President Donald Trump has retreated from his condemnation of the hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other members of the so-called alt-right movement that participated in the recent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. His initial comments condemned the violence “on many sides,” followed the next day by more directly condemning “the KKK, Neo-Nazis and white supremacists and other hate groups,” and then followed by blaming “both sides.” Trump’s refusal to be unequivocal in condemning hate groups, and neglecting to call the tragic death of Heather Heyer (the victim of the fatal car attack) an act of terrorism, raise his comments from unfortunate tragicomedy to potential national security threat.
While there were Trump campaign pledges and post-campaign Executive Orders to ban individuals from certain Islamic countries, based on a rationale to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States, there have been no known or announced efforts by the Trump administration to curtail our greatest threat of terror, white supremacist groups. According to a Joint Intelligence briefing released by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in May 2017, white supremacist groups have carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past 16 years. In addition, the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute claims that according to their database, white supremacist plots and attacks outnumbered attacks by Islamist groups by almost 2 to 1.
Although Attorney Jeff Sessions is investigating the car attack that killed Heyer as a hate crime, and an act of domestic terrorism, nothing would do more to appropriately categorize the fatally violent act than a definitive statement from the bully pulpit of the Oval Office.
The use of the word “terrorist” is not foreign to Trump. When accepting his party’s nomination as a candidate for President, he condemned the Black Lives Matter movement by declaring that,“…the attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life”.
It is not just the President who deserves criticism. Ironically, the use of the word “terrorism” has been prevalent in unwarranted criticisms from the right of the Black Lives Matter Movement and other “left” labeled advocates of social justice causes. Yet, the same groups are all but silent when there are race-related terrorist attacks. In order to bring about necessary social change, leaders have to “speak truth to power.”
Are all individuals who embrace Confederate flags and monuments domestic terrorists? Of course not. But the Charlottesville rally, with many of its marchers wearing hats with "Make America Great Again" inscribed, felt empowered by President Trump's campaign rhetoric – and post-campaign pledges – to march on Charlottesville in such spirit that many of us have not seen since the lynch mobs of America’s earlier years.
Further, it is clear that the organized defense of Confederate flags and monuments has always been in support of our Nation's history of white supremacy and, hence – by extension – in support of Jim Crow Segregation. It is also clearly and rightfully interpreted as an attempt to return our country to that past; under the leadership of a President that they perceive to be committed to supporting them in accomplishing it, by way of whatever means are necessary, including violence.