Jonathan Greenblatt, Head of the A.D.L., on the Politics of White Nationalism

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host. A big thanks to the always-delightful Matt Flegenheimer for taking the helm while I was off last week.

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Chabad of Poway in California. The Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex.

Mass shootings have become part of American life. And over the past few years, they’ve become an inescapable part of our religious life, too.

With hate crimes on the rise, it’s not surprising that churches, synagogues and mosques are conducting active shooter drills. And it’s also not surprising that discussions of white nationalism — the ideology behind many of these, and other, recent shootings — are becoming a bigger part of our political conversation.

We called up Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a group that tracks anti-Semitism and hate crimes, to get his views on the surge in white nationalism and the dangerous ways it’s seeping into our politics.

Lisa: So, before we talk about the politics of the violence we’re all seeing, let’s establish the facts. Has there been an increase in white nationalism?

Jonathan: We know that last year we saw 50 extremist-related murders in the U.S. White supremacist recruiting is on the rise. In the past few years, we’ve seen more propaganda activity by white supremacists. And acts of violence are up. These are reasonable measures which tell us that there is a significant problem.

And we know that extremists feel emboldened because they are telling us. They’re doing it overtly, whether it’s marching in Charlottesville or disrupting a book signing in Northwest Washington over the weekend. And they’re doing it even more flamboyantly and more openly online — in their chat rooms, on their discussion boards, on their subreddits, they are energized by the fact that their talking points and their rhetoric has moved from the margins into the mainstream and is now being parroted by politicians at the highest levels.

When President Trump was asked last month, after a white supremacist killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, whether he thought white nationalism was a growing threat, he said: “I don’t, really … I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” Why do you think the president has danced around the issue in the way that he has?

I don’t know. I don’t have an articulate answer. It’s somewhat inexplicable.

How damaging has that been to efforts to combat white nationalism?

White supremacy isn’t new. It’s just shifted from the sidelines into the center of the public conversation. Their rhetoric has become part of the political conversation. Their ideas are literally appearing in the talking points of staffers of the White House.

When the president talks about George Soros, or when other leaders talk about George Soros being behind caravans, that’s right out of the white supremacist playbook. When they use terms like open borders, that’s right out of the white supremacist playbook. When memes get retweeted of various sorts that originate on white supremacist subreddits, that is profoundly problematic.

What could the government — and President Trump — do to combat this threat?

We need the president to call white supremacy what it is: a global terror threat.

The administration in 2017 decimated the budget at D.H.S. for countering violent extremism. So we need the federal government, specifically the executive branch, to appropriately resource efforts to combat domestic extremists. We need Congress to pass legislation, which ensures that not only is law enforcement trained up enough to understand these issues of extremism and hate but they’re tracking hate crimes effectively on the ground across the country. And then state and local leaders need to show leadership as well to not allow these extremist elements again to penetrate the public square.

They have a right to express their opinions. They certainly do. But freedom of speech isn’t the freedom to slander people. Freedom of expression isn’t the freedom to incite violence against Jewish people or any other minority — Muslim, L.G.B.T.Q., any others.

But it’s not just government that has to act, right? How much of this increase is related to the rise of social media?

Extremists have exploited these platforms and have weaponized them to great effect.

We saw a 57 percent surge in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. That’s the single largest year-on-year spike we’ve ever seen in 40-plus years of tracking. Those are all real-world incidents, acts of harassment and vandalism and violence. The fact of the matter is I don’t even count cyberspace, where the problem is orders of magnitude larger. So we’ve got a real problem on our hands.

It’s not just an issue for public servants and government officials. The private sector has a role to play — specifically, Silicon Valley, investing the same level of energy and intensity they’ve applied to build products that consumers love. Now they need to ensure that those products keep consumers safe. That means dealing with this issue.

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An update on the 2020 race: According to an analysis by The Times, 16 Democrats have already qualified for the first debate in June.

Remember, there are two ways to get into the debate: receive donations from 65,000 people (including 200 donors apiece in 20 states) or register 1 percent support in three polls.

As the graphic above shows, seven candidates have qualified through polling but not donors. That could cause some embarrassment: The party set the polling threshold so low, at 1 percent, that hitting it is a breeze for a candidate with modest name recognition. By not meeting the donor qualification as well, candidates could look like they lack grass-roots support.

It could have practical implications, too. Democratic Party officials have capped the debate at 20 candidates; if too many qualify, they will first cut those who did not pass both thresholds.

You can see the full graphic, with detailed fund-raising data, here.


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