Since the very beginning of the 2016 campaign, it’s been exceedingly difficult to describe anything Donald Trump has done or said as a “new low.” On Sunday, he came pretty damn close by extensively quoting Dallas pastor and Trump sycophant Robert Jeffress’ declaration on Fox News that impeachment could lead to a “civil war like fracture.”
Trump is in the middle of quite possibly his longest uninterrupted meltdown yet. During this meltdown, he has also threatened to have the Ukraine whistleblower whacked. So it’s safe to say that Trump has no real grasp of what’s happening around him, let alone the gravity of an American president implying that we should have Round 2 of the bloodiest conflict in American history if he’s removed from power. This is a man who’s most at home when he’s honking the horn of a big truck or complaining about how Graydon Carter was very unfair to him in the 1980s. On this one, he’s out of his league.
The much bigger problem is that the “civil war like fracture” is already here. It goes back at least to the election of Barack Obama (and its lineage back even further, to Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and everything in between) and the right-wing reaction to the first black president. White supremacist violence has never really left us, but it’s reached new heights in the Trump era, from James Fields to Robert Bowers to Patrick Crusius and many others whose names will thankfully die in obscurity.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of active hate groups operating in the United States in 2018 was 1,020; twenty years ago, it was 457. There’s a reason that this growth is happening under Trump, who is treated by the white supremacist movement as anywhere from a savior to a well-meaning reformer who’s up against it to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Trump administration’s antagonism toward minority communities is well-known: apart from the rhetoric, there’s the Muslim ban, the ICE raids, the ripping away of migrant children from their parents and throwing them into cages, the refusal to use the tools of the Justice Department to reform police departments around the country, and so on.
At best, Trump has ignored the rise of white supremacy or purposefully tried to obscure it, by comparing it to, well, those who oppose white supremacy. At worst, he’s aided and abetted it: Not even two weeks after he took office, Reuters reported that administration wanted to rename the Countering Violent Extremism program to the “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” program and focus its efforts on groups like ISIS and lone wolves inspired by their rhetoric. (It appears that change was never actually made, but as the Brennan Center said in a report last year, CVE has targeted Muslim populations even more under Trump.) It took until September 20—yes, 10 days ago—for the Department of Homeland Security to add white supremacist terrorism to its “list of priority threats.” (DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, in an interview with The Atlantic, said the El Paso massacre was “an attack on all of us.”)
Trump cannot be blamed for the history of white supremacy in America. But his administration has so far been a close friend to the furthest fringes of the far-right—those who believe that the Second American Civil War is here, now, and that they’re the only ones who both acknowledge it and are willing to die for the cause. And as viscerally stupid and senile as Trump is, periodically blasting out encouragement to his 65 million followers to prepare for violent conflict in the event of his removal from power just adds fuel to the fire.
At this point, it’s unclear whether Trump will leave office peacefully (either via the unlikely event of full impeachment by Congress, losing the 2020 election, or at the end of his two terms in office), let alone where the white supremacist movement goes in a post-Trump world with a rapidly deteriorating climate. The only thing that seems certain at the moment is that all of this is going to get worse before it gets better.