News of the racist shooting in Buffalo reached Wesley Lowery at a strange moment: He’s finishing a book on the rise in white supremacist violence in the decades since Barack Obama was elected president. Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who’s been writing about race in America for years, saw the Buffalo shooter not as a lone wolf, but as part of a movement. The alleged shooter, like the ones in Christchurch, El Paso, and Pittsburgh, subscribed to the “great replacement” theory—the false idea that white people are being “replaced” by other, inferior races.
And that idea is much older than the internet forums where the shooter might have been radicalized. “This is old-school Klan stuff,” Lowery says. “This is about the people and about the ideology. It’s not actually about the internet. It’s not actually about Fox News or cable. It’s about the reality that racism is extremely powerful and extremely attractive to a lot of folks.”
On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Lowery about what’s missing from the conversation about the Buffalo shooting and how much right-wing punditry is to blame for the violence. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Wesley Lowery: What we see in the white supremacist movement a few decades ago is a shift. One of the leaders of the white supremacist movement, Louis Beam, pens this essay where he’s talking about the idea of leaderless resistance, that for a long time there was some level of hierarchical reality in the white supremacist movement. But what that meant is that law enforcement could infiltrate their groups, could flip somebody, could shut them down. After an attack, they could charge everybody in the group or they could be sued civilly in court. You saw groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center would do this for years.
Mary Harris: So being leaderless made the groups more resilient.
Correct. And so their idea was, how do we put out as much propaganda as possible so that an individual white person can encounter it, become radicalized, and know what to do?
And so that you have plausible deniability.
Correct. Because all I did was write a novel about the coming race war and what a responsible white person should do.
I think of it like an iceberg where the individual actors are the tip, but then underneath the water, there’s a lot undergirding that tip of the iceberg.
Yes, and so this guy is not the member of some group necessarily. He’s not in the local Klan chapter—you know, the natural ways we would think about it. But this person has been interacting with propaganda that’s been put out in specific ways to get him to do the type of thing he did.
And the shooter in this case, in his manifesto, he specifically says he’s the sole perpetrator of this attack. He wants to be seen in that way. So you can see how he himself is trying to shape the narrative of who he is and who’s responsible.
Which is exactly what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City in the ’90s. This entire era, going back decades of white supremacist violence, this is how it operates.
Much of the media analysis of what happened in Buffalo has homed in on the great replacement theory and how it informed the shooter, which makes sense because he talks about replacement a lot in that manifesto document. And I think we need to talk about it too. But I think it’s important to say at the outset that great replacement theory, at least to me, is like a piece of the white supremacy puzzle. It’s like a tool of white supremacy. Great replacement theory almost sounds too neutral to me, like it’s not alarming enough.
Yeah. But I also think it gives it too much credit. It tries to make it a novelty, right? If only we stopped this theory!
I think sometimes when we talk about white supremacy and white supremacist ideology, we can be both too specific and not specific enough. We hyperfocus on quote-unquote great replacement theory, or we hyperfocus on 4chan, and it’s like, yeah, but it’s not really about these hyperspecifics. It’s about the bigger, broader thing.
No two white supremacists have the exact same ideology. But almost all of them hold some very specific tenets that are true across the board. The ideology of white supremacy is that, one, there are racial distinctions between the races. That race is a biological truth.
It’s those people versus us over here.
Exactly. Two, that there’s a conflict between the races, and that the white race is under threat. Three, that the Jews are the ones coordinating this threat. And four—increasingly so now, in the American context—that the white people are losing and that they need to be revolutionary in their actions.
And so, sure, what we see is quote-unquote great replacement theory—it’s a term coined in a French novel that’s kind of a dystopian race war novel. So in that context it’s about Muslims, and we’ve seen that language migrate over here. But this is no different than what the Klan of the 1920s was preaching. This is no different than what the Aryan Nations were preaching in the 1980s. We see this play out over and over and over again. And so the key to understanding this is not to go read the French novel that coined the term, because it’s not even really specifically about this. It’s much more about this bigger and broader idea that has been true and consistent in white supremacist thinking for centuries.
In this shooter’s manifesto, he talks about Jewish people and sort of says, I’m setting them to the side for now. They can be dealt with later. But the “high-fertility replacers” will destroy us now. And it’s just some of the ugliest writing I’ve read, ever. But I think because the focus of his shooting was on Black victims, it may obscure for some people the connections between other groups who are also singled out by this ideology.
I think it’s very understandable why we focus sometimes on the individualized threats that brothers and sisters among us face. I understand why, after the shooting in Buffalo, we talk about white supremacist violence against Black people. I understand why after Tree of Life we focus on antisemitism against Jewish people. I understand why after El Paso we focus on anti-immigrant violence.
But to understand and to research and look at these shooters, we understand that these white supremacist ideologies hate all of us, and that we can’t look at and prevent this type of anti-Black violence without understanding antisemitism. We can’t just look at antisemitism in Tree of Life without also understanding the role that immigrants play—the reason that synagogue was shot up, according to the shooter, was because they had been helping with refugee resettlement. Again, it was this theory that Jewish people were helping to accelerate this type of demographic replacement. And so all of these things are intertwined. All of these groups are in the crosshairs of white supremacists. And so we can’t talk about white supremacists and not talk about antisemitism.
In the days since the Buffalo attack, many pundits have been looking to Fox News as they try to explain the way white supremacist ideology has gone mainstream in this country. In particular, many have pointed to Tucker Carlson, who’s dedicated hours of his show to selling the idea that Democrats are enabling a migrant surge at the border to keep conservatives out of office. But you say there is a subtle difference between the Fox News version of great replacement theory and what the Buffalo shooter had in mind: The shooter wasn’t interested in winning political power. Tucker Carlson is.
The partisan political talking points around demographic replacement, the things you might hear from Tucker Carlson or from Ben Shapiro or from any number of right-wing commentators, is that the country is changing demographically, that Democrats are encouraging that demographic change because they can’t win white voters anymore and so they want more Black people and Latinos and Muslims.
So they’re making it about elections.
Correct. That it’s about a partisan political thing. And one of the things they cite is some writing on the left, the demographics-equal-destiny framework that was popular among moderate Democrats post–Obama’s election. This idea that the browning of the country would potentially create a supermajority for Democrats. Now, that was shortsighted, it was dumb, it was wrong, and it wasn’t true. It ignores what we know about immigrant groups in the United States, which is that eventually many of them become conservative as they become what we would consider whiter. …
But Ben Shapiro or Tucker Carlson or other people would say, look, Democrats have been saying this. They’ve been saying that the way they’re going to change the country is demographically—as Texas becomes browner, as Georgia becomes browner, as Tennessee and Arkansas become browner, that they’re going to be able to win. And all we’re doing is warning our conservative viewers about that. …
I don’t believe that Tucker Carlson or Ben Shapiro wanted this shooter to go murder these Black people. I don’t believe that. And that’s a level of good faith that I think not everyone on the left would give to them. I don’t think they wanted that. I don’t think Tucker Carlson is secretly a Klansman. I don’t think Ben Shapiro is either. But I think that, very often, figures on the right use rhetoric that is irresponsible, given what white supremacists are saying.
And the demographic changes are real. But the question becomes, why is it salient? What does it mean?
It’s salient because there’s no more powerful force in the history of humanity than us being scared of people who are different than us storming the gates. For the history of our species, this is the thing we’re scared of, is those other people over there.
And what we see is that if I watch a monologue on Fox News that is telling me the Democrats are shipping in all of these people to change the demographics of the country, and then I search these terms, I’m going to end up on a white supremacist website. It becomes this accelerant.
When I went searching for evidence of mainstream politicians doing what you’re talking about, sort of playing footsie with white supremacist ideas, I have to say I was kind of shocked by how open many of them were. There’s the Senate candidate in Ohio, J.D. Vance. Sen. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin. The lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick. All of these things were happening individually with local politicians and maybe getting a little bit of attention. But it’s much more powerful when you add it all up.
I do think a fair amount of this is that we like to think of racism as an individual thing. We don’t like to think about racism as an ideology, as a belief system, as a structure. And when we think about it as an individual problem, it removes any responsibility from us. As long as I’m not individually doing racism, I’m fine. I can say whatever I want. I can use whatever rhetoric.
When we understand white supremacy as this developed, coherent, complex ideology, it requires us to be particularly careful and prudent about what rhetoric we use and what rhetoric we do not use. And so think about what that would look like, if you’re a Republican politician who is worried about the border, about demographic change, about what that might do to American culture, society, whatever. What would it look like to express those concerns and those grievances while also making it explicitly clear that you give no quarter to these people?
It would look like Liz Cheney.
It would look very, very different than what we see on Fox News. It would not be “there is an invasion, white people be scared—but of course, I hate racism.”
But the issue becomes what happens when you have a political party in your country that is almost exclusively white, and one of the most powerful things to mobilize those people are bigoted prejudicial views. The incentive structure, if you are J.D. Vance, whomever you are, is to flirt with these ideas.
So what would a robust political or journalistic response to all this look like? Because I look at what’s happening now and I sense a lot of fear. I just worry that the people who are driving the narrative might not connect the dots fully here.
Sometimes there’s a dissonance between how they connect the dots in private and what they believe they can do in public because of this incentive structure. With the way our country and our electorate works, where we still live in a majority-white country, and that majority increases when you start looking at the people who vote as opposed to the people who live here, you cannot win elections without significant portions of white America. And we know significant portions of white Americans hold racially bigoted views. Suddenly, for Joe Biden or whomever, there’s a different incentive structure, no matter what they believe personally, no matter what they might think. And that’s not even getting into the conversation about whether or not those politicians might themselves have biases, or they might not want to believe that that these things are true of their fellow white Americans.
Joe Biden can’t get elected without a significant portion of white voters. And so he has to make a calculus. Nancy Pelosi can’t hold the House without a significant portion of white voters. You can never win the Senate as Democrats unless you can win in extremely white states. Is it possible to tell the truth and attract those white voters? I think the version of that question in the media is, is it possible for us to tell the truth about the world we live in and be trusted by the inhabitants of this world who are inclined not to believe some of these things?
Do you think it is?
I’m not sure that it is. And frankly, I’m not sure that that’s our problem. I don’t know that our job in the media is to poll well. I don’t know that our job is to be popular. I think our job is to tell the truth, to write down true things. I’m not fully convinced that our job is to be trusted by everyone.
Think about it this way. We currently live in a country where half of Republican voters believe Barack Obama was not born in this country. That’s a lie. It’s a racist lie. If my job as a media outlet is to find a way to be trusted by those people, I’m never gonna be able to tell the truth, because simply by saying the true thing, they are going to decide I’m untrustworthy. And so what do we do with this? We live in a society where the truth itself has become so polarized and that people exist in these worlds they’ve constructed in their own heads, that if our job in the media is to tell the truth, to expose new truths, how do we do that when we know that there are big, massive subsections of people who will never believe true things?
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.