The issue of white extremism is taking on a new and important role in the American political conversation, and it is separate from the problem of guns and the people who will use them to mow down their fellow citizens.
The two issues mix together after mass shootings carried out by racially motivated killers. But they are often distinct.
There was apparently no racial motivation for the gunman in Dayton, Ohio, who carried out his massacre hours after a gunman in El Paso, Texas, posted a racist screed and then shot up a Walmart. And there were no guns involved in the violence surrounding a 2017 gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The issue of gun violence has divided Americans along political lines for decades and will continue to do so, but white extremism is jumping to the forefront of the political conversation in a new way: Democrats say it’s a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately while President Donald Trump and some pundits appear to believe there is no problem at all.
Two Democratic presidential candidates – former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey – gave speeches Wednesday in which they drew lines between the extremist hate that motivated the gunman in El Paso on Saturday to the rhetoric Trump used to build his nationalist political base. They also cast back to slavery and Jim Crow and decried the institutional racism that still poisons the United States.
Trump, meanwhile, tweeted about his boredom by Biden’s words.
“White supremacy has always been a problem in our American story – if not always at the surface, then lurking not so far beneath it,” Booker said at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of a racially motivated mass shooting in 2015 that took the lives of African Americans.
“There is no neutrality in this fight,” said Booker. “You are either an agent of justice or you are contributing to the problem.”
He also said the problem of racism extends beyond extremists and terrorists.
“We must acknowledge as a country that as much as white supremacy manifests itself in dangerous and deadly acts of terror, it is perpetuated by what is too often a willful ignorance or dangerous tolerance of its presence in our society.”
Biden, speaking in Burlington, Iowa, warned of a “rising tide of white supremacy,” and sought to shame Trump for not more forcefully rejecting it.
“His low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week I don’t believe fooled anyone at home or abroad,” Biden said.
Biden’s message wasn’t very interesting to Trump. As Biden spoke, Trump was between visits to Dayton and El Paso to console the families of victims.
“Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring! The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks with this guy. It will be over for them, not to mention the fact that our Country will do poorly with him. It will be one big crash, but at least China will be happy!”
On Fox News on Tuesday night, commentator Tucker Carlson called the problem of white extremism a hoax and compared it to the Russia investigation.
“It’s actually not a real problem in America,” Carlson said. “The combined membership of every white supremacist organization in this country would be able to fit inside a college football stadium. Seriously. This is a country where the average person is getting poorer. Where the suicide rate is spiking. White supremacy. That’s the problem. This is a hoax, just like the Russia hoax. It’s a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power.”
If it is a hoax, the FBI director appointed by Trump is in on it.
Christopher Wray warned lawmakers in July that domestic terrorism threats are on the rise, putting their number at about the same level as international terrorism arrests – about 100 in the first three fiscal quarters of 2019, he said.
Wray said the majority of those domestic cases are motivated by some version of white supremacist violence, but he maintained that the greatest terrorist threat to the US remains with homegrown extremists inspired by jihadi terror movements.
“I think the greatest terrorist threat to the homeland is the homegrown violent extremist … which is jihadist-inspired violence. That does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that we don’t take domestic terrorism including hate crime committed on behalf of some kind of white supremacist ideology extremely seriously,” he said, ticking through a number of substantial investigations by the FBI in recent months, including the case against Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.
CNN’s Jake Tapper reported Wednesday that the White House rebuffed attempts by the Department of Homeland Security to make domestic terrorism a greater priority in the official National Counterterrorism Strategy. It ended up getting a single paragraph.
Trump, while he condemned extremism in a scripted speech Monday after the El Paso shooting, said after a racially motivated shooting in New Zealand in March that he doesn’t think white extremism is a rising problem around the world.
“I don’t really,” he said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
Democrats say they would treat things very differently.
Another Democratic presidential candidate, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, unveiled a plan in the wake of the shootings that he said would make the government do more to focus on domestic terrorism.
“We need a president who will take on the twin epidemics of rising white nationalism and rising gun violence that have cost too many American lives,” he said.
CNN’s David Shortell contributed to this report.