Tragedy struck the community of Christchurch, New Zealand this Friday when a domestic terrorist opened fire in two mosques, killing 50 people.
This massacre—the country’s largest since 1943—has rocked New Zealand and the world, prompting condemnation of white supremacy, calls for unity, and talks of gun control. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rightly labeled the attack “an act of terrorism” and affirmed that violent white supremacists like Brenton Tarrant, the Australian national who has been arrested in connection with the shooting, have no place in New Zealand.
The response from the United States has been drastically different.
In the wake of the tragedy on Friday, President Trump tweeted his condolences to the people of New Zealand and condemned the “horrible massacre” in which “innocent people have so senselessly died.” About 25 minutes later, the president switched gears, tweeting messages encouraging Jewish people to leave the Democratic Party, railing against the Mueller report, and praising Republicans who supported his border security plan. Aside from an update on his well wishes to Jacinda Ardern and an expression of his irritation that the media was trying to blame him for the attack, he has not tweeted about it since.
When asked if he thought white supremacy was a rising threat to the world, President Trump responded, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
Calls for him to condemn white supremacy by name and to offer his support for Muslims around the world were met with deafening silence. To blatantly deny that white supremacy is a threat right after a white supremacist killed fifty people in their place of worship is not only grossly disrespectful to the victims and their families, but dangerously disengaged. At best, it gives the impression that Trump doesn’t care enough about the Muslim population to make a concerted effort to express his sympathy. At worst, his lackluster answer conveys a tolerance for such violence, which may embolden white supremacists to commit more hateful attacks with the belief that the U.S. President is on their side.
Trump may skirt the issue, but white supremacists have made their allegiances very clear. Authorities discovered a manifesto written by the shooter, in which he described Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and purpose.” In light of the president’s divisive rhetoric on Muslim refugees and immigration, xenophobic acts of terrorism like those in Christchurch and Pittsburgh are tragically growing more common.
The hateful racists who commit atrocities like these would perhaps not be emboldened enough to carry out their plans if President Trump only completed the very basic task of condemning racism. I have yet to hear him call any of the recent instances of violent religious persecution what they are: acts of terror. Even the language in his weak condemnation of white supremacists as people with “very, very serious problems, I guess,” is shockingly casual. One doesn’t guess if mass murderers have serious problems.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking why so many people in positions of authority, from American presidents to university presidents, fail to explicitly condemn white supremacy after displays of hate. It seems like an incredibly simple and obvious thing to do, especially when the overwhelming majority of the country is against virulent, obvious racism—but I underestimated the minority.
It is clear to me that Trump has danced around expressing disapproval for white supremacy by name, because he recognizes that some significant portion of his voter base is comprised of white supremacists. I think he fears that if he rails against the mosque shooter and expresses support for Muslims worldwide, he will lose a bigoted, but impactful, population that voted for him in 2016.
Whether or not you believe President Trump supports racism himself, it is obvious that violently racist people support President Trump; after all, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, did not announce his support for Hillary Clinton. Islamophobic mass shooters are not writing manifestos expressing their admiration for John Kasich. It is Trump who is cited time and time again by proponents of the most aggressive, violent forms of white supremacy our country has seen in decades.
Even operating under the assumption that Trump holds absolutely no racial prejudices himself, the rhetoric he uses to discuss Muslims and immigrants inspires racism. He complains that he is “blamed” for what happened in New Zealand, but if he wanted to distance himself from the ideology the shooter acted on, he should have called the Tree of Life Synagogue shooter a terrorist. He should have roundly condemned white nationalism after a counter-protester was murdered during a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville instead of claiming that there were misdeeds committed “on many sides.” It was only an entire year after the violence in Charlottesville that he tweeted the phrase, “I condemn all forms of racism and violence”; by then, he had allowed 12 months to pass with no real condemnation of the nationalism that lead to Heather Heyers’ death in the first place.
The answer to the president’s problem is simple: if he does not want to be labeled a white supremacist, he has to make a clear, strong, and explicit stand against white supremacy. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.