Editor’s Note: Mike German, a former FBI agent, is a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. He is the author of “Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent” and co-writer of the feature film “Imperium.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
“There are old demons which are coming back to the surface,” French President Emmanuel Macron warned during a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, reminding us that the ethnic nationalism that sparked devastating global wars in the 20th century remains a threat of potentially monstrous proportions.
Many saw this cautionary statement as a rebuke to US President Donald Trump, who has embraced openly nativist policies and recently declared himself a nationalist. But Macron’s remarks spoke to a larger issue of our dangerous misunderstanding of the dynamics of far-right violence.
When white supremacists and far-right militia groups commit acts of violence in the United States, the Justice Department calls them domestic terrorists. Academic studies in 2012 and in 2017, respectively, show these groups have attacked and killed as many or more Americans than any other terrorist movements in recent years. Yet the FBI considers them a secondary threat to “homegrown violent extremists,” by which it generally means Muslim Americans “inspired” by foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda.
The truth is we don’t know the full extent of the racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic far-right violence in the US because the government’s hate crime statistics are based upon voluntary information. In 2017, of the 16,149 police departments that participate in hate crime reporting, only 2,040 reported hate crimes.
Even without that data, there are indications of the problem’s scope. Justice Department victim surveys conducted between 2004-2015 estimated there were approximately 250,000 hate crimes in the US each year. And yet the Justice Department prosecuted only 27 hate-crimes defendants in 2016. The Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan law and policy institute, published a report last month documenting the multitude of criminal statutes the Justice Department has available to investigate and prosecute far-right terrorism, but too often chooses not to as a matter of policy and practice.
Treating far-right violence as a purely domestic issue deprioritizes these crimes on the national security agenda. It also ignores the international reach of militant white supremacist groups, and obscures the greater threat posed when governments become enthralled with exclusionary nationalism, which mobilizes popular support by stigmatizing groups of “others” – often identified by race, religion or ethnicity – as national enemies.
First, many of the ideologies, philosophies and theologies that underpin the white supremacist movement in the United States did not originate in this country. American white supremacists are influenced by British Israelism, a 19th century interpretation of Christianity that cast Anglo-Saxons as the true Israelites of the Bible; ancient Norse and Icelandic religions; and German National Socialism, which gave Nazis their name, among others. These ideologies justified the horrors of colonialism, slavery, exclusionary immigration policies, racial segregation and state-sanctioned discrimination.
Likewise, discriminatory policies implemented in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Jim Crow laws and exclusionary immigration practices, influenced the development of European fascism. Many prominent Americans supported the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, and many more lobbied to keep us out of the European war under the banner of the America First Committee, using a vocabulary Trump would later adopt. In a different context, the United States likewise supported the racist apartheid government of South Africa until Congress imposed sanctions in 1986.
American far-right militants continue to communicate and network with like-minded groups abroad, just as they always have. The neo-Nazi skinhead movement began in Britain in the 1970s and spread around the world, remaining one of the more violent of the white supremacist subcultures – including in the United States. More recently, after members of a California white nationalist fight club called the Rise Above Movement attacked protesters at far-right rallies in Huntington Beach, Berkeley, and Charlottesville in 2017, they left the US for a tour of Europe to celebrate Hitler’s birthday and meet with fascist groups in Germany, Italy and Ukraine. Other Americans have traveled to fight in the Ukrainian civil war with the neo-Nazi-affiliated Azov Battalion.
And the feedback loop goes both ways. White supremacist groups abroad have been influenced by American white supremacists. A Nebraska man was the leading supplier of Nazi propaganda into Germany for decades starting in the 1970s. The British man who killed a member of Parliament, Jo Cox, in 2016 was a “longtime supporter” of the National Alliance, an American neo-Nazi group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And, most recently, a CNN investigation exposed links between US and South African hate groups.
We can expect these cross-border associations and the persistent levels of violence coming from these groups to continue, as they have for decades. What Macron warned about, however, is the exponentially deadlier outcomes that are produced when government leaders sanction this hatred and violence and leverage it to gain power.
In Europe, nativist and neo-fascist parties have won electoral victories exploiting anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments. Police and intelligence officials have been accused of inattention to, if not sympathy with, violent groups engaging in racist or nativist political violence in the streets.
We have begun to see this phenomenon in the US as well, with a series of far-right protests across the country resulting in little law enforcement intervention and few arrests, while President Trump declared there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. White supremacists and their sympathizers are no longer in the shadows; they are running for political office.
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These trends are troubling, and Macron’s bold speech should be a wakeup call for the Justice Department and intelligence agencies to start taking far-right violence more seriously – in order to avoid another century of brutal conflict. Fomenting fear of enemy invasions and subversion and scapegoating the weakest among us won’t make us a stronger nation, but a weaker one. Our leaders need to take heed to Macron’s admonition that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism” – rather than an expression of it.