Here's Why Theresa May Is So Furious at Trump
When President Donald Trump retweeted three inflammatory videos from the anti-Muslim extremist group Britain First last week, he set the entire U.K. establishment on fire. At a time when the country is bitterly divided and distracted by Brexit, getting the public's attention, much less uniting much of it, was some feat.
Speaking from Jordan, Prime Minister Theresa May denounced the decision to retweet from the "hateful organization." The British ambassador in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, wrote to the White House in protest. Mayor Sadiq Khan of London, from the opposition Labour Party, called on May to cancel her offer of a state visit to Trump. In sharing the videos, said Labour MP Stephen Doughty, Trump showed that "he is either a racist, incompetent or unthinking — or all three.”
The fierce condemnation reflects the growing alarm at the reach of far-right groups in the U.K. and Europe, which has dovetailed with the rise of the alt-right in the U.S. If Trump had stormed Westminster with a bunch of Islamic State fighters, his intervention couldn't have looked more unwelcome.
In the past, extreme-right groups in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe have been fragmented, lacked leadership and generally were a low-level annoyance. These days they are highly networked, sophisticated and organized. They know how to tailor their rhetoric to attract particular audiences. They feature attractive people in their messaging and cooperate with groups in other countries to form online troll armies and fake social-media accounts to spread disinformation.
The Dutch political scientist Cas Muddle says that right-wing extremist movements advocate at least three of the following five doctrines: nationalism, racism, xenophobia, opposition to democracy and support for strong states. Using this definition, researchers from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue recently analyzed over 5,000 pieces of far-right content gathered from over 50 different platforms used by these groups. Their findings are striking.
What's new is the level of cooperation and cross-pollination among groups that gather for crowdfunding on alternative platforms such as the Twitter-like Gab.ai and Hatreon, and on Discord, a chat application originally developed for gamers. The research suggests that the Daily Stormer — the neo-Nazi website associated with the alt-right — made the fourth-most-frequent use of the hashtag #MGGA (Make Germany Great Again) to help promote the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party that just entered the German parliament. The alt-right hacker Andrew Auernheimer (best known by his pseudonym weev) reached out to French and Germans to build troll armies that could influence European elections.
Trump played directly into their hands. His retweeted videos, purporting to show attacks by Muslim migrants on Westerners, reached nearly 44 million followers. The videos were unverified and have been challenged by local media (in one, the perpetrator wasn't a Muslim migrant but a Dutch man who was later arrested). The deputy leader of Britain First, Jayda Fransen, was herself recently arrested and charged with hate speech at a rally in Belfast. She is also facing charges for religiously aggravated harassment in Kent. She posted an extraordinary video plea asking Trump to intervene to save her from jail. Her prosecution, she tells him "is evidence that Britain has become Sharia-compliant."
Trump's claim that the far-right groups that rioted last summer Charlottesville, Virginia, include "very fine people" were a signal to Europeans that he is profoundly ignorant about how these movements operate. "The most extreme fringe groups attempt to penetrate new audiences and mainstream their ideologies by using less extreme groups as strategic mouthpieces," write ISD authors Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner. (Ebner went undercover to learn about the groups and has also written a book on the subject). "Their aim is the creation of a 'mass movement' through the radicalization of the 'normies' (average people who consume mainstream media), in particular Generation Z."
The U.K. has experienced a rise in hate crimes (which also spiked during the 2016 campaign that preceded the vote to leave the European Union) following terrorist attacks on Manchester and London Bridge in May and June this year. The U.K. government reports a 27 percent increase in hate crimes this year over last year.
Trump shot down May's criticism and said she should "focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom." Actually, the threat from far-right extremism is hardly less destructive and in many ways linked to the terrorist threat. Anti-Muslim groups and Islamists use each other's narratives to recruit followers. "While jihadists serve extreme-right attempts to portray the entire Muslim community as hostile, Islamist extremists use far-right extremists to paint the entire West as Islamophobic," Ebner noted recently.
May wearily tried to explain why this is a big deal: "In the United Kingdom we take the far right very seriously and that is why we ensure that we deal with these threats and this extremism wherever it comes and whatever its source."
Trump's retweets and his subsequent defense of them undermined British policies to counter far-right extremism at home. They have thus prompted the most serious diplomatic row between the two allies since Ronald Reagan had to apologize for leaving Margaret Thatcher out of the loop in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. That was short-lived. Thatcher and Reagan had a strong friendship and working relationship and were united against a common enemy. Trump and May have no friendship, a strained working relationship and now Trump seems to have taken up with the enemy. No wonder May is struggling to find common ground.
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