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. The 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.”