White supremacists, 2007
Credit: Robert Thivierge/FLICKR

Some will look at this weekend’s Poway synagogue shooting,” writes Jim Geraghty in the National Review, “and argue that it reflects an anti-Semitism problem.” Yes, I should say so. Minutes before the attack, the killer, 19 year-old John Earnest, posted a lengthy manifesto to the website 8chan describing the necessity of murdering Jews, who, he wrote, were conspiring to destroy the white race. It would be quite a feat to look at this event—which took place six months after the murder of eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, an attack Earnest cited as inspiration—and not see an anti-Semitism problem.

Yet Geraghty would rather we focus on a different issue. After conceding that those who see an anti-Semitism problem “aren’t wrong,” he goes on to observe that “it’s just as easy to compare the Poway suspect’s case to those of other mass shooters and see a ‘young men who find normal life unfulfilling or too difficult and choose to risk or end their lives in violent rampage’ problem.”

This is a common response from even the more thoughtful conservative corners in the aftermath of white supremacist terror: to play up the “troubled young man” argument and minimize the explanatory power of ideology itself. In Geraghty’s view, white supremacist violence seems to be an almost arbitrary manifestation of some underlying and enigmatic malaise. His colleague David French suggests that the Poway shooting is somehow the consequence of “the denial of inherent masculinity.” (Or perhaps the “indulgence” of it—it’s not clear.) (Update: French points out on Twitter that he actually has written specifically about the need for conservatives to pay attention to white supremacy.) In 2017, following the Charlottesville rally that left one counter-protestor dead and prompted Donald Trump to infamously claim that there were “very fine people” marching among the neo-Nazis, Kevin Williamson concluded that the young men who gravitate to these groups are gullible losers who “are missing something necessary at the center of them” and looking for “hope.” It’s as though people like John Earnest are hungry motorists and white supremacy just happens to be the first fast food joint off the highway.

But this thesis is difficult to sustain in the case of the Poway shooting. So far there is no indication that Earnest found “normal life unfulfilling or too difficult,” as Geraghty writes; in fact, he was evidently a bright and successful nursing student with a passion for piano. Geraghty, acknowledging that Earnest’s life seemed broadly fulfilling, nonetheless surmises that “apparently none of that was enough to keep him from erupting in a spasm of horrific violence, motivated by a belief that he had no worthwhile future because of some sort of nefarious Jewish conspiracy he’d concocted in his head.”

Based on what we know so far about Earnest, this is completely wrong—something Geraghty concocted in his head. In the manifesto (which has since been removed from the internet), Earnest didn’t claim that he had no future; quite the contrary. “I willingly sacrifice my future—the future of having a fulfilling job, a loving wife, and amazing kids,” he wrote. “I sacrifice this for the sake of my people. OUR people. I would die a thousand times over to prevent the doomed fate that the Jews have planned for my race.” Nor did he invent the Jewish conspiracy on his own: he read about it online and was inspired by other white supremacist terrorists. The available evidence suggests that Earnest chose to throw away his life because he was sincerely convinced it was his moral obligation.

There is a word for this: radicalization. Earnest was radicalized into white supremacist violence. And while it is indeed hard to fathom why a seemingly well-adjusted young man would decide to attempt mass murder, recall that conservative pundits and politicians have no problem attributing suicidal violence to ideology when the cause is radical Islam. In those cases, the ideology behind the violence is of paramount importance. Here’s Geraghty in 2015: “The perpetrators of these atrocities claim to act in the name of Islam, and they seek to implement, by force, a system of rule where everything must be Islamic. If the term ‘Islamist’ is sufficiently accurate and fair for The New York Times and The Washington Post, why is it not good enough for the Obama administration?” It isn’t just Islamism: conservatives are eager to blame left-wing philosophies (socialism, “cultural Marxism”) for all manner of ills, including genocide.

So why the reluctance to attribute white supremacist violence to white supremacist ideology?

Writing in the New Republic in 2015, in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Jeet Heer argued that conservatives can’t admit that racism is still a problem because that would undermine their core dogma that we now live in a thriving color-blind meritocracy. “American conservatives aren’t necessarily racists,” he wrote, “but they are invariably anti-anti-racist.”

Heer’s point was profound, but there may be more to the story. After all, does the existence of out-and-out Nazis really undermine the modern Republican position on racial justice? It’s not as if there is an ongoing policy dispute about whether Nazi violence should be legal. In fact, the existence of explicit bigotry even provides a foil for white conservatives who claim that they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies. It need not conflict with the Republican position on, say, affirmative action to recognize that white supremacist terrorism still exists.

But recognizing the rising tide of white extremism means grappling with its origins, and that in turn would require American conservatives to deal with their own complicity. The Republican Party is now run by people, including the President and members of Congress, who endorse conspiracy theories about, for example, George Soros paying Central American migrants to “storm” the United States border and vote in our elections. The party’s full-time propaganda network, Fox News, devotes its primetime programming to whipping up its viewers’ fears of a migrant “invasion” stoked by Democrats.

Does this mean that the Donald Trumps and Tucker Carlsons of the world directly cause anti-Semitic violence? No. (Earnest wrote that he hates Trump for supporting Israel.) But they make its increasing occurrence inevitable. It’s tautological but true to say that the more mainstream a movement becomes, the more adherents it picks up; the degree to which a belief is “fringe” depends on what’s normal. The radicalization process is shorter when the journey from mainstream conservative to white supremacist merely involves the leap from “some Jews are secretly conspiring to bring more non-white people into the United States” to “all Jews are secretly conspiring to bring down the white race.”

It’s hard, then, for even “never Trump” Republicans to wash their hands of white supremacist violence, no matter how personally horrified they may be, so long as they support a party that increasingly stakes its electoral future on inflaming white racial anxiety. Much easier to wonder what’s wrong with our angry young men.

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Follow Gilad on Twitter @GiladEdelman . Gilad Edelman, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a politics writer for WIRED.