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Hate Groups' Core Changed Little Over The Years, Ex-FBI Agent Says


Just about 48 hours after a driver intentionally slammed his car into a group of anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville over the weekend, President Trump finally did what critics had urged him to do. He condemned, by name, the groups who marched on the University of Virginia's campus.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

GREENE: Now, those groups go by many names under a larger umbrella of what many call the alt-right movement. And we want to turn now to Michael German. He's a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school. He's also a former FBI special agent, who worked domestic terrorism cases and twice went undercover to infiltrate neo-Nazi groups. And he joins us from our studio in New York. Good morning.

MICHAEL GERMAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for spending the time with us this morning. The groups we saw in action in Charlottesville, are these groups the same ones that you encountered and infiltrated when you were in law enforcement back in the '90s?

GERMAN: Obviously, a lot of them aren't the same individuals (laughter).

GREENE: Right.

GERMAN: A lot of them weren't even born when those cases...


GERMAN: ...Went on. But it's certainly the same movement. And you have to understand that the names of the groups, they change like their clothes. So, you know, focusing on those isn't really appropriate. But if you look at the ideologies and the theologies and the philosophies and the political positions that they take, it's essentially the same movement that I was involved in.

GREENE: Although some of the names - I mean, we hear - neo-Nazis is a name that's been around for some time. So some have stayed the same, right?

GERMAN: Sure, and the Ku Klux Klan has been around for a long time. And anti-government militias have been around for a long time. But sometimes focusing on the groups is - it can be more misleading than informative.

GREENE: It's interesting. Are they changing their name sometimes because some of the people in these groups want to - I don't know - don't want to identify specifically by name with a group like the KKK, but they come up with some different way to label themselves but - even though they have the same ideology?

GERMAN: So they're not necessarily the same ideologies. I mean, they have some points of unison, particularly with regard to racial hatred. But they have different philosophies and ideologies and theologies - a lot of these are religious movements - that bring them to that place and often disagree between one another about what the proper approach to these issues is.

GREENE: Are we seeing an increase in the number of Americans who adhere to the general worldview you're talking about?

GERMAN: I think that's a hard question to answer because there's no official government collection of that kind of information. I find it hard to believe that somebody who wasn't racist last year all of a sudden decided it's a good idea to become racist this year. So I think what it is is the change that we've seen is that there has been some state sanctioning of these ideas and of these political goals. And that's...

GREENE: State sanctioning?

GERMAN: Absolutely.

GREENE: I want to be really careful to understand what you mean by that.

GERMAN: Well, certainly during the Trump campaign, there - you know, what had been a normal sort of dog-whistle appeal to racists and white supremacists and other of these far-right ideologies that it was a normal part of far-right or - not even far-right, right-wing populism, and a lot of conservatives would do it, what Donald Trump did was throw away the dog whistle and pick up a bullhorn and make very clear to these groups that he was going to take anti-Muslim positions, that he was going to take anti-Latino positions, that what - he was going to characterize security issues as protecting his community from other American communities.

GREENE: So you see those messaging, whatever it is, as causing some of these - some of these people to feel like they can come out of the shadows?

GERMAN: Right, it legitimized these views so that many more people could come forward and express them, feeling - and frankly, it did become part of the - our mainstream political discourse. And part of that was the media, right? I mean, Donald Trump didn't put a microphone in a (laughter) - in front of a lot of these people. That was the media putting the microphone in front of people whose viewpoints shouldn't be part of our normal political discourse.

GREENE: So the president has now disavowed these groups. I mean, it took him a couple of days. What more does this administration need to do to make sure it's supporting efforts to stop these hate groups?

GERMAN: Well, that disavowal was very reluctant and late. And the white supremacist groups got the message from that, that this is sanctioned. But more important is that the police in these cases - and Charlottesville isn't the first one. They were two in Berkeley. There was one in Sacramento and in Huntington Beach, Calif. - are policing these protests very differently, where they're allowing violence and these running street battles to happen. And that is - that, again, is a state sanctioning of this kind of violence that gives - that makes them far more dangerous.

GREENE: Former FBI Special Agent Mike German who is currently a fellow with the NYU Law School Brennan Center for Justice. Thanks for the time this morning.

GERMAN: Sure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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