Exploiting Racism to Save Himself
The racial threats by the former White House occupant have now become more specific, more dangerous—and demand a response by the Department of Justice
Throughout the years Donald Trump occupied the White House, the notion of “stochastic terrorism” was often proffered to explain the climate of violence his thinly veiled and virulent threats were creating in the country.
This phenomenon—which employs the “four D’s” of demonization, dehumanization, desensitization and denial—is defined as “the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” As national security analyst Juliette Kayyem has noted, this involves the use of language that is “vague enough that it leaves room for plausible deniability and outraged, how-could-you-say-that attacks on critics of the rhetoric.”
During the Trump years, hate crimes increased nearly 20 percent and hate-motivated murders, largely committed by white supremacists, rose to their highest levels in nearly three decades. Yet unspeakable acts of terror—such as the 2018 massacre of 11 people in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or the mass murder in 2019 of 23 people in El Paso, Texas, targeting Latinos—could not be precisely blamed on the man in the White House. That was before January 6, when the specificity of Trump’s language took the next step beyond inciting stochastic (or random) terrorism. On that day, he directly incited the crowd to exit the Ellipse, march to the Capitol and “fight like hell.”
But the accumulating, accelerating collection of investigations and increasingly possible indictments of Trump—including the work of Fani Willis, the Fulton County District Attorney in Georgia; Letitia James, the New York State Attorney General; Alvin Bragg Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney; and the January 6 House Select Committee co-chaired by Rep. Bennie Thompson—appear to have taken this increasingly dangerous leader to a new level. His words went beyond the stochastic approach to stir up violent lone wolves.
"If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington DC, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt," Trump told his rally crowd in Conroe, Texas, last Saturday night.
He went on to make sure that the crowd understood that this was not his problem, but theirs as well. "In reality, they're not after me, they're after you, and I just happen to be the person in the way," he said disingenuously.
I want to pause here to note his use of the word “racist,” a word that he repeatedly used to describe the prosecutors (in addition to calling them “mentally sick.”) Note that each of the aforementioned prosecutors share at least one characteristic: Each is Black, making them particular targets for his virulent racism and his compulsive effort to trigger his mob of supporters. In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you…
Yes, he referred to what he hoped for as a “protest,” what can sound like constitutionally protected free speech and the right to peacefully assemble. But don’t doubt that his supporters knew exactly what he meant. Anyone who’s been paying attention well knows that he would have no compunction about triggering his mob the more he feels in danger of facing consequences for his crimes. In other words, he wouldn’t think twice about triggering a race war to save his own skin.
It’s particularly perverse to realize that Trump’s latest effort to exploit his supporters’ racism comes within days of Black History Month, officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976 to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
The history of this focus dates back to 1926 when Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, initiated Negro History Week in February to correspond with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass (celebrated on Feb. 14) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12). Woodson, the son of former slaves, was the second African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University (in 1912).
Yet Trump’s racist dream now takes root in an expanding landscape of demagogic officeholders employing their power to ban books, banish largely non-existent critical race theory, drive discussions of race and slavery out of the classroom—and return white supremacy to its “rightful” place, beyond reproach and no longer a reason for discomfort.
As New Yorker staff writer Katy Waldman notes, referencing Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, “White people cling to the notion of racial innocence, a form of weaponized denial that positions black people as the ‘havers’ of race and the guardians of racial knowledge. Whiteness, on the other hand, scans as invisible, default, a form of racelessness.”
Yet the history of racial violence in America—including a system of over 4 million enslaved people by the 1860 US Census, the documented terror lynchings of over 4,000 Black Americans between 1877 and 1950, and such singular moments of horror as the Tulsa race massacre in 1921—is unavoidable.
In the case of Tulsa, Oklahoma, resulting from an alleged assault of a white woman by a Black man, a white mob of some 10,000 engaged in an unprecedented attack of arson, killings and even aerial bombings that decimated 35 city blocks in a district known as Black Wall Street and left over 10,000 Black residents homeless and an estimated 300 dead. It’s an overwhelming reminder of the scale of destruction an inflamed mob can wreak.
No one who has seen the 1963 Associated Press photo of Alabama police using water hoses and snarling attack dogs on peaceful civil rights protestors can miss that day’s savagery. But 57 years later in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and protests in Washington, DC, Donald Trump warned protestors that if they breached the White House fence, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” Whether or not he knew that photo and the racist history it depicts, he has consistently exploited racism to exacerbate racial conflict in an effort to consolidate his power.
If the preceding years made room for plausible deniability about the dangers he was inciting, Trump’s threats last weekend made clear his intention to trigger his mob when the rule of law finally finds him. This cannot be treated blithely, with low-key patience or with the courtesy typically afforded a former president.
This clear-and-present danger, this call for violence and intimidation, was enough to convince Georgia’s Fani Willis to publicly ask the FBI to increase “protective resources” including federal agents because “security concerns were escalated” by Trump’s speech. She also sent her letter to the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Merrick Garland. Let’s hope he read her letter and understands the need to respond to this growing danger before more lives are lost.
Find value in this writing? Please consider becoming a paid subscriber.