We generally pay little attention to what the talking heads on television say, and think others should, as well. CNN, Fox, MSNBC — doesn’t matter which flavor of cable news you prefer, turn them all off. There is very little news there, anyway, and what news they do have is delivered with an unhealthy dose of opinion — not even very substantive opinion, either, but more ratings-driven entertainment dressed up as opinion. You can find far more substantial options for both news and opinion online, no matter what your ideological persuasion is.
However, when one of those talking heads has nearly 3 million viewers and tells them that the threat of white supremacists is “not a real problem” — this less than a week after the slaughter in an El Paso Walmart — that demands a response.
We here in Virginia — the state that is home to Charlottesville, a place lately in the news for something other than Thomas Jefferson and his university — know better.
Here’s what Tucker Carlson said this week about white supremacists:
“The whole thing is a lie. If you were to assemble a list, a hierarchy of concerns of problems this country faces, where would white supremacy be on the list? Right up there with Russia probably. It’s actually not a real problem in America. The combined membership of every white supremacist organization in this country would be able to fit inside a college football stadium. I mean, seriously, this is a country where the average person is getting poorer, where the suicide rate is spiking – ‘white supremacy, that’s the problem’ — this is a hoax. Just like the Russia hoax, it’s a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power. That’s exactly what’s going on.”
There’s a lot going on in Carlson’s comments, so let’s try to respond to the right parts. In Carlson’s defense, nobody is saying white supremacists are the problem facing the country. That implies they are the only problem or the biggest problem. But they clearly are a problem. Carlson, though, seems to discount even that. On that score, he is not only wrong, he is dangerously wrong. This is not some “conspiracy theory,” as he puts it. Otherwise, Heather Heyer would still be alive. So would a lot of Walmart shoppers in Texas — and a lot of worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
To dismiss the threat of white supremacists as being “just like the Russia hoax” is jaw-dropping. If by “the Russia hoax,” Carlson means the idea that Donald Trump and/or his campaign conspired — “colluded” is the popular term — with the Russians in the 2016 campaign, well, special counsel Robert Mueller seems to have the final word on that. He found no such collaboration and both parties ought to be relieved by that conclusion. However, it’s not a hoax that Russia tried to interfere with our elections. Trump and his acolytes may find it hard to say such words, but Trump’s own appointees in the intelligence and law enforcement agencies have no problem saying so.
Even if we give Carlson the benefit of the doubt as to what he’s trying to say, there’s still this problem: — he discounts the threat of white supremacists by saying their numbers are relatively few. “The combined membership of every white supremacist organization in this country would be able to fit inside a college football stadium,” he said. That may be true, but it is irrelevant. The question is not simply numbers but their lethality. The combined members of Al-Qaeda might have fit within a college football stadium in 2001, but what really mattered is that 19 of them fit within American airplanes on September 11. Likewise, even if the number of white supremacists remain relatively small, what matters is that one of them was behind the wheel of a car and ran down counter-protestors in Charlottesville — or behind the trigger of the gun that killed nine people in a Charleston church — or . . . Well, you get the idea. We’re surprised Carlson did not.
Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, more people have been killed in the United States by far-right domestic terrorists than by jihadists, according to figures compiled by centrist Washington think tank New America. Conservatives used to be the party of law-and-order; where are the law-and-order sensibilities here? In the most recent regular session of the General Assembly, Attorney General Mark Herring offered a number of measures intended to crack down on white supremacists. Not a single one passed the Republican-controlled legislature. Some never even got a hearing. It’s not because Republicans (as some on the far left might think) are the party of white power; it’s likely because they simply don’t take the problem seriously.
Don’t take our word that white supremacists are a problem. Instead, take the word of one of Trump’s own appointees — the Roanoke-based U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen. Cullen has been sounding the alarm about far-right extremists for some time now. He’s called them “grave threats” and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this year (not the usual venue for a Trump appointee) in which he said that “white supremacy and far-right extremism are among the greatest domestic-security threats facing the United States.”
He used the forum to lament the limitations of federal hate crime laws and call for passage of “a domestic-terrorism statute that would allow for the terrorism prosecution of people who commit acts of violence, threats and other criminal activities aimed at intimidating or coercing civilians.” Needless to say, Congress has done no such thing.
Cullen didn’t have to do anything in connection with the Charlottesville rally. Murder is a state crime. Cullen filed 29 federal hate crime charges against James Fields Jr. anyway — and secured convictions. Turns out, that was just the beginning. Cullen has used his office to go after other white supremacists, charging them in connection with violent acts at the Charlottesville rally. Thanks to Cullen, federal agents as far away as California have been involved in tracking down suspects and bringing them back to Charlottesville for trial. “We’re not finished,” Cullen says.
Perhaps Carlson ought to have Cullen on his show. We don’t know if Carlson is educable, but we have no doubt that many of Carlson’s viewers would find Cullen’s insight quite illuminating. “Violent domestic terrorism is becoming tragically more frequent,” Cullen told The Washington Post recently. “We have to respond.” He is. Others should, too.