Children of Unending War, the Rise of Trump and the Explosion of Hate Groups
March 26, 2017
Greg Grandin / The Nation & Michelle Chen / The Nation
To be "twenty-something" in the US today, means being part of a generation whose county has always been at war. America is becoming a more hateful place and there is growing evidence that our current administration might have something to do with it. The number of anti-Muslim groups has nearly tripled since 2015 and there has also been a spike in reported incidents of "hate" violence. The president's rhetoric is familiar to anyone who lived through the 1990s paramilitary-style "Patriot" movements.
Children of Unending War:
Why Those Spring Breakers Chanted 'Build That Wall'
Greg Grandin / The Nation
(March 21, 2017) -- Reports come from Cancun of a spring break "pirate ship" cruising off the coast of Mexico, with US college students breaking out into a chant of "Build That Wall."
Let's assume they are juniors or seniors, about 20 or so years old. They might have just been conceived when Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the death of half a million Iraqi children was "worth" the "price" of isolating Saddam Hussein.
Maybe they were just born, a year old, when Clinton launched one of his children-killing cruise missiles into Baghdad, including one time in 1998, shortly before the House impeachment vote related to the Monica Lewinsky affair, that was described by The New York Times as a "a strong sustained series of air strikes."
They probably entered kindergarten around the time that Bush and company manufactured evidence about Iraqi WMDs, picking up an assist by the mainstream media to begin the systematic destruction of a country we weren't at war with, that committed no offense against US citizens.
They might have been in the first grade when US forces decimated Fallujah, and in the second grade when those photos of Abu Ghraib began to circulate, kicking off a never-ending debate over whether it is moral or not to torture. They've lived through the horrors of Blackwater and global rendition.
They were around 8 or 9 when their elders reelected the criminals for a second term, when George W. Bush told us in his second inaugural address that our values and our interests were one and the same, and that we were waging war around the globe to rid the world of evil.
They were 11 or 12 when Hillary Clinton legitimized a coup in Honduras, and just a bit older when she gloated over Qaddafi's brutalized and raped corpse, "we came, we saw, he died." Maybe they were just wrapping up high school when they learned that their president, Barack Obama, consults Augustine and Aquinas before signing off on "kill lists."
If they were paying attention a few years ago, they might have heard Dick Cheney say, on Meet the Press, that it was impossible for the United States to torture, that US citizens can only be tortured.
On April 14, 1986 -- more than a decade before they were born -- the Reagan administration bombed Libya, claiming that, since Libya was involved in a bombing in Germany, the United States was acting in self-defense.
The US bombing killed a number of civilians, including a young girl. Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, said the US missile strikes were "measured" and "proportionate" to the crime Libya had committed.
Jimmy Carter's former White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, tried to capture the new logic that justified the US right to launch missile strikes at will: "as a superpower with global responsibilities, if our forces are attacked in another country, you can construe it as an attack on our territory." Under that definition, Cutler said, there is no part of the globe that cannot be considered "our territory."
Those kids in Cancún were raised on what is, in effect, a giant pirate ship masquerading as a country, the children of unending war, taught to believe that their jurisdiction is universal, their writ is global, even as their resentment -- a feeling that they live in a nation under siege -- is exceptional. Build that wall.
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author, most recently, of Kissinger's Shadow.
Donald Trump's Rise
Has Coincided With an Explosion of Hate Groups
Michelle Chen / The Nation
(March 24, 2017) -- Two Indian immigrants in Kansas shot by a man hurling anti-Muslim insults. Bomb threats and vandalism menacing Jewish community centers. Children bullying classmates of color with pro-Trump taunts.
With reports like these erupting across the country, you wouldn't be alone in suspecting that America was becoming a more hateful place, or that our current administration might have something to do with it. But now we also have some statistics to illuminate the apparent feedback loop between Pennsylvania Avenue policies and Main Street violence.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) annual census of "extremist" groups, "The number of hate groups in the United States rose for a second year in a row in 2016 as the radical right was energized by the candidacy of Donald Trump." The number of explicitly anti-Muslim groups has nearly tripled since 2015 alone, to over 100 nationwide.
There has also been a spike in reported incidents of "hate" violence, including harassment and physical assault, alongside rising anti-Muslim hostile behavior and bullying in schools. Of nearly 1,100 "bias incidents," SPLC reports, "37 percent of them directly referenced either President-elect Trump, his campaign slogans, or his infamous remarks about sexual assault."
Trump's words have in some cases directly triggered hate-driven attacks. According to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, state data on anti-Muslim hate crimes indicate a spate of crimes across North America, including physical assaults, vandalism, and phone threats, in the five days that followed in the wake of Trump's December 7, 2015, speech calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," in response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack.
But is the rage-fueled racial invective Trump stokes on stage actually driving violence on the ground? Or is it just a symptom of years of intensifying hostility? And what should Muslim and immigrant communities do when the political establishment stakes its claim to power on a culture of hate?
Setting the Stage for Trump
Trump's rhetoric and the violence that follows in its wake didn't come out of nowhere. The strain of hate that seems to have driven many of the recent attacks can be traced back to ultra-right movements that have been around since at least the 1980s.
In particular, the anti-government, anti-immigrant rhetoric of today's hate groups are firmly in the lineage of the "Patriot " movements and other white- and Christian-supremacist extremist groups that flourished during the Clinton years.
When Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he helped a renaissance in far-right, paramilitary-style movements. Viewing McVeigh as a kind of martyr, the groups espoused a variety of ideologies but generally shared a paranoia over gun-control legislation and a conviction that an armed uprising was needed to overturn the political order.
Fueled by aspirations of creating a white-supremacist racial hierarchy, these militants received support not only from old-school hate groups like the Klan but also from seemingly mainstream institutions like the National Rifle Association and right-wing Christian organizations.
According to Indiana University sociologist Jeffrey Greunewald, whose research focuses on hate groups and extremist violence, contemporary far-right movements were able to take root in the 1990s in communities that were left out of that decade's economic growth.
They shrewdly exploited disillusionment stemming from "loss of blue-collar, manufacturing jobs viewed as a result of globalization," and economic distress in farming communities. But this extremist wave peaked around 1996, with about 850 organizations, and eventually faded or were driven underground by federal law enforcement crackdowns.
Trump's election has brought these older strains of America's racist movements from the farthest fringes right into the mainstream of party politics.
But just as McVeigh was more a foot soldier of the Patriot Movement than its creator, Trump is really a symptom of the many undercurrents of hostility that predated the election.
In a 2014 sociological analysis by Gruenewald and others, the presence of far-right organizations in a community correlated significantly with incidents of right-wing ideologically motivated violence in the surrounding county. T
he presence of a single hate group was associated with a roughly 23 percent increase in the odds of an attack, per each 10,000 local residents. Similarly, the presence of a minority religious institution, such as a mosque or synagogue, in the same area as a hate group, increases the likelihood of hate-driven killings.
Gruenewald's study also found some surprising links between violence and overall social cohesion. For example, low voting rates or high divorce rates in a given county also correlated with an increase in hate-driven attacks. While getting divorced or skipping voting doesn't automatically turn you into a white supremacist, researchers simply noted that divorce rates are "a frequent measure of social cohesion."
That is, a higher concentration of divorced individuals might reflect "lower levels of communal solidarity that allowed far-rightists to strike in these locations." Likewise, low voter-participation rates suggest the community's disillusionment with democratic institutions, which could feed into an environment that foments bigoted attacks.
And all that seems to clearly match the profile of the Trump era, rife with social disconnectedness and alienation, manifested aggressively in far-right media and the white-supremacist meming of the alt-right. What was unique about 2016, Gruenewald argues, was that many voters saw it as a referendum on what the first black president had symbolized, culturally and ideologically.
The Trump Effect
Trump reflects a larger context of cultural polarization across the country. The most extreme cases involve explicit discrimination, such as vandalizing mosques, or communities seeking to block the building of Muslim community centers, and periodic direct assaults on women wearing hijabs or men wearing turbans.
On a subsurface emotional level as well, public opinion toward Muslims is increasingly negative -- a striking development given that the Pew Research Center found that public attitudes toward Catholics and Protestants are higher than they have been in years.
According to research by Kerem Ozan Kalkan, a professor of government at Eastern Kentucky University, the recent hate attacks have occurred against a backdrop of deepening interethnic tensions that both help explain and exceed the phenomenon of Trump's rise.
People of different faith communities are increasingly choosing to live, worship, and work in separate spaces, neighborhoods, and regions. Interaction and social exposure across religious and cultural lines is increasingly rare, particularly because Muslims are still a relatively small and geographically concentrated minority nationwide.
Historically, other studies by criminologists on inter-community violence suggest that an all-white neighborhood, with a high degree of social cohesion and shared culture, may perceive an influx of black or Latino people as a threat to both social status and cultural identity, which can easily flare into violence.
According to the so-called "political power threat" theory, rapid urbanization, rising ethnic diversity, and, in particular, upward mobility of the local black community tend to alarm incumbent white residents.
However, the overriding factors, as Gruenewald's study points out, are often not economic or social at all, but explicit markers of racial division -- that is, it was the perception of racial and cultural difference itself that triggered hostility, but an underlying sense of social discontent provided the kindling for the spark. And Trump's campaign lit a short fuse.
The Nature of Hate
Trump's Muslim entry ban and aggressive crackdowns on undocumented immigrants show that he is still campaigning on the undercurrent of hatred that energized his base. Many community activists see an organic link between Trump's rhetoric and policies and the perceived groundswell of street-level violence, especially in areas with visible Muslim and Latino communities.
Though right-wing hate groups are relatively rare in New York City, according to Fahd Ahmed, executive director of the South Asian American advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), recent law enforcement crackdowns on Muslim and Latino communities reveal a "feedback loop" between Trump and hardship for communities of color on the ground.
Trump's overheated rhetoric is now directly channeling the talking points of bigots and white supremacists tied to the administration.
Repeatedly, the group has witnessed that "When particular policies are implemented or perpetrated, we see a rise in [hostile] social incidents. And the link that we draw is that the policies…give people who already harbor biases a license to be able to say that, 'Oh, you should feel comfortable…doing this as well."
As society polarizes along ethnic and religious lines and the president actively promotes discriminatory ideology, Gruenewald says that preventing hate-fueled attacks requires complex interventions, centered on engagement, not hard-line security crackdowns.
Since "the vast majority of the disaffected white working class do not join hate groups or commit acts of terrorism," he argues, non–law enforcement preventive measures aimed at promoting engagement with the communities of potential hate-group recruits, rather than marginalizing them, will ultimately be more effective in the long run.
Sociologist Amy Adamczyk, co-author of Gruenewald's hate-crime study, notes that, although hate-driven homicide incidents are still extremely rare, the issue of declining social cohesion is far more widespread.
Countering this trend requires proactive interventions such as "diversity training or exposure to Muslims [with the aim of] debunking myths," and getting Christian groups to lead some of these initiatives," which would "let people know that certain hate-related actions are frowned upon in the community."
In Brooklyn, a multiethnic coalition of community groups is building a hate-free zone to demonstrate self-organized security through solidarity. Activists with DRUM and other groups are organizing what they call a "community defense infrastructure," with grassroots initiatives like bystander intervention and self-defense training.
Advocates are additionally "engaging businesses around them taking a 'values stance,' and making commitments around learning [how] to make their business a safe place, welcoming of all sorts of people."
Whether Trump is stimulating hate or just capitalizing on it, Ahmed sees the current climate of hostility as a call for cross-cutting responses from allied communities that are uniting to rally against Trump: "[The administration's] agenda is to get rid of nonwhite people," he says. "Immigrants, Muslims, black folks are largely just in the same categories…. That provides us an opportunity to really come together."
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer for The Nation.
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