In the five days after Donald Trump won the US presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded more than 400 incidents of “hateful harassment and intimidation” of minorities. The center, which monitors hate speech nationwide, drew on news accounts, direct reports and social media postings to find that many incidents “involved direct references to the Trump campaign and its slogans.”
Other civil rights groups have reported a rash of verbal and physical abuse targeting minorities, including Muslims, blacks, Latinos, Jews, gays, and immigrants, around the country since Nov 9, the day after the election. Clearly, the surge in hate incidents shows that Trump and his top advisers created a climate in which some supporters feel that they can openly express bigotry, racism and homophobia.
Muslims have suffered the biggest spike in attacks, partly because Trump singled out Islam for criticism throughout the campaign. On Nov 14, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 surged to their highest level in more than a decade.
The FBI data showed there were 257 reports of attacks on mosques, assaults and other hate incidents against Muslims in 2015, compared to 154 incidents the previous year – an increase of about 67 per cent. It was the highest number of incidents against Muslims recorded since 2001, when more than 480 attacks took place after Sept 11. (Hate crimes against other groups also increased last year, according to the FBI, with anti-Jewish incidents rising by 9 per cent, and anti-black crimes increasing by nearly 8 per cent.)
The surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015 was due to attacks on civilians in the United States and the West, many of which were claimed by supporters of Islamic State and its affiliates, and to the vitriolic tone of the presidential campaign. The rhetoric by Trump and some of his supporters sends a message that Muslim Americans, immigrants and other minority groups pose a danger to America.
It’s unclear whether Trump views these attacks as a serious problem, but so far he has failed to make any substantial move to promote inclusion or to reach out to minority groups rightfully worried about his election. He also offered only a tepid condemnation of post-election abuses. On Nov 13, during an interview with the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” Trump was asked about reports of his supporters harassing Muslims and other minorities. He responded: “I am so saddened to hear that. And I say, ‘Stop it.’”
And Trump has not eased fears with the early top appointments to his administration. The president-elect chose Stephen Bannon, a leader of the so-called “alt-right” movement who has expressed sympathy for white supremacist and neo-Nazi causes, as his chief White House strategist. Trump selected Jeff Sessions, a longtime US senator from Alabama, as his attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official. Sessions is a fierce opponent of immigration reform, and in 1986 Congress denied his confirmation as a federal judge because of concerns over racist comments and behavior.
Trump also appointed Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his national security adviser. Flynn has made inflammatory statements about Islam, comparing it to a “cancer” and claiming it’s a political ideology that “definitely hides behind being a religion.” In February, Flynn tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
This vitriol is reinforced by Trump. In December, after a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump shocked the world when he called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants and visitors from entering the United States – until American leaders “can figure out what the hell is going on.” During the presidential campaign, Trump called on law enforcement officials to increase surveillance of Muslim American communities and mosques. He also said he would consider registering Muslim Americans in a database, or requiring Muslims to carry special identification cards. He argued such measures would prevent future terrorist attacks.
Now that Trump has been elected president, many Muslim Americans fear that he and his confidantes will turn some of these proposals into reality. On Nov. 16, Carl Higbie, one of Trump’s advisers, appeared on Fox News to defend the idea of a national registry of Muslims – a proposal that Trump repeated numerous times during the campaign.
To defend the idea’s questionable legality, Higbie cited one of America’s darkest periods: President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision during World War Two to classify more than 100,000 Japanese, German and Italian immigrants as “enemy aliens.” That 1942 executive order, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court, paved the way for the internment of tens of thousands of noncitizens and US citizens of Japanese descent, following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I’m just saying there’s a precedent for it,” Higbie said, when challenged by Fox News host Megyn Kelly about the wisdom of establishing a national registry for Muslims.
After Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination, there was much discussion of whether he would adjust his views to appeal to a broader American public in the general election. But even after other Republican leaders denounced his comments, especially his attacks on the family of a decorated Muslim soldier who was killed in Iraq, Trump refused to curtail his criticism of Islam. As long as that strategy won him votes, he had little incentive to disavow it.
In March, during an interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, Trump declared flatly: “I think Islam hates us.” When Cooper asked him to clarify whether the religion is at war with the West, Trump added, “There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There’s an unbelievable hatred of us.”
This kind of rhetoric has real-world consequences. After the November 2015 attacks in Paris by Islamic State operatives who killed more than 130 people, and the Dec 2 shooting in San Bernardino by a Muslim couple who declared their support for Islamic State’s leader, the FBI and civil rights groups logged a surge in hate crimes against Muslim Americans. While the FBI had tracked a monthly average of 12.6 suspected hate crimes against Muslims nationwide over several years; after the Paris attacks, the rate of incidents tripled, to 38, by mid-December.
The FBI statistics on nationwide hate crimes released last week offer an incomplete picture of the problem because local law enforcement agencies provide data voluntarily to the FBI, and many fail to report hate crimes. Even FBI Director James Comey acknowledged the problem of underreporting when he released the latest figures. “We need to do a better job of tracking and reporting hate crime to fully understand what is happening in our communities,” he said, “and how to stop it.”
Because many people fail to report hate crimes to local police, civil rights groups argue that the real number of such incidents is far larger than the annual FBI data indicates. One recent government study, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, estimated that there were 293,800 hate crimes in 2012 – about 50 times higher than the FBI numbers. The study found that 60 per cent of incidents were not reported to police.
Today, as reports of hate crimes and harassment surge after a bitter presidential race, the onus is on Trump to tone down his own rhetoric and that of his advisers. But so far, the president-elect has shown little interest in tackling the wave of hatred and abuse that was partly unleashed by his campaign.