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Democratic Candidates Call Trump A White Supremacist, A Label Some Say Is 'Too Simple'

President Trump speaks to about 5,000 contractors at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex on Tuesday in Monaca, Pa.
Jeff Swensen
Getty Images
President Trump speaks to about 5,000 contractors at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex on Tuesday in Monaca, Pa.

Following two recent mass shootings, about half a dozen Democratic presidential candidates are not mincing their words when it comes to President Trump.

They're calling him a "white supremacist."

"He is," former Rep. Beto O'Rourke said on MSNBC.

He had already called Trump a "racist" and was asked whether he thought Trump was a white supremacist. "He is a dehumanizer. ... He has been very clear about who he prefers to be in this country and who he literally wants to keep out with walls and cages and militarization and torture and cruelty. And again, we in El Paso have born the brunt of all of that."

Twenty-two people were killed in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month when a gunman opened fire in a Walmart. People from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border were killed, and the shooter is believed to have writtena screed deriding immigrants as invaders.

The language in that manifesto is similar to the kind of language Trump has used, leading many to blame the president for using irresponsible rhetoric that could inspire people at the fringes. The progressive left has pressed candidates — and the media — to call Trump a "liar" and a "racist." In fact, in a recent Quinnipiac poll, more than half of Americans said they believe the president is a racist – and the country has been bitterly divided, through partisan lenses, on race in this country.

But calling the president an actual "white supremacist" is an escalation that has driven a wedge between some of the candidates.

Vice President Joe Biden has said Trump has "fanned the flames" of white supremacy, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California said Trump "empowers white supremacists" and "condones their behavior."

For others, though, that doesn't go far enough. Count O'Rourke, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and entrepreneur Andrew Yang among those who have said the president is, in fact, a "white supremacist."

Not everyone, even some of those tasked with tracking hate groups, thinks that's responsible.

"I think it misses the point and overlooks the role that the president should be playing," said Oren Segal, director of Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

But that doesn't mean Segal thinks the president has been responsible with his rhetoric. Segal points out that using terms like "invasion" when talking about immigrants and peddling conspiracies about caravans, are all in line with foundational ideologies of white supremacists.

That's problematic and gives a degree of comfort to those groups, he said.

"Calling him a white supremacist based on those," Segal added, "misses a larger point of what white supremacy is. They're calling for a white ethno state and are clear about their opposition to minorities. In some cases, many don't like Trump. Some are disappointed, for example, that he has a Jewish son-in-law and hasn't gone as far as they would have liked."

He added, "It's understandable to call out public officials, including the president of the United States, whose language seeks to mainstream the narratives that feed white supremacist ideas. It's completely acceptable to call out any public official when they are echoing those statements and ask them to tone it down, but going straight for this person as a white supremacist is a little too simple and, in fact, distracts from the calls for many of those public officials to use their positions to call out hatred and white supremacy by name."

"You know, you can't call someone a white supremacist and ask them to condemn it."

Others disagree, most notably, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates penned a piece in The Atlantic just months after Trump was inaugurated, titled, "The First White President."

He defended his stance on television.

"I think if you own a business that attempts to keep black people from renting from you," Coates said, "... if your response to the first black president is that they weren't born in this country, despite all proof, if you say they weren't smart enough to go to Harvard Law School and then demand to see their grades, if that's the essence of your entire political identity, you might be a white supremacist."

Akiba Solomon, co-author with Kenrya Rankin of How We Fight White Supremacy: A Field Guide to Black Resistance, notes, "The president traffics in white-supremacist rhetoric and pushes polices that are white supremacist in impact. I don't know his heart or soul, I've never met him, but there is a pattern of white-supremacist decision making throughout his entire career."

She adds that in her book, white supremacy is defined as "a political, cultural and economic system premised on the subjugation of people who are not white."

So, she said, "according to that description, I would call the president a white supremacist."

Trump defends himself and denounces white supremacy

Trump condemned white supremacy in a speech from the White House last week after the El Paso shooting. "The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online, consumed by racist hate," Trump said. "In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America."

The Trump reelection campaign tweeted 14 examples of the president denouncing hate and racism, including white supremacy. The campaign declined to say whether it thought Democrats labeling the president a "white supremacist" was helping the president's campaign.

"For two years, Democrats called the President a Russian agent," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. "Since that failed they've moved on to calling him a racist, white supremacist, mass murderer. It's false and absurd on its face, and Americans will see that Democrats are trying to divide Americans. They're also claiming that anyone who supports President Trump is racist. Calling half of the country racist is not a winning strategy and is not unifying."

Trump himself told reporters he didn't think it helps him. "I don't think it helps," he said. "First of all, I don't like when they do it, because I am not any of those things. I think it's a disgrace, and I think it shows how desperate the Democrats are."

Words that 'ring hollow'

Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Trump's words, denouncing white supremacy, "at best, ring hollow."

"I felt like they were the right words and definitely the wrong messenger," she said, "because he's pushed out one white supremacist meme or talking point after another since he came down the escalator" for his campaign kickoff announcement in 2015.

She notes that the debate over the language Democratic presidential candidates are using misses a larger point.

"I think the problem here is that Trump seems to be using these nasty tactics as a way to rally the base," Beirich said, "and it doesn't seem to matter what's in his heart. His mainstreaming them [white supremacists] and legitimizing them. That's the problem. And this stuff is blossoming. It's a dangerous game that Trump is playing."

To Beirich's point about white supremacy's rise, the Anti-Defamation League has found that in just the first five months of 2019, there has been an increase in white supremacist recruitment, Segal said. He noted that white supremacists are pushing propaganda in public spaces, "which speaks to a comfort level they have," he said.

And hate-related murders connected to right-wing extremists, Segal said, are a "consistent" threat and have risen over the last decade.

"Many of the statements [Trump has made] are exactly what a white supremacist would say — whether talking about immigrants invading or African countries being 's***holes' or Mexicans are rapists," Beirich noted. "He's tweeted out material that came from white supremacists, and a lot of his views are indirectly views from white nationalists. I don't know if that makes him a white nationalist, but he's talking from their scripts."

And Beirich added, "There is a link between this kind of rhetoric and violence."

Segal agrees, but notes, "Overall, we need to understand the impact of these narratives on the white supremacy movement, but without having to ascribe white supremacist intent on the president."

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.