As Donald Trump transitions into the White House, Dylann Roof – the white supremacist charged with killing nine black worshippers in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015 – returns to the national spotlight. Jury selection in his federal trial resumed last week. The state trial against Roof begins three days before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
The timing is fitting: Donald Trump is Dylann Roof’s president.
Before the Charleston massacre, the Dylann Roofs of America were marginalized, seeking fellow travelers on the fringes of the internet, self-radicalizing in the isolation of their bedrooms. After the attack, they were on the defensive. Americans of all political stripes rejected Roof’s actions as well as the symbols and ideology that inspired them.
South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley rethought her position on the Confederate battle flag of which Roof was so proud, helping to remove it from state Capitol grounds. Universities and state and local governments reconsidered the place of racist memorials in their backyards.
Yet these developments sparked a backlash. Pro-flag groups held hundreds of rallies. A contractor hired to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans quit after his life was threatened and his car torched.
Proponents of this backlash soon found encouragement in the eventual nominee of the Republican Party, which has long provided refuge for bigotry. Trump demonized Mexican immigrants as rapists, proposed a Muslim ban, and retweeted anti-Semitic messages. Although Trump did not embrace the Confederate flag, it was a regular feature at his rallies.
Trump’s nostalgic campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” functioned like a dog whistle for white supremacists like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who endorsed the candidate in February. In August, Trump selected Stephen Bannon, head of Breitbart News, as his campaign chief. Breitbart News, as Bannon once bragged, is “the platform of the alt-right” – the extremist online movement galvanized by a noxious blend of white nationalism, xenophobia and conspiracy theories.
Trump’s victory has left Roof’s white supremacist brethren gleeful. “Our Glorious Leader has ascended to God Emperor,” declared a neo-Nazi website. “Make no mistake about it: we did this.” When white nationalist leader Richard Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” at a meeting on Nov. 19, audience members responded with Nazi salutes. A North Carolina Ku Klux Klan group announced plans to hold a parade in Trump’s honor.
The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 instances of harassment in the 10 days after Trump’s election – many committed in his name – and more have followed. Anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBTQ incidents have been the most frequently reported.
“There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump,” declared a chain letter received by the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno on Monday. “He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the jews.” Whether these are the deeds of devout white supremacists like Roof or sick copycats, they’ve left countless Americans – including some of our students at Fresno State – terrified.
Syndicated columnist Victor Davis Hanson, whose commentaries appear in The Bee, has dismissed these fears, noting that the counseling services offered by universities since Trump’s victory were not provided after the “highly emotional elections of 2008 and 2012.” Yet bigoted rhetoric did not fuel those elections, and they did not inspire a surge of hateful intimidation in their aftermath.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, chooses to spread false claims about illegal voting while casting doubt on these well-documented episodes of harassment. “I think it’s horrible, if that’s happening,” he said in a “60 Minutes” interview, adding, “I think it’s built up by the press because, frankly, they’ll take every single little incident … and they’ll make it into an event.”
Though he won’t admit it, Trump is responsible for encouraging this wave of threats and violence. But so are his supporters. During the campaign, Haley criticized Trump’s rhetoric. She even compared it to Roof’s, saying: “I know what that rhetoric can do. I saw it happen.” Yet she and 62 million Americans voted for Trump anyway.
Like Haley, many Trump backers denounced Roof. But their votes have emboldened Roof’s allies. Trump himself seems uninterested in stamping out these homegrown terrorists, and his appointment of Bannon as chief strategist has sent a clear message: White nationalism has a home in the White House.
If the millions of people who voted for Trump did so in spite of rather than because of his incendiary words – as many of them claim – then they, like the rest of us, must take a stand against the ugliness they helped unleash.
Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, associate professors at California State University, Fresno, are authors of “Remembering Slavery in Its American Capital,” forthcoming from The New Press.