Can You Trust Trump to Use Domestic Terrorism Resources to Go After White Supremacists?

The threat of domestic terrorism is frequently used to crack down on dissent.



If you think Donald Trump coddles white supremacists, would you trust his Department of Justice to go after white supremacist violence?

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) seems to.

The same SPLC that has warned of a Trump advisor downplaying white supremacist violence, the same SPLC that says the president is responsible for a resurgence in white supremacism, is pushing the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Mich.) that would provide more resources for the FBI to investigate domestic terror. The bill's introductory findings refer to a spate of right-wing violence, but by and large the provisions themselves are up to the FBI to interpret.

The FBI, meanwhile, seems far more likely to go after "black identity extremists" (BIEs), a term it created this year to cover what it perceives as politically motivated anti-police violence by African Americans.

"The problem isn't that the FBI doesn't have enough laws on the books or resources to tackle white supremacist violence, it's that they choose to disproportionately investigate BIEs or eco-terrorists instead," says Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. "Therefore this bill might not change the equation as the senators intend, but only provide more resources for abusive and wasteful surveillance and investigations of political dissent and protest activity."

There are a few measures in the legislation that could be useful, if the FBI made a good-faith effort to implement them. Its data reporting provisions, for example, could help illuminate how the bureau uses its resources. And the bill would require the feds to assess the threat posed by "White supremacist infiltration and recruitment of law enforcement officers and members of the Armed Forces." Such infiltration is a serious problem: A classified 2015 FBI report found that there were often links between the law enforcement community and white supremacists under terror investigation.

But you have to balance those measures against the FBI's long and storied history of targeting dissent under the guise of counterterrorism. German notes that the agency spent years claiming eco-terrorists were the top domestic terror threat, "even though there are no U.S. deaths appropriately attributed" to any environmental activist group.

Yet while many Democrats, and even some Republicans, insist they understand the threat President Trump poses to democratic norms, they continue to support measures that accumulate power in the executive branch.

Meanwhile, the Senate is trying to make it easier for the feds to spy on Black Lives Matter (or "black identity extremist") activists, teen sexters, and all other kinds of boogeyman. The latest Section 702 "reauthorization" is actually an expansion of warrantless surveillance powers. The bill passed committee by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

Lawmakers worried about how Trump could abuse his authority ought to be limiting, not expanding, the power that makes the person who occupies the presidency so dangerous. And they ought to understand that authoritarianism flourishes in the name of fighting terrorism, abroad as well as at home.