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Former Neo-Nazi: President Trump May Be Complicit in Growing Threat of White Supremacy

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President Donald Trump is refusing to acknowledge the global rise of white nationalism in the wake of the hate-fueled New Zealand massacre that left 50 Muslim worshipers dead on Friday. Police have arrested and charged 28-year-old white supremacist Brenton Tarrant with the killings. Before the attacks, Tarrant published a manifesto in which he praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” and described immigrants as “invaders.” On the same day, Trump claimed there was an “invasion” occurring on the southern border, signing his first presidential veto rejecting a resolution reversing his declaration of a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border. We speak with Christian Picciolini, the founder of Free Radicals Project, a nonprofit helping people disengage from hate and violent extremism. He was a leading neo-Nazi skinhead and far-right extremist in the 1980s and '90s. He is the author of “White American Youth: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out.” We also speak with Khaled Beydoun, a law professor at the University of Arkansas and author of “American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Christian Picciolini into this conversation, founder of Free Radicals Project, the nonprofit that helps people disengage from hate and violent extremism, leading neo-Nazi skinhead and far-right extremist himself in the ’80s and ’90s. Talk about your response Friday, when you heard what happened in New Zealand and heard about the white supremacist, the white nationalist, who opened fire, killing 50 Muslim worshipers.

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Well, Amy, this tragedy was similar to the hundreds of tragedies that have been happening since the ’80s and ’90s. This is not an isolated incident. This is not a fringe problem. This is a transnational terrorist alliance. You know, dating back to the late ’80s and early ’90s, there have always been connections to overseas white supremacist groups connected to the United States, and this is no different.

But this is also another example of how words matter, especially words from a president, because this is now the third or fourth time, just in a matter of months, where violence has occurred or almost occurred because of words that the president said. What’s happened now is the internet has created a platform where propaganda and conspiracy theories are being spread to the farthest reaches of the internet, and it’s reaching some of our most vulnerable, marginalized, broken individuals, who are unstable but are taking these narratives, and it’s fulfilling them. It’s empowering them to a certain degree. But the end result is always violence. It’s always death. And we just saw another example of that in Christchurch. And I suspect it’s not going to be the last one we see.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to what President Trump said on Friday, when he was holding his, what he called, veto ceremony around defying Congress’s wishes—Republicans and Democratic senators and congressmembers—and saying he’s going to appropriate over $8 billion to build a wall on the border, and a reporter shouted out a question to him about the increasing threat of white nationalism.

REPORTER: Do you see, today, white nationalism as a rising threat around the world?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t, really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess. If you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that’s the case. I don’t know enough about it yet. They’re just learning about the person and the people involved. But it’s certainly a terrible thing, terrible thing.

AMY GOODMAN: “Terrible thing,” he says. Christian Picciolini, respond.

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Well, I think the president is either uninformed or he’s complicit, because this is a problem that has been very visible in our country, you know, for the last five or six decades. You know, it started with Timothy McVeigh and, really, with the Oklahoma City bombing, and it really hasn’t stopped since then.

In the '80s and ’90s, the white supremacist movement had a very concerted strategy to mainstream. We recognized back then, when I was involved, that we were too edgy. Our shaved heads, the tattoos were putting off the average American white racist. So we decided that we needed to look like them, sound like them and go where they were. So we encouraged people to grow their hair out, to trade their boots in for suits, and to get jobs in law enforcement and to go to the military and get training, and also to run for office if they had a clean record. And the fruits of that labor are now coming to fruition. But I can tell you that even 30 years ago I never would have guessed that we'd be in this position today. But I can tell you also, 30 years ago, we didn’t have a propaganda center and a command post on Pennsylvania Avenue.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the importance of the internet in all of this, Christian Picciolini. I mean, as we now know, as what happened on Friday, the shooter, as he opened fire, he live-streamed this on Facebook. He live-streamed this. We haven’t shown any of those images. Facebook would soon take that down. Of course, some caught it. Hours after Friday’s attack, the president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, blamed Trump for the rise of anti-Muslim terror in the U.S. and abroad. This is Nihad Awad.

NIHAD AWAD: The terrorist has quoted the most powerful person in the world: President Trump. And I would like to address Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump, your words matter. Your policies matter. They impact the lives of innocent people at home and globally. And you should condemn this not only as a hate crime, but as a white supremacist terrorist attack. And you need to assure all of us—Muslims, blacks, Jews, immigrants—that we are protected and you will not tolerate any physical violence against us because we are immigrants or we are a minority. … During your presidency and during your election campaign, Islamophobia took a sharp rise, and attacks on innocent Muslims, innocent immigrants and mosques have skyrocketed. We hold you responsible for this growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country and in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Nihad Awad. I’d like you to respond to that, Christian, and also the importance of the internet when it comes to the spread of right-wing white supremacy.

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Well, you know, I think a president’s words don’t just have immediate consequences; they’ll have lasting consequences for all the young people who are being born now into this environment of pure extremism.

And, you know, as far as the internet goes, let me paint a picture of who may be on the internet. It’s not just our friends and dog pictures, but there are millions of marginalized, alienated, broken young people who are looking for identity, community and purpose in real life and can’t find it there, but they can find it online. And the internet has become flooded, since the 2016 election and even just before that, by propaganda and conspiracy theories coming in from Eastern Europe and from Russia. And it’s very difficult to not land on some of this propaganda. But they’re also going to some of the most—the places where some of the most vulnerable people are—depression forums, online autism forums. They’re talking to our children over headsets when they’re playing multiplayer gaming, and they’re trying to recruit them with these narratives that are mimicking what the president is saying. And because there are so many people online who are not able to potentially establish those relationships in real life, they can build whatever identity, community and purpose they want. And the narratives are being given to them. And this has become the fastest-growing underground social movement that I’ve ever seen in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, online autism forums?

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: So, discussion forums where people are discussing, you know, living with autism, or even Facebook groups. But it doesn’t stop there. They’re going to where vulnerable people go to find help, to talk to other people, or even where young people might go where they’re looking for that sense of identity, community and purpose. This is really no different than what I used to do 30 years ago, when I used to look for vulnerable people outside of arcades or outside of punk rock concerts or skate parks, because the idea is, you are banking on the fact that somebody there is going to feel marginalized, is going to have what I call potholes that deviated their path, those things that appear in life, like trauma, abuse, poverty, mental illness, that maybe alienate them from the rest of society. And then they promise them paradise.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the Australian lawmaker who’s been publicly shamed for his comments following Friday’s massacre, in which he said immigration is to blame for the terrorist attack. Queensland Senator Fraser Anning said, “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” On Saturday, while Anning was addressing reporters in Melbourne, Australia, 17-year-old William Connolly stood behind him and cracked a raw egg on the back of his head. The far-right politician immediately swung around and punched the teenager in the face. He then attacked the teenager again, before the two were forcibly separated. A group of men then tackled Connolly to the ground and placed him in a chokehold. Connolly was briefly arrested before being released without charge. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sided with the teenager, condemning Anning’s comments and saying the lawmaker should be charged for assaulting Connolly. Let me ask Khaled Beydoun: Your response?

KHALED BEYDOUN: Yeah, you know, first, the rhetoric of Anning’s, Senator Anning’s, were, you know, pretty much echoing what President Trump has been saying for a long time. You know, one additional point I want to make, besides rhetoric and words from politicians, it’s important to also focus on how policies—right? We have a standing Muslim ban in the United States, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court, which echoes what President Trump is saying, but then emboldens what individual, private terrorists, like the one in New Zealand, go on and do. So there’s policy, and there’s also rhetoric.

But I think that we all, you know, sort of champion what Connolly did. I think that he demonstrated the kind of frustration that individuals had intellectually with the kind of rhetoric politicians are making against immigrants. And I’m happy that the prime minister of Australia sided with the kid, condemning that rhetoric, especially after the massacre. For a senator to say that after a massacre is just egregious.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted now to go to Mick Mulvaney—this was truly an astounding moment—the acting chief of staff of President Trump, who was speaking on Fox News. This is the chief of staff of the president of the United States, who found it necessary to say this.

MICK MULVANEY: The president is not a white supremacist. I’m not sure how many times we have to say that.

AMY GOODMAN: “The president is not a white supremacist. I’m not sure how many times we have to say that,” he said. Christian Picciolini, you come out of that movement. You were an avowed, proud white supremacist for decades, in the ’80s and in the ’90s. President Trump tweeted this weekend over 20 times. Not once did he mention the massacre. Can you respond to what Mick Mulvaney says? How do you define white supremacy? It has been—it is your life. You were a white supremacist for years, and now you fight against it and try to bring people out of this whole movement.

CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: Yeah. You know, I think, just like hatred, white supremacy is born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation is its mother. When we don’t understand something and we become afraid of it, sometimes that turns into hate.

I think a lot of, you know, policies that have come out of this administration have mimicked things that 30 years ago I would have applauded. In fact, white supremacists today are applauding this president’s policies and even his words. And in return, you know, on occasion, the president will retweet a conspiracy theory from a white nationalist.

This is a problem, because, one, we’re not calling it out. We obviously have very open wounds in the United States that deal with racism, that’s still affecting people. And it’s something that we shouldn’t really take lightly, because now it is turned into direct action against people of color, against Jewish people, against Muslims, and against even the media and politicians. And this is something that—you know, words really have consequences. I can tell you, Amy, 30 years ago, I wrote racist music and racist lyrics, and I performed those and sold that music. Well, I never really thought that it had gone anywhere, but, 30 years later, that music got into the hands of Dylann Roof, who posted my lyrics on a white supremacist message board just four months before walking into the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston. And that is the power, and those are the consequences, of our words.

And like I said earlier, President Trump’s words are going to have lasting implications for our democracy, for our children growing up, and for citizens now who are in fear of their lives, because we can’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem, let alone we’re not prepared to address it. In 2007, Daryl Johnson with the Department of Homeland Security called out the fact that white supremacy was on the rise. And that—under President Obama, that was shelved. So this goes back a long period in our history. This certainly isn’t just President Trump, but I can tell you that for the first time in modern history, our president’s words are actually causing people to murder each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, the alleged shooter in New Zealand praised Donald Trump, also praised Dylann Roof and talked about what an inspiration he was. And, yes, it’s very important to talk not only about what happened there, but also to talk about what happened in Pittsburgh with the killing of the Jews, the same language used—the Jewish worshipers there at the Tree of Life synagogue—talking about “invaders” and “invasion.” And that’s the same language that President Trump used, once again, on Friday, hours after the manifesto came out, repeating those words.

I want to end by reading a few of the names of the victims of the Friday massacre at the New Zealand mosques. Among the dead are 71-year-old Haji-Daoud Nabi; 44-year-old Husna Ahmed, father of two; Lilik Abdul Hamid; and 3-year-old Mucad Ibrahim—just four of the 50 people, the 50 lives lost in the terrorist attack. The Muslim community in New Zealand and millions of people around the world are mourning their deaths.

I want to thank Khaled Beydoun, law professor at University of Arkansas, author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, and Christian Picciolini, founder of Free Radicals Project, was a white supremacist himself in the '80s and ’90s and has written a number of books on this issue, among them, White American Youth: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out.

When we come back, young people take to the streets around the world to demand change around climate change. Stay with us.

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