The Radicalization of White America: How Donald Trump Weaponized Whiteness

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Photo: Justin Merriman (Getty Images)

On September 30, 2011, an unmanned American drone fired 40 missiles into the home of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen. The prominent Muslim cleric was placed on the U.S. government’s kill list because he reportedly inspired numerous terrorists, including Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army officer who was convicted of killing 13 and wounding 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. He also reportedly inspired a plot to kill Army officers at Fort Dix in 2007. He also created Inspire magazine, a glossy periodical that is banned because it has been accused of motivating radical Islamists.


Although the United States had never definitively proven that Awlaki was materially involved with a specific act of terror, he was sentenced to an extrajudicial killing because he wielded a deadly combination of influence, reach and incendiary rhetoric that radicalized regular, shmegular citizens. His YouTube channel and Facebook page were extremely popular before he was banned from the platforms because he was deemed too dangerous, and rightfully so.

Thankfully, in the United States, incidents involving Muslim terrorists are rare. However, there is another popular figure who perpetuates a more explosive threat than Awlaki. But instead of condemning him, politicians, law enforcement officers and social media executives have shrugged off treacherous words as harmless, even though he has been cited as the inspiration for terrorist attacks from New Zealand to Florida.

His name is Donald Trump.

The Rise of Radical Whiteness

Since Donald Trump declared himself a candidate for the presidency, hate crimes have jumped by a statistically significant amount. In 2014, the last full year he wasn’t running for president, the FBI reported 6,418 total hate crime incidents, the lowest amount in five years. Donald Trump officially announced his White House bid in June 2015, and by 2016 (his first full year as a political figure), hate crimes jumped 14%.

Data: FBI Uniform Crime Reports
Data: FBI Uniform Crime Reports
Graphic: Michael Harriot (The Root)

The startling statistics include:

  • Hate crimes have jumped 31 percent since Donald Trump became a presidential candidate.
  • The total number of hate crimes in 2017 (the most recent year for which figures are available) was the highest in a decade.
  • Since 2014, the number of hate crimes motivated by religion has increased by 53%.
  • During the same time period, the number of racially motivated incidents has increased by 25%, from 4,048 to 5,060, according to FBI data.
  • Three of the four deadliest years for extremist-related murders have happened since Donald Trump declared his presidency, according to the Anti-Defamation League
Image for article titled The Radicalization of White America: How Donald Trump Weaponized Whiteness

Even more troubling, the numbers say that hate crimes are rising as every other indicator of crime and violence falls.


Despite what police, the local news media and the Avengers would have you believe, we are living in one of the safest periods in American history. Year in and year out, most people say that violent crime is increasing but almost every reliable metric shows that crime and violence has been declining for decades. FBI data shows that America is enjoying the lowest rates for murder and violent crime in a half-century, while the Justice Department reports that the incarceration rate is at its lowest point in 20 years.

Yet, we don’t treat the rhetoric, propaganda and speech that fuels racial, anti-religious and homophobic violence with the same urgency with which we treat traditional “terrorists,” which stands to reason, right? Most people would agree that racist rhetoric—while problematic—isn’t as dangerous as the speech that inspires what right-wingers call “radical Islamists.”


Well, according to the ADL, since Trump announced his candidacy, Muslim extremists in the U.S. have killed 81 Americans.

White supremacists and far-right extremists have killed 118.

How is this Donald Trump’s Fault?


While we should not lay all of this violence solely at the feet of Trump, it is unavoidably true that he has not only used the tactics of fear and hate for his political gain, but he has mainstreamed racism in a way that has motivated some white people to act out on their fears.

“Trump is a huge problem for us as a society, in terms of rationalizing bigotry and making it seem OK,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich. “But at the same time, you have young white males who—in a very short period of time—are being exposed to this horrific white supremacist propaganda and are starting to commit acts of violence.”


“There are a lot of people who have been sucked into this universe, who have come to see this kind of bigotry as totally OK because the president engages in it,” remarks Beirich, who leads the SPLC’s Intelligence Project and oversees the center’s annual count of hate groups. “Then they get even more radical.”

“There are two things happening here,” she explains. “Trump’s comments sanction racist, bigoted ideas. And at the same time, young white men are living in a milieu—a cesspool of hatred—that make them think they need to commit acts of violence to change the direction the country is headed in.”


A 2017 poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health revealed that a majority of whites feel like they are being discriminated against. When Reuters/Ipsos asked if white people felt they were under attack, a plurality agreed that they were. A Pew Research study on Race in America released in April revealed that 60% of whites, 76% of blacks and 75% of Hispanics believe that it has become “more common” for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump became president.

As an expert on the white supremacist, nativist and neo-Confederate movements, Beirich notes that the social media history of Jason Bowers, the Pittsburgh mosque shooter, revealed his transformation from Trump supporter to violent zealot. Beirich also points to Cesar Sayoc, who allegedly mailed pipe bombs to Trump’s political adversaries.


“The first thing you here [sic] entering Trump rally is we are not going to take it anymore, the forgotten ones, etc,” Sayoc wrote. “You met people from all walks life … color etc. It was fun, it became like a new found drug.”

According to Beirich and other experts, the path to radicalization often starts with rhetoric, especially with someone as influential and prominent as the president. Aside from anecdotal evidence and polling data, there are numerous studies that connect Trump’s public statements to violence and hate crimes.


When a pair of researchers from Princeton and the University of Warwick examined publicly available data from law enforcement agencies, they discovered a rise in Islamophobic hate crimes since the start of Trump’s presidential campaign. Curiously, the increase in hate crimes was concentrated in counties with high Twitter usage. The study also found a correlation between the number of Trump’s tweets about Islam in a given week and the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes that followed.


In an analysis using media reports, tips and interviews, Reveal found 300 incidents of hate speech where the perpetrator used Trump’s name, many of which turned violent. ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” news index shows that, since his inauguration, Donald Trump’s name has been mentioned more times in news reports of hate crimes and bias incidents than anyone else except Jussie Smollet. Trump has publicly advocated for violence at his rallies, so it is not surprising that a Washington Post analysis found that hate crimes increased 226% in counties that host Trump rallies.

It is not a sheer coincidence that Islamophobic hate crimes have increased when politicians on Trump’s side of the aisle have co-opted his anti-Muslim stance. It’s no wonder that politicians emulate and perpetuate this narrative when his official campaign stokes fears of Sharia law. Trump rallies are increasingly attended by right-wing conspiracy theorists, and hate groups like Patriot Prayer have billed their marches as pro-Trump political demonstrations.


Not only does Trump get to espouse racist views from his presidential bully pulpit, but as the most powerful man in the most powerful country, he has an outsized influence on media, the national narrative and even facts. When he declared a national emergency at the border because of the “horde” of Hispanic invaders, his Republican counterparts backed him up. So, even though border crossings have been steadily decreasing for years and undocumented immigrants commit less crime than U.S. citizens, Trump’s rants against “animals” and “rapists” have been cemented into policies that inspire right-wing militia and Charlottesville, Va., marches.

“When you tell these people that migrants are invaders, what do you do with invaders?” Beirich asked.


“You shoot them.”

As the 2020 election draws near, it is obvious that Trump will amplify his racism to appeal to his white base, so maybe we should expect more mass shootings and church burnings. It is also clear that some of those acolytes will hear the not-so-subtle dog whistle of the white supremacist-in-chief and take matters into their own hands. The next time someone takes a machine gun to a mosque or sends a pipe bomb to a politician, we might not catch it in time.


As long as these terrorists are inspired by the American president, we will never call his dangerous language what it really is:

The radicalization of white America,



We shouldn’t underestimate the economic issues that drive white people to commit hate crimes. Slow down, I’m not talking about “economic anxiety” in a vacuum. I’m talking about economic anxiety + deep seated racism + a president and party that stokes their feelings of aggrievement.

Trump and the GOP have been blaming brown people for poor white people’s state for 60+ years. It’s just that now, they’re doing it quite openly. White people will never stop blaming something that isn’t them, but you need to re-direct it at those that are responsible for much of their economic plight. That means asking them to put aside their racism, a tall order.