After the terrorist attack by an apparent white nationalist in New Zealand, President Trump was offered the opportunity to strongly condemn white supremacists. He declined to do so. While white supremacists killed more Americans in 2017 than another other domestic extremist group, authorities are often reluctant to treat them as terrorists. For example, they are not on the terror watchlist—even though white supremacists meet the definition of “terrorist.”
In contrast, Trump and others are quick to cast most (or even all) Muslims as potential or actual terrorists. Trump and others also present Mexicans and migrants as presenting such a threat that he declared a state of emergency on the southern border. This disparity invites investigation and explanation.
One possibility is that the disparity is warranted—that white nationalists do not present a significant threat and are merely isolated individuals while Muslims, Mexicans and migrants present a significant and organized threat. The obvious problem with this view is that it fails to match the facts. In terms of the number of Americans killed, white supremacists are the deadliest domestic extremist group. Even if they were not the deadliest, this would still not warrant such an extreme disparity in the rhetoric and actions.
One plausible explanation lies in the realm of politics. One key tactic in politics is to demonize a group and cast them as a scapegoat for problems. The targeted group must, obviously enough, not be part of the politician’s base—it must be relatively unimportant to the politician politically and demonizing it must gain more than what is lost in doing so. It obviously also helps if the groups being demonized are relatively weak and even better if they are seen as outsiders. Demonizing Muslims, Mexicans and migrants works quite well because these groups are relatively weak within the United States and are generally regarded as outsiders. There are also pre-existing prejudices that can be used effectively. Trump and others have made no bones about being anti-Muslim and anti-migrant. They have also openly appealed to such sentiments in others as a political tool.
While Trump and others might get some criticism from the left, casting Mexicans as rapists, migrants as murders and Muslims as terrorists comes with little political cost and considerable political gain with their base. There is also the fact that their base is often afraid of such people and easily buy into the stereotypes, scare tactics and hasty generalizations used to influence them.
While Trump and other politicians in his camp probably do not condone the murder and violence conducted by white supremacists, demonizing and scapegoating white supremacists presents a problem. In the case of migrants, Mexicans and Muslims, Trump is fine with presenting them as a general threat—though he is willing to admit that despite so many being rapists, there are fine people among the Mexicans. What Trump and others do is make hasty generalizations and appeals to anecdotes in order to claim from a few examples or anecdotes about crimes, acts of terror or violence conducted by migrants, Mexicans or Muslims that most of them are thus criminals, violent or terrorists.
Taking the same approach to white supremacists would involve generalizing from the relatively few white people who are domestic terrorists to white people in general. Even if it were restricted to white people who like guns and dislike non-whites, this would still generalize to a significant section of the white population. Demonizing whites to win white votes would not be a winning strategy. Also, Trump’s base includes a significant number of white people who like guns and are not very fond of non-whites. Demonizing them would presumably not work well for him.
It could be pointed out that this, at best, explains why Trump and his ilk demonize Mexicans, migrants and Muslims and not white supremacists. It does not explain why Trump and his fellows are so reluctant to condemn white supremacists and categorize them as terrorists.
One obvious explanation is that white supremacy and racism are part of the ideological, economic, moral and political foundation of the United States. Racism is not just a matter of history—it is still active today across all of America. While white people often claim that it does not exist, the evidence is rather strong that it does. Interestingly, when people deny that it exists or that they are racist, they often do so in the context of being racist. As such, to be critical of white supremacy and racism is to be critical of the very foundations of the United States and it is to attack part of the institutionalized power of white people. Since the wealth and power of Trump and his fellows are at least partially built on this foundation and maintained by the current institutions, it is hardly surprising that they are unwilling to condemn white supremacists. To do so would be to condemn racism and to thus attack themselves.
In contrast, Islam is not part of the foundation of the United States nor is it part of the institutions that maintain power and wealth. When Trump and his fellows demonize and attack it, they are not attacking the foundation and maintainer of their own wealth and power—it is a safe target for them.
In short, it makes perfect sense why Trump and his fellows attack migrants, Muslims and Mexicans while treading lightly when it comes to white supremacists. Demonizing migrants, Mexicans and Muslims is politically useful while attacking white racism would be to attack what is foundational and sustaining for their wealth and power.