Can Biden Break the Back of the White Supremacist Movement?
The continued rise of white supremacist extremism is a deeper and more insidious problem than even Joe Biden may realize—one that can’t simply be resolved by one election.
The “fight for the soul of the nation” wasn’t won with Joe Biden’s election—and unless the president-elect plans to wage that battle with the full power of every part of the federal government he’s set to lead, it may not be won at all.
That’s the consensus of experts in white supremacist movements and far-right radicalization, who told The Daily Beast that the continued rise of racist extremism in the United States is a deeper and more insidious problem than even Biden may realize, and one that can’t simply be resolved by one election or by any single government agency.
“We’ve seen a massive growth among the far right over the last four years,” Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a movement that has existed in some form in American politics for as long as the country’s been around, but I think the far-right extremist movement adapts to the current political situation very effectively.”
The SPLC, which tracks hate groups nationwide, has seen over the past four years an increasing push from white supremacists to normalize political violence, Miller said.
“We’ve entered this really scary space where not only within the far right, but within more mainstream spaces, we’ve seen this shift towards more violent rhetoric and a larger acceptance of political violence,” Miller said. “And that’s not easy to reverse.”
The rise of white supremacist violence as the single greatest terror threat to the United States was a critical motivator for Biden’s third campaign for the White House. Now that he’s won, the next president is set to lead a nation riven with racist extremism—and will soon hold the reins of a government that has largely allowed the subculture to flourish over the past four years.
Biden has vowed to dismantle white supremacist groups as part of his pledge to restore the nation’s soul, particularly when white supremacist extremism results in open acts of violence and terrorism.
“This is a moment for this nation to declare what the president can’t with any clarity, consistency, or conviction: There is no place for these hate groups in America,” Biden wrote in The Atlantic in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an inflection point both for white supremacists and for the recognition that their prominence has become a true crisis in the United States. In that op-ed, Biden declared that Americans were living through “a battle for the soul of this nation” for the first time, a line he would later repeat at every stump speech and debate to come. “Hatred of blacks, Jews, immigrants—all who are seen as ‘the other’—won’t be accepted or tolerated or given safe harbor anywhere in this nation.”
But leaders in the field of studying and combating white supremacist extremism say that viewing the fight exclusively through a political lens—as something that rises or falls with Trump—misses its pernicious resilience, and could allow it to fester long after Trump has left office.
“He’s a symptom, right? He’s not the cause,” said Shannon Reid, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “He has brought to the forefront what has always been in the shadows.”
Reid, whose research focuses on youth involved in the white power movement, said that past efforts to dismantle white supremacist groups has focused too much on law enforcement initiatives and not enough on preventing radicalization. That concern was echoed by other experts, who noted that incarceration is often a fast track to membership in white supremacist organizations like the Aryan Nation prison gang—and that pressure to “defund the police” could also inhibit the prison-to-white power pipeline.
“In terms of hard extremism, there’s no real evidence that [incarceration] is effective, and in some cases we have evidence that it makes the problem worse,” said Miller, who noted that Nathan Damigo, the founder of the hate group Identity Europa, was first introduced to the writings of David Duke and Adolf Hitler while in prison for armed robbery, as was Robert Rundo, who founded the neo-Nazi Rise Above Movement.
“So, not the best place to put someone who has extremist views,” Miller said.
Other experts, however, noted that the federal law enforcement apparatus that Biden will soon command has a proven track record in reacting aggressively to terror attacks by white supremacists. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Department of Justice put investigations into militia and anti-government movements on the front burner, paving the way for the infiltration and eventual break up of numerous white supremacist organizations at the time.
“There was a real emphasis to get in front of what are now called the Boogaloo Boys—the people that think there needs to be a Second American Revolution, and are willing to blow up federal buildings and synagogues to make it happen,” said Randy Blazak, an Oregon-based sociology professor and hate crime researcher. “The good news is that people at the FBI do this work regardless of who's sitting in the White House. But having emphasis from the top, that this is a high priority item, has been lacking in the Trump administration.”
While the Department of Justice will necessarily play a large role in countering far-right extremism, experts said—particularly in tracking hate movements, as well as addressing the decades-long problem of white supremacists within the ranks of law enforcement itself—they universally called for greater emphasis on the role of Biden’s incoming secretaries of education, health and human services, and even state in addressing the crisis.
“We do ourselves as a society a disservice by primarily thinking of this through the lens of law enforcement and surveillance and monitoring,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor of education and sociology at American University, where she runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. While federal law enforcement has done a decent job of infiltrating and breaking up some white supremacist and anti-government groups over the years, that mission is much harder given the modern route to radicalization for many Americans.
“It’s very difficult to do that with what now constitutes the majority of far-right and white supremacist radicalization, which is individuals self-radicalizing online,” Miller-Idriss said. “When you look at terrorist actors who have been able to execute their plot, inevitably, these are people who aren’t card-carrying members of any given group, but are inspired by the ideology and that’s a much, much more difficult thing to kind of track and monitor.”
Reid, whose research focuses on youth involved in the white power movement, said that while Trump has emboldened white supremacists to be more public in their views, the unprecedented speed of the ideology’s spread is rooted online—which adults in power have been slow to realize.
“It used to take somebody showing up at a punk show and hearing something or listening to music that they found or seeing a flyer—it took more effort,” said Reid, who came up in the punk scene and recalled seeing skinheads at shows having to “work the room” to win over potential converts. “Now, that’s much easier… Most kids will find this stuff very easily.”
While the focus on the resurgence of white supremacist extremism in the United States has justifiably focused on domestic factors, the Biden administration will need to expand its understanding of racist violence beyond America’s borders. Twice last year, German-speaking far-right terrorists either published their manifestos or livestreamed their attacks in English, making it clear that their acts of violence were intended for a global audience.
Fortunately for Biden, there is already a ream of pending legislation in Congress that would adapt government to the reality that domestic white supremacist violence often has international origins. The Countering Global White Supremacist Terrorism Act, introduced last year by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Max Rose (D-NY) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), would require the State Department to develop threat assessments for “white identity terrorism.” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has also included requirements for the intelligence community to provide assessments of white supremacist extremist threats overseas in the House Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA) for Fiscal Year 2021.
“There is a global white supremacist extremist movement,” Miller-Idriss said, noting that far-right acts of terror are up 320 percent internationally over the last five years. “When we label things domestic terrorism, it just allows for international organizations like the United Nations to see these issues as domestic issues of member states and not as global concerns, which they are.”
This isn’t to say that Trump’s open espousal of the politics of racial grievance during his 2016 campaign, which continued into his presidency, haven’t been seen by many white supremacists as a particularly legitimizing force for their ideology. Between 2017 and 2019, SPLC found that the number of white nationalist hate groups grew by 55 percent, and white supremacist extremists, Miller said, are “clearly emboldened” in this particular political moment—in large part due to a climate of implicit, and sometimes explicit, permission under Trump.
“Trump’s rhetoric has introduced sort of a permissiveness into the terrain where people feel like they can openly express bigoted ideas—and an act on them,” Miller said.
Even now, experts said, the framework of conspiracist grievance upon which Trump has erected his claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him play into the ecosystem of misinformation in which white supremacist extremism flourishes. Fighting the susceptibility of vulnerable people to those kinds of theories, whether they’re being spread by a TikTok account or by the president, is a critical part of stopping white supremacist extremism before it takes hold.
“You’re looking for the vulnerable and you’re giving them somebody to blame,” Reid said, summing up white supremacist recruitment strategy playing into conspiracies.
“We see these inter-related ways in which the same kind of scaffolding and conspiracy theories that motivate ‘The Great Replacement’ or white genocide conspiracies about an organized orchestrated cabal of individuals who are manipulating and creating multicultural societies at the expense of white ones, that same kind of scaffolding is there in QAnon,” said Miller-Idriss, who pointed to that dynamic as evidence of the limits of law enforcement-centric approach to combating far-right extremism.
The continued popularity of that conspiracism—whether it’s belief in QAnon or the president’s continued insistence that a “deep state” cabal has thwarted his re-election—spells more trouble for the Biden administration going forward. Addressing it will mean pulling apart the thick tapestry of far-right movements—anti-government extremists, Proud Boys, QAnon, incels, Boogaloos—all of which host white supremacist extremism to one degree or another.
“The widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories is something that is not only the product of the last four years but of many decades of far right media,” Miller said. “Now we’re seeing that there’s a whole cohort of right-wing media personalities who are lining up to draw on an audience in this post-Trump landscape—people who feel completely disillusioned and disaffected, and believe that there is an entire system working against them.”
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this dynamic, with millions out of work and millions more feeling acute mental and social stress that makes them potentially susceptible to the germinal core of white supremacy: the belief that the world is set against you, stacked in the favor of the undeserving or the all-powerful.
“Over the past year, extremists have been very very good at taking people’s grievances related to the pandemic and using them to push people towards more extreme views,” Miller said. “This is a movement that draws on people’s feelings of abandonment and political disempowerment and uncertainty and uses it to push them into these more extreme positions.”
If the past month has been any indication, Trump will be there to encourage it.
“One Timothy McVeigh can ruin your whole day,” Blazak said. “It just takes a small group of these anti-state actors to create incredible disruption, and then when they get reinforcement from a former president, it’s just… it’s just a little bleak.”