By Brian Levin
March 21, 2019
IDEAS
Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino; he has also served as Associate Director-Legal Affairs of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Klanwatch/Militia Task Force and as an NYPD officer.

While President Trump answered a query about whether he thinks white nationalism is a growing global threat, in a press conference following the Islamophobic terrorist attacks that targeted two New Zealand mosques and killed 50 people on March 15, he was dismissive: “I don’t, really,” Trump said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”

This statement puts him at odds with the beliefs of people studying the matter. As University of Southern California homeland security scholar and former FBI agent, Erroll Southers has said, white supremacy is no longer a movement on the fringes but rather “is being globalized at a very rapid pace.” This is happening within a larger trend. University of Maryland professor Gary LaFree, who established the Global Terrorism Database, has observed that, “We’re seeing terrorism affecting a larger number of countries.”

But why is this happening now?

According to research conducted both at the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, which I direct, and beyond, it has become clear that political polarization has provided an opportunity for violent bigots, both on- and offline. Times of change, fear and conflict offer extremists and conspiracists a chance to present themselves as an alternative to increasingly distrusted traditional mainstream choices. White nationalism has reflected a coarsening of mainstream politics, where debates on national security and immigration have become rabbit holes for the exploitation of fear and bigotry.

The U.K.’s Home Office reports that hate crime there surged following the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, shortly before which a Member of Parliament who opposed the referendum was murdered. Our forthcoming analysis of FBI data, done in conjunction with Cal State’s John Reitzel and West Virginia University’s James Nolan, also found that November 2016 was the worst month for hate crime in the U.S. since September 2002, with 758 incidences; the day after the election, Nov. 10, was the worst day since June 2003, with 44 incidences alone. And while there was an initial increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes after the 2015 jihadism-inspired terror attack in San Bernardino, such crimes surged to even higher levels five days later, when Trump said there should be a “total and complete shutdown” of allowing Muslims to enter the United States.

The troubles have continued. A 2017 ABC/Washington Post poll found 9% of respondents regarded Nazi views as “acceptable.” Europol noted that right-wing extremists arrests on the continent nearly doubled in 2017 over 2016. And in 2018, the Anti-Defamation League reported a 182% increase in hate propaganda, like leafleting at colleges, compared to the year before; according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in America hit 1,020 last year, the highest level they’ve ever recorded.

Our most recent police data, found a spike in many large U.S. cities around election time 2018 as well. But like the otherwise very peaceful New Zealand, the most notable increases were perhaps surprisingly found in the bluest and most diverse “liberal” cities. New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago were among the cities that saw November or fourth-quarter spikes in 2018, while San Diego and cities in Texas did not. Indeed, most of the larger American cities saw a decline in hate crimes in the first half of 2018, only to have the trend reversed in the second half, as America experienced a conflictual midterm election with “immigration,” “wall” and “caravan” as key buzzwords. By year’s end, our research found hate crime in 30 large American cities hit a decade high of over 2,000. We also found Ideologically motivated murders by white supremacists increased in 2018 to 17, from 13 in 2017, while violent Salafist Jihadist killings dropped to only one.

All of this is compounded by not only the expansion, but the diversification of social media with respect to both structure and content.

When the first white supremacist website, Stormfront, launched in early 1995, its logo proclaimed “White Pride World Wide.” Its chat forums were divided by location (and subject) — each one displaying a national flag of various countries around the world — but they shared a common theme of white racial supremacy. Stormfront represented a significant advancement over white supremacy’s first domestic foray into the digital arena, through 1985’s Aryan Liberty Net: a clunky dial-up bulletin board that proclaimed itself an “Aryan brain trust” accessible to any “patriot in the country.”

Stormfront’s violent reach expanded to hundreds of thousands of registered users around the world, where it also served as an international sounding board for some of the worst racist terrorists of our time. Among them are Anders Breivik, who murdered 77, most of whom were children, in Norway in 2011, and Dylann Roof, who slaughtered nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. Both terrorists wrote manifestos bemoaning transnational threats to whites, a primary grievance that in turn inspired the alleged Christchuch, New Zealand, killer.

The alleged Christchurch terrorist’s international lens focused on these far-away killers in his own rambling racist and Islamophobic manifesto. And like those other killers, he incorporated not only hardened bigotry, but also mainstream pundit content from around the world. He appears to have drawn on not just Nazi doctrine, but a French book — one that promotes the heinous and misguided doctrine of “replacement.” This ideology was also chanted by the torch-bearing marchers at Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 12, 2017, yet targeted at a different religious group.

As the Internet has expanded and fragmented, so too has the array of often cross-linked, hate-filled sites and platforms. The reach and evolving streaming capacities of such sites have transformed even unaffiliated lone hatemongers from merely being posters on traditional bulletin boards to global broadcasters, where they can livestream or tweet not only bigotry, but vandalism and now terrorism.

The factors that led to President Trump’s election have influenced the mainstreaming of the very white supremacy that he dismisses: a distrustful, divided polity, and an expanding, chaotic digital media. If we are going to be serious about facing the growing threat of far-right white nationalism around the world, we and our leaders have to acknowledge it, before we can effectively counter it.

Words alone will not be enough. We need to streamline the way authorities investigate and coordinate homegrown extremists of all kinds, including white nationalist ones, and Congress should hold hearings on the matter; meanwhile, social media companies need to enforce their existing restrictions relating to violent and bigoted content, as well as reform their live-streaming policies so that terrorists cannot easily broadcast their propaganda.

But when President Bush spoke of tolerance after 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims dropped; it is fair to compare this with the spike after Trump announced his Muslim ban. Leaders must be aware of the impact of their position on civic and social cohesion — otherwise, terrorists will gain strength in the cracks that divide us.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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