Shortly before James Fields Jr. used his car to kill Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old white woman, and injure 19 others in Charlottesville, Va., he was photographed alongside the hate group Vanguard America. Fields, a young white man with a history of domestic violence, held a shield adorned with the group’s insignia.
The shield exemplifies white nationalists’ use of imagery and language to signal their defense against a perceived siege on white Christian heterosexual men, “their” country, and — given the status of women as property within their ideology — “their” women.
When hate groups terrorize those they characterize as “dangerous,” they rationalize their attacks as preemptive self-defense. This rationale has been a mainstay in the historical persecution of racial and religious minorities, especially in the Western world, when white women are depicted as the targets of threat.
Long before the genocidal mass murder of Jews, Nazi propaganda depicted Jewish men as animal-like caricatures, with darkened skin and exaggerated facial features, preying upon Aryan women.
Before the forced internment of Japanese Americans, advertisements for World War II U.S. bonds caricatured Japanese men, with rodent-like features and darkened skin, attacking white women.
Popular cultural images in the 19th and early 20th centuries depicted black men as brutish, beastlike sexual predators. With wide-scale white complicity, the enslavement, segregation, torture, mutilation, and white-mob lynching of black people were accepted as necessary to protect white women, as the resulting human-rights atrocities were simply overlooked.
Meanwhile, black women and other women of color — dehumanized as chattel and hypersexualized through racialized and gendered stereotypes — had no recourse regarding the physical and sexual violence perpetrated against them within the racist social systems that denied them bodily autonomy and the protections of the law.
White supremacist political organizing and recruiting practices draw on the interconnected legacies of racism and sexism. The “danger” narrative fuels white vigilante violence — for terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, and lone mass killers like Dylann Roof, the white man who murdered nine black people as they prayed in a Charleston, S.C., church, telling his victims, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking our country.”
These ideas should sound familiar for another reason: They now echo from our nation’s highest office as rhetorical strategies President Trump repeatedly returns to, bearing a familiar narrative structure.
Trump sensationalized “dangers” posed to “his” America long before he ran for office. He demanded the death penalty for the “Central Park Five,” a group of young men of color falsely convicted of the rape of a white woman in 1989. He vilifies Muslims and people of Arab descent as “anti-woman,” and has called for targeted investigations into crimes against women that profile Muslim foreign nationals. He disparaged Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “animals” who “slice and dice” young girls. His endorsements of racial and religious profiling, “rougher” policing, and xenophobic immigration restrictions recall the white American political tradition of demonizing men of color as predators to justify policies and practices that violate the civil rights and civil liberties of marginalized communities.
Trump’s gender equity posturing is discredited by his record of harassing, demeaning, objectifying, and assaulting women, as well as his particularly vitriolic treatment of women who challenge or critique him publicly. His budget and policy agenda would gut protections and services for victims of rape and domestic violence, as well as women’s health programs. Under his administration, the Department of Education has made the removal of protections for rape victims on college campuses a top priority.
He projects an image of himself as a righteous “defender” in much the same way that James Fields Jr. and Dylann Roof did: belying his hypocrisy as he prepares to do harm.
Trump was elected to office not just by those who overtly endorse his xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic worldview, but also by those who were simply willing to overlook it. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, the complicity of the broader public with “danger” narratives poses the greatest of dangers.
Ashley C. Rondini is an assistant professor of sociology at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.