David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart on Trump’s mass shooting response

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Amna Nawaz to discuss the week’s political news, including whether there will be real momentum in Congress to enact stronger gun legislation, how President Trump conducted himself visiting shooting victims in El Paso and Dayton and what white supremacy means for our American national identity.

Trump’s Rhetoric and Conservative Denial

The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.

Connor Betts, the alleged Dayton shooter, had left-wing political views, believed in socialism, supported Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, and regularly inveighed on Twitter against various personages on the right (including, it turns out, me). This has some conservatives fuming that liberal media is conveniently ignoring the progressive ideology of one shooter while obsessing over the far-right ideology of another — Patrick Crusius, who posted an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before police say he murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso.

Sorry, but the comparison doesn’t wash. It’s idiotic.

The Dayton victims did not fit any political or ethnic profile: They were black and white, male and female, an immigrant from Eritrea and Betts’s own sister. Crusius’s victims, overwhelmingly Hispanic, did: They were the objects of his expressly stated political rage.

What happened in Ohio was a mass shooting in the mold of the Las Vegas massacre: victims at random, motives unknown. What happened in Texas was racist terrorism in the mold of Oslo, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Poway.

The former attack vaguely implicates the “dark psychic force” that Marianne Williamson spoke of in last week’s Democratic debates. The latter directly implicates the immigrant-bashing xenophobic right led by Donald Trump.

This needs to be said not because it isn’t obvious, but because too many conservatives have tried to deny the obvious

The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.

. It’s not about ideology, they say: It’s a mental-health issue. But that’s precisely the kind of evasive reasoning many of those conservatives mockedin 2016, when the mental state and sexual orientation of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen was raised by some media voices to suggest that his attack had not really been an act of Islamist terrorism.

Alternatively, conservatives have cited the decline of civil society, the effects of the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, the paucity of prayer and the ubiquity of violent video games — in sum, the breakdown of “the culture” — as explanations for mass shootings. This is the right-wing equivalent of the left’s idea that poverty and climate change are at the root of terrorism: causes so general that they explain everything, hence nothing. Why not also blame Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God?

Get real: The right’s attempt to downplay the specifically ideological context of the El Paso massacre is a transparently self-serving attempt to absolve the president of moral responsibility for his demagogic rhetoric. This, too, shouldn’t wash. The president is guilty, in a broad sense, of a form of incitement.

No, Trump did not specifically incite anyone to violence, as characters like Yasir Arafat once did. (“To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions!”) He will not, as Palestinian leaders still do, offer financial rewards to the families of terrorists. His scripted condemnation on Monday of white supremacy was, at least, a condemnation.

But incitement takes many forms. In June 2018, Trump tweeted the following: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!

The tweet (noted by my colleague Frank Bruni in a recent column) is significant precisely because it is almost forgotten. It does not even rank in a top 10 list of Trumpian outrages. And yet it’s all there:

  • The imputation of bad faith to his political opponents.
  • The conspiracy theory about “potential voters.”
  • The sneaking conflation of illegal immigrants with violent gang members.

And the language of infestation. In the early 1990s, Hutu propagandists in Rwanda spoke of the Tutsi as “cockroaches.” The word served as a preamble to the 1994 genocide in which over half a million people died. In today’s America, the dissemination of the idea, via the bully pulpit of the presidency, that we are not merely being strained or challenged by illegal immigrants, but invaded and infested, predicated the slaughter in El Paso.

It’s worth noting that the Walmart massacre is, as far as I know, the first large scale anti-Hispanic terrorist attack in the United States in living memory. On current trend, it will surely not be the last or the worst. The language of infestation inevitably suggests the “solution” of extermination. As for the cliché that sensible people are supposed to take Trump seriously but not literally, it looks like Patrick Crusius didn’t get that memo.

The main task for Democrats over the next 15 months won’t be to convince America that they need yet another health care re-invention, or that the economy is a mess, or that the system is rigged, or that the right response to Trump’s immigration demagoguery is an open border. It’s that the president is

  • a disgrace to his office,
  • an insult to our dignity,
  • a threat to our Union, and
  • a danger to our safety.

How a black man ‘outsmarted’ a neo-Nazi group and became their new leader

To understand how Stern came to overtake Schoep’s organization, you first must understand how the Michigan neo-Nazi came to find the California activist.

Stern says that while serving prison time in Mississippi for mail fraud, he formed a relationship with his cellmate and onetime Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Edgar Ray Killen. The KKK leader had been convicted in the “Mississippi Burning” killings of three civil rights workers. Though Killen regularly called Stern a racial slur, he nevertheless granted his cellmate power of attorney over his life story and estate.

Stern was paroled from prison in 2011. In 2016, he used his legal discretion to dissolve the Klan organization that Killen once led. That was his first successful infiltration, and the lore of Stern’s relationship with the KKK leader is what Stern says first drew Schoep in.

In 2014, Schoep called Stern to inquire about his relationship with Killen, the activist said. Schoep asked to see the man’s prison ID card and said Stern was the first black man his organization had reached out to since Malcolm X. Stern said he searched Schoep’s name, discovered he was a white supremacist, then arranged for the two to meet in California for a small race-relations summit.

The two fostered a strange kind of relationship, Stern said.

Schoep and Stern remained firmly entrenched in their political camps, he said, fundamentally opposed to what the other represents. But they also engaged in regular debate: about the Holocaust, the ugliness of the Nazi swastika, the fallibility of Schoep’s white-nationalist ideals and, most critically, the fate of his hate group.

The goal, Stern claims, was always to try to change Schoep’s mind.

“From day one, I always told him: ‘I don’t agree with you; I don’t like you,’ ” Stern said. “I talked to him because I wanted to hope to change him.”

Stern did not change Schoep’s beliefs.

But according to Stern’s version of recent events, he was able to accomplish the next best thing.

In early 2019, Stern said Schoep came to him for legal advice on the lawsuit, which was filed in 2017 by a Charlottesville counterprotester against NSM and other white-nationalist groups that attended the Unite the Right rally.

Schoep seemed “rattled,” Stern said, and began talking about making a change. “I was hoping he was talking about his ideology,” Stern said.

Instead, Stern said the white-nationalist leader called NSM an “albatross hanging around his neck” and said he was looking for ways to get out. He still held the same beliefs, Stern said, but he was ready to cut ties with NSM and start a new organization because he felt underappreciated by his followers and left out of the mainstream white-nationalist movement that had swept the country in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

Schoep was concerned about the repercussions of the Charlottesville lawsuit and the legal bills he was shouldering, Stern said, and he confided in the California activist as he sought solutions.

“I saw a crack in that armor,” Stern said.

So he encouraged Schoep to get a fresh start by handing Stern the control of the Detroit-based organization and website.

Schoep said yes.

“He knew that he had the most vulnerable, the most loose-cannon members that they had ever had in the organization,” Stern said. “He realized somebody was going to commit a crime, and he was going to be held responsible for it.”

Stern says he’s preparing for what comes next and is seeking guidance from Jewish leaders. He said he does not plan to dissolve the corporation because he doesn’t want Schoep’s followers, or others in the white-nationalist movement, to reincorporate it.

Stern admits his plans for the website are still evolving, but his primary goal is to offer it as a reclaimed space to Jewish organizations that could help him educate NSM’s followers on the history of the Holocaust.

“Everything is out in the open,” Stern said. “My plans and intentions are not to let this group prosper. It’s my goal to set some hard records right.”

Schoep took control of NSM in 1994 and was responsible for growing its membership and brand as an organization of Holocaust deniers and Adolf Hitler acolytes. The group maintains a website that draws in millions of visitors from around the world, Stern said, and has organized public rallies across the county.

The group, whose members wear SS-like uniforms that mirror those worn in Nazi Germany, was founded under a different name in 1974 by two former officials of the American Nazi Party, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Signing over leadership of an organization this old is the equivalent of a death sentence in the white-nationalist movement,” said Keegan Hankes, an SPLC research analyst. “It’s one of the strangest things I’ve seen since I started tracking these things five years ago.”

Several of the people listed on the NSM website as leaders within the organization did not respond to a request for comment from The Post on Friday. One man, who identifies himself as SS Capt. Harry L. Hughes III and is listed as the public relations director for NSM, said in an email that he is “not involved in the NSM’s legal affairs” and was “not at liberty to discuss anything, until Commander Schoep personally makes a statement.”

“Just like you and the rest of the media, I’m waiting in suspense, too,” Hughes added.

Matthew Heimbach, a leading white-nationalist figure who briefly served last year as the organization’s community outreach person, told the Associated Press that there has been conflict between NSM’s leaders, including Schoep, and its membership. Heimbach estimated the group had 40 dues-paying members last year.

The biggest challenge the group has faced, Hankes said, was being outshone by the more refined efforts of new alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer. There was tension within the organization about the need for a shift to a less violent, less explicit brand of neo-Nazism, he said.

“A lot of these groups see [NSM] as extremely detrimental to anything regarding identity politics,” Hankes said.

Stern told The Post that he and Schoep discussed this infighting and that Schoep expressed a desire to leave NSM behind and start a new organization with less baggage.

Schoep offered a different perspective in his statement: “I realize that there is a lot of confusion right now, and ongoing legal matters prevent me from being more thorough in my explanation of events. Regardless, it is important for me to communicate that my actions are always done for a reason, and I would never purposefully damage the organization I have spent so many years serving.”

Though Schoep is no longer legally affiliated with NSM, he still faces the lawsuit because he is listed as a defendant.

“It’s definitely not good for him, and it shouldn’t be good for him,” Stern said. “You spend 25 years terrorizing people, you can’t rebrand overnight. It doesn’t work like that.”

Stern, who runs Racial Reconciliation Outreach Ministries, is still sorting through the legal intricacies his NSM leadership entails. He is listed as the attorney representing NSM in court filings, but a judge ruled Friday that he cannot be NSM’s lawyer because corporations are not legally authorized to represent themselves in court.

Stern said he is working on hiring an outside lawyer to refile his motion for a summary judgment on the lawsuit. He has also offered the plaintiff’s attorneys full access to NSM social media accounts, he said, because he claims to own those, too.

“Say what you want about me,” Stern said. “But I’ve done this twice now.”