How Trump incites violence: Understanding stochastic terrorism

Three years ago, on 9 August 2016, Rolling Stone magazine published an article by Drexel University Law Professor David Cohen on stochastic terrorism and the messaging coming from the Trump campaign.

At the time, stochastic terrorism was a relatively obscure academic term, but his column helped propel it into today’s lexicon, and recent events have prompted discussion on how it is operating in our country today. It is most obvious in hindsight – after selected people are repeatedly demonized, after they are targeted for removal from society, and after the righteous cause becomes manifest in violence by the now-ubiquitous lone wolf.

Writings from the man who opened fire in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, on 4 August 2019, echoed repeated messages from Donald Trump. In a racist manifesto, the shooter railed against the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and against the media, using language used by Trump ad nauseam in his tweets and speeches. 22 people died violently and dozens of others were seriously wounded by the inspiration of those words.

When Cohen wrote about stochastic terrorism three years ago, he was writing about Trump in the aftermath of suggesting “Second Amendment people” – people singularly identified for their support and use of guns – could do something to stop Hillary Clinton. Since then, the message from the White House is less tongue-in-cheek and more racist and violent, targeting African Americans, immigrants and women.

Cohen’s focus has long been countering violence against another group historically linked to terrorism – anti-abortion campaigns. Cohen co-authored Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism (Oxford University Press) in 2015. The book examines how abortion providers are individually targeted by anti-abortion extremists and how the law can better respond to this type of harassment. Cohen has also written for numerous publications.

In the wake of the shooting in El Paso – followed by another deadly shooting in Dayton, Ohio – Street Roots wanted to talk with Cohen about the resonance of stochastic terrorism and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Joanne Zuhl: What is stochastic terrorism?

David Cohen: The idea is that someone who is a leader or who has a voice in the media puts out messages that there’s a reasonable certainty that someone will act on them. You have no idea who that person is, but someone, somewhere, will act on those ideas. 

So for instance, the example I use in the world of anti-abortion terrorism is Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly used his platform on Fox News to constantly talk about George Tiller being a murderer, being a killer; he must be stopped. Now, Bill O’Reilly is not going out there telling everyone out there, go and kill George Tiller. He’s not saying, hey, you, Scott Roeder, go and kill George Tiller. But it’s a reasonable possibility that someone out there would hear this message and take action, and that’s what Scott Roeder did. So there is no certainty that any one person will take action, but there is a reasonable possibility that someone out there will take action. 

[Tiller was a physician at the Women’s Health Care Services clinic in Wichita, Kansas. After repeated slander by O’Reilly on Fox News – including saying Tiller operated a “death mill” and equating him with al-Qaida, child molesters, Nazis, Hitler and Stalin – Roeder, an anti-abortion radical, shot and killed George Tiller in 2009 while Tiller was serving as an usher in his church.]

Is this done intentionally?

I don’t know if it’s done intentionally. It’s more likely done with a blind eye or a wink-wink to the risk. So I don’t know if Bill O’Reilly wanted George Tiller to be assassinated. I’m sure he’d say he didn’t. But I think he knew full well that there was a risk of his rhetoric causing this, and he did it anyway. And I think that with Donald Trump, it’s the same situation. I think terrible things about the president, but I don’t go so far as to think that he wanted things like this weekend to happen. But I think he turns a blind eye to the serious risk.

When did stochastic terrorism become a thing? 

It’s safe to say that leaders of violent movements or extremist movements probably have understood this for a long time, that they know they can get away with saying things that will incite others and not do it directly and that others will take action. I don’t think it’s new.

What are your thoughts on Trump’s comments?

It’s his whole career as a politician and as a media figure. He says things that are clearly white nationalist enthusiast, and at a May rally

, when someone talked about killing immigrants, he laughed. He talked about using Second Amendment rights against Hillary Clinton in 2016. He is inciting violence by talking about things in a way that he knows – or he should know – that someone among the people listening is going to do something about this. 

Aside from Trump, are there other types of messaging going on that are contributing to these mass shootings?

I think half of the American politicians who don’t do anything to denounce it or just denounce it by saying “thoughts and prayers” and then move on to the next topic, I think they contribute to it. So that people know that there’s not going to be any change or consequences in a bigger way. I think also politicians who mirror his rhetoric and Fox News that says similar things, in terms of talking about immigrants in a way would lead someone to want to kill them, and talking about people of color in similar ways, and talking about women in ways that they should be treated poorly. There’s a lot of people out there – Trump certainly has the biggest platform – but there are others who also have platforms that they are using similarly.

The NRA comes to mind.

I feel like they’ve been quiet the past year or two, but I know that they’re still working as an advocacy group for gun manufacturers, and they still do what they do, and they still have politicians in their pocket. But I feel like in the public presence, they’ve been quieter in the past couple of years.

Of the recent shootings, people were quick to blame video games and mental health issues. How does that play into the message?

I think it makes an easy scapegoat rather than their own ways of contributing to the situation. You can say it’s video games; that means it’s Hollywood and the media producers who contribute to it, and then parents’ decisions to let their kids play video games, so the politicians get to throw their hands up and say it’s an easy scapegoat. I don’t think the studies bear it out.

Is stochastic terrorism a crime?

No, it’s not a crime. It’s a precursor to crime, and it’s becoming hard to pinpoint who is going to take action. I don’t think you can say it’s criminal. I think it’s something we need to call out and make sure we talk about the way people’s violent rhetoric incites other people. 

Do you think that the actions talked about [a couple of weeks after the most recent mass shootings], more gun regulation, red-flag laws, are a solution to these events? 

We’re in a world where I would just love to see anything being done. Would it solve the problem? No. But I’d love to try to start to solve the problem by just passing something and make that the first of many things. But we’re in a world where nothing happens usually after these shootings, other than “thoughts and prayers” tweets, so it would be nice to try some of these things even if they’re baby steps, and then get further along the way. I would love to go the way other countries have in terms of banning some of these weapons or all guns, but we’re certainly not getting there in this country yet, but I’d like this country to try something. 

What about 8chan and these online platforms that foment these reactions to terrorist speech? [8chan was where the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto.] Do you think there are corrective measures that need to be taken there? 

I don’t know if corrective measures need to be by law enforcement, but certainly entities that are hosting these hate-filled fora need to think about what they’re doing. And maybe any entities that contribute to their financial viability need to reconsider what they’re doing and have pressure put on them – to the extent that there are messages of direct violence that need to be investigated by law enforcement to see whether that’s a threat for someone. I think there’s certainly a lot more that needs to be done with those fora. 

Are there some dog-whistle terms we all should know? What do you listen for when you hear Trump and similar people speak?

I think when you accuse entire groups of people of serious crimes like rape and murder. When you compare them to animals. When you use words like “shithole” to describe entire countries, these are sort of obvious things. It’s painting with such a broad stroke, in such a negative way. 

So it doesn’t surprise you that when he says these things, violence follows.

No, not at all. If you are someone who is in the mindset that you agree with the president and you think that he’s speaking the truth and someone tells you that an entire group is filled with murderers and rapists and you are predisposed to violence, or just taking measures in your own hands to solve problems, that’s basically saying we’ve got an entire group of people who are murdering and raping and invading this country, I’m going to do something about it. 

These are serious words that the president is speaking to people, and I don’t agree with him, but we know that there are lots of people who do, so they’re doing something about this. I think it’s horrible and wrong, but when you’re feeding people who agree with you this rhetoric, it’s just a logical next step that they’re going to do something.

What can we do, if it’s not a crime? 

That’s the big question. We need to somehow convince (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell to open votes in the Senate. I think we have to fight like hell for 2020. 

I never like to say we’re worse than it’s been before, because it’s been terrible before in lots of different ways. But it’s bad now, and the way our political system is set up, it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be an impeachment; it doesn’t look like Mitch McConnell is going to allow any kinds of votes on certain things; then the solution is 2020. We’ve got to kick Trump out and win the Senate back for the party that’s willing to do things. 

I don’t have confidence the Democrats are going to do the right things. But I think they’ll try something. But we know that Republicans aren’t going to do anything. 

David Cohen is a law professor at Drexel University.


Ex-KKK leaders: Trump is the president we dreamed of

By Adam Sennott

(856 words)

In the early morning hours of 14 July, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to lash out at four progressive congresswomen of color known as “The Squad,” telling them to “go back” to their “crime infested” countries.

Trump denied that his tweets about the congresswomen, all U.S. citizens, were racist, but people familiar with white nationalism, including former leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, say the president’s language echoes that of white supremacists.

“This is the same type of rhetoric I see frequently when I’m monitoring white supremacist groups,” said Keegan Hankes, interim research director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This kind of idea, that individuals who are from a different ethnic background or from a different country are somehow not American or less American or are not a part of … quote-unquote Western civilization.” 

Hankes said he wasn’t sure if Trump was trying to appeal to white supremacists, but he said his language was emboldening them.

“This is rhetoric that they are very familiar with and they use themselves on a lot of occasions, so I’m sure that he found common cause with many of them,” Hankes said.

Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer, wrote on his website: “This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for. And we’re obviously seeing it only because there’s another election coming up. But I’ll tell you, even knowing that, it still feels so good.”

He was also particularly honest about how he interpreted Trump’s tweets.

“So this is not some half-assed anti-immigrant white nationalism,” Anglin said. “Trump is literally telling American blacks to go back to Africa.”

Since Trump was elected, Hankes said, the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a rise in the number of hate groups across the country. Last year, the organization recorded 1,020, the largest number in its history.

“And in that increase,” he said, “we saw a 50 per cent rise in the number of white nationalist groups, and that is staggering.” 

Scott Shepherd, a former grand dragon for the KKK and organizer for David Duke’s National Association for the Advancement of White People, said the language Trump is using is attractive to white nationalists. When he was in the Klan, he said, he dreamed the country would elect a president like Trump.

“Back when I was in the movement, I was hoping there would be (a white supremacist president), and I was preaching that there would be someday,” Shepherd said. “But now that I’m out, yeah I’m surprised that Trump was elected like he was.”

White supremacists are particularly dangerous today, Shepherd said, because they aren’t wearing robes and hoods like they did when he was in the Klan. He said he was particularly blown away by the number of torch-wielding white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

“You take five Klansmen in robes and hoods and line them against a wall, and you know what they stand for,” Shepherd said. “You take five of those people from Charlottesville (and) you put them up against a wall; you don’t know because they’re wearing plain clothes.”

TM Garret, a former neo-Nazi and Klan leader from Germany, said he hears echoes of his former self in Trump’s rhetoric. Garret is now an anti-racism activist living in Mississippi, where he helps white supremacists escape hate groups.

“It’s things I would have done, things I would have said,” Garret said. “Twenty years ago, (he’s) the president I would have wanted.”

He stressed that he wasn’t calling Trump a racist, but he acknowledged that white supremacists welcomed his tweets. 

“That’s their rhetoric,” Garret said. 

He said it doesn’t matter to white supremacists that Trump later tried to downplay his tweets.

“The problem is here nobody often cares if Trump says later, ‘Um, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant they can leave.’ Nobody’s hearing that message anymore. They all hear only the hardcore message, and that’s what they stick with because that’s what extremists do,” Garret said. “They pick and choose what they want to hear.”

Darryl Davis, a black musician, racial activist and author, has been befriending members of the KKK to disrupt their ideology. He notes Trump’s history of racist rhetoric began long before he ran for president. In 1991 Trump said he didn’t want a black man counting money at his casinos, Davis noted, and in 1989, he took out a full-page newspaper ad calling for the death penalty for the five black young men who were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in Central Park.

And since taking office, Davis said, Trump has referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”

“To me, that was probably one of the most racist things he’s said,” Davis said.

Besides adopting racist rhetoric, Davis said, Trump has also brought racism in America to the surface. 

“Donald Trump essentially, again through no intelligent design of his own, he has handed us a gift,” Davis said. “He has brought this to the surface, [and] he has unveiled it, so now it’s up to us to address it and get it straight.”

Courtesy of Street Roots /



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