Donald Trump and Hate: A Q&A with Prof. Brian Levin about Extremism and the 2016 Election

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Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric has given energy – and publicity – to many white supremacist groups in the United States whose membership has been in decline in recent years.
Emboldened by a mainstream candidate flirting with aspects of their ideology, members of hate groups such as the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker’s Party and the Ku Klux Klan have helped stage demonstrations inSacramentoandAnaheim, California, that have ended in violent confrontations. In Sacramento, white nationalist organizers wanted “to make a statement about the precarious situation [of the white] race” in response to protesters attacking Donald Trump supporters at campaign events, according to a statement on their website.

A tweet from presidential candidate Donald Trump. Source:

The most recent connection between Donald Trump and white supremacist groups is a tweet from Trump featuring an image of Hillary Clinton against a backdrop of hundred-dollar bills and a six-pointed star with the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” emblazoned on it. The image was first posted on a virulently anti-Semitic white nationalist internet message board. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Trump for being “absolutely right” on the topic.
Mother Jones and theWashington Post, among others, have begun revealing the extent to which white nationalist groups have penetrated Donald Trump’s base of support. In May Mother Jonesrevealedthat one of Trump’s delegates for the California Republican primary,William Johnson, is the president of a prominent white nationalist group. In February, theWashington Post reportedthat some white supremacist groups have started to use Trump to recruit new members to their organizations.
By using voters’ fear and mistrust of others to incite hatred, Trump joins an unfortunately long list of politicians throughout American history who have made prejudice the cornerstone of their campaigns.
Tikkun‘s Editor Rabbi Michael Lerner argues that right-wing candidates gain support among a segment of disaffected white voters because these politicians are the only ones to acknowledge these voters’ pain and suffering. The problem is that many of these candidates propose hatred and xenophobia as the answers to their disaffected supporters’ grievances. In response to David Duke and Patrick Buchanan’s failed presidential bids in 1992, Lerner wrote, “The ultrarightists have learned how to appeal to many decent Americans by speaking to real and legitimate needs, to acknowledge the pain in their lives, and to give them the sense that they are being recognized and respected. … [W]e need to understand what these legitimate needs are and to speak to them in a way that separates the legitimate recognition of their pain from the illegitimate expression of that pain in racist or xenophobic directions.”
Lerner’s observation holds true today. Beyond his appeal among a coterie of white supremacists, Trump has cultivated a base of support, in part, among white voters who are not members of hate groups. For this reason, it is crucial that progressive candidates who hope to win elections embrace Lerner’s analyses. Rather than dismiss Trump as an aberration, the Left must examine the conditions in our society that have created fertile ground for Trump’s hateful ideology to take root and make a concerted effort to combat the rhetoric that has allowed extremism to fester.
As Lerner noted, xenophobia is a misguided response to people’s legitimate needs not being met. Therefore, to fight xenophobia, we must examine the pillars of Trump’s hateful campaign – such as building a wall along the border with Mexico and prohibiting Muslim immigrants from entering the U.S. – and pinpoint the elements that are attracting supporters.
Upon closer examination, it appears that Trump supporters are motivated by the belief that white people are under attack. This fear stems from feeling like whites are losing their power and voice in society as American racial demographics shift and whites envision themselves becoming a vulnerable minority. To overcome this perceived threat, Trump supporters have lashed out against Mexicans and Muslims in a flawed attempt to reclaim their power and “make America great again.” To effectively counter Trump, the Left must propose meaningful solutions to white voters’ feelings of powerlessness/disaffection that resoundingly reject xenophobia and instead focus on fostering identity development for white people that does not rely on racial domination and subjugation as the basis of their self-worth.
Moreover, we must acknowledge that Trump’s rise did not occur in a vacuum. Many mainstream politicians on the Right and the Left – even those who have criticized Trump’s hateful rhetoric – have themselves fomented the electorate’s racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. On the Left, discriminatory policy initiatives (such as Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill and President Obama’s deportation of undocumented immigrants and escalation of the drone strike program) have harmed Blacks, Latinos, and Muslims and undermined their social positions. On the Right, dog-whistle politics (coded rhetoric that conveys racist ideas without explicitly mentioning race) have disparaged, alienated, and incited violence against people of color, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.
To stop Trump – and to prevent future politicians from following his path – we mustreject the legitimacy of xenophobic politics. Although this may seem like a partisan issue, hate does not have a political party. There have been candidates before Trump, from both the Right and the Left, who have tried to exploit the spiritual void in people’s lives as a tactic to win votes, and Trump will not be the last politician to do this. The question is: do we have the courage to confront hateful politics head-on and counter it with love, compassion, and solidarity?
Prof. Brian Levin, Director of theCenter for the Study of Hate and Extremism at CSU San Bernardino, has been studying these issues closely for years. I posed some questions to him about hate and xenophobia in our current political climate. The Q&A is below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sofie Werthan:What roles are hate and extremism playing in the 2016 presidential election?
Brian Levin:Hate and extremism thrive during times of change, conflict, uncertainty and fear. Contemporary politics has a segment where populist, authoritarian, and xenophobic rhetoric, up to a limit, has an appeal to those fearful and angriest at the government. They are many times more likely to be conservative voters. What is noteworthy is that overt calls for mass deportations and a shifting “total and complete” faith-based bans on Muslims entrants had an appeal to many voters. This nostalgic Euro-nationalist tribalism is a political trend through Western Europe as well.
Domestically, shared unease between those in the mainstream concerned about the future, and those in the extreme, have an evolving link as each increasingly also share a common distrust in pluralistic institutions like government, the media and academia. Those angry disenfranchised voters found a new standard-bearer in a charismatic leader, while the white nationalists found someone who while he didn’t sing in their band, sung off their sheet music pretty well.
Not all who are fearful become hardened bigots, but many have become angry about the perceived ominous direction for America in terms of national security, globalization, demographics, and culture. While most may not be fodder to join extremist groups they nonetheless may serve as an important conduit to sustain xenophobic and conspiratorial messages into the mainstream.
This anger-borne fear, exploited by bigots, has a particular attraction among increasingly, though not exclusively, frustrated older or less educated voters. For many the emotional allure of strong decisive, if not inexact talk, on issues, is more important than details or policy discussions, or even the maintenance of pluralistic tolerance.
Donald Trump has parroted white separatist discourse during heavy-handed speeches on immigration and Muslims, earning him a virtual whose who of extremist endorsements, not seen for decades.
Of course, for the left, the defeat of Bernie Sanders, and the public emergence of a younger bigoted emerging “alt. right” set of racists have created a climate where small, but growing, segments of the anti-racist left openly preach conflict. Progressives protesting both white separatist rallies and Trump speeches have now adopted violence, first directed by Trump supporters at them earlier in the year.
Werthan:What tactics do you see politicians on both sides of the aisle using to capitalize on hate and xenophobia in their campaigns? What is making their rhetoric effective or ineffective?
Levin:A noteworthy strategy that succeeded through the Republican primaries was the unabashed coupling of bigoted stereotypes against Muslims and Latinos, with the most exclusionary policies designed to remove and interdict them: mass deportations and Muslim immigration bans. References to undocumented immigrants as rapists and criminals and pronouncements like “I think Islam hates us” had an appeal to a certain segment of the electorate in the primaries. However, the rhetoric requires a pivot from blanket policies belted out amidst broad brushed stereotyping if Mr. Trump is desirous of ensnaring some scared independent voters, who may give him the benefit of the doubt if he can steer to a less overtly bigoted message with a calmer temperament.
Mrs. Clinton correctly asserts that prejudice and paranoia are not the basis of a plan. They are however, part of widespread fear, and going forward she must at least better acknowledge these sincere fears and offer a plan to address the more substantive concerns underlying those fears.
Werthan:Hateful and xenophobic rhetoric is not new to politics, but what are some ways that you find the discourse different during this election than in past contests?
Levin:The difference this year is that the Republican Party had no established leader going in who could set a tone with regard to bigotry. Those who were critical were sidelined. In the past overt messages of prejudice were harmful to a candidate, even though for some innuendo was still acceptable. The dog whistle has been traded for the bullhorn as the most effective transmitter. However, the limit may have been the racism directed at Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was held out by Mr. Trump as being judicially unfair due to his national heritage.
Werthan:How has the landscape of hate groups changed in the United States since Obama was elected in 2008? How do you account for these changes? How are those changes manifesting themselves today?
Levin:Except for last year hate groups are in decline, with groups like the Klan consisting only of several thousand nationally compared to millions nine decades ago. Older traditional hate groups still exist, but more so as web-based propaganda vessels or social networking vehicles as they have been decimated by leadership losses. Smaller fragmented groups are led by younger conspiracists or hatemongers interested in increasing the reach of their message. In a year where aggressiveness and authoritarian political discourse has taken root in the mainstream, extremists see both an opening and a political leader to whom they can pass a baton to but never actually join because of the optics. Extremists have further capitalized on the mainstream hate and bigotry routinely leveled at the President that go beyond his policy positions, to something far more egregious – to the falsehoods that he was a murderer, not a true Christian, or not even a native born citizen.
Editor’s Note: Tikkun cannot and does not endorse any political candidate. This interview was conducted before the Dallas police officer shootings on July 7th 2016.  
Prof. Brian Levin is director of the Center for the Study of Hate and extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. He is a former NYPD officer and graduate of Stanford Law who has authored, coauthored, and edited books, academic journals, professional manuals and Supreme Court briefs.
Sofie Werthanis a summer editorial assistant at Tikkun Magazine. She is a junior at Wellesley College, where she majors in ethnic studies with a concentration in history. Her academic interests include racial politics, gender, and carceral studies.
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