Experts Discuss White Nationalism And Trump's Controversial Retweet
NOEL KING, HOST:
The president retweeted a video of a man yelling white power on Sunday. He later deleted it, but it was out there. White power is hate speech, so what does it mean when the president amplifies it? I talked to two people who've been thinking about that. Errin Haines is an editor at large for the nonpartisan newsroom The 19th. She covers the intersection of race, gender and politics. And Cynthia Miller-Idriss at American University in Washington lectures on far-right extremism. I asked Cynthia to start by describing the white power movement.
CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS: The white power movement is - I mean, it's a domestic terrorist movement that has used extraordinary violence to enact white supremacist goals. It's been responsible for things like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and even the phrase white pride is often used as a euphemism for the white power movement. So I would argue that even if people are saying he's just talking about white pride, that has its own nefarious meanings as well.
KING: Does your research show that most Americans understand the nefarious meaning of those words?
MILLER-IDRISS: I think people know that this is something different than talking about Irish identity or some kind of heritage that they would hyphenate, that when you're talking about white pride or white power, shouting white power at a group of protesters, I think people - if they don't know it, they ought to know it. It's not specialized knowledge to have that information.
KING: Errin, I want to get to President Trump and his tweeting in a second. But before I do, I want to ask you, as someone who has spent many years covering race in the United States, were you surprised to see the man on that video in this retirement community using that hateful language?
ERRIN HAINES: No. No, I was not surprised because this is language that is a part of our American history. And it does send a very specific message. This is a man of a certain age. This is a man who certainly was alive when legal segregation, when Jim Crow reigned in America. The idea that he was not aware of what white power meant, that he may not have known what he was saying, I feel like that's disingenuous.
KING: Many people seem genuinely surprised that the president of the United States would retweet somebody saying white power.
HAINES: I didn't find it surprising because this is not new. I think that we know that, in both rhetoric and policy, the president has been going to a racial playbook again and again from the day that he came down the escalator five years ago this month, right? I think his Tulsa Juneteenth speech defended Confederate statues and our heritage. So I think that we know at this point, four years in, that this is who the president is, and I think the question in 2020 is, is this who the voters are?
KING: A question for both of you - and, Cynthia, I will start with you. Do you believe the president, that he hadn't seen the white power message, he hadn't heard the words white power?
MILLER-IDRISS: I think it's possible he hadn't heard it, but whether or not he did, I think, having the president tweet out a video that has a supporter yelling white power, it is a step beyond the kind of dog whistles and racist and exclusionary language we've heard before.
And I also think it's important to note that the man who shouted it doesn't fit the aesthetic that a lot of Americans hold in their heads about what white supremacist extremists look like. This guy did not have a shaved head and a swastika tattoo. You know, he's driving a golf cart and looked like he's on his way to brunch somewhere, right? And so that helps to normalize and mainstream extraordinarily violent language and sentiments in ways that I think are really important.
KING: Errin, do you believe the president?
HAINES: We don't know, you know, what was in the president's mind or what his awareness was at the time that he posted that tweet. But Cynthia is exactly right - just the idea of who can be racist in this country and what that looks like.
KING: Errin, you've said that this comes out of President Trump's political playbook. You have noted it has worked for him in the past. Do you think it will work for him in 2020 or is this just not the time?
HAINES: I think that this is not the same political climate that he ran in four years ago, although we are certainly in a very racially polarized climate. But look - I mean, you think about Mississippi, a state that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016. Mississippi literally just voted to get rid of their Confederate flag. So I think that what we may be looking at is the president waging an old fight in what could be a new day in this country.
KING: Do either of you have fears about political violence around the coming election?
MILLER-IDRISS: I do have concerns about political violence. What we have seen in terms of the escalation, not just in this country but globally, around white supremacist extremism and terror shows that we have to be very alert to the possibility that the highly polarized climate gets exploited by these groups in similar ways to mobilize violence.
HAINES: What I would add to that is - I think we saw that gun sales were up in this pandemic. There has been some talk of civil war among, you know, some white Americans. And then we also know that the president has talked about maybe the need to monitor the election, raising the specter of his supporters showing up at precincts to monitor voters in urban areas. That certainly presents a scenario in which violence could occur.
KING: Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Errin Haines. Thank you, guys, for taking the time. We sincerely appreciate it.
HAINES: Thank you.
MILLER-IDRISS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.