Where would you like to begin with the horrific events in Buffalo last week?
Let’s start with the most obvious and urgent aspect.
There is an epidemic of right wing domestic terrorism in the United States—especially against people of color—one with no analog anywhere else on our political spectrum, and it is being eagerly fomented and fanned by right wing politicians and media figures.
You can tell how true that statement is by how ferociously those politicians and media figures are trying to deny it.
Last week, The New York Times’s David Leonhardt wrote an extremely coherent, non-hyperventilating piece that laid out the facts very clearly:
Over the past decade, the Anti-Defamation League has counted about 450 US murders committed by political extremists. Of these 450 killings, right-wing extremists committed about 75 percent. Islamic extremists were responsible for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists were responsible for 4 percent.
Nearly half of the murders were specifically tied to white supremacists.
Leonhardt duly notes that “not all extremist violence comes from the right—and that the precise explanation for any one attack can be murky, involving a mixture of ideology, mental illness, gun access and more…..But it is also incorrect to pretend that right-wing violence and left-wing violence are equivalent problems.”
The right, of course, would like us to believe otherwise, but the facts are the facts. It is not antifa going around killing people in cold blood time and time again, not BLM, not queer activists, not migrants from Latin America, not Bernie Sanders supporters or MSNBC devotees, not even—by the numbers—Islamist terrorists. It’s white neo-fascists, enflamed by the rhetoric of what has become the mainstream Republican leadership, both elected and not.
In this week’s entry in his excellent blog The Back Row Manifesto, my friend Tom Hall offers an excruciating litany of this terrible history over the past thirty years. It is a nightmare that includes both state-sponsored violence against people of color and unilateral acts by hate-filled individuals, twin horrors that go hand in hand.
But as Tom notes, this nightmare is not new. Variations of it go back all the way to before the founding of this country, in the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas by European invaders, who also brought slavery to these shores, continuing through Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan (both in the 19th century and again in the 1920s), Jim Crow, and the violent response to the civil rights movement. We see it even now in the disproportionate violence toward people of color carried out by law enforcement and the criminal justice and prison systems.
It is bitterly ironic that the same American conservatives who are apoplectic at the idea that we might (correctly) teach our children that there is a history of systemic racism in the United States are also unwilling to acknowledge that there is even a problem…..not even when, yet again, a murderer spouting vile white supremacist rhetoric guns down a slew of Black or Brown people in a bloody rampage, an occurrence which, you may have noticed, happens with tedious regularity in America.
Very on brand, as the saying goes.
That ought to be enough of a crime against humanity, doncha think? But added to it is the uniquely American plague of guns in millions of hands, such that a racist madman isn’t just confined to venting online, as he might be in other developed countries, or even attacking a few people with a knife before he is subdued, but can go into a supermarket and execute nearly a dozen people while kitted out in body armor and packing a veritable arsenal fit for a combat infantryman.
Inevitably we are greeted with the Republican talking point that guns don’t kill people, mental illness does, which of course conveniently elides the fact that they don’t wanna do anything about mental health care in America either, any more than they want to support common sense firearms restrictions. (Despite his history of mental illness, the Buffalo gunman was legally able to buy an assault-style weapon, just as most mass shooters bought their guns legally.)
In short, I don’t know which is more despicable: the right wing’s responsibility on multiple fronts for what happened at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, or its shameless denial of that responsibility.
But on that point, let’s spend a moment on one of the chief shitbags engaged in this evasion.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third ranking Republican in the House, having replaced the excommunicated Liz Cheney, represents New York’s 21st congressional district, upstate, not too far from Buffalo, in the 26th. Once a mainstream-ish conservative who even railed against Trump’s unfitness to lead the party, she is now among that majority bloc of craven Republicans who came to realize that kissing Trump’s fat ass and embracing the Big Lie and going full MAGA is the only path to success in the contemporary GOP. And that is precisely what she has done.
After overtly touting “replacement theory” on her website and campaign ads—literally the thing that inspired this mass murderer—as well as slinging the newly fashionable innuendo that all Democrats are pedophiles, she now has the gall to issue a statement in the wake of the Buffalo murders saying, “It is not the time to politicize this tragedy. We mourn together as a nation.”
(Excuse me a moment—I’ll be back right after I clean up my vomit.)
This has become the standard, loathsome Republican dodge in the wake of mass shootings, especially when members of the GOP bear a strong measure of blame for what happened:
“Let’s not talk about the blood on my hands, and how I helped spew the poison into the national consciousness that led to this latest atrocity.”
To suggest that holding to account those whose words and actions contributed to a tragedy is somehow “politicizing” it is beneath contempt. So let’s be clear: It is the Elise Stefaniks, the Tucker Carlsons, the Steve Bannons, and the Stephen Millers of the world who created the conditions for the massacre in Buffalo in the first place, a massacre which by its very nature is political in every way.
In the wake of Buffalo, we’ve gotten a lot of “explainers” breaking down exactly was the “great replacement theory” is, but at the end of the day it’s just another incarnation of racism itself, the idea that dirty, diseased outsiders in various shades of not-white are coming to take your jobs, deflower your daughters, and generally ruin America. (I know, I know, there are “nuances” involving global elites, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the Christian baby content of matzoh, but we can leave that shite aside.)
In other words, it is standard issue racism, nativism, and reactionary politics, with a baroque dash of Weimar-style anti-Semitism.
We keep hearing that “replacement theory” is now a mainstay of the Republican mainstream, which is true, but what it represents is the age-old hatred and fear at the very heart of American right wingism.
With impeccable timing, The New York Times’s Nick Confessore recently published an epic three-part series on Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson (read it here, here and here), and how he has created what Confessore says “may be the most racist show in the history of cable news— and also, by some measures, the most successful.”
Those two achievements are not coincidental; they are inextricably linked.
To channel their fear into ratings, Mr. Carlson has adopted the rhetorical tropes and exotic fixations of white nationalists, who have watched gleefully from the fringes of public life as he popularizes their ideas.
Almost from the beginning, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” has presented a dominant narrative, recasting American racism to present white Americans as an oppressed caste. The ruling class uses fentanyl and other opioids to addict and kill legacy Americans, anti-white racism to cast them as bigots, feminism to degrade their self-esteem, immigration to erode their political power.
Among the most frequent recurring characters on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” are Black politicians like the Democratic congresswomen Maxine Waters and Ilhan Omar and Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Mr. Carlson has portrayed, against the available evidence, as a kind of shadow president.
He regularly disparages Black women as stupid or undeserving of their positions…..When President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, Mr. Carlson demanded that the White House release her law school admissions test scores to prove she was qualified.
Seemingly every social ill is laid at the feet of immigrants and refugees—not just working-class unemployment, but rising home prices, out-of-wedlock births among native-born Americans, even the supposedly sorry state of his favorite Beltway fishing spots.
Mr. Carlson, I feel compelled to point out, is the stepson of an heiress to the Swanson TV dinner fortune. My own assessment of him, which I have offered before, but of which I am so enamored that I will say it again, is that his family made its money feeding Americans garbage in front of their TVs and he is continuing the tradition.
Confessore tracks Carlson’s rise from troubled teenage ne’er-do-well to bowtied talking head dipshit to modern day Father Coughlin. The takeaway is that Carlson saw what resonated with his audience of aging, racially panicked white people and methodically honed his snake oil act accordingly. (This pattern is not new either. Read Volker Ullrich’s Ascent.) Whether he has come to believe his own bullshit or not is ultimately irrelevant. The toxic end result is the same.
Carlson and his producers continue to craft their message through a mechanism they call “minute by minutes,” a measurement of audience engagement in almost real time, as opposed to more conventional evaluation of ratings in 15-minute blocks. Three former Fox employees told Confessore that “Carlson was among the network’s most avid consumers of minute-by-minutes,” as he was “(d)etermined to avoid his fate at CNN and MSNBC,” where his shows failed due to low ratings.
And what did those “minute by minutes” prompt Carlson & Co. to do?
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” began devoting more and more airtime to immigration and to what its host depicted as the looming catastrophe of demographic change. “He is going to double down on the white nationalism because the minute-by-minutes show that the audience eats it up,” said another former Fox employee, who worked frequently with Mr. Carlson.
It is also no coincidence that Carlson’s wanton racism and championing of “replacement theory” is twinned with his support for the Big Lie, and attempt to portray January 6th as a false flag operation by the FBI, and the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol as victims and martyrs. That is significant because the Republican Party’s virulent racism is of a piece with its campaign to gain a chokehold on the American political process, and elections specifically.
The GOP very much wants America to view the Buffalo mass murders as the random and senseless act of a mentally ill individual, having nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with the ready availability—and legality—of firearms intended for the battlefield, and certainly nothing to do with the shameful, hateful propaganda it daily spouts, even though this shooter specifically cited it.
Its reasons for this stance are as clear as the reasons a hijacker doesn’t like metal detectors.
But if a killer gunned down ten people while spouting almost verbatim rhetoric taken from Rachel Maddow and Nancy Pelosi, I think Republicans would be a lot more eager to connect the dots. Of course, Maddow and Pelosi don’t go around spewing lies and ginning up irrational hatred and encouraging people to violent criminal acts, do they?
As Republicans continually stand in the way of meaningful reform to stop this wave of unconscionable violence, the rest of us are left sputtering with rage, asking, “Why??” and “How many more must die before we do something stop it???” But the answer is so painfully obvious, it’s a wonder we so rarely see or hear it plainly spoken:
The don’t want it to stop.
After all, what is the purpose of political violence? I’ll tell you. It is twofold. First, and most bluntly, it is to take what you want by force, whether it’s land, money, resources, or the acquiescence of the victims in question. But secondly, it is to intimidate others, to cow them into submission, and to deter them from putting up any similar resistance going forward. That is the whole point, from Brownshirts to Klansmen dressed as ghosts to open warfare itself: to intimidate one’s enemies into bowing to your will in fear for their lives. That’s why it’s called “terrorism.”
And it’s not just ordinary Black people that the modern Republican Party wants cowed. It’s opposition politicians, and even their own members.
David Leonhardt again:
If you talk to members of Congress and their aides these days—especially off the record—you will often hear them mention their fears of violencebeing committed against them.
Some Republican members of Congress have said that they were reluctant to vote for Trump’s impeachment or conviction partly because of the threats against other members who had already denounced him. House Republicans who voted for President Biden’s infrastructure bill also received threats. Democrats say their offices receive a spike in phone calls and online messages threatening violence after they are criticized on conservative social media or cable television shows.
The same threat is intimidating election officials, one in six of whom “have experienced threats because of their job,” according to the Brennan Center. These attacks range from death threats that name officials’ young children to racist and misogynistic harassment, forcing “election officials across the country to take steps like hiring personal security, fleeing their homes, and putting their children into counseling.”
When it comes to this sort of thing, ask yourself, cui bono? (Not the illegitimate offspring of Sonny and Cher.) Who benefits from that kind of intimidation? The people who want to continue to oppress people of color, and keep them from voting, and get a chokehold on the American electoral process full stop, that’s who.
I am not suggesting the GOP leadership, or even individual Republicans, endorse murders like the ones we just saw in Buffalo. (Or in Pittsburgh. Or in Charleston. Or in Charlottesville. Or in El Paso. I could go on.)
Sometimes they do, of course, as in Kenosha. But there is no doubt that a climate of simmering political violence is serving Republican ends. You can tell, because they continue to stir it up.
Likewise, I’m not saying that this monstrous killer—I won’t say his name—had the specific agenda of aiding Republican electoral aims. He just wanted to murder Black people. But his actions sure do serve the goals of a white supremacist, Christian dominionist political movement, which is what the contemporary GOP has proudly become. (My friend Roz Weinman advocates dropping all this verbiage in favor of calling them something simpler and catchier for the sake of the American public, like neo-Nazis.)
We all know that Trump himself has frequently encouraged his supporters to commit acts of violence on his behalf, and well before January 6, 2021. The Republican leadership never denounced it, and has not started now. That cowardice, of course, only emboldens the would-be thugs. Because the threat of violence underpins and supports the rest of the reactionary campaign to gain a chokehold on the governance of this nation.
It is much like the oft-asked question of why Republican leaders don’t break with Trump when given the chance, as in his second impeachment. The obvious answer, as I’ve written ad nauseam in these pages over those past five years, is because they don’t want to break with him. And why should they? He serves their purposes beautifully! (Oh, I guess there is that pesky issue of common human decency and any shred of morality. But let’s not split hairs.)
Similarly, we should not be surprised that Republicans have not taken meaningful steps to stop this lethal plague of racist violence, that they have blocked attempts to do so by the Democratic Party, and indeed are pushing for an even freer hand in the wild west of public discourse where these poisonous ideas fester.
Because it’s good for them.
I am sure that, in the unlikely event that any right wingers (don’t call them “conservatives”) were to read this essay, they would be deeply, deeply offended by this allegation, and I understand why. But I invite them to do something to prove the case to the contrary. Because right now, I don’t see any evidence to support their claims.
Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard, told The New York Times, “In a stable democracy, politicians unambiguously reject violence and unambiguously expel from their ranks antidemocratic forces.” The GOP is not doing that. Until it does, we will have no choice but to presume that it is perfectly happy with the murderous way things are.
And we all know why.
Photo: Lawrence Beitler’s iconic photograph of the lynching of two Black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Credit: Bettmann/Corbis.