Trump's election has created "safe spaces" for racists: Southern Poverty Law Center's Heidi Beirich on the wave of hate crimes

There's a big spike in hate crimes, says the director of SPLC's Intelligence Project — and “Trump is the cause”

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 8, 2017 10:00AM (EST)


Since the election of Donald Trump in November, there have been almost 1,000 reported hate crimes targeting Muslims, Arabs, African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color. At this same moment, there have been terrorist threats against Jewish synagogues and community centers as well as the vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries. These hate crimes have also resulted in physical harm and even death: An Indian immigrant was shot and killed by a white man in Kansas who reportedly told him, "Get out of my country." Several days ago a white man shot a Sikh man in Washington state after making a similar comment.

When forced by public outrage to comment on the wave of hate crimes spreading across the country, President Trump issued a weak and obligatory statement on the subject during his address to Congress last week. As was the case for the administration's comments about its decision to not mention Jewish people in its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, the president's feeble condemnation of racism and bigotry did little to satisfy his critics.

As demonstrated by his rhetoric and policy proposals, and the behavior of his supporters during the 2016 campaign and his presidency, it is clear that Trump relied on white racism and nativism to win the White House. What is less clear, however, is whether the startling increase in hate crimes has been directly inspired by Trump's victory or whether such crimes simply reflect the social and political forces that put him in the White House. What can nonwhites, Jews, Muslims and other marginalized groups expect during the upcoming months and years of Trump's presidency — assuming that he is not forced from office?

Salon recently spoke with Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, about the election of Donald Trump, racism and ethnic intolerance, the growth of white supremacist and other hate groups in the United States, and the role of the so-called alt-right in the mainstreaming of white supremacist and white nationalist thought in America and Europe. The conversation with Beirich has been edited for length and clarity.

In President Trump's address to Congress, he finally addressed the wave of hate crimes all over the country. What was your immediate reaction?

I was glad to see him say at least the sentence about the attack on the Indian immigrants in Kansas and a little bit about the anti-Semitic statements. But I’m also thinking to myself, here we are about 40 days into Trump’s presidency and weeks after the election and we have had an unprecedented number of hate crimes and hate incidents across this country, and it has been like pulling teeth to get Trump to talk about these issues. In the case of Trump, it’s even worse because so much of the violence that we’ve collected information on here at the Southern Poverty Law Center was conducted in the president’s name. Thus his words against this kind of hate violence are all the more critical.

Do you see Trump as a symptom or a cause of these hate crimes?

I do not think there’s any question that Trump is the cause. The first day of his campaign, he bashed immigrants and said Mexicans are rapists. The entire campaign included xenophobic remarks, anti-immigrant remarks, anti-Muslim remarks, racist remarks, trading in anti-Semitic imagery and anti-women comments. Let’s not forget that during the campaign there were hate crimes committed — very severe ones in Trump’s name. For example, there was an immigrant in Boston who was beaten by two Trump supporters.

There was a failed attack on a mosque by a Trump supporter in Los Angeles. Then the pattern accelerated, within hours right after the electoral vote was counted. The pattern of the attacks followed the language he used. "Immigrant" is No. 1; "Muslims," No. 2. You can go right down the list and see that based on who he attacked in the campaign, they then became victims after the election.

You see a repeated effort to normalize Donald Trump and his politics. Why do you think that the news media has been so reluctant to talk directly about the white nationalists, such as Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka and Michael Anton, who are in Trump’s inner circle?  

I have to think that this is all about access. They might not be able to break as many stories. You point to the extremists like Bannon who have no problem with the alt-right or other parts of extremist movements, anti-Muslim movements and so on. And we don’t really have a corporate media that’s gone hard on Trump in any way through the campaign or even now, with all this violence happening. It’s very upsetting.

You mentioned Steve Bannon. How do you think he and other white supremacists were able to rebrand themselves as the alt-right?

White supremacists have gone through a couple of rebrandings. The first being to white nationalism, which happened from the late 1970s and early '80s and also involved a move away from Klan robes and to suits. The interesting thing about the alt-right rebranding is that this isn’t new. It has been running around in white nationalist circles since 2008, 2009, 2010. The use of the term "alternative right" was clever because it drops white from the title.

And secondly, it puts "right wing" in there, right? Alternative right. It makes reference directly to what most people think [is] part of legitimate politics. But the problem with "alt-right" isn’t so much that the white supremacists wanted to rebrand themselves; it’s that the media accepted it and in many ways uncritically. So in a very short period of time, white supremacists like Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute would say, “No, I’m part of the alt-right,” and reporters started using that term and, of course, Bannon, when he was leading Breitbart, famously wrote an essay to cement the relationship between Breitbart and this group of white supremacists, which is the alt-right.

But I would suggest that even a high school or a middle school student in 30 seconds or a minute could find the roots of Donald Trump’s ideology and the noxious beliefs of his advisers such as Bannon, Miller and Gorka. I’m surprised that no one is doing exposés on a man who is one of Trump’s senior advisers and also wears a Nazi-affiliated medal.

It’s shocking, right? Not just that, but he was apparently involved in organizing an anti-Semitic political party back in Hungary. I don’t know why CNN or other outlets are not pounding that nail every day.

Well, it's reminiscent of Lee Atwater and the "Southern strategy." 

Exactly. But nobody at least since around the turn of the millennium has done what Trump did, which was to just go out and make flat-out racist statements, as well as send out "white genocide" tweets and anti-Semitic tweets. That is unheard of and shocking. But as you say, Trump has been good for the media business, whether he’s a spectacle, he’s saying outrageous things, whatever. They made a lot of money off this guy and continue to do so.

The SPLC has issued some great reports on the wave of hate crimes in this country since and before Trump's election. I have an intuition — and please feel free to correct me. There is the data that you compiled. Some would say at least 900 documented hate incidents. I’ve seen 1,000. Is that number too low or too high? Are we undercounting because so many of these incidents are not being reported?

It's over 1,ooo, up to maybe 1,100 incidents in a short span of time, maybe 10 weeks after the election. It's an astoundingly high number. In that time period, you might [normally] get 50, right? In a six-month period, you wouldn’t even get that number of hate incidents that surfaced. So there’s no question that when the real data from the FBI comes out, there will be a leap. A similar thing happened after 9/11, and a similar thing happened after Brexit in England, which had some of the same dynamics that we see here.

That’s also an important point. This is not just the U.S. This is a global phenomena. There are tendrils and connections between Trump’s cadre here and other groups. They are networking and strategizing with the far right in Europe.

There is no question. I think at least in the Trump circle, Steve Bannon is the one pulling the strings on this front. He has had a vision of coordinating right-wing extremist movements across borders and he’s been key in reaching out to Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom’s Independence Party, which was the Brexit Party; reaching out to Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France, which is a Trumpian-type outfit; and others in Germany and so on.

"America First" they’re calling it here in the United States, but we see similar movements in Europe. And these are really radical movements, explicitly anti-Muslim to very high levels. The "white genocide" theme is very important. At the end of the day, white nationalists really don’t care much about country. They care about historic European populations, so their ideas about white ethno-states transcend borders.

What do we know about the number of murders that have been inspired by Trump and his movement?

We have been working with ProPublica to try to get a real hard number. But it’s not just the Indian engineer who was killed in Kansas a few days ago. There have been several situations where the attackers said slogans that sound Trumpian or information was found that indicated they supported Donald Trump. We will have a full account very shortly, and it’s not just going to be one or two murders.

Did millions of white Americans suddenly become racists and vote for Donald Trump? Or was Donald Trump's racism just part of the package and appeal?

There are couple of things going on. There was a backlash brewing against Obama among people who harbor white supremacist ideas. That backlash started in 2000 when the census said that white folks will become a minority in the 2040s. We know from social science research that as communities change, there are these tipping points where white people get very, very upset. When a neighborhood is less than 5 percent minority, they are fine. It gets up to 15, and there’s, like, literally racial panic.

So I think we have to think about demographics here because the country is going through a major demographic shift. In fact, the last time that the United States had these levels of a foreign-born population was in the late 1910s, early 1920s, when we had the largest Klan ever. At that time there were 4 million Klansmen, in a country with a lot smaller population size than it is today. In 1924 the United States passed an immigration act that restricted immigration to Nordics.

And then we have after World War I the Red Summer, the backlash against African-Americans coming back from World War I [and] the Great Migration; nationwide racial pogroms and ethnic cleansing. That history is not taught well in our schools.

What you’re pointing to are all the reasons why it’s all the more incumbent on the president of the United States to take on racial issues and bias so forcefully. The real safe spaces that were created during the Trump campaign and now after his election have been in the racist circles. Conservatives always mock the safe space idea, so-called social justice warriors. But Trump rallies and his campaign were a safe space for racists.

I’ve tracked Stormfront since they were online. Folks tell the story of the internet as a story about pornography: You follow porn, and you can see how the internet grew. But there’s a parallel story there, too: The internet is a space for white supremacists and white nationalists to organize.  

The web gave white supremacists a place to propagandize. White supremacists in the '70s and '80s — really until Stormfront came online as the first hate site, I think in late 1994 or early ’95 — I mean, it was hard to find a fellow white supremacist in your area, to identify them, then to meet with them. The web ended all that.

In fact, Don Black, when he put up Stormfront, right at the beginning, was already speaking about the fact that we now talk directly to our audience. We now have a tool to organize across space and locations. We are now going to be able to propagandize. We don’t need the mainstream media, the mainstream newspapers. We don’t need any of that stuff now. We can directly talk to each other and that’s what the web has allowed to happen. The analogy with porn is interesting because white supremacists, like pornographers, became very, very savvy about what they do.

It’s critical to their messaging. This is the other thing that I think contributed greatly to the rise of Trump and some other racist politicians and movements like the anti-immigrant laws passed in various states in the last several years: You can build the constituency, talk to people, push propaganda and do it anonymously and online without anybody knowing what you’re up to. You can organize across international boundaries.

And there’s are other very dangerous connections as well. One is stochastic terrorism, where across the right-wing media, they send out the message, beat the drum, and then their audience responds with violence and other malicious behavior. Dylann Roof and other white racial terrorists were radicalized online. These right-wing organizations are very good at recruiting people. Cyber-racism and cloaked sites, for example. There are websites about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. run by white supremacists.

You bring up an absolutely critical point. Look, organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and others can criticize Google’s algorithm, can yell at Facebook for hate speech, can yell at Twitter. But the biggest way to stop this hate from having an impact is to teach children what are real things on the internet and what are fake things on the internet: What kinds of things will be done to lure you? How do you know propaganda from truth?

We do not have a crystal ball, but we do have a lot of data. We can look at trends. If someone were to ask you, "Heidi, what are you really, really afraid of?" Because Trump has been president less than two months. What scares you when you think about a year out, two years out, three years out?

When I think about some of the things we were discussing, like global right-wing populist movements, it’s very hard to ignore the parallels to the 1930s in Europe. It’s that you can pick a vulnerable population, start attributing them as second-class citizens and end up with genocide. I’m not saying we’re anywhere near Nazi Germany. But I can’t ignore some of these patterns because of the extremists that we have in the White House, the kind of hate violence we’re having, with a president who doesn’t seem to care that much about it. These are really scary things. It has to stop.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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