President Donald Trump on Tuesday returned to his stance that there is “blame on both sides” for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia at a white nationalist rally. “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people — on both sides,” Trump said.
“I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch,” Trump said, adding that what he called the “alt-left” came “violently attacking the other group.”
When Trump first reacted to the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday, he called out “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” On Monday, he said that “racism is evil” as he dubbed the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists “and other hate groups” as “criminals and thugs” in his scripted remarks. During Tuesday’s press conference, without a teleprompter, Trump returned to his original statement as he said there is “blame on both sides.”
“You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” the president said. “Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”
One woman died and dozens were injured when a car plowed through a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, where white nationalists had gathered to protest the removal from a park of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who served as the top general of the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
The Cipher Brief’s Mackenzie Weinger spoke with Michael German, a former undercover FBI agent and senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, to discuss how what happened in Charlottesville fits into the broader landscape of far right and white nationalist violence.
The Cipher Brief: How does what happened in Charlottesville fit into the context of the United States and the problem of domestic terrorism?
Michael German: I think it’s the culmination of a series of events that I have been troubled by. There have been a number of protests over the last six months where the police — and this is in Portland, Oregon, two in Berkeley, California, one in Sacramento, California, one in Huntington Beach, California — where these protests were well-advertised within the far right movement as, “Come and beat somebody up.” And yet the police response wasn’t adequate enough to prevent these running street battles. In fact, it appeared the police were standing back and allowing these street battles to go on, which only meant the next rally people were going to be better prepared to commit more violence. And it conditioned these groups that have been hyper-violent in the past, these far right groups, to come expecting the police would let you commit acts of violence.
In Portland, Oregon, the police actually let the people from the militia groups participate in arresting their political opponents. That was also true in Huntington Beach, where it’s almost like the police are sanctioning them to apprehend people and bring them to the police, which is extraordinarily dangerous to give these groups the idea that they have the authority to put hands on people, much less put hands on their political opponents.
So I wasn’t surprised to see the violence getting out of hand, and I think we as a nation have to have a serious conversation with our local law enforcement and with the federal government. I’m sure the FBI was aware of any number of people coming to this protest who were subjects of domestic terrorism investigations. Why was there not a more robust response?
Particularly since we see over-policing of non-violent protests by groups like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock anti-pipeline protests, not to mention just regular political conventions. The Republican National Convention, you have troops there just to manage the crowds. So I don’t understand why in these latest series of events, where groups that have a history of violence and are advocating that they’re going to bring people to be violent, somehow the police seem to be caught off guard.
TCB: What are some of the critical elements to understanding radicalization in the white supremacist, far right context?
German: I have concerns with the use of this term radicalization, or the concept of radicalization. If you actually look at studies of terrorists, people who commit violent acts, there is no discernible process that they follow. There’s this concept, and the government promotes this concept, that people get bad ideas and those ideas then lead them on a pathway to an ultimate destination of terrorist violence. But in reality, that’s not how it works. And that’s not how it works from my perspective as an undercover agent.
There were certainly people in the groups who were ideological, but most of the people who were ideological and who thought that understanding the philosophy or theology that supported their political position were the type of people who thought that writing, and speaking, and political organizing was the way you move forward with that agenda. People who thought violence was necessary were people who liked violence. And they weren’t people who were necessarily there because they were drawn to the ideology, but rather were drawn by acceptance in a group that accepted their interest in using violence or trafficking weapons or manufacturing explosives, and weren’t particularly ideological at all. And if the group had turned around and said, “Oh, our agenda is now the opposite of what it was yesterday,” they would say, “Fine.” These people who are involved in the violence tend to see themselves as soldiers rather than as ideologues.
TCB: Are you then looking for any key indicators to try to discern where white supremacist and far right organizations will go or try to achieve beyond Charlottesville?
German: There are two parts of these movements — there’s the ideological side and the violent fringe. I’ve been troubled over the course of the last year and a half, two years, as the Donald Trump campaign has taken what has in the past been a right-wing populist dog whistle sort of messaging to racist groups that has been part of our political discourse since the Nixon “Southern strategy” — but change the dog whistle into a bullhorn.
Trump made very clear he had extreme bias against Muslims, against Latinos, against other communities of color, and that he was intending to implement policies that would express that bias and therefore sending a message to these groups not just that “I’m going to push your agenda,” but that “I’m welcoming you to participate in the policy discussion.” And then this tacit sanctioning of violence from the fringe seems to have brought those two sections that used to keep an arms length distance apart from each other together, to where you now have the advocates of cheering at a rally and the violent fringe coming there to protect and defend them, and to mete out punishment against people who would oppose them. That is extraordinarily dangerous.
If you look at the ways authoritarian governments obtain police powers, this is exactly how they do it. They sort of turn a blind eye to street thuggery and allow people to commit political violence against opponents of the government. That street violence becomes unbearable for the public, who demand that the government do something about it so the government can justify stopping protests altogether. And, of course, what the government is really interested in is stopping protests against government policies. We’re seeing that kind of thing, where there are a number of bills in state legislatures that would remove civil liability from people who run over protesters in the street. That’s taken on a very disturbing aspect with the latest murder in Charlottesville.
TCB: A hallmark of the president’s counterterrorism approach has been on the importance of saying “radical Islamic terrorism,” stating that to solve a problem, you need to specifically call out what the problem is. Trump has not called this attack domestic terrorism. Does that signify anything to you?
German: Domestic terrorism has a definition in statute, and that is violence intended to further a political or social goal. So if the activity fits that, you should call it domestic terrorism, whether it was a Muslim or a white person or anybody else. This long predates Trump, but this Islamaphobic fascination with calling al Qaeda or ISIS terrorism Islamic terrorism is to suggest the religion itself is a precursor to terrorism. So calling out the Ku Klux Klan, suggesting they were Christian terrorists and we should call this white supremacist terrorism, Christian terrorism, I think would offend many Christians who don’t see anything in the way that the Ku Klux Klan sees the world that has anything to do with the Christian religion. Even though they do. Their symbol is a burning cross. They consider themselves Christian patriots. That phrasing of radical Islamic terrorism is intended to be a slur against Muslim people, we’re not talking about al Qaeda terrorism, we’re not talking about calling it ISIS terrorism. Everybody uses those terms. But we’re asking that you use the same base calling out Nazis, calling out the Ku Klux Klan, calling out groups that have a long history of violence in this country.
TCB: What did you make of Trump’s statements on Charlottesville, and how do you think his remarks have played with the far right?
German: They were extremely pleased with Trump’s response, and in fact saw a tacit sanctioning of their activity and their point of view. You always have to understand that these communities are used to receiving communication from the mainstream world through these dog whistles, through very subtle messaging, where people would say something like “Islamic terrorism,” call it “radical Islamic terrorism.” That tells these people, okay, that person is anti-Muslim. So for the average person to hear that, they wouldn’t assume that that was the intent.
For an audience that’s attuned to dog whistles, to see that it was a few days before Trump would finally denounce Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan and doing so in a way that looked like a child being forced to eat broccoli, they recognize very well that, okay, this person agrees with us and is supportive of us. They just have to play the game to be in the political system that they’re in, and they understand that, wink wink, nod nod, everything’s fine, we can still praise this person and continue to organize under the umbrella of pro-Trumpism.
These groups sometimes have sharply conflicting ideologies. You have some groups like the Ku Klux Klan that consider themselves Christian. You have other groups like some of the National Socialist Movement or other Nazi groups who are atheistic and they believe religion is a construct developed by their enemies, particularly Jewish people, to keep white people down. They would argue that Jesus Christ is a tool to make white people forgive their enemies, to love their enemies, and that kind of thing, and the purpose of it is to undermine the strength of white society and not let them be as aggressive against their enemies as they think they need to be.
A Ku Klux Klansman and a Nazi, while they have a shared end state, they have very different ideas of how to get there, and they often struggle to get along. Now they can get along under the big red “Make America Great Again” hat, saying, “okay, we’re going to set aside our differences because we can agree on this pro-Trump position,” has allowed them to organize in ways that I think is dangerous. Once these groups feel state sanctioned, they can become much more dangerous and actually influence policy in the way that the law then becomes openly discriminatory. Obviously, there’s been a long problem with the way our laws have disparate impacts on communities of color and immigrants for quite some time. That’s nothing new. But when it becomes aggressive and overt, it can be more damaging.
TCB: Is there anything you want to point out that you think is important to understand about white supremacist, far right groups, or more broadly about what happened in Charlottesville?
German: One of the things I’m concerned with the way this is being discussed is this idea that there’s violence on both sides or on all sides. As if somehow the groups who are protesting the neo-Nazis and defending their communities are somehow in the same boat. I would never argue, number one, I’m against all forms of violence and think it’s counter-productive to use in any sense, but certainly self-defense is very different from offensive violence. Even to the extent that there are people in the counter-protesting crowd who are going there to get in a fight, there’s no history of violence from these groups that comes anywhere near what the Ku Klux Klan or Nazi groups or these other far right groups have engaged in. These things are not equal. They’re not anywhere close to equal, and we have to keep that in mind.
TCB: Do you have any policy suggestions or ideas for how to deal with this?
German: As far as what to do going forward, in the 50s and 60s we had a situation where state governments were not protecting the rights of their citizens. The federal government had to come in and intervene and make sure that constitutional rights were being protected. I think we have the opposite situation here. I think it’s incumbent upon state and local government now to take control, to make sure that the rights of their citizens are being protected.
I talk to a lot of people and a lot of communities about policies at the FBI that I’m concerned about, and they feel like, well, we can’t lobby the FBI, we can’t go touch them, they’re this mysterious force. Well, your state and local police are there in your community, and you can go down and ask your local police chief what’s going on with these protests, and why the police response is so different in Charlottesville and in Sacramento and Berkeley and Portland than it was at Standing Rock or Ferguson or the Occupy movement. Get the documents out and have city and state officials hold their own departments responsible so we can start making sure all communities are protected.
For more of Michael German’s insight into right-wing violence in the United States – and his experiences undercover in the 1990s – check out his appearance on The Cipher Brief’s ’15 Minutes’ podcast.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.