Another Act of White-Nationalist Terror. When Will GOP Leaders Say Enough?

Two horrific acts of terrorism were committed this weekend against non-Christians. One by an Islamophobic Christian supremacist terrorist mistakenly targeting individuals he believed to be Muslims, and one by an anti-Semitic white supremacist terrorist spouting “replacement theory” smears.

In the first case, a man whose father was a pastor and who was suffering mental illness in part due to service in Iraq, drove into a family in Sunnyvale, California, allegedly believing they were Muslims. A 13-year-old girl is now in a coma and fighting for her life. The terrorist was allegedly on his way to a Bible study group and praising Jesus when authorities caught him.

In the second, a white supremacist took credit for an arsonist attack against a mosque last month, only after gunning down several people at a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one and injuring three.

He apparently wrote an anti-Semitic manifesto containing many of the same slanders against Jews ubiquitously found on conservative message boards across the internet, and that fueled Nazism in Weimar Germany: that Jews are intentionally enabling non-white populations to grow in America and Europe to replace the white race. That this theory is utterly bogus doesn’t matter: large parts of the conservative movements in the Anglosphere and elsewhere believe it. And white supremacist terrorists have increasingly begun to act on it.

These are only the latest in a series of escalating terrorist acts against non-Christians and non-whites in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascent to the Republican nomination and the presidency. Donald Trump, of course, doesn’t care: this is his base, as is obvious from even a cursory visit to any heavily pro-Trump forum on Fox News, Reddit, Voat, Gab or elsewhere. White supremacist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and misogynist rhetoric runs rampant across the entirety of the conservative movement. The transformation of the Republican Party into a vehicle of violent white male grievance has rapidly accelerated its longtime trend under Trump. It’s also no surprise that the president is doing less than nothing to stop it.

After all, in the wake of neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Donald Trump refrained from making a statement for several days. He then ultimately said that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Among the chants of those very fine people? “Jews will not replace us.” The same conspiracy theory that drove the terrorist attack in Poway on Saturday. Trump doesn’t care, though. The attack came one the same day he congratulated the white player picked second in the NFL draft while ignoring the black player picked first. This is what he does. This is who he is. He knows his base, and he doesn’t care about anyone else. Beyond personal graft, enabling these bigots is the core rationale behind his presidency.

The Democratic Party and the nation’s liberals are almost irrelevant to this conversation. Progressives continue o debate the depth of the bigotry among the least committed portions of Trump’s voters. How many of them may be persuaded to vote against Republicans on the basis of economic appeals? How can Democrats energize the infrequent voters among their core constituencies, including women, youth, and people of color?

But functionally speaking, that argument is a strategic one over perhaps a 4-5% slice of the electorate. It’s a tactically crucial question that could make the difference between a Democratic landslide and a devastating narrow loss setting progress back for over a generation. Yet it doesn’t change all that much when considering the broad partisan direction of 90% of the country.

The more important question now is: what will the rest of the Republican leadership will do? And what will the conservative infotainment complex do?

As older, whiter, more male, and more socially conservative voters decline as a portion of the electorate, the Republican Party has become increasingly hostile to democracy itself. Gerrymandering, census manipulation, poll taxes, power grabs against branches of government they don’t control, voter suppression, and legislative intimidation against voter registration can all be done with little public fanfare to help them delay the inevitable.

But violent acts of terrorism by their own base are much harder to sweep under the rug. Vague statements of general condemnation against violence won’t cut it as these despicable acts continue to increase, and as the Republican Party becomes increasingly associated with them. Whatever remains of the mushy middle of American politics is allergic to conflict, extremism, and violence—and as conservative politics are increasingly associated with violent extremism, Republican room for electoral maneuvering decreases.

Conservative infotainment on cable news and AM radio can maintain their radicalized audiences longer than the Republican Party can sustain its position: after all, a small population can keep conservative media in business much longer than it can continue to deliver majoritarian wins for one of America’s two major political parties, even buoyed by political affirmative action for older, rural white voters. But conservative media has its own problem: advertisers. Corporate America knows where its future customer base is—and it’s not with the Fox News audience. So, ultimately, even the likes of the Murdoch family, Clear Channel, and Sinclair Broadcast Group will feel the hit from the abandonment of advertisers.

And that is all just tactical. Morally, how long can Republican opinion leaders sustain the current trends as their base descends into radical violent extremism? We certainly haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Maybe there isn’t one, but common sense dictates that at least some in the conservative intelligentsia must have a breaking point.

But at what point, either out of moral revulsion, a sense of patriotic duty, or sheer self-preservation, do Republican leaders start trying to put out the fire instead of fanning the flames? How many more deaths will it take?

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.