On Thursday, a federal jury found 22-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof guilty of murdering nine black parishioners last year at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
To prevent similar tragedies in the future, policymakers must examine Roof’s motivation for committing the massacre.
Roof”s manifesto outlines his conversion to the racism that ultimately led him to commit the atrocity. News coverage of the Trayvon Martin controversy prompted Roof to read about the case on Wikipedia, which led to a Google search of the words “black on white crime.” The search results were profoundly influential:
I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?
The Council of Conservative Citizens shut down its website shortly after the Roof murders, but Roof’s Google search still returns plenty of similar material. Top search hits include New Nation News (which offers a torrent of racist propaganda), an article titled “Black Crime Facts That The White Liberal Media Daren’t Talk About” on Alex Jones’ InfoWars.com, and the white nationalist website American Renaissance. These sources provide largely factual information; the propaganda is all in the emphasis: cherry-picked statistics that place black people in a poor light or photos of black faces with a recitation of the crimes committed by those individuals.
Instead, the biggest bold-faced lies about black-on-white crime in 2015 came from Donald J. Trump. Five months after the Charleston murders, Trump retweeted (by quoting) “Sean” (Twitter handle @SeanSean252), who had sent Trump a meme that supposedly stated U.S. murder statistics. The meme has been traced to Non D***o’d Goyim (@CheesedBrit), which later deleted its account (and Twitter picture link of the meme). The original meme can be viewed on the website Little Green Footballs, which concluded Goyim is a neo-Nazi.
Trump’s retweeting of the Goyim meme was probably the most-overlooked episode of his entire presidential campaign. The meme is overtly racist and stereotypes black people as being a violence-prone race who should be feared a la Willie Horton.
All of the statistics stated in the meme are grotesquely false, especially the number of whites killed by blacks (81% according to the meme, 15% in reality) and whites killed by whites (16% according to the meme, 82% in reality).
When confronted about the Goyim meme in an interview by Fox New television personality Bill O’Reilly, Trump falsely claimed that a radio show had tweeted the statistics (actually, @SeanSean252 had included Trump supporter and podcaster Wayne Dupree (@WayneDupreeShow) in his tweet). After pronouncing himself “probably the least racist person on Earth,” Trump minimized the issue, arguing repeatedly: “All it was [was] a retweet” and “This was a retweet.”
There is no such thing as “just a retweet” if done by a leading presidential candidate or the president of the United States. Nearly 8,000 people retweeted Trump’s racist retweet. Thus, Trump widely disseminated racist propaganda worse than the propaganda that inspired Dylann Roof to murder nine black people. Trump has never apologized for the retweet, issued a correction or deleted the retweet. Trump’s failure to correct the record is a serious issue, because many of his followers automatically believe his tweets are true.
A recent kerfuffle on Twitter, between senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, demonstrates the magnitude of influence that Trump and his surrogates have on Trump supporters. On December 12, Stephens reacted to news that former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina met with Trump in connection with a potential appointment to his administration by tweeting: “He called me ugly. He won. I kissed up. Carly Fiorina, setting a fine example for young women everywhere.” Stephens was referring to an episode during the Republican primary in which Trump exclaimed, while watching a video of Fiorina on the news: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” Trump’s comment was widely panned as being sexist.
Conway retweeted Stephens’ tweet with the comment: “This tweet is sexist & lacks the self-reflection of a NeverTrumper. But is it appropriate for an editorial writer at @WSJ? @rupertmurdoch” Thereafter, the Stephens tweet attracted several similar accusations of sexism from other Twitter users. However, when queried, virtually no one who had accused Stephens of sexism could clearly articulate why the Stephens tweet was sexist. Conway has not explained why she labeled the Stephens tweet “sexist,” either. Conway called Stephens’ tweet “sexist,” and that was enough information for some Trump supporters.
It’s not clear that the Stephens tweet was sexist, certainly not when juxtapositioned against the actions of Conway’s boss during the presidential election cycle. The tweet is not exactly “mansplaining,” because the Stephens tweet attacks Fiorina’s alleged hypocrisy, an accusation that requires that she be aware of what a feminist-minded woman would have done. The Stephens tweet is condescending, but only three days earlier, he had similarly tweeted that Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich were “suck-ups.”
The Stephens-Conway twitter feud provides a poignant example of the powerful influence Trump and his surrogates can have on some people. A similar dynamic has existed over the past few weeks as Trump’s supporters have stood with him in flatly rejecting the conclusions of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee email system. Trump’s common carelessness with facts is worrisome. One can only hope that, after he assumes presidential duties, Trump and his advisors will grapple with the notion that communicating erroneous or context-free information can have serious, even deadly, consequences.
Currently the principal of Everest Law Firm in Alexandria, Virginia, Kris Hammond has served as an attorney for a district court judge, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the U.S. Department of Justice in its Civil Rights Division. He has run for office twice and was an elected delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention.