MSNBC guest: FBI often calls white supremacist violence "hate crimes" instead of "terrorism," diverting resources from enforcement
Video ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
Extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) regularly touts its network of over 3,300 allied attorneys, who apparently agree with the organization’s anti-LGBTQ statement of faith and provide pro bono legal support on behalf of the group, but only a fraction of those allies are easily identifiable online. ADF has also removed mentions of U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco as an allied attorney from its website, adding to the program’s opacity. As ADF has no easily accessible record of its allied attorney network, Media Matters has compiled a list of nearly 300 of the attorneys by sifting through dozens of press releases and other posts on the group’s website.
ADF is one of the largest and most powerful anti-LGBTQ groups in the nation and has played a role in over 50 Supreme Court decisions, including cases regarding abortion, religion, tuition tax credits, and LGBTQ issues. The legal powerhouse has taken dozens of extreme anti-LGBTQ positions, such as supporting Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, defending the discredited and dangerous practice of conversion therapy, advocating against adoption and foster care by LGBTQ people, and supporting policies that ban trans people from using facilities that align with their gender identity. To advance its mission, ADF uses its more than $50 million in revenue to provide attorneys with “the resources, training, and support they need to stand boldly for religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.”
ADF has built a vast alliance of lawyers and supporters through its legal and religious training programs, and the group has what it calls a “powerful global network” of over 3,300 “allied attorneys.” These allied attorneys receive opportunities for funding, access to ADF’s legal resources, and additional training opportunities in exchange for a commitment to provide pro bono service, such as litigation support, media work, and aid to legislators and policymakers. ADF can activate these attorneys when it learns about LGBTQ-related events and, with their help, quickly involve itself in matters reaching down to the local level. In turn, these attorneys can also alert ADF to LGBTQ-related matters in their localities and bring the force of a national group to their backyards.
ADF’s influence is widespread; the organization has dozens of alumni and allies in influential government positions across the country. But ADF operates with an extreme lack of transparency, particularly regarding its allied attorneys, who often do not publicly identify themselves as such. It has even previously retracted its affiliation with a high-profile figure who it had reported as an ally.
A 2017 investigative report by Sarah Posner in The Nation identified Noel Francisco, the Trump-Pence administration's solicitor general, as an ADF allied attorney, citing two different ADF press releases explicitly stating that Francisco is one of “more than 3,000 private attorneys allied with ADF.” After publication, however, an editor’s note was attached noting that ADF “contacted The Nation, claiming that Francisco has never been an allied attorney” and calling it “our mistake” because its “media dept. got it wrong.” ADF promptly rewrote its press releases but did not issue corrections on either of them.
In the update, The Nation reported that ADF claimed in its email about Francisco that “its allied attorneys are not required to agree to the statement of faith [The Nation] found linked to within ADF’s FAQs about applying to the program.” The update continued:
That statement of faith includes a commitment to believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, that God designed marriage for one man and one woman, and that homosexual behavior is “sinful and offensive to God.” Later in the day, that FAQ page, too, was changed. It had read, “The application requires affirmation of agreement with our statement of faith,” linking to the statement we quoted in the story [see screenshot here]. ADF’s website now omits that clause, reading only, “You become a part of the ADF Attorney Network by formally applying and being accepted as an Allied Attorney.” But the link on the web page, before it was changed yesterday, took one to the same statement of faith that employees must agree to.
The actual application page, however, still states that you can become an allied attorney by “filling out an application online and agreeing to a statement of faith.”
These discrepancies underscore the opacity surrounding both ADF’s network of allied attorneys and the process involved in becoming one. Testimony from a recent judicial nominee only adds to this confusion. In submitted answers to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, federal judge nominee Jeremy Kernodle stated that he was an allied attorney with ADF on a 2017 case. In response to follow-up questions, Kernodle clarified that he “did not apply or request to be an ‘allied attorney’ with ADF"; “discovered that ADF had listed [him] as an ‘allied attorney’” when he began preparing responses to the questionnaire; and was “not certain when that first occurred.”
ADF’s lack of transparency around its allied attorney program is particularly troubling given the group’s widespread influence. Media Matters has compiled a list of nearly 300 allied attorneys identified in various places on ADF’s website -- but this is only a small fraction of the 3,300 allied attorneys whom ADF claims are in its network. It is unclear whether ADF’s allied attorneys remain as such for life or whether the 3,300 number includes former allied attorneys, some of whom could have cut their official ties with the group with no public record. It is imperative that media include this context when reporting about these attorneys or their involvement in LGBTQ issues and other human rights matters.
Allied attorneys are serving in positions across all three branches of the federal government and within state governments:
In Congress, allied attorney and former ADF lawyer Mike Johnson currently represents the 4th District of Louisiana in the U.S. House of Representatives. Johnson was previously a state representative and sponsored a religious exemptions bill that would have made it easier to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Trump-appointed federal Judge Kyle Duncan, the former general counsel for Becket Law, has also been labeled an allied attorney and has a history of opposing LGBTQ equality. While at Becket, which has represented anti-LGBTQ clients in the past, Duncan authored an amicus brief for the Supreme Court opposing marriage equality and was counsel in a case almost heard by the Supreme Court supporting a school’s discriminatory anti-trans bathroom policy.
Kerri Kupec, former ADF legal counsel and director of communications, currently serves in the executive branch as director of the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Justice and has defended the Trump administration’s policy of prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military.
ADF allied attorneys also serve as attorneys general -- or in their offices -- in states across the country, including Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Nevada, and Texas. In particular, allied attorneys Kevin Clarkson and Timothy Fox serve as the attorneys general of Alaska and Montana, respectively. ADF has also labeled Nevada Solicitor General Lawrence Van Dyke an allied attorney.
ADF’s allied attorney network also extends to influential private law firms:
Allied attorney Tim Swickard is a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig. Greenberg Traurig “placed 14th on The American Lawyer's 2018 Am Law 200 ranking” according to law.com, and “ranked as the 19th highest grossing law firm in the world” on the 2018 Global 200 Survey, bringing in $1,477,180,000 in gross revenue. According to the firm's website, it also “received the most overall first-tier rankings in the U.S. News – Best Lawyers ‘Best Law Firms’ report” for eight years in a row. In 2011, Swickard worked with ADF in a case against University of California-Davis, with ADF claiming the university’s religious nondiscrimination policy explicitly discriminated against Christian students because it focused on “institutionalized oppressions toward those who are not Christian” and “to those who do not practice the dominant culture’s religion.”
Allied attorney Jay T. Thompson is a partner at Nelson Mullins, which “placed 87th on The American Lawyer's 2018 Am Law 200 ranking” according to law.com, and “ranked as the 110th highest grossing law firm in the world” with $405,426,000 in gross revenue. According to Nelson Mullins, Thompson “devotes time in his legal practice to the protection of religious liberties” which is consistent with Thompson sending letters on behalf of ADF supporting prayer before public meetings in South Carolina after some organizations complained that the prayers violated the rights of non-religious attendees and others.
Allied attorney Nathan Adams IV is a partner at Holland & Knight, which “placed 42nd on The American Lawyer's 2018 Am Law 200 ranking” according to law.com, and “ranked as the 52nd highest grossing law firm in the world” with $848,191,000 in gross revenue. Holland & Knight’s website says that Adams has experience with litigation involving religious organizations, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Similar religious-exemption bills are often pushed by ADF at the state level and can be used to deny LGBTQ people equal access to the marketplace and other areas of public life based on religious grounds. As an allied attorney, Adams filed a motion on behalf of five religious institutions in Florida seeking state funding.
Allied attorney Rob McCully is a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, which “placed 99th on The American Lawyer's 2018 Am Law 200 ranking” and “ranked as the 130th highest grossing law firm in the world” with $350,700,000 in gross revenue. McCully has experience with litigation involving “government enforcement matters,” and he co-wrote an amicus brief for ADF arguing that the Federal Communications Commission should have been able to censure “indecent language broadcast during Fox’s televised Billboard Music Awards” after an appellate court overturned the censure.
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
More than half of the live news updates from the National Rifle Association’s media operation, NRATV, fearmongered about undocumented immigrants during the recent government shutdown, which was caused by President Donald Trump’s demand that Congress fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
During the 35-day shutdown, which ended on January 25, NRATV broadcast 95 segments on its news program Stinchfield. The show, hosted by conservative radio host Grant Stinchfield, consists of 10- to 20-minute hourly updates on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. EST. According to a Media Matters review, 54 of the segments aired during the shutdown fearmongered about undocumented immigrants to agitate for Trump’s fantastical and racist border wall proposal. In three instances, NRATV invited Michael Cutler, a frequent contributor to a white nationalist publication, on to the outlet to advocate for Trump’s wall. Additionally, NRATV correspondent Chuck Holton pushed explicitly white nationalist talking points during one of his appearances.
While it may seem odd that an outlet dedicated to gun-related issues would devote so much time to pushing for Trump’s wall, NRATV is actually best understood as a pro-Trump propaganda network with an explicit aim of promoting whatever his agenda happens to be that day. (In once instance, Stinchfield did connect immigration to the NRA’s goal of loosening concealed carry laws nationwide, saying we should do so because of “the issues we face with immigration and crime.”)
In this report:
NRATV’s scapegoating of undocumented immigrants for problems in the U.S. began on December 28 -- the first day that the network broadcast Stinchfield after the partial government shutdown began. Throughout his broadcasts that day, Stinchfield repeatedly raised the murder of California police officer Ronil Singh by an undocumented immigrant to create the false perception that undocumented immigrants often pose a public safety threat to those in the U.S. Falsely claiming that Trump’s wall proposal would “stop the large majority of those sneaking in today,” Stinchfield said, “We are tired and fed up of seeing innocent people slaughtered at the hands of illegal immigrants,” and added, “It is time now to stand firm with President Trump. Let’s build this wall.” During another update later that day, NRATV correspondent Chuck Holton connected without evidence the murder of a Swiss man in Acapulco, Mexico, to a migrant caravan poised to enter Mexico from Central America. (Speaking of the migrants in the caravan, Holton also added, “You can bet that these are not doctors and accountants coming along. These are unskilled laborers coming to a place that’s absolutely chock full already of unskilled laborers. So you can imagine how that’s going to go.”)
That trend would continue: During the 20 days NRATV broadcast during the shutdown, only one -- January 25 -- did not feature a segment fearmongering about undocumented immigrants. The implication that undocumented immigrants pose a grave public safety threat is meant to scare NRATV’s viewers, but it is not based on reality. Research has proved that undocumented immigrants commit crimes -- including murder -- at lower rates than people born in the U.S. do. There is no evidence that the wall would improve public safety (although Stinchfield stated that it “will instantly make us all safer” during a January 2 broadcast).
Stinchfield made up an outrageous statistic to push for the wall; during the January 8 and January 9 broadcasts, he claimed without evidence that undocumented immigrants have killed “tens of thousands” of people in the U.S. in recent years.
Making matters worse, Stinchfield’s claims about immigration were often not off the cuff -- instead they were scripted and packaged, with the same talking points appearing during multiple Stinchfield updates. Some examples:
NRATV hosted Michael Cutler during broadcasts on December 28, January 3, and January 21, identifying him in on-screen graphics as a “former INS agent.” Cutler, who is also a former fellow at the nativist Center for Immigration Studies, is a frequent contributor to white nationalist journal The Social Contract. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that the publication “routinely publishes race-baiting articles penned by white nationalists” and that it was founded “by John Tanton, the racist founder and principal ideologue of the modern nativist movement.” According to SPLC, The Social Contract Press “puts an academic veneer of legitimacy over what are essentially racist arguments about the inferiority of today's immigrants.”
A search of the journal’s website returns 21 articles authored by Cutler, including six articles published since 2017. Echoing Stinchfield, Cutler emphasized undocumented immigrant criminality during his appearances on the show. During his January 21 appearance, Cutler claimed that Democrats are betraying “national security and public safety,” and Stinchfield closed the segment by saying that Cutler “has a long history of defending our nation’s borders.”
Chuck Holton, an NRATV correspondent with a history of making racist remarks and promoting white nationalism, pushed a conspiratorial white nationalist talking point during a January 4 appearance. Holton alleged that Democrats are “trying to import a new populace that will vote for them by offering them all these free benefits” via the southern border from “Third World” countries such as India, Cameroon, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, and those “all over Africa.” Describing immigration as “trying to import a new populace” from “the Third World” is a common tactic advanced by white nationalist publications including VDare and American Renaissance.
While speaking about immigration on NRATV before the shutdown, Holton repeatedly pushed the conspiracy theory that philanthropist George Soros was behind a migrant caravan -- a remarkably similar conspiracy theory to the one that motivated a gunman who carried out a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh, PA, synagogue in October. He has also said that the migrant caravan is “an invasion under the guise of migration.”
On NRATV, Stinchfield mostly depicted undocumented immigrants as criminals poised to commit everyday violence like robbery or murder, but there were some exceptions. In one instance, he fearmongered about the prospect of undocumented immigrants getting national voting rights.
In several other cases, Stinchfield and Holton took cues from the Trump administration to raise the prospect of undocumented immigrant terrorists. For example, citing a terrorist attack in Africa and incidents in the U.S., Holton said during the January 16 broadcast of Stinchfield, “This is yet another reason why we need that wall on the southern border.” While providing no examples of terrorists crossing the southern border, Stinchfield said during a January 18 update, “Look at what happens when terrorists make their way into this country. If you want to secure the border, you do it, you build a wall.” According to the libertarian Cato Institute, no U.S. terror attack has ever been carried out by someone who crossed the border illegally.
The sickening irony of NRATV’s obsession with the supposed criminality of undocumented immigrants is that if the outlet was truly concerned about public safety and murder, it would devote its time to reporting that high gun availability and lax firearm laws are the driving factors behind the U.S.’s shockingly high homicide rate, with the vast majority of murders committed by people born in the U.S. But it doesn’t. The NRA, of course, opposes any meaningful action on gun laws to stem that epidemic of violence.
Stewart Rhodes and his Oath Keepers embrace white supremacist talking points and have provided security to far-right extremists while endorsing the use of “lethal force” against left-wing protesters
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and members of his far-right armed militia were spotted in the front row at President Donald Trump’s February 11 rally in El Paso, TX. Rhodes has advocated for training armed militias to do Trump’s bidding, embraced white supremacist conspiracy theories, endorsed using “lethal force” against left-wing protesters, and called on armed Oath Keepers to stand guard outside of schools and to spot unauthorized crossings at the U.S. southern border.
Rhodes founded Oath Keepers “in the direct aftermath of the election of the nation’s first black president,” Barack Obama, in reaction to the baseless claim that the federal government was hellbent on destroying liberties protected by the Constitution. The militia holds radical anti-government beliefs and is made up of “current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders” claiming to uphold the oath they made to “support and defend the Constitution.”
In reality, the group and its founder openly espouse radical beliefs. Some of these include calling transgender rights “nuts,” dismissing the racist use of blackface as “nonsense,” and claiming Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is using identity politics focused on “anyone not white” to “weaponize them against their own nation.” In the Obama years, the group promoted conspiracy theories such as "mass, forced internment into concentration camps" and claimed that they were operation to "prevent dictatorship" in the United States. In 2015, Rhodes reportedly said that Sen. John McCain "should be hung by the neck until dead"; Rhodes also was one of the far-right figures pushing the Jade Helm conspiracy theory. Rhodes also reportedly claimed that the Obama administration was using Ferguson riots and the Ebola virus to "spark a race war."
Rhodes has repeatedly pushed baseless claims of massive voter fraud by undocumented immigrants and directed his armed militia to combat it. In the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election, he announced “Operation Sabot 2016,” and asked fellow Oath Keepers to “go out into public on election day, dressed to blend in with the public … with video, still camera, and notepad in hand, to look for and document suspected criminal vote fraud or intimidation activities.” While he asked that they not bring guns, the Oath Keepers are closely associated with open carry protests, including the open carrying of firearms during protests against police brutality in Ferguson, MO, in which armed members looked down from rooftops.
On December 5, Rhodes went on Alex Jones’ Infowars outlet to push the white supremacist talking point that a caravan of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border was evidence of “globalists” (a term with anti-Semitic connotations) executing what he described as “the latest tactic or assault in an ongoing war on the West to flood us with Third World people and then overwhelm us and kill our countries.” He called for the Justice Department to indict “all these NGOs that are assisting these illegal aliens coming into the United States.” A similar white supremacist conspiracy theory that migrant caravans are the result of a Jewish plot to replace white people was embraced by the shooter who went into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, and killed 11 Jewish people in October.
Two days after Infowars posted Rhodes’ appearance, his group issued a “call to action” on Twitter, asking members to head to the southern border “to conduct surveillance and to spot and report any suspected illegal infiltration of the U.S.”
Rhodes has also talked about forming an armed militia to do whatever Trump wants. During one of his frequent guest appearances on Infowars, Rhodes announced the launch of “a new program called Spartan training groups.” Rhodes said that the program is for “the average American” to learn combat skills to be available if “called out by the president of the United States to serve as a militia of the United States to secure the schools, protect our borders, or whatever else he asks them to do.”
He also talked about the group’s involvement in providing security for far-right rallies and advocated for armed militias to recruit retired police for their nationwide concealed carry privileges as a “final line of lethal force” against anti-fascist protesters in any jurisdiction. Rhodes alluded to working alongside other violent extremist groups such as Patriot Prayer -- the group responsible for a cache of firearms found on a Portland, OR, rooftop in preparation for a protest last summer -- and the self-identified gang Proud Boys.
In another appearance on Infowars, Rhodes hinted at the Oath Keepers murdering anti-Trump protesters, saying that left-wing protesters were coming close to “forcing” militias like his to have “no choice” but to “kill them.”
As local and national media shine a spotlight on an Arizona law directing specialty license plate fees to ADF, the extreme anti-LGBTQ group went straight to a friendly right-wing media platform
A recent open records request revealed that the state of Arizona has quietly given extreme anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) more than $1 million over the last 6 years through sales of the state’s “In God We Trust” specialty license plates.
The plates were created in 2008 to fund state highways and road maintenance, but state legislators amended the original law in 2011 to send donations to the then-unnamed nonprofit that paid to design the specialty plate -- which newly released public records revealed to be ADF. Two of the legislators who sponsored bills amending the law were previously represented by ADF in court.
Local and national media have shined a spotlight on the funding after advocacy organizations uncovered the story, but ADF went to right-wing PJ Media to defend itself without explaining the lack of transparency around the practice.
According to a PinkNews report, a public records request found that ADF has received over $1 million from the sale of nearly 60,000 “In God We Trust” license plates “without being disclosed to people who buy the license plates.”
The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) lists the specific recipient or cause for dozens of specialty license plates available to Arizona drivers, but it does not disclose ADF as the recipient for donations from the “In God We Trust” plates. Instead, ADOT’s ServiceArizona website states that donations from the sale of the specialty plates go “to promote the national motto ‘In God We Trust,’ 1st amendment rights and the heritage of this state and nation.” But data obtained through an open records request by the Secular Coalition for Arizona and American Atheists indicate that ADF has been the recipient for the last six years. These groups have launched a campaign to raise awareness of ADF’s involvement and to give Arizonans the opportunity to report if they have inadvertently donated to ADF.
Arizona is one of at least 20 states with the option to purchase a specialty license plate with the motto “In God We Trust,” and Mississippi included the motto on the state’s regular license plates beginning last month. This is part of a broader state-level strategy known as “Project Blitz” that seeks to advance anti-LGBTQ policies by introducing dozens of seemingly innocuous state-level bills, such as those that publicize the “In God We Trust” motto, alongside more extreme measures.
Other states also donate a portion of the fees from sales of “In God We Trust” license plates to nonprofit organizations, but unlike Arizona, those states do note the specific beneficiaries. For example, Texas license plate donations go to the Texas Veterans Commission, and Florida plate sales benefit the In God We Trust Foundation. However, even these seemingly transparent donation policies can hide ties to extreme anti-LGBTQ groups -- the advisory council of the In God We Trust Foundation includes the Florida Family Policy Council, which is headed by ADF allied attorney John Stemberger.
ADF is one of the largest and most powerful anti-LGBTQ groups in the nation. The legal powerhouse has taken dozens of extreme anti-LGBTQ positions, such as supporting Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, defending the discredited and dangerous practice of conversion therapy, advocating against adoption and foster care by LGBTQ people, and supporting policies that ban trans people from using facilities that align with their gender identity. The group operates with an extreme lack of transparency, particularly regarding its network of over 3,300 allied attorneys, who often do not publicly identify their affiliation with ADF. ADF also has alumni and allies in influential government positions across the country, including state attorneys general and their staffs.
When Arizona created “In God We Trust” plates in 2008, the legislation specified that $17 from sales of each plate that did not go to administrative fees “would go not to a particular group but to the state highway fund to build and maintain roads,” according to the Arizona Daily Sun. In 2011, however, the state legislature passed three bills that included amendments to the law that allow the plate’s financial sponsor to receive those donations instead of the state highway fund. As the recently released documents revealed, that beneficiary is ADF.
Arizona state Sen. Linda Gray sponsored two of the bills including language amending the previous law to direct funds to ADF, and Rep. Nancy Barto was listed as a sponsor of the third. Before sponsoring these bills, both Republican legislators were ADF clients in lawsuits involving a 2009 law that made it harder to receive an abortion in the state.
In response to media coverage of Arizonans unwittingly donating to ADF through license plate sales, the group turned to right-wing outlet PJ Media to present its side of the controversy. PJ Media’s coverage has been friendly to ADF in the past, and ADF has given the outlet exclusive quotes on other issues as well.
PJ Media claimed that “ADF may welcome the transparency” but is opposed to legislation that would prevent ADF from receiving donations from the plate. Additionally, ADF’s remarks to PJ Media seemed to focus on its designation as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center rather than addressing any of the group’s discriminatory anti-LGBTQ positions or why it was never publicly listed as the beneficiary of donations from the plates. ADF did not appear open to transparency during the six years it was secretly receiving money from the program.
Right-wing evangelical outlet CBN News used the story to push the false premise that LGBTQ people and Christians are at odds with one another, calling it “the latest salvo of the culture wars pitting the LGBTQ community against Christians.” The post described ADF as “a group that advocates for religious freedom in the courts, and Christians are frequently the targets of LGBTQ activists in those cases.”
Pitting religious people against LGBTQ folk is a false dichotomy, as a majority of religious groups believe that homosexuality “should be accepted.” Similarly, many religious Arizonans who have bought an “In God We Trust” license plate likely would not support ADF’s extreme anti-LGBTQ agenda. In fact, nearly 1,300 individual leaders from various faiths signed on to an amicus brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission against ADF’s client Jack Phillips, a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The brief argued that public accommodation laws should protect LGBTQ people and “be applied on the basis of religiously neutral principles of equal protection under the law.
Some religious leaders in Arizona have already started speaking out after learning that ADF benefited from sales of the license plates, including David Felten, a pastor at Fountain Hill United Methodist Church:
This is not just an abstract violation of church-state separation. It’s a very real rejection of Arizona’s LGBTQ people by the very government that is supposed to impartially support and protect all of its citizens.
As part of the campaign by Secular Coalition for Arizona and American Atheists, Arizonans can report if they inadvertently donated to ADF through the program but do not support its agenda. Additionally, Democratic state Sen. Juan Mendez has proposed one bill that would “require ADOT to more fully disclose where the money from specialty plates goes” and another bill that would “eliminate the ADF plate.”
Additional research by Brennan Suen
On February 9, President Donald Trump tweeted an attack on Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that not-so-subtly joked about the Trail of Tears, a horrifying chapter of American history in which the U.S. government forced thousands of Native Americans to make a genocidal relocation march. But some in the media have glossed over or ignored Trump’s racist mockery of the genocide.
Following Warren’s formal announcement that she will be running for president in 2020, Trump revived one of his go-to racist attacks, referring to her as “Pocahontas” and promising to see her “on the campaign TRAIL”:
Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2019
Many journalists were quick to point out that Trump’s capitalization of “TRAIL” in the last sentence of the tweet is a reference to the Trail of Tears. In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson -- whom Trump admires greatly -- forced thousands of Native Americans to abandon their land and march more than a thousand miles to make way for white settlers. Thousands of Native Americans died during the march, which is remembered by the Cherokee Nation as the "trail where they cried."
After Trump sent out the tweet, his son Donald Trump Jr. posted a screenshot of it and a callous response to Instagram, writing, "Savage!!! Love my President”:
In some discussions of the tweet, media reacted to the Trumps’ racism and casual disregard for atrocity with indifference or even ignored it all together. For example, on February 10, segments of Fox News’ America’s News Headquarters and NBC’s Today both showed the tweet without making any mention of the reference to the Trail of Tears. The February 10 edition of MSNBC Live also showed the tweet, but the panel did not mention the reference to genocide and guest Ned Ryun immediately turned to bashing Warren instead of Trump. Fox & Friends Sunday went even further, with co-host Pete Hegseth attempting to defend Trump by claiming, “No one is making fun of the fact that people suffered and died. Like, you can recognize a historical tragedy while at the same time also making fun of someone who misrepresented themselves.”
This isn’t the first time that media figures and outlets have glossed over, downplayed, or defended Trump’s racism. Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of the media’ repeatedly lowering the bar on when to hold the president accountable.
After dozens of Democratic congresswomen wore “suffragette white” to the 2019 State of the Union address, some far-right media figures smeared them by comparing them to the Ku Klux Klan.
Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) wrote on Twitter that she and some of her colleagues were wearing white outfits to “honor all those who came before us & send a message of solidarity that we're not going back on our hard-earned rights!”
I'm looking forward to wearing suffragette white to #SOTU next week with all @HouseDemWomen! We'll honor all those who came before us & send a message of solidarity that we're not going back on our hard-earned rights!https://t.co/CVPLLIunde
— Rep. Lois Frankel (@RepLoisFrankel) January 30, 2019
Far-right media seized on the pro-women’s rights action by depicting the congresswomen as members of the KKK.
Far-right troll Jack Posobiec wrote, “I haven’t seen so many Demcorats (sic) dressed in white since Republicans freed their slaves”:
I haven’t seen so many Demcorats dressed in white since Republicans freed their slaves
— Jack Posobiec 🇺🇸 (@JackPosobiec) February 6, 2019
During an Infowars broadcast covering the State of the Union speech, a doctored image depicted Klan hoods on the congresswomen while host Alex Jones said, “You wait until those women are running the country for foreign banks and the Chicoms and up against the Russians and everybody else. I mean, my God. Look at them. I mean, this is pathetic.”
Ann Coulter promoted a tweet from right-wing New York radio host Mark Simone that depicted the women as wearing Klan hoods:
Turning Point USA’s Richard Armande Mills wrote, “All they’re missing are hoods and grand-wizard [Virginia Gov. Ralph] Northam to lead the way.”
All they’re missing are hoods and grand-wizard Northam to lead the way. https://t.co/KAl5akrApC
— Richard Armande Mills (RAM) (@RAMRANTS) February 6, 2019
Pro-Trump YouTuber Joey Salads also likened the congresswomen to the KKK:
Benjamin says racial and homophobic slurs are “hilarious” and got kicked off of Twitter after going on a weird rant about the genitals of a Parkland shooting survivor
PragerU, the online operation peppering the internet with viral far-right propaganda, featured bigoted Owen Benjamin in its latest video. Benjamin was kicked off of Twitter permanently in 2018 following a bizarre rant about Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg’s genitals.
Owen Benjamin's Twitter ban comes after he went on a bizarre rant about David Hogg's genitals...see for yourself https://t.co/hiztmQE3IZ
— Will Sommer (@willsommer) April 5, 2018
In his February 4 video, Benjamin attempted to dissuade PragerU’s audience from arguing with leftists by calling “raising kids without a gender identity” “a form of child abuse” and by baselessly claiming white people are being demonized “for the world’s problems.”
Benjamin is a right-wing comedian whose brand of “criminally unfunny” comedy includes using the N-word and homophobic slurs and calling it “hilarious.” He’s also a conspiracy theorist who has claimed to hundreds of thousands of viewers on his YouTube channel that the moon landing never happened.
PragerU has a history of using its massive, wide-reaching platform to push misinformation and extremism. It has blamed racial disparities on "black culture," and on Columbus Day, it featured a video that showed a racist depiction of indigenous people as cannibals wielding salt-and-pepper shakers. On Facebook, the PragerU Brasil page has posted a Russia Today article to its over 14,000 followers falsely claiming that the American Psychological Association had stated it was “bad to be a man.” PragerU’s founder, Dennis Prager, has waged a dangerous, yearslong campaign against basic facts about AIDS, once calling heterosexual AIDS an “entirely manufactured” myth.
And yet, PragerU’s propaganda and misinformation are being inserted directly into schools, as the company provides “content directly to teachers and students” and is “developing relationships with educators ‘in college, high school, middle school and homeschools.’”
Loading the player reg...
Editor’s note (2/21): Following the publication of this post, Smollett was arrested on February 21 by Chicago police “on suspicion of filing a false report about” the alleged assault.
Newsmax TV and Rebel Media host John Cardillo amplified a far-right conspiracy theory that originated from message boards and social media accounts and accuses Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) of staging the alleged anti-queer and racist attack against actor Jussie Smollett. The conspiracy theory contends that the senators' intent in drawing attention to a case like Smollet's was to help pass their proposed anti-lynching legislation. The baseless claim connects with the far-right narrative that Smollett's alleged attack -- which reportedly included the attackers wrapping a rope around the Empire star’s neck -- was a hoax in efforts to minimize the importance of anti-lynching legislation.
Harris and Booker, both of whom recently announced their 2020 presidential candidacies, introduced the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) last summer. The bill, which unanimously passed in the Senate, would classify lynching as a federal hate crime. Earlier attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation in Congress failed repeatedly during the 19th and 20th centuries when the act of racial terrorism was widespread across the country. Both Harris and Booker have called the attack on Smollett a “modern-day lynching.”
Here’s how the conspiracy theory bubbled up from the fever swamps to Cardillo’s Twitter feed:
Reddit’s “r/conspiracy” forum:
Newsmax TV host John Cardillo:
The community has been struggling with increasing violence for years, and two recent attacks show that none of us is safe
Editor’s note (2/21): Following the publication of this post, Smollett was arrested on February 21 by Chicago police “on suspicion of filing a false report about” the alleged assault.
The threat of violence and harassment is nothing new for those in the LGBTQ community, particularly those who are trans or people of color. We know that our safety is at risk when we hold hands in public; queer sex workers know they risk their lives just by going to work; trans women of color know that they could be killed at any time just for existing in public. The list goes on. But after two reports of high-profile queer people being beaten or harassed for their identities in the past week, it seems like everyone else might finally be waking up to the reality that their LGBTQ friends and family are simply not safe.
In the early hours of January 29, two people reportedly physically attacked Empire actor Jussie Smollett -- a gay Black man -- while “yelling out racial and homophobic slurs towards him,” according to police. And on January 30, anti-trans so-called “feminists” barged into a meeting and recorded themselves repeatedly harassing and misgendering high-profile trans activist and author Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Smollett’s attack has been significantly covered in news media, and rightly so. But there is also Candice Elease Pinky, the Black trans woman who was shot in a Texas gas station parking lot on January 24, and Dana Martin, the first reported trans woman to be killed in the United States in 2019. According to HRC, there were “at least 26 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means” in 2018. And in 2017, there were “a total of 52 reported anti-LGBTQ homicides,” according to a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP); that number reflected a staggering 86 percent increase in single-incident reports from the previous year. This violence is most frequently targeted toward trans women of color, but even homicides of queer cisgender men went up from four to 20 between 2016 and 2017 -- a fivefold increase.
But many Americans who are LGBTQ allies had no idea. In 2018, Media Matters published a yearlong study of TV news coverage of those 52 homicides in 2017, and what we found shows why Smollett’s attack may have been such a wake-up call for so many: The media was barely touching these stories. Throughout a year of coverage, seven networks discussed anti-LGBTQ violence for less than 40 minutes total -- and a quarter of that discussion came from Fox News, which regularly traffics in anti-LGBTQ animus.
And it’s not just physical violence that we should be talking about. The majority of LGBTQ Americans, like McBride, “have experienced some form of harassment or discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.” A 2017 Harvard study put numbers to it:
Regarding individual forms of discrimination, a majority of all LGBTQ people have experienced slurs (57%) and insensitive or offensive comments (53%) about their sexual orientation or gender identity. A majority of LGBTQ people say that they or an LGBTQ friend or family member have been threatened or non-sexually harassed (57%), been sexually harassed (51%), or experienced violence (51%) because of their sexuality or gender identity.
During Smollett’s attack, the assailants reportedly yelled, “This is MAGA country.” This sentiment should not be a surprise; it has come straight from the top. President Donald Trump has regularly used his office as a platform to bully and demean others, and his followers have become emboldened. Bullying is increasing; right-wing extremists are circulating liberals’ private information “to encourage harassment or violence”; and right-wing terrorism remains the biggest national security threat. All this while, as trans advocate Brynn Tannehill explained, right-wing media have been inciting violence against transgender people by demonizing them as a threat to women and children as well as U.S. national security, even sometimes hinting that violence is "an appropriate response to encountering transgender people in public."
But there is another group of people who claim to be liberal and feminist yet also pose a direct threat to the LGBTQ community. “Trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” also known as TERFs, are anti-trans activists who claim that transgender people threaten the safety of cis women, and they are behind the targeted harassment and misgendering of Sarah McBride.
TERFs have worked for years to dehumanize transgender people and to exclude trans women from female spaces and the broader movement for women’s equality, and they have increasingly cozied up to the right to do so. On January 28, just days before two TERFs harassed McBride on video, the right-wing Heritage Foundation hosted a panel of anti-trans activists “from the Left” to argue against a bill that aims to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in current nondiscrimination laws. Introducing the panel, vehemently anti-trans researcher Ryan T. Anderson made it clear that combating trans equality is a value the right shares with TERFs, and they are willing to work together despite their differences on other issues. Heron Greenesmith, researcher at the think tank Political Research Associates, described the alliance between the right and TERFs to NBC News:
“They are capitalizing on a scarcity mindset rhetoric … saying there aren’t enough rights to go around, and therefore we must prioritize cis women over everyone else,” Greenesmith said, referring to nontransgender women. “That’s right out of the right’s playbook, when they say, ‘Let’s prioritize citizens over noncitizens, let’s prioritize white people over people of color.’”
Anti-trans harassment is another piece of the right-wing playbook that TERFs have capitalized on. The two TERFs who interrupted McBride during a private meeting -- Posie Parker and Julia Long, who identifies as a lesbian -- repeatedly misgendered her on video, describing her as “male,” and pushed myths about trans-inclusive facilities being a safety risk for cisgender women. According to PinkNews’ report, Parker had also been at the Heritage Foundation just days before its panel, though she denied involvement with the January 28 event.
The attacks on Smollett and McBride should serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the country. Black queer folk, transgender people, queer immigrants, and those at the intersections of these identities have been living with this fear and pain for years, and it has shown no sign of getting better. The right has been emboldened to enact violence and harassment against the LGBTQ community, and it is actively trying to fracture our community by teaming up with TERFs. In fact, this alliance has given this strategy a name: “divide and conquer.” One anti-trans activist said, “If you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success.”
But we will not be fooled, and we will not be divided. Queer equality and liberation are nothing if they are not intersectional. As the last week has shown, if one of the community’s most beloved actors can’t walk home without experiencing racist and homophobic violence, and one of our most effective advocates can’t go to work without being targeted for harassment, then none of us is safe.