There’s no such thing as a lone wolf — an appellation often given, in error, to terrorists who act alone, particularly those of the white supremacist variety. There are only those people who, fed on a steady diet of violent propaganda and stochastic terror, take annihilatory rhetoric to its logical conclusion.
Such was the case on Saturday, when a teenaged white supremacist named Payton Gendron opened fire in a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, killing ten people, while livestreaming the carnage on the live-video site Twitch. Prior to the shooting, he had posted a 180-page manifesto in which he laid out his rationale clearly: He was an adherent of what is called Great Replacement Theory, the idea that white people, in the United States and white-majority countries around the world, are being systematically, deliberately outbred and “replaced” by immigrants and ethnic minorities, in a deliberate attempt to rid the world of whiteness. It’s a conspiracy theory that has inspired terror attacks in New Zealand and Pittsburgh, San Diego, and El Paso – an ideology that marries demographic panic with the idea of a cunning, nefarious plot. Reading through the document, what struck me hardest, however, was how very close the killer’s ideas were to the American mainstream – the white-hot core of American politics.
Five years ago, when white supremacists walked down the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and carrying tiki torches, few people understood their intent – the fact that they were referring to replacement theory. The idea seemed outlandish, even incomprehensible; at the time, it was a fairly obscure rallying cry, based around a 2012 book by French novelist Renaud Camus fearmongering about a nonwhite-majority Europe, absorbed into the fetid stew of white-supremacist cant, where it acquired a vicious antisemitism. For many white supremacists, it is Jews who are orchestrating the “reverse colonization,” as Camus put it, of white countries, in order to more easily manipulate a nonwhite and therefore more malleable general populace. In Gendron’s manifesto, after explaining in detail why he picked the particular supermarket he did — it was in a majority-Black neighborhood with a majority-Black clientele — he felt the need to explain why he did not choose to attack Jews. “[Jews] can be dealt with in time, but the high fertility replacers will destroy us now, it is a matter of survival we destroy them first,” he wrote, before listing his weaponry in detail with price points included — a manual for future murders. While Gendron’s choice to engage in mass slaughter puts him on the radical fringe of those who enforce their beliefs with bullets, and his overt antisemitism differs slightly from vaguer blame of “elites,” “Democrats” and “globalists,” his fixation on white birthrates and demographic change are neither fringe nor particularly unusual. The gnawing fear of a minority-white America has utterly consumed conservative politics for the past half-decade, creating a Republican party whose dual obsessions with nativism and white fertility have engendered a suite of policies engineered to change the nature of the body politic. What unites murderers like Gendron, and the long list of white supremacist attackers he cited with admiration, with the mainstream of the Republican party is the dream of a white nation.
The demographics of the United States are changing, and the share of the population considered white is shrinking. This change is occurring faster than anticipated, thanks to the relative ages of white and nonwhite populations in the country — the nonwhite population trends significantly younger — and all national population growth is being driven by nonwhite groups, according to an analysis by Brookings. This confluence of death, birth, and immigration is in and of itself morally neutral, a matter of the natural ebb and flow of populations over time. But as the era of the white majority nears its end, a revanchist, racist right has treated the facts of demography as an occasion for a sweeping, violent moral panic.
Donald Trump’s ascendance was a key marker of the force of white racial panic; from the moment he launched his candidacy, his overt racism set the party’s agenda, and from the very first, his rhetoric directly provoked racist violence. Far from ebbing as Trump has ceased to be the party’s sole center, however, the tide of white animus has become even more central to a new crop of Congresspeople and candidates.
The Republican Party’s embrace of nativism has been more of a full-on dash than a slow slide, and it has been catalyzed by the vast constellation of right-wing media. Chief among these is the juggernaut that is Fox News. As a New York Times analysis revealed, the network’s flagship prime-time show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, has an obsession with replacement theory: In more than 400 shows the newspaper analyzed, Carlson evoked the idea of forced demographic change through immigration and other methods. Carlson is not alone: A Media Matters examination of Fox’s rhetoric throughout 2021 found that the network fulsomely embraced replacement theory, or, as it is more commonly known among extremists, “white genocide.” Such fears have become commonplace campaign talking points among Republican candidates: Ohio senatorial candidate J.D. Vance recently declared that Democrats are “bringing in a large number of new voters to replace those that are already here”; in Arizona, far-right state senator Wendy Rogers responded to an article about migrants with the ominous message, “We are being replaced and invaded.” Just hours after the mass shooting in Buffalo, Senate candidate Blake Masters posted a video appearance in which he declared that Democrats’ electoral strategy involves bringing in “millions” of immigrants to vote for them. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene rode extremism into Congress, long after sharing a video that declared that an “unholy alliance of leftists, capitalists, and Zionist supremacists has schemed to promote immigration and miscegenation, with the deliberate aim of breeding us out of existence in our own homelands.” This clamor — from politicians and pundits, candidates and conspiracy theorists — has become the radioactive center of the right’s policy.
Once you understand an obsession with racial composition and white fertility to be the driving engine of Republican politics, a number of seemingly disparate movements begin to fit together into an ugly whole. Some aspects are obvious: The anti-immigrant movement that has seen U.S. refugee admissions at historic lows and asylum seekers marooned in purgatorial camps in Mexico continues to dominate the right-wing airwaves. Historic levels of gerrymandering are ensuring that a diversifying populace remains beholden to the views of a white minority — alongside openly antidemocratic restrictions on voting and changes in election administration.
Other aspects are more veiled, but no less vitriolic. Years of fearmongering about transgender rights, and in particular their influence on youth, are linked to fears of waning fertility: anti-trans demagogues like Abigail Shrier describe trans bodies as “maimed and sterile,” and, as such, a chief motivation for the legion of anti-trans laws passed by state legislatures is the future fertility of trans children born female. The violent antifeminism of a far-right movement that sees women principally as vessels for breeding a new white generation expresses itself in a fixation on a return to “traditional” gender roles. And the culmination of generations of right-wing activism, which will secure the “domestic supply of infants,” as Justice Samuel Alito memorably put it, is poised to arrive in the form of the dissolution of Roe v. Wade. Payton Gendron, and those like him, are listening: like Brenton Tarrant, the mass shooter at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Gendron opened his manifesto with a screed on the supposedly apocalyptic consequences of “sub-replacement fertility rates” among white women.
In his manifesto, Gendron claims to have acted alone, while in the same breath admitting, “I’ve had many influences from others.” The 180 pages of the document reveal the breadth of those influences: it is largely pastiche, with page upon page of racist and anti-semitic memes compiled in repulsive collages; collections of scientific studies of I.Q. differentials between racist groups; screenshots and links to news articles that confirm his prejudices; and segments of other manifestos, including Tarrant’s, bloat a thin line of racist scrawl. He may have, as he claims, become radicalized by over-enthused browsing of the Internet’s sewers, principally 4chan. But his fixations mirror those of the right wing more broadly, from violent transphobia to a loathing of immigration to a preoccupation with the possibility of civil war.
When the rhetoric of an entire movement devolves into Manichaean demonization of their political foes; when demographic shifts are represented as apocalyptic; and when a party can appeal to nothing but the consolidation of white power, it is an inevitability that such rhetoric will leave bodies in its wake. The Republican Party caters chiefly now to those who claim that to be born the wrong color is an act of genocide, and act with appropriate fervor. There has never been a lone wolf when it comes to racist terror in the United States; it suffuses every aspect of our politics and policy, and in latter years the mass howl of fear at change comes from a jaw that drips with blood. As long as we fail to recognize the wellspring of racial animus that animates the right wing in this country, the corpses will continue to accrue.