The Department of Homeland Security has released its first annual homeland security assessment, which covers a range of high potency threats to the country – from climate disasters and election interference, to the imminent rise of China. In light of what we’ve seen playing out on the streets of Charlottesville and Portland, and exposed in plain sight by the country’s president, perhaps it comes as little to no surprise that the report flagged white supremacist extremism as the country’s major security threat.
“Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger,” said Thrasymachus in response to Socrates questioning of the subject in Book I of Plato’s Republic. Individuals and groups that follow this line of thought are the ones that feel they’re losing out, and rather than attune themselves to a changing world, they fight to bring back a glorified past. It is never them but the other that is at fault; to admit otherwise would be an act of total self-destruction. Vitriolic rhetoric and violence only give the impression of power, but which plays on a psyche that has shielded fear with frenzy.
White supremacists in the United States have led more campaigns of violence in the past two years than any other domestic extremist group in the country. They have exploited social and political divisions under the auspice of justice—reclaiming their freedoms and way of life at the expense of others. As the report notes, attacks by WSE’s stem from a “longstanding intent to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians, and those they believe promote multi-culturalism and globalization at the expense of the WSE identity.”
President Donald Trump has continually downplayed the threat of white extremist groups, such as during the first presidential debate when he told the radical right-wing group “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by.” Trump used this opportunity to deflect blame on “antifa and the left,” referring to a countermovement that uses violence and other means to protest against white supremacy, police brutality, corporate hegemony and other forms of inequality. Trump has since made a statement condemning all forms of white supremacy, plainly calling out the KKK and the Proud Boys. However, his statement reversal will do very little to temper the behaviour of these groups. Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, heard the President’s request to “stand back and stand by” as a “call to action against antifa” and feels Trump “appreciates their support.” Andrew Anglin, founder of a neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, said he got “shivers” when listening to the President. “He is telling the people to stand by,” Anglin said. “As in: get ready for war.”
The DHS has faced scrutiny for the way it has handled domestic extremism over the course of Trump’s presidency. White House officials have continued to back down from the topic of rising domestic extremism, choosing to focus instead on other problems like immigration and the high turnover of NSC staff. Only when two former DHS staffers, Kirstjen Nielsen and Kevin McAleenan, pushed the issue of domestic terrorism on the department did things begin to change. Ken Cuccinelli, current deputy director at the DHS, has said he has “no qualms criticizing the white supremacy threat” and that “We [the DHS] recognize when those people act out violently, that they show the highest level of lethality, meaning if you compare the number of violent incidents to the numbers of deaths, the numbers of deaths relative to the incidents is very high compared to other types of threats.” However, when DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf was asked by Fox news anchor Tucker Carlson why it hasn’t arrested members of antifa and black lives matter, Wolf responded that “This is something I’ve talked to the AG [Attorney-General] personally about, and I know that they are working on it.” Antifa has been a prime target in Attorney-General William Barr’s federal law enforcement response, a group he feels is to blame for the violence and vandalism in the streets of Portland. He called the murder of self-identified antifa member Michael Reinoehl a “successful operation,” whose death marked a “significant accomplishment in the ongoing effort to restore law and order to Portland and other cities.”
I return to the quote from the Republic, given above. Like many historical texts, this one is not without its controversies. The lasting impression the work leaves on our history is not so much what Plato wrote, but the way he wrote it—keeping the questions alive by thinking them. As the mouthpiece of his teacher Socrates, Plato’s dialogues all follow a pattern of Socratic questioning, a form of teaching intended to peel away presuppositions and deep-seated biases that prevent true knowing.
Socrates employs this style of argument with Thrasymachus’ over his definition of justice until Thrasymachus realizes that he doesn’t really know what justice is but sees that it isn’t what he thought it was. We never really find out what the real answer to the question is; all that we have are hints. Plato’s dialogues are intentionally left unanswered, leaving the reader in a state of aporia, or puzzlement that sparks a curiosity with the questions. The Socratic method has become a hackneyed phrase, but the simple style of questioning should never lose its significance.
Plato also anticipated the rise of the demagogue in a democracy—the one who would emerge as the voice of the lower class by channelling their fears and exploiting their ignorance. We know this, we see it, we report on it. We’re angry that the others don’t get it, don’t see the irrationality of these fights and divisions. There will be no Great America when the country collapses.
We do our part by keeping engaged, critically, perceptively, with what unfolds. This also means staying curious and open to the questions that emerge within us—about our fears, angers, and presuppositions about how things are or ought to be; know thyself, said Socrates. For now, this might be the best thing we can do.
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