The Trump administration's reported new plan to change a federal program which combats violent "extremism" into a project focused exclusively on "radical Islam" looks like another step toward demonizing Muslims -- while adding to concerns that the administration will actively empower open white supremacist groups. Reuters reports that multiple inside sources say the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) grant program will be being renamed either "Countering Islamic Extremism" or "Countering Radical Islamic Extremism."
Almost every year, the white supremacist movement is the political movement that kills the most Americans. (In the rare year that they don't come in first, they come in second.) But, for many years now, the federal government has refused to focus resources on violent far-right groups. Instead, efforts have been poured into surveilling the Muslim community at large -- even going so far as to entrap Muslims in order to arrest them. The FBI also spent years fixating on eco-saboteurs and animal liberation activists, even though they had not killed anyone. The far right, however, has gotten a relative pass. This is despite white supremacists having committed mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina and Oak Creek, Wisconsin; armed conflicts with patriot movement paramilitaries in rural Nevada and Oregon; and multiple police killings by sovereign citizens.
Ignoring far-right movements seems to be a longstanding federal strategy. A 2009 DHS report warned of a potential far-right resurgence, especially if the movement successfully recruited disgruntled returning veterans. After a Republican outcry, the DHS team that produced this report was shut down, briefings were cancelled and other reports were withheld from release. Three years later, Nazi skinhead -- and veteran -- Michael Wade Page killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Even though Islamic fundamentalist violence is also a threat, "over time ... violence by terrorists in the US is by the predominately white right-wing" says Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America. He warns that "to simply focus on one will lead to a very bad outcome," and that the change in priorities is a gift from President Trump to the gun lobby, the Christian right and Islamophobes.
Although it is not clear exactly what impact ending the CVE program will have, it may weaken efforts to prevent white supremacist violence before it starts. The best-known CVE program grant that specifically counters the white supremacist movement and may be on the cutting board is Life After Hate. Run by former leaders in the Nazi skinhead movement, it does the vital work of helping people to leave these movements. (Other grants are slated to go to local police departments, city agencies and Muslim organizations.)
The first CVE grant round of $10 million was only announced a week before President Trump's inauguration. The money hasn't actually been doled out yet, and DHS Secretary John Kelly is currently reviewing the awards.
Despite some loose interpretations in the media, changing the CVE grants will not stop federal agencies, such as the FBI, from monitoring white supremacist groups. According to the DHS website, the CVE program:
provides funding for activities that enhance the resilience of communities being targeted by violent extremists, provide alternatives to individuals who have started down a road to violent extremism, and create or amplify alternative messages to terrorist/violent extremist recruitment and radicalization efforts.
Nevertheless, if the change to the CVE program happens, Islamophobes will be let off the hook in both real and symbolic ways. While the federal government increasingly portrays Muslims as perpetrators of violence, Muslims themselves are being widely targeted by violent attacks. The FBI reported that in 2015 hate crimes against Muslims had spiked by 67 percent -- and that was before Trump came to power. A Texas mosque was burned down just hours after Trump's Muslim ban was signed.
A redirection of priorities away from countering the white supremacist movement is seen as a significant mistake by those who monitor the US far right. Regarding the rumored CVE change, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Heidi Beirich said, "We can only surmise, given that Trump has repeatedly taken cues and talking points from anti-Muslim extremists and that his chief strategist is a champion of the white nationalist movement, that this is a politically motivated decision."
Local police departments may also have qualms with this change. A 2015 poll, funded by the Justice Department, showed that state and local law enforcement thought "anti-government extremism" was almost twice the threat (74 percent vs 39 percent) to their agencies as Islamist terrorism.
It's important to avoid valorizing the CVE program itself: Even before the Trump administration's announcement, the program was controversial. Although it included efforts to combat white supremacist violence, many pointed out that the emphasis was still on targeting Muslims. Some saw it as a potential surveillance tool being used against the Muslim community, and one group led by Lebanese-Americans even turned down a grant.
Still, if this change to the program does happen, it will signal that the Trump administration may be heading toward a realization of the Islamophobic threats it made on the campaign trail. In two weeks, President Trump has already engaged in an unprecedented abuse of executive power, and is attempting to turn the federal bureaucracies into a cadre of sycophants. If this change in CVE occurs, the Trump administration will demonstrate that it is not just using approaches borrowed from white supremacists, but is also willing to sit idly by as white supremacist terrorists inflict violence on other Americans.