On Politics With Lisa Lerer: When White Nationalism Takes Center Stage

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

The dual shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, this weekend marked a uniquely American — and sadly frequent — milestone in our public life, with the number of mass shootings outpacing the number of days in 2019.

But the public conversation that followed turned an uncomfortably familiar event into a decidedly different moment: A fierce political confrontation about hate, extremists and the rise of white nationalism.

When asked by CNN whether he believed President Donald Trump was a white nationalist, former Representative Beto O’Rourke didn’t pause: “Yes, I do,” he said.

Other Democratic presidential candidates have also spoken out: “The white nationalists think he’s a white nationalist,” said Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio.

Senator Elizabeth Warren said Mr. Trump “is there with white nationalists,” while Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, said he gives “license for this toxic brew of white supremacy to fester more and more in this country.”

“You use the office of the presidency to encourage and embolden white supremacy,” former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted at Mr. Trump this afternoon.

Some of the Democratic decision to focus on extremism is undoubtedly a political calculation. The president and Republican-led Senate have shown little appetite for federal gun control measures, leaving even policies with broad public support, like tightening background checks, unlikely to gain any traction in Washington.

But it also reflects a new reality of American life.

Extremism is on the rise in the United States. Last year, 39 of the 50 killings by domestic extremists were committed by white nationalists, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

From Charlottesville, Virginia, to Christchurch, New Zealand, the president has shown an unwillingness to deal with the problem as he’s advanced a narrative of white grievance in his re-election campaign, part of what made his mention of “white supremacy” during his remarks today so notable.

A former F.B.I. supervisor told The Washington Post that the bureau was wary of investigating a group — white nationalists — in a way that “targets what the president perceives as his base.”

But Mr. Trump’s reticence on the issue hasn’t gone unnoticed by voters. A March 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans said Mr. Trump has done too little to distance himself from white nationalist groups.

Some Democrats believe their efforts to paint Mr. Trump as a kind of “radicalizer-in-chief” could emerge as a powerful attack line in the 2020 race, particularly among swing, suburban voters turned off by Mr. Trump’s tone.

But, as always in politics, there’s evidence that messaging matters. A lot.

The word “racist” — a charge leveled at Mr. Trump by some Democrats during the primary debate last week and again on Monday — is interpreted by some white voters as a reflection not only on Mr. Trump but his supporters, according to some academic research.

A 2017 study by Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina found that calling Mr. Trump or his policies “racist” turns off some white voters. Linking the same behaviors to “white supremacy,” more a reflection of Mr. Trump’s leadership, does not.

But that calculus, too, may be shifting after this weekend.

“If you think suburban voters get annoyed when he says things that are offensive, they become enraged when it’s clear he’s doing things that are causing physical danger,” said Matt Bennett, vice president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way.

“The context has changed dramatically in the last 48 hours.”

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Our colleague Astead W. Herndon, who is a national political reporter, recently interviewed the activists behind the Green New Deal. He sent us this:

Last Sunday, we aired our first episode of “The Weekly” focused on the 2020 election. In it, I followed a group of young activists who have energized and reshaped the Democratic presidential primary, particularly on the issue of climate change.

You may have heard of the Green New Deal, the big climate proposal that seeks to lower greenhouse gas emissions and tackle social inequities in one swoop. Well, the group behind that, called the Sunrise Movement, is largely a collection of teenage and mid-20s activists who have used their political savvy to turn their policy idea into a presidential litmus test.

Here are some names to know: Varshini Prakash, 25, is a co-founder and executive director of Sunrise. Ms. Prakash has been the public face of the group and was leading the sit-in at the office of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which landed the group on the national stage.

Two of Ms. Prakash’s allies are also in their 20s. Alexandra Rojas, the 24-year-old executive director of Justice Democrats, the group that is trying to pressure centrist House Democrats through primary challenges from the left, helped elect some of the Green New Deal’s most vocal champions, like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, 29, was the policy lead for the Green New Deal and helped craft the final resolution.

Ms. Gunn-Wright, a Chicago native and former Rhodes scholar, said she bristles when politicians only want to talk about climate change — and not the social goals in the Green New Deal resolution. From her experience growing up in a black Chicago community, she said connecting climate activism to social justice is necessary to build a coalition of people who care about the issue.

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