Early Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump retweeted three videos purporting to show brown Muslims assaulting white people and lashing out against Western culture. The titles alone underscore the president’s obsession with xenophobic appeals and religious violence.
The titles and captions are partially inaccurate — for one, it is unclear that the assailant in the first video is Muslim or what, apart from the video’s title, would lead a viewer to assume that he’s Muslim. Also, the Dutch Embassy tweeted at Trump to stress that “the perpetrator of the violent act in this video was born and raised in the Netherlands.” The videos themselves are as shocking as the fact that the president shared them, if only because their ideological significance among their intended audience so obviously transcends fact. Of course Trump disseminates hoaxes into the news cycle: His political program is fundamentally a fear-mongering chain email of dubious origins and negative epistemological value. In this case, Trump’s attraction to political savagery has brought him into contact with a volatile political faction that he doesn’t seem to fully understand.
It’s the source of the three video clips that has alarmed Trump’s critics. The user who initially tweeted the clips, Jayda Fransen, is a white nationalist activist based in London; she often tweets unflattering images and videos — sometimes wildly mischaracterized — of Muslims flouting white Christian sensibilities. Fransen is deputy leader of Britain First, a fringe anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant group that spun off from a minor fascist political faction called the British National Party in 2011. Britain First’s leaders have frequently been arrested for inciting violence, and Fransen currently faces criminal charges for an August speech she made at a “Northern Ireland Against Terrorism” rally in Belfast. At home, Britain First cultivated its obnoxious reputation by patrolling Muslim neighborhoods and invading mosques to stage protests the very presence of Muslims and mosques in the U.K. The group’s cofounder Paul Golding describes Britain First as “a street defense organization.”
Britain First is a small, fringe group. Its turnout for most protests is a few dozen members, and its biggest demonstrations draw a couple hundred marchers into confrontation with an equal, if not larger, force of counterprotesters. But Britain First thrives by loud exaggeration: of its ranks, its political evidence, and its material disadvantages. In classic reactionary fashion, Britain First rants prolifically, at protests and in the media, about their legal entitlement to hate speech. Britain First is as provocative and reprehensible as Westboro Baptist Church; Trump retweeting Fransen seems roughly equivalent to a president endorsing Fred Phelps, the church’s late founder and provocateur.
Fransen’s tweets likely appeared on Trump’s timeline by way of Ann Coulter, whom Trump follows, and who reportedly retweeted one of Fransen’s video clips a day earlier. With or without Coulter’s help, it is hardly surprising that this U.S. president would find common cause with Britain First. The organization’s mission statement is 559 bleak words about a “suffering” and “beleaguered” people resisting “the rapid growth of militant Islam.” In the U.K., that “rapid growth” is advanced by a scourge of “foreigners, asylum seekers or migrants.”
“Britain is a small, overcrowded, densely populated island with barely enough space and resources for our own people,” the statement reads. “We have millions of British citizens born here who are unemployed and desperately need employment, so for these reasons we will slam shut the door to any further immigration.” If this rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s because Trump has made similar appeals, and he’s made these exact promises, in nearly the same language. “There will be no amnesty,” he vowed during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump launched his presidential campaign with furious aspiration toward building a border wall between Mexico and the U.S., and he’s gone on to humiliate every one of his constituencies apart from white, American men. In Trump’s paranoid outlook, immigration places men such as him under siege. It is the rhetorical through-line of Trump’s political career, from the birtherism movement to the declaration of his candidacy, through his frightful nomination speech and, then, Trump’s still more dismal inaugural address. It’s the loud cowardice of America First. It is, to use Trump’s own term, the rhetoric of racial “carnage.”
In the streets, Britain First chants, “Britain First! Fighting back!” In Charlottesville — at the clash that ultimately drove the president to identify with white nationalists over civil rights activists — Unite the Right protesters chanted, “You will not replace us!,” a phrase derived from the philosophy of the French xenophobe Renaud Camus. These chants unify white nationalist movements spanning from California to Poland.
It is this rebellious language that reveals Trumpism to be just one, localized strain of a pandemic. Earlier this month, neofascists disrupted an annual Independence Day march in Warsaw, waving Polish flags, white nationalist banners, and signs reading, “Europe will be white or uninhabited.” The neofascists chanted, “Death to the enemies of the homeland.” Because it was an Independence Day rally, patriotic clichés and white nationalist fixations blend together in the undercurrents of such language. When Trump stood before a crowd in Warsaw in July, he, too, fetishized “civilization” as an exclusive, apocalyptic construct. He, too, warned of an onslaught from the East. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump posited. “I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail, our people will thrive, and our civilization will triumph.” It was at this point in the speech that the Warsaw crowd broke out into chanting, “Donald Trump!”
So it stands to reason that Trump and Fransen would cross paths in common cause, and that Trump, as reckless as we know him to be, would publicly validate Britain First despite the ugly political implications. One right-wing media editor, Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars, tweeted disapproval of Trump’s circulating the videos, though I’ll note that Watson didn’t flag the videos as reprehensible or dubious so much as he objected to the “not great optics.” But even the optics of Britain First are familiar signatures in the post-Trump, right-wing U.S. politics that have elevated figures such as Watson and his boss, Alex Jones. Britain First, Infowars, and Trump himself — they all form a global, postimperial resurgence of white grievance; their chants all harmonize in the same language.
Uncharacteristically, Trump retweeted Fransen’s video clips without adding inflammatory comment of his own. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, parried several questions about the nature of the video clips and Trump’s interest in Britain First. “I think his goal is to promote strong borders and strong national security,” Sanders said.
“So does it matter if it’s a fake video?” one reporter asked.
“I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing,” Sanders responded. “The threat is real, and that’s what the president is talking about.” Which, of course, is the logic that white grievance mongers such as Fransen execute as they craft and propagate these hoaxes in the first place. Trump is obsessed with mythical threats to civilization, never mind his own global movement being a wellspring of barbarism, vice, and lies.