Islamophobes, white supremacists and other extremists have reacted with glee following Donald Trump’s endorsement of their worldview when he retweet anti-Muslim videos from a British racist group.
While most media attention has been on the transatlantic spat between the US president and UK prime minister Theresa May over Trump’s posting of three virulent videos on his Twitter feed, behind the scenes a different kind of fallout was unfolding – that could in the long run be even more significant.
Trump’s retweets spawned a rash of Islamophobic comment on social media that is helping to disseminate hate speech and fuel the growing confidence of the far right.
The pattern was set by Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of the far-right group Britain First, whose tweets containing incendiary videos purporting to show acts of Muslim violence and intolerance were picked up by Trump and reposted. She initially responded to his supportive action with incredulous delight, declaring: “God bless you Trump! God bless America!”
Fransen had reason to sound grateful. In a single day, thanks to the behavior of the US president, she put on an extra 22,000 Twitter followers, substantially extending her political reach.
Fransen has already begun to use the moment to her advantage. She posted a video on Thursday in which she appealed to Trump for help in fighting her current prosecution; Fransen faces up to two years in prison for giving a speech in Belfast in which she said: “The biggest threat to civilization across the world is Islam. We are at war with Islam.”
Within a matter of hours of Trump’s retweets, a sense of affirmation of the anti-Muslim sentiment contained in them fanned out in far-right circles.
Robert Spencer, a leading American Islamophobe who was banned from entering the UK in 2013 for his anti-Muslim history, posted on his website Jihad Watch that doubts about the veracity of the retweeted videos were beside the point. “The real question is not whether this or that video is accurate, but whether there is a problem with jihad terror and Islamic supremacism in Britain and elsewhere.”
Breitbart News, the revived mouthpiece of Steve Bannon since his expulsion from the White House in August, gave a dispassionate account of the row swirling around the videos. But the site then went on to publish its own gallery of disturbing images of Islamic State militants executing captives. One picture showed four smiling men with the caption: “Militant Muslims from Bangladesh shortly before they murdered diners in a restaurant.”
One striking feature of the way the hate-filled message normalized by Trump spread like wildfire through the internet was how many people were prepared to put their real names beside extremist opinions rather than hiding behind internet handles.
“He speaks truth … need to wake up to this evil,” wrote Janice Barlow, a Christian nurse educator from California in a comment on Gateway Pundit’s Facebook page. “Just exposing these corrupt Muslim loving governments for what they are. Thank you Mr President,” chimed in Kim Leonard, a former Papa John’s general manager in Ohio.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the outpouring of Islamophobic remarks triggered by the US president was not confined to the extreme margins of public life. The unofficial fan page for Judge Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News and NBC celebrity, was also full of toxic comments praising Trump and warning Britain that it was about to become a Muslim state.