On Monday morning, White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway went on Fox News to perform her regular ritual: the provision of alternative facts. This time, Conway's spin was directed towards last week's horrific shootings at two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques, which together killed 50 people in the nation's deadliest-ever deadliest terrorist attack.
The problem she addressed? In a 74-page manifesto, one of the alleged terrorists prominently name-checked Donald Trump, praising him as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose," if not a good "policy maker and leader." In an odd defense, Conway encouraged every single American to read the terrorist's manifesto in its entirety, noting that it contains but one reference to the president, which is sort of like saying that Jesus's appearance in but four of the Bible's 66 books makes him, at most, an interesting bit player in its narrative arc. (Conway also assures viewers that the shooter's writings indicate that "he's not a conservative, and he's not a Nazi"—an interesting choice of concepts to juxtapose without being asked.)
Conway was just one in a cavalcade of Trump allies who struggled to at once denounce the shooting while downplaying the shooter's open admiration for the President of the United States. On the Sunday talk-show circuit, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney pooh-poohed attempts to link the two as "absurd," while U.S. ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown asserted that there wasn't "any credibility" to the obvious connection. “I don’t think anybody could say that the president is anti-Muslim,” Mulvaney added, referring to a person who campaigned on the explicit promise to ban Muslim immigration until the country "can figure out what the hell is going on."
Trump, meanwhile, followed up with a typically tone-deaf condolence tweet, extending his "warmest sympathies" to New Zealand and then dismissing white supremacy as an emerging global threat shortly thereafter. "I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess," he opined. This morning, he blamed the Fake News Media for its reporting on a piece of evidence that suggests the opposite.
The shooter's praise for the president is only the latest expression of enthusiasm for his administration from the white-supremacist sector. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump," former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke proclaimed at 2017's Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. "That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” Both locally and globally, white nationalists like Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, Canada's Faith Goldy, and any number of MAGA red hat-wearing attendees at the Unite the Right rally have also found much to celebrate in Trump's gleeful anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Correlation is not causation, and hate is older than any one presidency. But it is hard not to notice how quickly hordes of polo-clad, torch-bearing white supremacists screaming "JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US" felt sufficiently emboldened to march in the streets after this one took office. His response to the clash, equating the murderous pro-Nazi and anti-racist demonstrators as "very fine people," proved that once-shunned ideas had become acceptable elements of public discourse. So, too, does each additional instance of a Trump-adjacent figure winking slyly at the extremists who support him, from Mike Pence declining to call Duke "deplorable" all the way to president's strident defense of Jeanine Pirro, whom Fox News suspended this weekend for questioning whether Minnesota congressman Ilhan Omar's hijab renders her incapable of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution.
The rise of far-right hate groups is one of the most dangerous trends in America right now, as 71 percent of extremism-related fatalities between 2008 and 2017 were attributable to right-wing violence, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Last month, law enforcement officials arrested Christopher Hasson, a 49-year-old Coast Guard lieutenant stockpiling weapons in the hope of establishing a "white homeland" in the United States. Days before killing 11 congregants at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue, Robert Bowers wrote online that Trump did not go far enough to promote Bowers's preferred anti-Semitic agenda. In December, a gang of Aryan Brotherhood members felt comfortable enough to beat a black DJ at a Seattle-area bar, all for his crime of not getting to their requests for heavy metal as quickly as they would have liked.
Donald Trump's rise has provided renewed hope to white supremacists—in the U.S. and abroad—that the future for which they hope is attainable, perhaps more so than they once thought. And with increasing frequency, those same people feel empowered to resort to acts they hope will elicit that future, secure in the knowledge that although he might repudiate the violence, he cannot fully repudiate the sentiments that motivate it. Those who profit from bigotry have a powerful incentive to pretend bigotry isn't as much of a problem as everyone else seems to think.