Updated 2:40 pm
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, raised himself above calling Trump voters a basket of deplorables.
“I would never say most of Trump’s voters are bigots,” said Cohen to a packed audience at the Hebrew Center. Cohen was speaking on hate and extremism in America as part of the Summer Institute Speaker Series. He tempered his remarks by saying that rather, Trump’s rhetoric has been making it OK for hate groups to come into the public eye.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has been monitoring hate crimes in the U.S. since Trump’s election. “In 10 days we had 1,000 [cases],” Cohen said. Many of the crimes, he recounted, were made in Trump’s name.
There has been public outcry against the surge of hate crimes. However, Americans need to remain realistic. “Because of our blessings, there is a naiveté to our collective conscious,” said Cohen. “We think we are immune to the dark periods of our history.” He warned that the national narrative that progress is inevitable — our “manifest destiny,” as he termed it — is false. As a nation, we can regress to social climates where racism is acceptable.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in 1971. Its work centers in the Deep South, with the motto “Fighting hate, teaching tolerance, seeking justice.” It monitors hate groups and takes them to court. From their observations, Cohen said, typically white supremacists don’t support either party; however, “Mr. Trump played footsie with them.”
This public acceptance of white supremacy and hate is especially damaging to American society. “America has never had an easy time curbing our ethnocentric tendencies,” said Cohen. It is easy to rely on the idealistic narrative that America is a nation of immigrants. However, Cohen cited historical examples of the type of welcome Klan members gave Polish immigrants in the 1920s.
More recently, however, the law center has been tracking a 20-year trend of growing hate groups, which Cohen argued has been spurred by changing demographics and a fear of being replaced. This racial anxiety was a key factor in Trump’s victory; there was also a ‘white-lash’ against eight years of a black president. In the later years of the Obama presidency, it started to not be worth it to expose yourself as a white supremacist, and most of these groups retreated from the public eye to the web. The counts of public hate groups shrunk. Cohen argued, “It may be all too predictable that Trump followed Obama.”
He also cautioned against considering racism an exclusive problem of the U.S. The U.K.’s Brexit, and political situations in Hungary, Italy, and Poland, to name a few, show that this is an endemic issue. Cohen cited a speech made by a former senior advisor to Trump, Steve Bannon, in France where he said, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” The speech was made to a party congress of the French far right National Front party.
Cohen didn’t end on a happy note, either. “I don’t have a lot of feel-good stuff to leave you with. I’m worried. We’re in for some tough times,” he said. Even though Trump will eventually be out of office, Trumpism will stick around long after the man is gone, he noted. When asked after the talk what the public can do to fight the hate speech that is characteristic of Trumpism, Cohen resorted to advice that can be quoted from almost any liberal speech: Vote, get out of your bubble, and talk to your neighbors.
Updated with more details from Cohen’s speech. -Ed.