On Saturday, an 18-year-old man toting a gun with the N-word inscribed on the barrel went to a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and shot 13 people, 10 of them fatally. In a screed that authorities believe was posted online before the massacre, shooter Payton Gendron allegedly acknowledged that he had sought out the supermarket explicitly in order to kill Black people. “I simply became racist after I learned the truth,” Gendron wrote, and the truth as he understood it was that “the White race is dying out” and that “We are doomed by low birth rates and high rates of immigration.” Gendron stated that his attack was, “beyond all doubt, anti-immigration, anti-ethnic replacement and anti-cultural replacement.” Thesis statements for mass murder rarely come clearer.
Gendron wrote that he had developed his ideology after immersing himself in message boards over the past few years, but observers could not help but notice the broad thematic similarities between some of Gendron’s ideas and ones that are routinely voiced by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the apple-cheeked bard of white resentment. Carlson, who in years past was best known as the bow-tied co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, has risen from the ash heap of political punditry by expertly stoking his viewers’ own fears of being culturally replaced by immigrants and other such nogoodniks whose beliefs, backgrounds, and skin tones differ from their own.
Over the past year, Carlson has repeatedly either alluded to or directly mentioned a thesis known as the “great replacement” theory. This exercise in toxic demography essentially argues that white people of European origin are being usurped of their primacy in Western society by [insert minority group here]. How are these minority groups managing this trick? By coming to countries where political and cultural power has long been held by whites of European ancestry, having lots of children, and gradually assuming a numerical advantage. Why are they coming to these countries and reproducing there? Because a cabal of shadowy elites is encouraging and/or compelling them to do so.
The fact that this theory is very stupid has not dissuaded Carlson from floating it, over and over again, on Fox News. According to a recent New York Times series, Carlson has voiced this theory, or elements of it, over 400 times on Tucker Carlson Tonight.
Since taking over Bill O’Reilly’s old prime-time slot in 2017, Carlson has come to embrace “Trumpism without Trump,” as the Times put it. That ideology, in Carlson’s interpretation, means a steady diet of paranoid nativism modulated by seething contempt for anyone who is not a paranoid nativist. In the world of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the terms racist and racism are almost only ever bestowed in bad faith by leftists hoping to chill public discourse and cow conservatives out of expressing and/or acting on their beliefs. And so it was both depressing and predictable that during Monday night’s show—his first show since the shootings in Buffalo—Carlson heaped scorn on those pundits and observers who had dared to suggest that the mass murderer who openly announced his own racism was, first and foremost, a racist.
In his monologue, Carlson argued that the top-line takeaway about Gendron should not be that he was racist, but that he was insane—and, implicitly, that the unsung villains of the Buffalo attack were the liberal pundits who had had the gall to connect two very obvious and proximate dots. “The truth about Payton Gendron does tell you a lot about the ruthlessness and dishonesty of our political leadership,” said Carlson. “Within minutes of Saturday’s shooting, before all of the bodies of those 10 murdered Americans had even been identified by their loved ones, professional Democrats had begun a coordinated campaign to blame those murders on their political opponents. ‘They did it!’ they said, immediately. ‘Payton Gendron was the heir to Donald Trump,’ they told us.”
A quick Google search for the term “Payton Gendron was the heir to Donald Trump” indicates that no one other than Tucker Carlson himself is actually saying those specific words or anything particularly like it. Likewise, no one credible is saying that anyone other than Gendron is directly responsible for the attack. Carlson surely knows this, just as he surely knows that his viewers do not particularly care whether or not the things he says are fair, accurate, or logical. What his viewers want is to be made to feel like they are the true victims of every real or imaginary outrage that makes the news.
On Fox News, and especially on Tucker Carlson Tonight, the scariest attacks are always those being systemically waged by liberals on conservative values. Even in the immediate wake of a definitional racist massacre, committed by a person whose stated ideology was not entirely dissimilar from ideas that are routinely voiced on his own airwaves, Carlson could not help implying that the real victims here are, perhaps, the conservatives whose speech might be trammeled by liberals hoping to capitalize on the shooting for their own political ends.
“So, what is hate speech? Well, it’s speech that our leaders hate,” Carlson said on Monday night. “So because a mentally ill teenager murdered strangers, you cannot be allowed to express your political views out loud. That’s what they’re telling you. That’s what they’ve wanted to tell you for a long time.” Implicit in this response is the argument that while Gendron’s views and Carlson’s views share a lot of overlap, it would be unfair to criticize Carlson for holding and professing those viewpoints, because, in this construction, the racist opinions and the racist violence are not directly linked. (This sidestep ignores that white supremacist ideology is inherently violent.) While the host, in part, was deflecting, the deflection was also a force of habit. The meta stories that Fox News has always liked to tell when the actual news is inconvenient or unpleasant for the right have, over time, become virtually the only stories that the network is able to tell in an era when the Republican Party is at its moral nadir.
As Trumpism has subsumed the Republican Party, Carlson and other formerly milquetoast conservative pundits have taken a hard turn toward the lunatic right. Perhaps this turn was prompted by political and commercial survival instincts—by a desire to remain relevant and viable in a milieu that has become quickly dominated by angry, illogical bigots. Perhaps the rise of Donald Trump and his talent for avoiding meaningful consequences for saying and doing polarizing, awful things emboldened them to begin surfacing long-held thoughts and opinions that they had previously chosen to suppress. The why doesn’t actually matter here—only the fact that, in recent years, the conservative pundit corps has become as ideologically homogeneous and aggressively, ceaselessly antagonistic as the modern GOP itself.
This trend makes for choleric television, but it also accelerates the process by which fringe conservatism transforms into mainstream conservatism. While nativist populism has always had a place within the Republican Party, in the Trump era it has become the party’s dominant mode. Rather than resist this transition, most conservative news outlets have given in to it. As reasonable people flee the Republican Party, and the remainders demand more and more dreck, networks such as Fox News—having missed the chance to stop the rot from spreading—are now determined to win the race down to the bottom, and to drag any and all conservative holdouts down there with them.
The network has done this by narrowing the spectrum of reasonable conservative discourse down to a range that was previously only found out on the poles. Gendron said that he got his ideas from memes and 4chan, not from basic cable opinion programming. But his ideas, such as they are, are directly conversant with ones that are routinely voiced on America’s top cable news network. It’s telling that, in the immediate aftermath of the Buffalo shooting, Fox News barely mentioned “great replacement” theory on its airwaves—just as it’s also telling that many of the network’s hosts kept on promulgating narratives of conservative victimhood, whining about invented grievances, stoking fears of some future wound, and manifesting all of the same angry cultural resentments that give great replacement theory its power.
In a humane and functional polity, our top political leaders and opinion-makers would want to promote a responsible, fact-based discourse; would see nothing controversial in acknowledging hard truths about American history and in condemning racism in the past, present, and future; and would generally try to avoid voicing and normalizing the sorts of spurious cultural grievances that might ever motivate some crackpot to go shoot up a supermarket. This is not the polity we have today. Instead, we’ve got one where spurious cultural grievances are the only grievances worth nurturing, a world where the only people worth directly condemning are those who dare to call racism by its name. The dead, like the truth, are merely collateral damage.
Update, May 18, 2022: More deflection! On Tuesday night, Carlson told his viewers that while “we’ve been hearing a lot about the ‘great replacement’ theory recently,” especially in the last two days, “we’re still not sure exactly what it is.” Whatever, man! According to a recent analysis by the New York Times, as well as anecdotal evidence from anyone who has ever watched his irritating program, Carlson has discussed elements of great replacement theory literally hundreds of times since launching Tucker Carlson Tonight. Is the fact that he talks about it all the time prima facie evidence that he actually knows what it is? Given that “Everyone knows that Tucker doesn’t know what he’s talking about” is basically the argument that Fox’s lawyers made when defending him from slander charges in 2020, I suppose not.