how they were covering the story.

This kind of back and forth differs from the aftermath of a jihadist terrorist attack, including massive ones like Omar Mateen’s 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which killed 49 people. Although political narratives are inherent to terrorism and its response, right-wing and jihadist attacks touch different political nerves in the American psyche. Like all forms of terrorism, right-wing terrorism is horrible because it kills innocent people and frightens far more. In the United States right-wing terrorism is potentially worse than other forms, however, because it taps into broader political tensions and because Trump’s reaction exacerbates the problems.

Right-wing terrorists draw on greater numbers of Americans who share at least some of their extreme views. Racism and anti-Semitism, which motivated Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, respectively, have a depressing pedigree in the United States. A 2017 poll found that 14 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic (though not necessarily violent) views. This is up from 10 percent in 2015, and while far more Americans are accepting of Jews, it means that almost 50 million Americans hold these views—a staggering number. Extreme racist views are still deeply held by many Americans. A poll found 4 percent of Americans agree with the white supremacy movement, almost 15 million people.

Putting racism aside, there is no large American organization calling for the imposition of Islamic law or other parts of a jihadist social and political agenda. In contrast, issues we often label “right-wing” (anti-abortion, pro-gun, skepticism of a strong federal government) are often represented by legitimate and peaceful political movements. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, flitted in and out of a pro-gun survivalist community, strengthening his hatred of the government. The death of nearly 80 followers of David Koresh when government agents stormed their compound in Waco, Texas, helped radicalize McVeigh, but it also outraged groups like the National Rifle Association, which compared federal agents to Nazi storm troopers.

It is appropriate to use the same standards for these legitimate groups that we’d ask of mainstream Muslim organizations in response to Islamist attacks, asking that they cooperate with authorities to identify and remove the bad apples in their midst. After all, communities tend to know their own, and the Muslim community’s support for U.S. law enforcement has enabled many important arrests. In theory, this should be easy: An activist who murders an abortion doctor discredits a cause embraced by millions of peaceful Americans. In practice, there is a tendency to sympathize with the cause if not the act and to otherwise find excuses not to police a community’s own ranks.

Another important question after an attack is to determine if it is simply a hate crime or if it is also terrorism. A hate crime, according to the FBI, is a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Right-wing terrorism can also constitute a hate crime, but it is more than that. It has a broader goal of trying to coerce a government, intimidate a community, or otherwise cause political and social change. It is sending a message and deliberately trying to produce a psychological effect. Both are abhorrent, but terrorist acts are more dangerous, as their ramifications are meant to go well beyond the victims themselves.

State support, with weapons or a haven, historically was less of a concern for right-wing violence than for jihadist or other causes, but this may be changing. Russia’s influence campaign has tried to play up racial and other tensions in the United States and otherwise amplify a radical right-wing agenda as part of a broader attempt to weaken and divide America. This has stopped short of providing weapons or training to terrorists, but Moscow is (successfully) trying to make U.S. politics in general more radical.

An issue looming over these operational, societal, and definitional issues is Trump’s response. Typically, after a terrorist attack, a president’s job is to inspire confidence in law enforcement, reassure a shaken America, and help bring the country together in the face of tragedy. Trump, however, has often done the opposite. After a white nationalist and neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally and subsequent killing of a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, he argued there were “very fine people” on both sides. As part of his effort to discredit the Mueller investigation, Trump has also denigrated law enforcement and the FBI in particular, legitimating conspiracy theories that the FBI and the “deep state” are targeting conservatives. Such beliefs create an atmosphere hostile to cooperation after an attack.

Right-wing extremists have embraced Trump. According to extremism scholar J.M. Berger, in the right-wing Twitterverse, “Support for Trump outstripped all other themes by a wide margin,” with #MAGA slogans and imagery pervading much of their content. The van of Cesar Sayoc, who is suspected of sending 13 pipe bombs to prominent Trump critics, was covered in pictures of Trump and combative stickers embracing his favorite themes, ranging from “CNN sucks” to depictions of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others as swamp-dwelling criminals. All political causes have a loony fringe, but the president’s reaction to his most extreme supporters is at times sympathetic and in other cases a genuine question mark, in contrast to other leaders who openly rejected objectionable individuals and movements on their side of the political spectrum.

The president’s reactions, and nonreactions, make right-wing terrorism much more potentially dangerous. They give more attention to extreme voices and legitimate their cause. In addition, the Trump administration has not devoted resources to right-wing terrorism despite the danger it poses. As such, it is more likely to continue and has a greater political impact—the goal of terrorism.