Mainstreaming a murderer's manifesto
Conspiracy-driven extremism is not limited to the gunmen
How do we make sense of a 18 year-old man deliberately going to a zip code that had the most Black people in his vicinity in order to kill as many as possible?
Many have argued that we should not share the manifesto of the killer, his name or the images he live-streamed. Such sharing does what he intended, giving his vile actions the attention he craved. It also seems he was inspired by another such mass murderer in Christchurch.
The goal of ignoring the killer’s intentions is the right choice, but flawed in one respect.
The basic messages of the killer have already been shared. They are shared every night on the most watched TV show on cable news, and more broadly on Fox News and its acolytes. They are shared by Republican Party leaders, and Senate hopefuls on the campaign trail.
The murdered was not longer trafficking the ideas of obscure French intellectuals, or white nationalist websites. He holds what are increasingly mainstream right wing views. The only difference is the actions he was willing to take in the name of such views. For that reason we need to examine not the killer’s manifesto, but its context, the environment in which it arose. If we persuade ourselves that such violence was the product of a mentally-ill loner we lose sight of the ways in which the ideas that inspired him are a feature of modern American politics and culture.
For the killer’s manifesto, tune into Fox News…
According to the killer’s manifesto: “If there’s one thing I want you to get from these writings, it’s that White birth rates must change. Everyday the White population becomes fewer in number. To maintain a population the people must achieve a birth rate that reaches replacement fertility levels, in the western world that is about 2.06 births per woman.”
This is boilerplate “Great Replacement Theory” — the idea that whites being deliberately replaced by elites who are relying on immigrants to take control. It used to be something you had to go to white nationalist websites to find. But Tucker Carlson has mainstreamed and defended these ideas. On April 2021, Carlson said: “I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest for the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually.”
This was not a one-off. An in-depth New York Times analysis of Carlson’s programming found Great Replacement Theory tropes featuring in more than 400 of his shows.
The white nationalist organization VDare quoted approvingly the idea that Carlson is an amplifier of their ideas.
The El Paso shooter who murdered 22 people also was also a white supremacist who advocated the Great Replacement Theory. Just a couple of days after the shooting, Carlson insisted that the real conspiracy was the idea that white supremacy was a problem.
The shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue targeted this place of worship because he believed that Jews were helping to resettle refugees amidst Fox/Trump propaganda about a caravan of invaders. Here, as with the Buffalo shooter, ideas popularized by Fox and Republican politicians were remixed with even more extreme anti-semitic tropes on websites like 4chan.
…or Republican political campaigns
Great Replacement Theory drove mass murders in Christchurch and Norway. But the US is unique in how the far the idea has been mainstreamed thanks to Fox News and Republican political leaders, and in the relatively easy access to weapons.
There is no single moment when these ideas became mainstream. But the Charlottesville rally, where Trump refused to push back at a movement featuring participants chanting “Jews will not replace us” is as good a place as any. Trump’s trafficking in racial tropes, and his reliance on Stephen Miller, a political appointee with long ties to the white nationalist movement, to guide his immigration policy changed the dynamic.
You can hear the killer's arguments coming from the mouths of plenty of Republican leaders. After Elise Stefanik, part of the Republican House leadership team posted an oddly-worded tweet of sympathy to the “entire community and law enforcement” many pointed out she had promoted Great Replacement Theory ideas in her political campaign ads, with messages like: “Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION. Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”
Republican candidates trying to distinguish themselves in increasingly radical primaries stood out by evoking the Great Replacement Theory. JD Vance became a Carlson regular and won Trump’s endorsement after he started saying things like “You’re talking about a shift in the democratic makeup of this country that would mean we never win.”
Blake Masters, a Republican candidate for Senate posted this *hours after the shooter* killed 10 people, and it was widely publicized he was driven by the same theory that Masters doubled down on.
As conservatives hear their media and political leaders espouse these ideas, such ideas become accepted as reality, and the basis upon which to make policy. Philip Bump of the Washington Post points to large partisan gaps in Great Replacement beliefs with almost half of Republicans subscribing to them (and a worrying number of others).
Conspiracy theories define contemporary conservatism
It’s not just Great Replacement Theory. You can tell the story of the transformation of the Republican Party almost entirely through its embrace of conspiracy theories: Birtherism, QAnon, the Big Lie, and anti-vaxxers.
Embracing birtherism was key to Trump's rise, the opportunity he saw to separate himself from more Republicans. By 2011, Republicans who embraced birtherism rated Trump nearly 40 percentage points more favorably than Republican leaders who rejected the conspiracy theory.
Republicans have become increasingly attentive and receptive to QAnon beliefs, as I’ve written elsewhere. Pizzagate posters were embraced by the GOP mainstream. GOP leaders increasingly use QAnon tropes like “groomer” to undermine public institutions like schools, or accuse opponents, including Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, as being soft on pedophiles. Depending on how the questions are phrased, between one quarter to one half Republicans subscribe to QAnon beliefs.
It's not just that a majority of Republicans believe the Big Lie conspiracy theory that the election was stolen. They are picking primary candidates on that basis, which is why more and more of the people overseeing American elections will be conspiracy theorists. As Barbara McQuade wrote in the New York Times: “Twenty-seven states will choose a secretary of state this fall, and in 17 of those states, at least one of the Republican candidates for the office actively denies that President Biden won the 2020 election.”
Much of the partisan gap in vaccination is a partisan gap in conspiratorial thinking, leading Republicans to become less willing to made medical choices to protect themselves.
Once conspiracy theories take hold, they are also difficult to refute.
Conspiracy theorists assume shadowy actors desperate to cover their tracks, so of course accept there is not much evidence of their existence. Contrary evidence is often viewed through the lens of the conspiracy theory, and if anything helps to reinforce conspiratorial beliefs.
This is where conspiracy theories run into conflict with free speech maximalists, who hold that the solution for bad speech is good speech. But with many of these ideas, that has not proven to be the case. Belief in birtherism went on long after Obama provided irrefutable evidence and even Trump conceded the case. Only 1 in 4 Republicans accepted that Obama was born in the US as late as 2016. It doesn’t matter how many credible actors have shown that the US elections were free and fair, the idea of a rigged election has become an article of faith for many.
Conspiracy theories invite extreme responses
All of this is to say is that conspiracies seem to be flourishing in conservative media and politics, where very extreme ideas are increasingly accepted, and promoted. The killer’s manifesto also drew on ideas that do not have provenance on white nationalist forums, but are almost purely a Fox News creation. He referenced “Critical Race Theory” as part of a Jewish plot to brainwash children, and “transgenderism” as “mental illness.”
The extreme nature of conspiracy theories are meant to elicit extreme reactions. An election was stolen from you! The government is trying to install chips in your body! A cabal of powerful people are engaged in a global child trafficking ring! A group of elites are trying to replace your way of life with immigrants!
If you truly believe these things, and normal democratic processes aren’t working to correct them, you might choose to overturn those processes or even turn to violence.
The point is that the conspiracy-driven extremism is not limited to the gunmen.