And former Trump administration officials say the president is encouraging the violence.
A 17-year-old man—Kyle Rittenhouse of Illinois—was arrested for a deadly shooting Tuesday night at a protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Rittenhouse was a strong supporter of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, which was formed as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort to “defend” the police when they are being called to answer for systemic violence against people of color.
Rittenhouse also sat in the front row at an Iowa rally for President Donald Trump in January, and told reporters before the shooting that he was with “the local militia.” Right-wing militia groups who were in Kenosha the night of the shooting have not yet claimed Rittenhouse as a member, but vigilante-style murders do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are a continuation of the growing threat of right-wing extremism across the United States.
A database from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that right-wing extremists and American white supremacists have killed at least 329 people in violent attacks over the past 26 years. The shootings in Kenosha and the shocking death toll from right-wing crime come at a time when Americans are increasingly worried about violence. According to a recent Pew poll, nearly 60% of respondents indicated that violent crime would be a factor in their 2020 election choices. That could be because Republicans and Trump have seized on supposed threats to Americans, especially in suburbs, as a campaign strategy. But a New York Times analysis found overall crime is down 5% in 25 large American cities this year.
“We can’t even act surprised that this happened.”
Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor, drew a direct line between the murders and armed militias.
“We can’t even act surprised that this happened,” Barnes said in a video interview. “Because this is what they’ve been saying that they are gonna do—whatever armed militia group. They don’t do those quasi-military tactical trainings for nothing. They are preparing for … something like this, where people are standing up demanding racial justice in this country, is a perfect opportunity for them to strike. And that is what you saw in that video.”
There is data to support the argument that Trump’s rhetoric, in particular, has encouraged hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 867 “hate incidents” in the United States in the first ten days after Trump’s election. That number increased to 1,094 incidents in the 34 days after his election, and 37% referenced Trump or his campaign. And an analysis from Type Investigations found far-right extremists killed 87 people in the first three years of Trump’s administration, compared to 46 people killed by similar groups in the last three years of President Barack Obama’s administration.
This also wouldn’t come as a surprise to Elizabeth Neumann, Trump’s own former assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security. Neumann said she voted for Trump in 2016 and then worked in his administration, but found his racism encouraged violent domestic terrorists.
“A very common refrain that I was asked was, ‘Does the president’s rhetoric make your job harder?’ And the answer is yes,” Neumann said in a video for Republican Voters Against Trump. “The president’s actions and his language are in fact racist. Those words gave permission to white supremacists to think that what they were doing was permissible, and I do think the president’s divisive language is indirectly tied to some of the attacks we have seen in the last two years.”
Trump has not tried to hide his praise of white supremacists and right-wing groups.
As Neumann said, these groups have been emboldened by Trump, who has repeatedly given explicit support to right-wing groups and white supremacists. This has included everything from praising militia members storming state capitals as “very fine people” and described “both sides” as being equally responsible for the violence at the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. There, Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi who drove his car into a crowd of those protesting the presence of white supremacists groups in town. And after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, Steven Carrillo, a member of the racist and extremist “boogaloo” movement, shot and killed two police officers in California. Prosecutors say it was part of an effort to incite a “race war.”
These incidents fit in a larger violent framework that—since 2016—includes numerous racist mass shootings and attacks. Among those: the 2018 murders of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue; the 2019 killing of 23 people—primarily Americans of Latino descent—in El Paso; and dozens of attacks on Muslim Americans.
Violent right-wing groups are making their way into the halls of government.
One of the latest iterations of right-wing extremism to make headline is Qanon, a right-wing, pro-Trump group that encompasses multiple conspiracy theories. The main theory posits a totally debunked and evidence-less claim that there is a “cabal of Democratic pedophiles” who are actively working against Trump and running a global child sex-trafficking ring.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) labeled the group a domestic terrorism threat last year, and QAnon has been linked to the murder of a member of the Gambino crime family. Francesco Cali was shot to death by a QAnon conspiracy theorist who claimed he was making a citizen’s arrest of Cali. And an investigation from the Daily Beast detailed child kidnappings instigated and assisted by QAnon believers. The group’s “Pizzagate” theory baselessly tied a Washington, D.C., pizzeria to a child sex trafficking ring, again without any evidence. But that prompted a North Carolina man to fire an assault rifle in the pizzeria.
QAnon is set to enter Congress after Marjorie Taylor Greene, an outspoken QAnon supporter from Georgia, won a Republican primary in a heavily-conservative district. She is almost certainly going to win in November, and Trump, along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), has welcomed her into the Republican Caucus. Greene also has a history of racist comments that further align her with right-wing extremists.
Trump was recently asked about QAnon at a press conference. Instead of disavowing the group, he said, “They like me very much, which I appreciate.”
In response to Greene’s win and Trump’s backing, Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Denver
Riggleman (R-VA) introduced a resolution that condemns QAnon and notes multiple instances where QAnon believers were tied to potentially deadly crimes inspired by their beliefs. It is unclear if the resolution will get a vote, but if it does come to the House floor it will force Republicans to go on the record about their support or opposition to a group that has been flagged by U.S. law enforcement. That could help people see exactly where their member of Congress falls on the issue of right-wing extremist groups and the dangerous conspiracy theories they propagate.
Regardless of what congressional Republicans decide, there is little expectation that Trump will do anything to stop these groups while in office. Indeed, former DHS officials paint a bleak picture of the president’s concern over real violence being perpetrated at the hands of white supremacists and other right-wing groups, and instead focusing on immigration and protesters like antifa.
The current emphasis of the Trump campaign on “law and order” is at odds with real threats to safety in the United States. As Neumann told Politico, the administration seems to grasp that violence is happening, but is unconcerned about who, exactly, is causing it. “They very clearly were looking at it through the lens of, ‘We have a violence problem,’” Neumann recalled. “And they did not want to talk about the ideological threat.”