WASHINGTON – Thomas Rousseau, a 21-year-old originally from a suburban Dallas, Texas, home, was once a Boy Scout that wrote a conservative opinion column and drew cartoons for his high school’s student newspaper, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
His past high school peers considered him as normal and quiet, according to ProPublica. But he later joined the white nationalist group Vanguard America, which he helped lead during the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent and led to the death of a woman protesting the rally.
Later that same year, Rousseau rebranded and created the white nationalist group Patriot Front.
Critics say that President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is to blame for the nation’s dramatic increase of white nationalist activity and organizations since his 2016 election. Rousseau is one of many in the white nationalist movement who say they identify with Trump and believe he reflects their views.
The young Patriot Front founder told Capital News Service in an email that he believes Trump is a white supremacist who uses the same rhetoric as his group. While Rousseau said that Trump only indirectly supports people like him, he also claimed to have reached out to “mid-level officials in the administration” who are sympathetic to his group.
“It’s encouraging to hear him call African countries ‘s***holes’ and say now and then that Mexican illegals are criminals and rapists, and sometimes he even utters some truth about the Jew,” Rousseau wrote about Trump in the email to CNS. Rousseau declined to be interviewed but agreed to answer questions on email.
A recent Anti-Defamation League study revealed a nearly 123 percent increase in white nationalist propaganda in a single year, surging from 1,214 incidents in 2018 to 2,713 in 2019. This is the highest amount of white supremacy activity that the organization has ever recorded, the organization said.
The league “views these unprecedented propaganda efforts as a sign that white supremacists feel emboldened by the current political climate,” Carla Hill, the ADL’s senior investigative researcher, told CNS.
So emboldened that FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told a House Judiciary Committee hearing that he has “elevated racially-motivated violent extremism as a national threat priority for fiscal year ’20, which puts it on the same footing as ISIS and our homegrown violent extremists.”
Hill believes that documented rhetoric from white supremacists echoes the same phrases that “high profile figures and politicians” have used, including phrases like “America First,” “Fake News,” “Defend the Second Amendment,” “Defend our borders,” and “One nation against invasion.” Hill did not specify which politicians, although Trump has used the first two phrases.
Patriot Front, American Identity Movement and the New Jersey European Heritage Association were involved in 90 percent of the white nationalist activity in 2019, according to ADL. Its data also reported that about one-fourth of this activity occurred on college campuses, which is almost double the amount of on-campus incidents from 2018.
Rousseau sees campuses as ideal recruiting grounds for his group.
“Colleges are porous, easy to access, full of our target demographic (young white men), mostly don’t have any security, and college students are easily triggered,” Rousseau wrote to CNS.
According to Hill, distributing propaganda through flyers and stickers and planning flash demonstrations is a preferred white nationalist tactic because it allows individuals in those groups to avoid being arrested or unmasked on the internet.
Not only is white supremacy activity rising among the American public, it is increasing among U.S. military members as well. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently testified before the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel on the threat that white supremacism in the military has on the nation.
“Because servicemembers often possess unique training and capabilities, those who are indoctrinated into white supremacist ideology may represent a significant threat to national security and the safety of our communities,” SPLC chief workplace transformation officer Lecia Brooks told the House panel.
Brooks also believes that the current administration has a role in this threat and told CNS that Trump’s rhetoric “echoes a white nationalist agenda.”
The president has drawn fire for a host of comments critics said were racist or mirrored views of white nationalists.
For example, after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville turned violent, Trump said: “You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
In July of 2019, Trump tweeted about four women of color who serve in the House, sparking a backlash over his apparent assumption that the lawmakers were not U.S. citizens. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” the president tweeted.
According to the SPLC website’s Hate Map, the increase in white nationalist organizations actually began when Barack Obama, America’s first black president, entered the White House in 2009. After a short decline during Obama’s second term, the number of groups surged again following Trump’s election in 2016.
The map’s data also reveals that the amount of white nationalist groups during Trump’s presidency in just 2018 is higher than during any of Obama’s eight years.
The initial increase in white nationalism may be due to what Rousseau says the Trump administration has done during his presidency to boost white nationalism: “making migrants and illegals feel afraid and unwelcome, putting right-wing judges on the bench, exposing the sham that is democratic government.”
However, the Patriot Front founder feels that the president hasn’t gone far enough and hopes that a second Trump term will deliver a more fascist administration instead of just “flirting with some of the ideas.”
A 2018 Social Science Research Network research paper offers a different reason for the increase in white nationalism, concluding that the election of Trump is the strongest possible explanation for the 2016 surge in hate crimes because it may have validated the rhetoric that the president used before the election in the eyes of those with racist views.
The study’s two researchers, University of Alabama Birmingham Collat School of Business Associate Professor Griffin Sims Edwards and Loyola University Chicago Associate Professor of Law Stephen Rushin, wrote that proof of this came from two findings: Trump-voting counties saw the largest uptick in hate crimes, and Trump’s presidency was associated with the second largest rise in American hate crimes since 1992 – second to the spike that came after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
While the number of hate crimes in the past generally declined between the third and fourth quarter of every year, 2016 was different. The study found that there was instead an unusual surge during the fourth quarter of 2016, after Trump’s election, and that the initial uptick in hate crimes remained elevated going into 2017.
Brooks explained that white nationalists heavily fear becoming irrelevant during a time where white men are not celebrated and whites are declining as a percentage of the total American population. “These guys really believe they are being replaced and have to prepare for a race war,” Brooks said.
Non-Hispanic white residents under the age of 15 made up just under 50 percent of the nation’s population in 2018 – making them a minority of that generation, according to a Brookings Institution study. The data predicts that this decrease will continue.
Brooks said that with Trump’s rhetoric and the extremists’ fears of white genocide comes more susceptibility among some to thinking nationalistically.
“We’re being relentlessly erased on all sides, by the Jew, by non-whites who hate us. Now we’re fighting back,” Rousseau wrote to CNS.