Violent white nationalism had a horrible, horrible moment in America on Saturday.
That was punctuated on a sun-soaked morning in Southern California when the pop-pop-pop of an AR-15 semiautomatic in the hands of a 19-year-old, barely a man shattered the peace of a Passover service at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., near San Diego. A 60-year-old woman named Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed by the gunfire as she jumped in front of her congregation’s rabbi, who’d already had a couple fingers blown off by a bullet. Two others were wounded – all in service of the gunman’s insane rants that the Jewish people have been scheming to boost immigration to replace whites in America.
It was the exact same white-supremacist baloney that caused another man with an AR-15 to slaughter 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue exactly six months earlier to the day. And there were more storm clouds on the horizon. In a popular Washington bookstore, at virtually the same time as the latest synagogue shooting occurred, a crowd of so-called “white identitarians” with a bullhorn showed up to disrupt the author of a book on racial resentment called Dying of Whiteness, chanting “this land is our land.”
It would be hard to imagine a worse time to take a man who’d just been arrested two months ago with a giant cache of weapons and ammunition, whom authorities call a self-proclaimed white nationalist with an alleged hit list that included Supreme Court justices, Democratic politicians and TV journalists – and grant him freedom, even temporarily.
But Christopher Hasson, a 50-year-old Maryland man who was a high-ranking U.S. Coast Guard officer with a security clearance, may walk out of jail in a few days, maybe less. A federal judge said he can’t justify Hasson’s continued imprisonment because – despite his seeming terroristic threats – the U.S. Justice Department has only seen fit to charge him with low-level drug and weapons charges. This after the government had refused to even publicize Hasson’s arrest, which instead was stumbled upon by an enterprising journalist.
Experts say, to some extent, prosecutors are hamstrung by a criminal code that despite a so-called war on terror created no statutes to specifically address the specific terror threat posed by Hasson – motivated by white supremacy and stockpiling the kind of conventional weapons blessed by the National Rifle Association.
That may be true, but let’s be honest: The failure of AG Bill Barr’s Justice Department to move heaven and earth to keep Hasson in custody or even issue a press release alerting the public is symbolic of a giant blind spot in our nation’s capital when it comes to the deadly threat posed by white supremacy. And that giant buck stops at the desk of President Trump. Although U.S. policy on white homegrown terror has been abysmal since the turn of this century, this president – with his vainglorious refusal to admit that an immoral strain of white nationalism helped elect him in 2016 – and his administration are making the problem much, much worse.
Trump has repeatedly made clear his opinion that violent white extremism is not a problem in his America. When an Australian man poisoned by the same kind of internet extremism that’s fueled the U.S. synagogue shootings murdered 50 worshipers in a New Zealand mosque, with words of praise for Trump in his manifesto, reporters asked the president about the wider threat.
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” insisted the man who also still stands by his claim that 2017′s violence-sparking, white-supremacist march in Charlottesville had “very fine people on both sides." Trump added: " I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems."
Except that terror attacks by far-right extremists more than quadrupled in the year that Trump became president, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That dramatized the fact that after spending billions on a vast infrastructure that primarily targeted Islamic extremism, the much greater threat in this country has a white face. Some of 71 percent of murders by political extremists in America from 2008 through 2017 were by right-wingers, according to the Anti-Defamation League (and 26 percent by Islamists) – and that imbalance seems to be increasing.
Trump’s see-no-evilism about white violence would be worrisome if just for the moral symbolism – but the blind spot has spread to actual policy. Some of this predates the current president – a 2009 government report calling for stepped-up measures on right-wing terror was famously shelved after howls from talk radio and other conservatives –but under Trump, the government has gone much further to avoid the problem.
George Selim, a former Homeland Security and National Security Council staffer under both Democratic and Republican presidents, said the government office most directly targeting domestic terrorism has seen its budget decimated under Trump, down from $21 million to just $3 million, and its staff reduced by more than half. Earlier this month, the Daily Beast reported that an entire unit of DHS intelligence analysts who tracked would-be domestic terrorists, which used to often issue warnings to local police, was quietly disbanded. Critics note the government isn’t even keeping stats on the right-wing attacks, leaving that task for outside groups.
It seems that Team Trump has zero interest in either poking a stick in the eye of the president’s most despicable yet also most enthusiastic supporters, nor would the 45th president’s ego ever allow the acknowledgement that it was a terroristic, hateful fringe that played an important and possibly decisive role in his razor-thin 2016 election.
The truly abominable thing is that white-nationalist terror isn’t the only area where Trump and his government is looking the other way – part because of our narcissistic president’s over-the-top vanity and in part because things that threaten American democracy often seem to be good news for the current occupant of the Oval Office. Consider the Russian election interference that – according to the Mueller report – played a critical role in 2016 and seems to remain a threat for next year’s presidential contest.
When she was Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly concluded that facing down new and different kinds of Russian election threats in 2020 was a major challenge that needed much greater government attention. But, according to the New York Times, Nielsen was ordered to keep that information away from Trump and his fury over any suggestion his 2016 win was less than legitimate. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly told her it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his [Trump’s] level.”
Seriously? It’s hard to imagine a greater threat to American democracy and freedom than foreign election interference and computer crimes – until you start pondering the growing white-nationalist movement in this country, and the diminished ability of people to buy a book or get on their knees and pray without fear of harassment or deadly violence.
A true democratic government would be working overtime right now to protect our synagogues, churches and mosques, our bookstores, and our ballot boxes from these insidious threats. Indeed, the grown-ups in Congress should try to pass legislation that will restore funding to the agencies that track domestic terror, require real-time reporting on the threat, and improve our terror laws so an imminent danger like Christopher Hasson can be taken off the streets.
But doing what needs to done will be very, very hard when an egomaniacal autocrat sits behind the Resolute Desk with his tiny hands clasped firmly over his ears – determined to muffle any ideas that might tarnish his legacy, let alone jeopardize the second term he needs to cement his authoritarian legacy ... and maybe keep him out of jail. America wakes up on a grim Sunday morning to the realization that we’re fighting a war against hate with a yawning black hole at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where its commander is supposed to be.