When a person makes the decision to kill dozens to draw attention to their political ideas, our first instinct is to ignore them and refuse to listen. Elevating their ideas only gives them what they want and encourages further attacks. But when ever larger numbers of violent incidents arise from people with the same ideology, it behooves us to treat those ideas and those who promulgate them with the appropriate level of attentive alarm.
With that in mind, I have read (or at least skimmed) the manifesto of the white supremacist terrorist who murdered dozens of Muslims peacefully assembled in prayer at mosques yesterday in New Zealand. But you don’t have to, because there’s nothing in that document that isn’t already mainstreamed in the discourse of Breitbart, alt-right Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy forums, the broader right-wing memeverse, and Fox News anchors like Tucker Carlson. The only difference is that while most modern conservatives modify their language in the form of vague threats or promises of disenfranchisement, expulsion, and political oppression of minorities and people of color, terrorists like the New Zealand killer put those ideas into immediate, murderous action.
While much has already been written about the terrorist’s idolization of various conservative figures, from Republican President Donald Trump to Tea Party USA head Candace Owens, we should pay more attention to his rhetoric.
Central to both the killer’s ideology and that of the mainstream conservative movement is the notion of “replacement.” This idea of replacement is a slight but significant shift from white supremacist concerns of the past.
The preservation of the white race has long been a central piece of far-right ideology, usually expressed in terms of fear of race mixing. Traditionally, white supremacist ideology has been more aligned with maintaining the “purity” and dominance of whatever changing ethnic subgroupings happened to be coded as “white” in a given era. Certainly, in the context of slavery and Jim Crow, whites were fearful of slave revolts and labor competition from African-Americans.
But the modern experience of far-right racism has even more existential overtones because of a combination of declining white birth rates and increasing immigration. The intense fear among an alarming number of white people has caused violent white supremacy to increasingly overlap with mainstream conservative rhetoric. Many have come to fear the slow elimination of this false construct we call “whiteness” through gradual demographic replacement. It was only in the 1980s that neo-nazi ideology started adopting the 14 words explicitly invoking the very “existence” of white people and the protection of white children.
Those who value whiteness as an existential identity treat this apparent decline as an existential threat. Those arrogant enough to believe that western democratic ideals are culturally—or, even more preposterously, biologically—coded into whiteness and will disappear if the white population declines believe that human freedom depends on demographic preservation. White evangelicals—the ones who constitute Trump’s most unshakeable base—have been taught to believe that white protestant America represents puritan John Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” the last keeper of the true Christian faith, the “moral and religious people” without whom John Adams believed the Constitution could not be preserved. As they decline in numbers, so they believe, God himself disappears from the face of the earth until Judgment Day.
It’s easy to dismiss this stuff as the province of cranks. But the challenge is that the same logic has found its way into the Republican Party. To one extent or another, it’s entered many conservative parties in the developed world. Conservative parties see themselves facing a much more real demographic challenge than even the imagined fears of the racists they have courted.
It was not always so. For a long time, an uneasy balance of power was maintained through an alliance of economic progressives with rural conservatives. On the other side were economic traditionalists who, despite favoring preserving the privileges of capital and wealth, were also open to more cosmopolitan social values.
As left parties slowly embraced both economic and social equality in the west, the artificial advantages accruing especially to poorer whites began to fade away. As right parties used the the left’s embrace of social equity to corner the market on disaffected racists, and as the fall of communism saw the elevation of increasingly deregulated capitalism as a virtually unchallenged ideology outside of China, their electoral dominance stripped away the protections upon which the white middle class had long depended.
The simultaneous economic suffocation of the previously protected white working and middle classes, alongside its perceived threat from immigration and birth rate patterns, served to radicalize increasing numbers. But crucially, it also neatly aligned conservative parties with racists—and aligned their existentially pessimistic rhetoric as well.
The Republican Party (conservative parties abroad face similar trends) is now increasingly a whites-only party. Combined with the gradual decline of white demographic majorities in America, this creates an increasingly desperate reality: the party must either expand and adapt, or die. Its racist base won’t allow it to expand and adapt. So it has chosen a third path: eliminationism and totalitarianism.
Fox News and Donald Trump now consistently blare the bullhorn of “invasions” from Mexico and elsewhere, directly echoing the shooter’s manifesto. When neo-nazis chant “You Will Not Replace Us,” Trump says that “many of them are good people.” Operatives like Stephen Miller figure out how to disincenvitize non-whites from seeking citizenship. Advisors like Steve Bannon respond to the presence of Asian corporate executives by saying that “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” The Commerce Secretary adds questions about citizenship so that immigrants will be afraid to take the census. Non-white immigrants who make the grave mistake of casting a ballot get years in prison while Republican politicians who actively steal elections don’t get so much as an indictment. Fox News host Tucker Carlson explicitly claims that Democrats want to replace white people.
When these legal channels of soft ethnic cleansing don’t do the trick, the rhetoric of violence begins to creep in. The President threatens that his military and police supporters will get tough and ugly if he doesn’t get his way. Republican candidates threaten “Second Amendment remedies.” Republican candidates pose with assault rifles and brag that they’ll (illegally and violently) personally deport immigrants in their own trucks.
It’s no wonder that incidents of right-wing eliminationist violence are skyrocketing. They’re simply acting on the same logic and implied rhetoric of the conservative parties they have come to dominate.