Conspiracy theories and racist rhetoric fuel domestic terrorism

A man wearing a blue suit and white sneakers kneels at a makeshift memorial, reading the Bible.
AP Photo/Joshua Bessex
A man reads scripture at the site of a memorial honoring the victims of Saturday’s shooting on Sunday, May 15, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. A white 18-year-old wearing military gear and livestreaming with a helmet camera opened fire with a rifle at a supermarket, killing and wounding people in what authorities described as “racially motivated violent extremism.”

On May 14, a lone shooter wearing tactical gear and armed with a Bushmaster rifle attacked shoppers at a Buffalo, N.Y. supermarket, killing 10 and wounding two.

Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old white man, has been charged with first-degree murder and will certainly face hate crime charges. All but two of his victims were African American. He allegedly live-streamed the attack and posted a racist manifesto explaining his motives and detailing how he planned the murders.  

Appropriate though the charges are, they fall short of calling this crime what it truly was: an act of domestic terrorism as heinous as any conducted by al-Qaeda or ISIS.  

Although academics and policymakers have debated the nature of terrorism, all definitions have certain elements in common. Terrorism is violence perpetrated on behalf of an ideology to spread fear and produce political or social change. The Buffalo attack had all those characteristics. 

Terrorist ideology has two components: a grievance narrative and an empowerment narrative. Extremists believe that their group faces discrimination or even persecution. The threat they perceive may, however, be imaginary. A grievance narrative alone seldom leads to violence. The aggrieved group or individual must believe they are empowered to produce change.  

Based on the manifesto attributed to him, Gendron subscribed to white supremacy, euphemistically called white nationalism, a broad ideological movement that touts the alleged superiority of Caucasians and asserts their right to rule everyone else. The shooter apparently acted on a particularly virulent variant of white supremacy known as replacement theory

Replacement theory, which has been around for more than a century, postulates that white people in Europe and the United States are being replaced by non-whites, primarily through immigration. Neo-Nazis at 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., chanted “Jews will not replace us” during their infamous tiki torch parade.  

Conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson took this conspiracy theory to a new level on April 8, 2021, when he accused Democrats of deliberately replacing what he calls “legacy Americans” (native whites) with “more obedient voters from the third world.” 

Carlson has contributed to the empowerment narrative of white supremacy. “Why should I sit back and take that?” he asked, railing against “the great replacement.” He of course carefully avoids an open incitement to violence, but he and other conservative talk show hosts have helped make racism and bigotry mainstream.  

So have conservative politicians. Donald Trump’s campaign to “make America great again” has been interpreted as an effort to “make America white again.” His Muslim ban and border wall confirmed the suspicion that he intentionally made racist appeals to his white, working-class base. A 2022 Associated Press-NORC poll found that 32 percent of adults and nearly half of Republicans believe that “a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.”  Other Republican politicians have tapped into this well of bigotry to garner votes.

In March 2017, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeted “We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” J.D. Vance, who just won the Ohio Republican Senate primary with Trump’s endorsement, railed against “Democrat[ic] politicians who have decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here.”  

Conservative pundits and politicians insist they have done no wrong. They hide behind the First Amendment, accuse liberals of racializing political discourse and insist they have not encouraged anyone to be violent. In a strictly legal sense, they are correct. They certainly have broken no laws. 

Just as certainly, they are enablers. They must realize that their rhetoric makes its way to the cesspool of white supremacist chat rooms, websites and blogs where it blends with the toxic swirl of more virulent racism. Eventually, the ideology will inspire someone to conduct a terrorist attack. Miles Taylor, a former Trump official at the Department of Homeland Security, said Republican rhetoric was “directly” inspiring incidents like the one in Buffalo. 

 “The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism,” tweeted Liz Cheney in response to the attack. “History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.”

To those of us who study terrorism, it comes as no surprise that Gendron did not belong to any designated extremist group. He is the latest in a long string of lone wolves, individuals radicalized via the internet and social media who plan and carry out attacks on their own.  

In June 2015, Dylan Roof murdered nine people at Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Three years later Robert Bowers murdered 11 members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa. In March 2019, Brenton Tarrant killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Five months after that incident, Patrick Crusius massacred 23 people in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. Most of his victims were Latinx residents whom he deliberately targeted. Each of these perpetrators espoused some version of replacement theory. In his manifesto, Gendron acknowledged that Roof and Tarrant inspired him.  

Conservative pundits and politicians dismiss these attacks as the work of deranged individuals, denying the threat posed by the ideology that motivated them. Just three days after the El Paso massacre, Carlson called white supremacy “a hoax.” He has not moderated his rhetoric and FOX shows no sign of reigning him in. 

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution, but the Constitution was written in the age of print media. The internet and social media have none of the guard rails that used to keep bigotry at bay. In the past, even a letter to the editor of a small-town newspaper had to be factually accurate, free of liable and slander and articulate. No such restraints regulate online expression. 

The time has come for a serious conversation about hate speech. At the very least media outlets must accept moral responsibility for the content they air.  

Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.” 

Tags American white supremacists Anti-black racism in the United States buffalo shooting Donald Trump Hate crimes Mass shootings in the United States Politics of the United States Racism in the United States replacement theory Tucker Carlson

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