The unfolding of events in Charlottesville over the weekend and President Trump’s refusal to explicitly denounce the violence and hate of white supremacists for days or to call James Field a terrorist have made me deeply worried in new ways. The United States has suddenly slid down the slippery slope towards genocide in a noticeable way. This week’s top headlines echo those that could have been published in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide: “Claiming ‘Moral Victory,’ Far Right Surges Into View,” “The Hate He Dares Not Speak Of,” “How a Conservative TV Giant Is Ridding Itself of Regulation.”
In Rwanda in the early 1990s, the single-party state of President Habyarimana faced a political impasse. Fearful of losing their monopoly on power, an inner circle of Hutu political leaders, military officers, and businessmen who hailed from the president’s home region began to organize populist political protests touting Hutu unity and anti-Tutsi propaganda. Among the president’s inner circle of advisors were: his wife, Agathe Kanziga and her relatives, some of whom held official positions while others operated secretly behind the scenes; Hutu extremist businessman, Felicien Kabuga, who financed new media outlets espousing extremist views; and Hutu propagandist, Hassan Ngeze; as well as faithful supporters placed strategically throughout the government and military at all levels.
Similarly, President Trump includes among his inner circle of senior advisors: his daughter and son-in-law; Steve Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart News, a right-wing website that “pushed racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic material”; Sebastian Gorka, a former Breitbart employee and self-proclaimed terrorism expert with dubious credentials and who has been linked to a Nazi-allied group in Hungary; and Corey Lewandowski, a political operative who has flouted federal law and used his personal relationship with the president to lobby on behalf of foreign and domestic corporations and other entities. The inclusion of Bannon and Gorka in Trump’s inner circle signal to white supremacist groups that the president is on their side. The fusion of power and personal relationships in the White House and in the president’s broader circle impedes transparency, a hallmark of a liberal democracy.
Last Friday night, neo-Nazis, the KKK and other white supremacist groups marched through the University of Virginia campus carrying torches and shouting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” and the anti-Semitic chant “Jews will not replace us.” The title of Saturday’s march, “Unite the Right,” and the event’s message of “white nationalism” evoked the infamous speak of Leon Mugesera in 1992, where the first coded messages of genocide were spread in Rwanda: “Unite … do not let yourselves be invaded.”
In Rwanda, the Interahamwe militias who became the frontline killers during the genocide began innocuously as a group of soccer fanatics who supported the same team. Through shady financing from anonymous businessmen, the Interahamwe evolved into a nationwide movement. In 1992 and 1993, Interahamwe gangs attacked and killed hundreds of Tutsi and along with Hutu members of the political opposition. In official statements, local authorities called for calm and promised investigations into the “spontaneous ethnic killings.” The investigations went nowhere; the perpetrators were never held accountable. Unlike the Interahamwe, the white supremacist, white nationalists, and so-called “alt-right” groups who marched in Virginia already have a well-organized ideology of hate to fuel their violence. We should not forget: the KKK is the largest terrorist organization in history. The men and women who came to march for “white nationalism” on Saturday came well-armed and ready to fight. James Alex Fields Jr.’s act of terrorism and alleged murder of Heather Heyer left no doubt of the latent potential for mass violence within the white supremacist marchers’ ranks.
President Trump uses Twitter much in the same way President Habyarimana and Hutu extremists used the brash, new radio and newspapers known for their intentionally shocking style of racism passed off as so-called “frank talk” about identity politics. On Monday and again Tuesday, President Trump rebuked Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier on Twitter after Frazier resigned from the president’s manufacturing council writing that “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy.” This incident follows the patterns established during his presidential campaign, where he repeatedly threatened “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted” and “fake news,” showing the “alt-right” who to target. Likewise, the Hutu extremist media publicly identified anyone, whether Hutu or Tutsi, who publicly criticized President Habyarimana’s or Hutu extremist political parties. Steve Bannon’s disavowal of the “alt-right: as “losers,” “fringe elements” and “a collection of clowns” mirrors Rwandan officials’ dismissals of Interahamwe as youth gangs while the same officials simultaneously armed and trained them.
The United States is still a long way from genocide, but its elements have taken root. To keep from slipping on this dangerous slope, Americans of all races must continue to come out and oppose bigotry, discrimination, racism, and hate speech. White Americans, in particular, must publicly decry white supremacist ideology each and every time it appears. Do not think your rejection of racism or white supremacy can be assumed. The so-called white nationalist ideology of the “alt-right” needs to be shown for what it is: racism dressed up as pride in an ethnic heritage or as an odd flavor of Christianity. Elected leaders and officials from both parties must continue to speak against white supremacy and its false promises. Republicans must continue to pressure the president to turn away from these dangerous people he views as his base. President Trump must remove all people with connections to the alt-right from the White House and from any position where they might appear to have influence over policy or law. President Trump must stop pandering to white supremacists and the alt-right through deceptive equivocations, cunning omissions, stilted condemnations, and retracted denunciations that fail to upend what they see as his “true message” of populist violence delivered at rallies throughout his presidential campaign.