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  • May 18, 2021

Exclusive: U.S. intelligence report warns us about right-wing white nationalism. Biden knows how to combat it

 Exclusive: U.S. intelligence report warns us about right-wing white nationalism. Biden knows how to combat it


The GT 2040 report describes, in general terms, how reactionary movements like the Trumpist right develop. “Many people who feel displaced by rapid social and economic changes resent violations of age-old traditions and perceive that others are benefiting from the system at their expense. These perceptions also fuel beliefs that economic and social change is damaging and that some leaders are pursuing misguided goals.” As we saw in 2016, those who fear change can be subsequently drawn to someone who promises to bring back the good old days and make their lives “great again.”

Such people, the report argues, identify themselves as members of groups who stand opposed, sometimes violently so, to the interests—or even existence—of other groups in a society. This kind of identity is totalizing; it encompasses every element of a person’s life. You’ve seen people who fit this description online. Some of us even have them in our lives—and at our Thanksgiving table. As the report continues, “These identities provide a sense of belonging and reinforce norms about how group members should behave, rules about whom to trust, and beliefs about complex issues. Identity-based violence, including hate and political crimes, may increasingly be facilitated by social media. Identity-based beliefs tend to eclipse truth-seeking because of the overriding need to belong, obtain status, understand the social world, maintain dignity, and feel morally justified.”

To apply this analysis to our own society, Trumpist white nationalism grows out of white racial and cultural anxiety around demographic change. Put simply, we’re talking about people who fear losing the disproportionate power and status they receive simply from being white in America, even if they are poor and/or economically vulnerable themselves. W.E.B. Du Bois called those benefits the “wages of whiteness.” Such people are certainly disadvantaged economically—living paycheck to paycheck or, worse, not knowing when one will work again is never easy, even for white Americans—but they still benefit from white supremacy in that they avoid the disadvantages that system imposes on BIPOC Americans.

Our country is becoming more diverse, largely because of immigration. The report explains that in many wealthier countries, “increasing numbers of immigrants, refugees, and guest workers … are prompting heated debates about national identity and citizenship and leading to the emergence of ethnic nationalist political parties, greater demands for assimilationist policies, and a decline in support for migrants globally.” The anti-immigrant Trumpist Republican Party fits this description to a T, pun intended.

A good number of Americans accept or even embrace these changes. Others—largely (although not exclusively) white Americans—are not so fine with it, and right-wing demagogues have been exploiting and exacerbating their fear and anger. Since long before the arrival of President Charlottesville, the Republican Party—whose primary goal remains serving the economic interests of the elite—has sought to heighten white racial anxiety in order to divide middle and working-class voters along racial lines, and prevent the formation of a multiracial coalition of those who share economic interests.

This right-wing hate deriving from fears of losing status goes beyond immigration. If the country they live in no longer centers around their specific ethno-cultural identity, they’ll reject the concept of the overall national community itself. As the report details: “Nationalism overall has gained strength, but in some cases, exclusionary forms of nationalism are gaining prominence and weakening ideals of civic nationalism. Societies that are ethnically and culturally diverse may be more susceptible to challenge. Exclusionary forms of nationalism have been ascendant in many regions, especially those experiencing demographic changes, with slow or stagnant economic growth and people who fear losing special status.”

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Cultivating “ideals of civic nationalism” while preventing the spread of “exclusionary forms of nationalism” are vital to the ability of any multiethnic society to succeed, as well as to provide justice to all members of the community. These terms require some explanation, as the word ‘nationalism’ itself carries negative connotations. Exclusionary forms of nationalism define membership in the national community on the basis of race, religion, or some other element that explicitly excludes some of the residents of a society. As for civic nationalism, here’s my definition:

In a liberal or civic form of nationalism, the community in question must not be restricted by any identity-related criteria (race, religion, culture, language, ethnic background, sexual orientation, etc.). A civic nation must include all those who reside within that nation’s borders.

Civic nationalisms represent nations made up of people who choose to join them either by emigrating to or by remaining in a particular country. The members identify themselves as a community of citizens—unified by a commitment to basic democratic ideals—who share not only membership in a political system but who also recognize obligations to one another and to a common good that benefits the whole national community.

No recent politician has done more work to promote civic nationalism, or, if you prefer, a civic national identity, than President Barack Obama. His ideas on American national identity were the focus of my 2012 book Obama’s America. There are numerous examples of him talking about our sense of national community in radically inclusive and unifying terms, but this is one of my favorites, from his April 2011 commencement address at Miami Dade College:

Whether your ancestors came here on the Mayflower or a slave ship; whether they signed in at Ellis Island or they crossed the Rio Grande: We are one people. We need one another. Our patriotism is not rooted in ethnicity, but in a shared belief of the enduring and permanent promise of this country.

Likewise, at his final State of the Union in 2016, Obama spoke of civic national identity as a force for inclusion.

I can promise that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those … voices that help us see ourselves not, first and foremost, as Black or white, or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born, not as Democrat or Republican, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word—voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.

Having a strong sense of civic national identity binding the people of the United States together is also a prerequisite for generating support for progressive policies, as Berkeley economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich explained.

The pronouns “we” and “they” are the most important of all political words. They demarcate who’s within the sphere of mutual responsibility, and who’s not. Someone within that sphere who’s needy is one of “us”—an extension of our family, friends, community, tribe—and deserving of help. But needy people outside that sphere are “them,” presumed undeserving unless proved otherwise.

The central political question faced by any nation or group is where the borders of this sphere of mutual responsibility are drawn.

Why in recent years have so many middle-class and wealthy Americans pulled the borders in closer?

[…]

The first step in widening the sphere of “we” is to break down the barriers—not just of race, but also, increasingly, of class, and of geographical segregation by income—that are pushing “we Americans” further and further apart.

Exclusionary nationalism is exactly what white nationalist Trumpists spout. Just in the past couple of weeks, right-wing media figures like Tucker Carlson—with his bile about the Great Replacement, which his Fox News employers support because it makes them money—and Republican elected officials like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—with her definition of America as exclusively Anglo-Saxon—have put forth some truly extreme white nationalist rhetoric.

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As Never Trumper Charlie Sykes put it, this represents the right wing being “unsubtle” about its true beliefs, as Carlson, Greene, and others (including Trump himself) have simply been “saying the quiet part out loud.”

These views materially weaken the civic ties that bond citizens of different backgrounds to one another, and which inculcate the sense of peoplehood Obama and other civic nationalists have envisioned. In December, the late and unlamented Rush Limbaugh made perfectly clear the right wing’s rejection of an inclusive, unifying sense of national community, when he said “I actually think that we’re trending toward secession. I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York? … There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs.” Clearly, the nativist, Trumpist right are the ones who reject a unified civic national identity. They are the ones the GT 2040 report is talking about when it warns of forces that feed social fragmentation and divide societies.

What’s so important is not that the report breaks new ground, or tells us something we don’t already know about this kind of extremism—anyone paying attention should already know just how dangerous it is. What really matters is that the highest levels of the U.S. government—including the intelligence and national security leadership—recognize the true nature of right-wing identity movements and the threat they pose to our nation and the world, and finally intend to do something substantive about them. White supremacy and white identity movements are global phenomena, whose adherents have shed blood in large numbers from the United States to Denmark to New Zealand and beyond.

On the one hand, our leaders have known about this threat for a while. In April 2009, the Department of Homeland Security produced a report titled “Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” In sum, it found: “The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic right-wing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence, but right-wing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalization and recruitment.” Since that time, that DHS report has proven prescient.

However, this 2009 DHS report was squashed at the time and never officially published—because conservative politicians and media types got angry and started screaming that Obama was supposedly politicizing security issues. Limbaugh, for example, bleated “This Department of Homeland Security report is nothing more than a partisan hit job filled with lies and innuendo that portrays any conservatism as right-wing extremism.” Never mind that the report’s lead author, Daryl Johnson, characterized himself as a registered Republican, and added that he “personifies conservatism.”

Things got even worse under Trump. The Insurrectionist-in-Chief essentially ignored right-wing white nationalist extremism and focused instead almost completely on Islamist fundamentalism or, toward the end of his administration, antifa. As Johnson explained last September: “It’s government dysfunction and bureaucracy at its worst.” On antifa specifically, he added: “The administration coming out and naming one group [antifa] ‘terrorists’ and not saying anything about white nationalism? It’s ridiculous. It comes at a cost to the people who live in these communities who are affected by the violence.”

The publication of the GT 2040 report represents further evidence that the Biden administration is going to take a very different approach. It shows that the new president is placing a much higher priority on combating this kind of identity-based hate and extremism around the globe, in addition to the significant steps it has taken to do so domestically, including within both the armed forces and the federal government itself—even the parts, such as the Border Patrol, where such an effort will face stiff resistance. These actions represent a real U-turn, and offer hope that the Biden-Harris administration will achieve concrete results.

In his address to Congress on Wednesday, the 46th president spoke to our country in terms that his predecessor never did: “We won’t ignore what our intelligence agents have determined to be the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland today: White supremacy is terrorism. We are not going to ignore that.” According to an April analysis by Mother Jones, Biden is “going in the right direction,” and more action along the lines of the aforementioned measures is what’s needed.

“In tone and in prioritization, the difference between the previous administration and this one could not be more stark,” says Ryan Greer, a former State Department and Department of Homeland Security official who now studies extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “They really seem to get that [extremism] needs to be a big priority, and they get generally how that priority should manifest.” Greer, who met with Biden officials in the first few days of the administration to discuss extremism, praises the recent intelligence report from the DNI as a good first step in tackling the issue. “We wanted them to understand the threat and show that they’re prioritizing it,” he says. “Announcing this intelligence review was a great way to start.”

After an unprecedented attack like the one on the Capitol on January 6, simply denouncing extremism might not seem like radical action, but Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, says it goes a long way. Speaking out against violence toward Asian Americans and denouncing white supremacy and hate crimes “immediately seems like a small thing,” she says, “but I think it’s actually a huge thing to set the tenor about what is acceptable politics and behavior and what is not.” That’s especially true after Trump set a tone that emboldened extremist groups with his “very fine people on both sides” comment after the deadly Charlottesville white supremacist rally in 2017, as well as his nod to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during a debate in September.

In order to strengthen the bonds of civic nationhood Obama described—and which counteract the destabilizing, exclusionary forms of identity discussed in the GT 2040 report—more action is needed on another, related front. In addition to combating white nationalist extremism, the Biden administration and government at every level have to root out the systemic racism that—despite the real progress we have achieved over the course of four centuries—still harms BIPOC folks today, and which serves to prevent some Americans of color from feeling fully included in the American community. The remarks the president and Vice President Kamala Harris made after Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts for the murder of George Floyd—sentiments Biden repeated to Congress during Wednesday’s Joint Session—indicate their commitment to pursuing such action. Of course, there’s no guarantee that commitment will become reality when it comes to federal legislation, given the current makeup of the Senate. 

To cite just one other recent instance of injustice—not necessarily the most egregious in terms of physical injury, but one that has incredible symbolic value for the topic of inclusion and national identity—we can examine what happened to 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario of the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Nazario, who is Black and Latino, was pulled over for a minor violation by police officers in a small Virginia town—incorrectly, it turns out. He tried his best to comply with the contradictory commands he heard. “Keep your hands outside the vehicle,” he’s first told. Then, “get out of the car, now.” However, he was still wearing his seatbelt, and so couldn’t get out of the car without bringing his hands back in the vehicle to unbuckle it. Nazario asked for clarification, told the officers he is a member of the military, and at no point resisted or posed any kind of threat. Yet he ended up being pepper sprayed and was threatened with death.

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One final point demonstrating just how widespread and interconnected police abuse is: Lt. Nazario is related to Eric Garner, whose last words before being choked to death by an NYPD officer attempting to arrest him were “I can’t breathe.” These ties across signal events of racial injustice are far more common than some might realize—although they likely come as little surprise to Black Americans.

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Retired Navy Commander Theodore R. Johnson authored a powerful essay in The New York Times that reflected on the long history of uniformed African Americans being mistreated in ways even worse than what Lt. Nazario faced. Johnson lamented that “Black people have always experienced a lesser version of America than many others.” Nevertheless, he noted that so many have served as “exemplars of the American spirit, performing the excellencies of citizenship even though the nation has not delivered on its promises.”

I want to build on that last point in order to make one thing clear. To the extent that some BIPOC folks might feel alienated from an American civic national identity, they are not to blame one iota for this. The systemic racism that feeds such alienation is—racism Trumpists defend. That racism counteracts the cultivation of a unified, inclusive feeling of peoplehood by treating groups of American unjustly, thus telling them they aren’t valued as members of the national community.

Right-wing white nationalists like to wrap themselves in the American flag—although they often find other, explicitly anti-American flags to wave as well—and claim that only they are the “real Americans.” They accuse those who protest racial or other forms of injustice of being unpatriotic. They couldn’t be more wrong, as President Obama explained in Selma, Alabama in 2015, at the 50th anniversary of the historic march across Edmund Pettus Bridge.

What could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — the unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many — coming together to shape their country’s course?

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:

“We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny. For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all of our citizens in this work. And that’s what we celebrate here in Selma. That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of The 1619 Project, has likewise laid out her concept of patriotism as expressed by African Americans.

Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights … Black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers’ … No people has a greater claim to that flag than us … It was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.

On the flag specifically, Hannah-Jones represents what it truly stands for far more than the Trumpists who defile it with the twice impeached former guy’s mug—some of whom even tore down the American flag flying at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection and replaced it with one bearing the Orange Julius Caesar’s likeness. As she further explained in a 2019 interview, “yes, it is patriotism, but not that type of blind, performative patriotism that is simply about trying to camouflage the nation’s sins and not trying to fight for the true ideals. But the type of patriotism, I think, that says: If you love your country, you have to fight to make your country the country that it should be.” She added “had we in fact built a country based on those founding ideals, then we would have the most amazing country the earth has ever seen.”

A fully inclusive concept of peoplehood built on a foundation of true equality can make America the multiracial, pluralistic democracy of its promise. To thrive or even survive, we must keep progressing toward that ideal, and—as the racial justice movement has shown—many Americans are fighting to make it happen. This gives me hope for our future. Others—the forces of Trumpist white nationalism—reject that progress. They want to make America white again. A civic national identity that emphasizes the bonds that unite Americans across other identity-based lines can play a vital role in helping combat an exclusionary, hate-based form of identity that denies the salience of those bonds and paints Americans of color as ‘the other.’ We progressives must provide support for such an inclusive conception of Americanness.

Which vision of America is going to win out going forward? Are we going to be more like Obama’s America or Trump’s? We know that the latter will mean not only more and continued injustice for BIPOC Americans, but, as the GT 2040 report notes, will also result in a weaker, less stable country for every American. President Biden on Wednesday noted that “the autocrats of the world are betting” against us on this. He continued: “they believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy.” “But,” he proclaimed, “they are wrong.”

Beyond the president’s optimism, we can take heart from what young people are saying on this question, as seen in this recent poll from the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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Not only young Black and Latino Americans, but also young whites are feeling more positively about our country’s future this year than four years ago. The Biden-Harris victory—along with the crucial Georgia Senate wins that gave Democrats a bare Senate majority—are without question the key element in that shift. Our government must do everything it can now to prove wrong the gloomy outlook expressed in the Global Trends 2040 report. It’s the only way forward if we want to make sure the hope of young Americans is justified, and in order to seize the future we want for our country.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of  The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)





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