Donald Trump was elected president while employing white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Now the U.S. executive branch is actively seeking to reduce federal efforts to fight right-wing extremism by removing white supremacist groups from U.S. government countering violent extremism (CVE) programs.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration proposed it would repurpose the Countering Violent Extremism task force to focus only on Islamic extremists, considering renaming it “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Islamic Extremism.”
It’s hard not to see the hand of Steve Bannon—the White House chief strategist and senior counselor whose close ties to white nationalist and far right-wing groups are well-documented—at play. If the change in the CVE task force is implemented, it would mean that hate groups like the KKK would no longer be subject to federal tracking and monitoring through the multi-agency CVE task force, although individual agencies like the FBI would continue to track domestic terrorism and violence.
Domestic terrorism poses a significant, if not greater, threat than Islamic terrorism. Right-wing extremists have repeatedly lashed out in violent and deadly ways against innocent American citizens. The far right wing was responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, as well as the 2012 shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple and 2015 shooting at a Charleston church. And the FBI has thwarted other, large-scale attacks over the years that would have caused higher casualties. It is critically important that CVE work continue to focus on preventing violent extremism across the political and ideological spectrum. To do otherwise puts Americans at risk.
Right-wing nationalists and white supremacists will continue to feel sanctioned and energized in the face of national leadership that validates their hate and fear and fails to unequivocally condemn hate-based violence. This is because political language by elected leaders matters.
A case in point is Germany: Just decades after the Holocaust, Germans watched in horror as far-right violence set off incidents of swastika graffiti; skinhead youth violence; right-wing terrorist cells bombing and killing immigrants, police officers, and left-wing politicians; and arson attacks against refugee homes. Research showed that arson attacks and other anti-immigrant violence were linked to politicians’ use of derogatory or threatening language to describe refugees (such as calling them a “flood of immigrants”) and a general negative public discourse against immigration.
Violence decreased when politicians talked more positively about solutions and opportunities linked to immigration. Clearly, political speech can legitimize violence and hate, but political leaders can also create moral barriers that make hate crimes less likely.
In the absence of a president who will use his words to try to bring Americans back together, other political leaders need to have a stronger voice and commit to combating extremism. The German experience—now the broadest and most comprehensive strategy to combat the far right globally—also shows that effectively fighting extremism requires the involvement of all levels of government and civil society. Germany benefited from legal interventions, federal police monitoring and formal school curricula, research centers, and government agencies dedicated to the far right; scores of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations; and an extensive community network of far-right advisors in small towns and neighborhoods throughout the country.
Germany’s official civic education centers and hundreds of NGOs are subsidized by local and federal government to educate the public about how Germany’s democratic society works and how tolerance and mutual understanding lead to a safer, conflict-free environment. They’re based on the belief that only a well-informed and educated citizen can make responsible decisions.
This specific form of civic education—not to be confused with patriotic education—is alien to many Western countries, which usually opt to teach basic knowledge about political culture and democratic institutions but not how democracy should be practiced in daily life.
The German model is far from perfect. Efforts to combat the far right in Germany have, at times, been plagued by political divisiveness, competition for funding, and insufficient coordination. The sheer amount of nongovernmental organizations and projects designed to combat the far right is overwhelming, and they could be better utilized in concert with one another.
Neither has Germany solved the problem of far right-wing violence: The current wave of attacks against asylum seekers’ housing is one of the worst waves of far-right violence in German history. But in the face of violence like this, Germany’s political leaders condemn it loudly and clearly. And German schools and communities have structures and resources to turn to for immediate support.
Americans—and citizens across the world—have been mesmerized by the passionate response of millions protesting U.S. policies and practices legitimizing hate and violence. But what’s missing in the U.S. is a comprehensive approach that can help coordinate and combat radicalization and racist violence. This is a moment for states and local communities to step up. To move beyond the cycle of protest and despondency in combating racist violence, we can start by looking to Germany.
Daniel Köhler directs the German Institute for Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies in Germany, and Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a professor of education and sociology at American University.