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The other plague Trump has downplayed: white supremacist violence

While the president claims ‘radical leftists’ are terrorizing America, DHS says white extremists pose the nation’s most ‘persistent and lethal’ threat.

Adrian Arvizo lit luminarias last month for a remembrance on the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting in El Paso.BRIANA SANCHEZ/EL PASO TIMES/Associated Press

Not Al-Qaeda. Not Isis. Not MS-13. Not Antifa.

According to an unpublished Department of Homeland Security draft report, white supremacists are the nation’s most “persistent and lethal” terror threat. Or, as President Trump prefers to call them, his “base.”

COVID-19 isn’t the only deadly plague the president has downplayed, to devastating effect, during his White House tenure. Since Trump declared his candidacy more than five years ago, hate crimes, ranging from vandalism to murder, have surged, hitting a 16-year high in 2018, according to the FBI. That includes an unchecked rise of white supremacist terrorism that has not only proliferated with Trump in office, but has been emboldened by his refusal to condemn it.


This is how averse Trump is to the idea of white supremacy as a malevolent force: In a whistleblower complaint recently released by the House Intelligence Committee, Brian Murphy, who once led DHS’s intelligence branch, said he was pressured by Ken Cuccinelli, the agency’s deputy secretary, to make the threat of white supremacy “appear less severe." Murphy said he was ordered to push a narrative about “left-wing” and “anarchist” groups to better echo Trump’s white fear-churning public comments.

Last year, DHS disbanded its domestic terrorism intelligence unit.

Murphy’s complaint also accuses DHS officials of downplaying Russia’s ongoing election interference. Appeasing Trump — who appeases dictators — will always take precedence over addressing threats to democracy and national security.

Meanwhile, unreleased drafts of the DHS report — first shared by Ben Wittes, the editor in chief of Lawfare, a national security site, and reviewed by Politico — are unequivocal: “We judge that ideologically motivated lone offenders and small groups will pose the greatest terrorist threat to the homeland through 2021, with white supremacist extremists presenting the most lethal threat.”


Reportedly, none of them mention Antifa, which Trump has branded a “terrorist organization.” That’s because Antifa, which isn’t even an organization, is not the problem; it’s the armed and dangerous white men promoting racist violence with the president’s support.

In recent weeks, Trump has defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the vigilante and Trump supporter who shot three men, killing two, last month at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis., after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. He referred to the group QAnon, which the FBI has called a “potential domestic terrorist threat,” as “people who love our country.”

After a caravan of his supporters fired paintballs and pepper spray at demonstrators in Portland, Trump said: These people, they protested peacefully. They went in very peacefully.”

In ignoring the threats of white supremacy, Trump is continuing a repugnant tradition as old as this republic — the violent propagation of racial hierarchy. It has justified nearly 250 years of slavery. It has sabotaged the Reconstruction era, and spawned the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. It has led to the lynchings of more than 4,400 people, mostly Black men, women, and children, between 1877 and 1950. White supremacy empowers police officers to kill Black people, often with impunity, even on camera and in broad daylight.

What should not be lost here is that the Trump administration’s deplorable downplaying of white supremacist violence has a disproportionate impact — like COVID-19 — on Black and brown people. That’s as intentional as it is poisonous. When Trump calls a Black Lives Matter mural — but not a Confederate flag — a “symbol of hate,” it heartens all who see racial justice and equality as an anathema to their narrow idea of American values. And it feeds twisted desires to defend this nation, as they perceive it, by any means necessary.


This isn’t the first time DHS has issued dire warnings about white extremist violence. Months after Barack Obama was sworn in as this nation’s first Black president in 2009, the agency released a report titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” Republicans quickly objected — more to the term “rightwing extremism” than any potential violence right-wing extremists could provoke. Backlash was so harsh, Janet Napolitano, then DHS secretary, withdrew the report.

Under Trump, that threat has grown exponentially. His rhetoric has inspired racist and anti-Semitic mass shooters in Pittsburgh, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas.

Great attention is being paid to the fact that Trump recognized and understood early the dangers of COVID-19 and still did little to prevent its deadly spread. Yet, especially as Election Day nears amid national unrest, no less scrutiny should be afforded to a deliberate cover-up of ongoing violence agitated by a president whose disregard for life is as persistent and lethal as white supremacy itself.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.