Risking arrest and violence, civil rights activists worked for decades to make racist language and symbols – once pervasive – out of bounds for public discourse.
Now, hate-speech monitors warn, the rise of President-elect Donald Trump’s brand of populism is nudging old taboos back into the mainstream, with his supporters feeling emboldened enough to put their own names behind letters and online comments that use broad generalizations and inaccurate statistics to smear racial and religious minorities.
The Trump camp’s announcement of a senior White House role for former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, whose publication is known as a mouthpiece of the “alt-right” white nationalist movement, only further helps to move hate speech into the mainstream, civil rights advocates say.
Trump is the self-proclaimed leader of a backlash against what he and his supporters see as political correctness gone too far. Their targets include affirmative action, “safe spaces” on college campuses and the removal of Christian symbolism from schools and government. Much of the criticism is telegraphed in thinly veiled racism or bigotry; a subset is proudly, overtly racist. Since Trump’s rise, advocacy groups say, Americans holding such views appear to be more willing to speak them directly into a camera or to publish them as signed comments on online news sites.
“The reality is, that for much of the life of the internet, people have hurled insults and all kinds of hate attacks, but they have hidden behind fake names,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate speech and bias-related attacks. “I think what’s happened is that, in part because Donald Trump has legitimized this, people feel that they have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Take, for example, letters McClatchy received after a report examining the role of white supremacy in Trump’s election. Such controversial topics are guaranteed to draw responses – what was different was that most commenters gave their own names. In some cases, they included their occupations, too, apparently unconcerned with the risk to job or reputation that used to come with voicing racially charged opinions in public.
One woman, Elizabeth Ranew, wrote that Trump supporters shouldn’t be labeled racist “just because white Americans are fed up with footing the bill for every lazy human being that does not want to work in this country.” Another writer, a sound engineer named Robert Alumbaugh, insisted he wasn’t racist before complaining that “minorities have found every insidious way to dupe the system.”
Both Alumbaugh and Ranew, whose social media profile shows her a fan of prominent Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, exchanged emails with a McClatchy reporter, then stopped responding to queries about their correspondence. Their identities were confirmed by social media accounts and other publicly available data.
The most chilling note came from Karl (sometimes “Carl”) Kettler, a racist who has shared his identity for years in letters to officials and newspapers. According to information about him online, Kettler has served on the Republican committee of Hunterdon County, N.J., in recent years, and has referenced his work as a Reagan-era Senate staffer. He didn’t respond to a request to discuss the emails he sent to McClatchy.
Kettler wrote that Trump’s election was about “we, White Europeans, who created modern America” taking back the country from “Third World parasites.” And the plan, he said, included forcing all non-whites in the United States to leave “by making their existence here as uncomfortable as possible.”
While Kettler’s views are among the most extreme, it’s not much of a leap from views shared across social media. A glance through the comments sections on McClatchy and other news organizations’ reports on race- and immigration-related stories shows a range of ordinary Americans – a retired Army trainer, a professor, an engineer – using their own names and photos on screeds against immigrants, refugees, people of color and Muslims.
With the boundaries on acceptable political speech shifting so dramatically, many Americans seem unaware – or perhaps unconcerned – that there are still potential consequences to using one’s own name in fiery posts on social media or in comments sections. Some activists police those spaces by identifying offensive commenters and sending the posts to their employers. A Tumblr, Racists Getting Fired, follows the outcomes of some of those cases. Just this week, two West Virginia officials were fired over a Facebook post that described First Lady Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels.”
In Trump’s world, such talk is excused by invoking patriotism, “telling it like it is,” and a long-overdue fight against “PC culture.” At the core, however, are the same old racist, anti-immigrant and sexist ideas, said Kalia Abiade, advocacy director of the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based research center whose mission is to monitor and counter organized bigotry. The center is working on a research project, to be released in a few months, that examines the normalization of hate speech.
“One thing we have been kind of joking about in the office is how, back in the day, people would wear sheets for a reason,” Abiade said. “But now it’s unabashed. People aren’t even trying to hide their faces or their names.”
Trump’s candidacy was supported by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist factions; one KKK branch announced a pro-Trump victory march in North Carolina next month. Trump supporters have targeted Jewish reporters with Nazi imagery. Angry white throngs shouting anti-immigrant slogans became a staple of Trump rallies.
“The racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office,” tweeted John Weaver, a Republican political consultant who was John Kasich’s chief strategist, referring to Bannon’s role in the incoming administration. “Be very vigilant America.”
Trump has yet to give a full-throated disavowal of his white nationalist supporters. During his appearance on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, his first interview since the election, Trump said he was saddened by reports that minorities and Muslims have been targeted by some of his fans. He told attackers to “stop it,” but then dismissed the problem as “one or two instances” and accused journalists of exaggerating the scope.
“Frankly, they’ll take every single little incident that they can find in this country, which could’ve been there before,” Trump told “60 Minutes.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has compiled reports of more than 400 bias-related incidents since Trump won the election. According to newly released FBI hate-crime statistics, anti-Muslim attacks increased by 67 percent in 2015; monitors fear there will be an even sharper jump in 2016, given the nasty political discourse at the height of the presidential race.
“You’re signaling to America that irresponsible speech is now acceptable,” said Paul Galloway, executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council, a statewide advocacy group in Tennessee. “Freedom of speech is not the issue here. It’s what our leaders are normalizing at the societal level. This is a culture shift that’s allowing hatred to be embraced.”
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy nonprofit, was a pioneer in pushing for hate-crime legislation. This week, the organization is worried the progress will be undone by a Trump administration that doesn’t appear to give serious consideration to what authorities have warned is a growing threat from white nationalist and similar ideology seeping into everyday American life.
Deborah Lauter, the ADL’s senior vice president for policy and programs, said it’s “a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the alt-right is slated to be a senior staff member.” She said Bannon’s appointment as a White House senior strategist contradicted Trump’s somewhat conciliatory words on “60 Minutes.”
“It’s a very different audience for him now – it’s an audience of all Americans,” Lauter said. “It’s just not healthy for this country for hate speech to be mainstreamed.”