Yes, Tucker Carlson’s Popularization of the Great Replacement Theory Deserves Blame for the Buffalo Massacre
The phenomenon of stochastic terrorism explains how mainstreaming extreme ideas leads to violence
Editor’s Note: We have deliberately refrained from linking to the manifestos of the killers to avoid spreading them.
On Friday, September 7, 2018, Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host with the top-rated TV show in the country, declared he’d had it with the notion that “diversity is our strength.” “You hear it every day,” he intoned with his typical furrowed brow. “In effect, it’s become our new national motto, soon to replace the outdated and, in fact, polar opposite sentiment e pluribus unum. …But what exactly does it mean? And is it true? … These are important questions given that our leaders are radically and permanently changing our country wholly on the basis of their belief that diversity is, in fact, our strength. … Diversity isn’t our strength. Unity is our strength.”
On March 15, 2019, Brenton Harrison Tarrant burst into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and massacred 51 congregants and injured 40. “Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength?” he asked in his manifesto. “Does anyone even ask why? It is spoken like a mantra and repeated ad infinitum. … What gives a nation strength? And how does diversity increase that strength? ... Diversity is not a strength. Unity, purpose, trust, traditions, nationalism, and racial nationalism is (sic) what provides strength.”
On May 14, 2022, Payton Gendron, the alleged shooter who marched into a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, killed 10 people and wounded three, mostly blacks. Citing Tarrant literally verbatim, he asked: “Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength? Does anyone even ask why? It is spoken like a mantra and repeated ad infinitum. … What gives a nation strength? And how does diversity increase that strength? … Diversity is not a strength. Unity, purpose, trust, traditions, nationalism, and racial nationalism is (sic) what provides strength.”
The Great Replacement and Mass Killings
All three were mouthing one element of “Great Replacement Theory,” the conspiratorial belief that Democrats (or Jews) are intentionally admitting immigrants and boosting minorities to transform the electorate and disempower white Americans. This theory, which has been around for a long time used to be confined to fringe white-nationalist websites, suggests that all the pious talk about diversity is merely a Democratic ruse to dupe whites into accepting their own political and demographic demise.
Even though Carlson has mainstreamed this theory, many insist that he and his ilk should not be blamed for inspiring Tarrant or Gendron, the alleged Buffalo shooter. Or the 2019 El Paso shooting by Patrick Crusius, who allegedly massacred 23 mostly Hispanic shoppers in a Walmart. Or the murder of a Jewish woman in her synagogue in Poway, California, also in 2019, by John Earnest. Never mind that all of them voiced many of the tropes that Carlson has popularized over the last few years and even explicitly cited the Great Replacement Theory. Crusius, for example, noted that he was “simply defending my country from … ethnic replacement.” Earnest stated that he was targeting Jews because he believed they were using Blacks and Hispanics to replace whites, and he hated “anyone who seeks the destruction” of his race.
Prominent Fox primetime host Jesse Watters has asserted that attempts to link the murders to political rhetoric from the right amount to little more than a “psy ops game.” Carlson himself protested after the Buffalo massacre that he was not even sure “exactly what [GRT] is”— after having referred to it by name numerous times on his show. Then, in the next breath, he re-upped the claim that Democrats were trying to “change the electorate.”
The Game of Dodging Blame
That Carlson and other Fox News personalities would accept no responsibility for what transpired in Buffalo is no surprise. What’s a little more surprising is that Glenn Greenwald, a self-described progressive and a regular guest on Carlson’s show because he’s become a fierce critic of the left, would go so far as to absolve Carlson. Greenwald claimed that the Buffalo killer made no mention of Carlson or gave any indication that he had ever watched Carlson, much less liked him. So it was unfair, maintained Greenwald, to suggest that Carlson had anything to do with this. But what’s really surprising is that The Atlantic’s thoughtful Conor Friedersdorf featured Greenwald’s remarks approvingly.
It is of course possible that these killers might have killed in the name of this theory even if it had remained confined to the right-wing gutter. But words have consequences, especially when uttered by influencers. The New York Times recently analyzed 1,150 episodes of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and found that in more than 400 episodes, Carlson warned that Democrats were using immigration to force demographic change; more than 600 whipped up fears of impending societal collapse due to policies implemented by the “ruling class”; and at least 600 complained about the alleged discrimination against whites.
Given this backdrop, common sense would suggest that Carlson’s screeds, heard by 3 million viewers across the country several days a week, would have helped create an atmosphere conducive to such violence. After all, there have been at least four mass killings based on this theory since Carlson started magnifying and popularizing it in 2018 but no successful one before. (The closest that a mass killer came to citing it pre-Carlson was Norway’s Anders Breivik, who yammered repeatedly in his 1,500-page manifesto about plummeting white fertility rates and deporting Muslims before going on two killing sprees, including one on an island, where he gunned down 69 young people attending a summer camp.) Indeed, if anything strains credulity, it is the notion that such a sustained stream of bile would simply evaporate like ether into thin air without having any effect whatsoever on the world.
Tucker Carlson: Inspiring Stochastic Terrorism
This commonsense intuition actually has an academic name: stochastic terrorism, defined as acts of violence by random extremists triggered by political demagoguery. In other words, certain ideas and language when spread via social media, television and the Internet by known personalities can inspire individuals to commit acts of political violence, even though one cannot predict who will actually commit acts of violence, where or how.
Notably, fomenting such terrorism does not require intentionality—or a direct call to arms, the only evidence that some on the right absurdly claim that they’ll accept to establish any blame for one of their own. But words can function as catalysts for violence regardless of whether the speaker cares or not that violence may ensue. It is impossible of course to pin any particular act of terrorism on any particular utterance by any particular individual. But one would expect the general incidence of violence to go up along with the frequency and shrillness of these utterances, which is what we have witnessed.
According to Gerard Gill at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, an outfit convened by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation based within the Department of War Studies at London’s King’s College, stochastic terrorism operates by the “4 Ds”:
Demonization (scapegoating a person or group for real or imagined social ills)
Dehumanization (presenting the scapegoats as monsters or symbols of evil)
Desensitization (removing the internal inhibitions of potential perpetrators to deploying violence against the scapegoats)
Deniability (using the absence of direct instruction or explicit calls to deny responsibility for violence against the scapegoats).
Inventing Devils and Demons
In the Carlson episode referenced in the opening, all four are evident.
The episode begins with the words “Illegal Alien Crime” front and center next to a picture of Luis Bracamontes, a goateed, smirking Mexican who murdered two police officers in California despite having been previously deported twice.
Carlson cuts to a discussion of a bill that was contemplating “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants at the time, which cues up a full-blown attack on the Democrats who support it. He accuses Democrats of wanting to keep “illegal immigrants” in this country “at all costs, no matter what” because the “calculus is simple” for them: “Having abandoned the concerns of the middle class here, they need millions of new voters and they need them fast. Replacing ungrateful citizens with obedient immigrants is their only hope.” Moreover, he darkly warns, to get Americans to accept their own replacement by immigrants, Democrats push a narrative that “illegal immigrants are terrific people. Every single one of them.” In fact, Democrats consider them “far more noble and law-abiding than you are,” he warns, and Democrats smear any American who complains about the presence of these immigrants as a “bigot.”
Those are all absurd exaggerations and lies, but Carlson accomplishes two things: He sets up an “us versus them” narrative in which he pits Americans, the true victims, against Democrats and immigrant minorities. And he demonizes Democrats, accomplishing the first D in stochastic terrorism. But there is more to come. Having successfully depicted Democrats as devils, he trains his ire on undocumented immigrants next.
He accuses them of committing murders at “two-and-a-half times” the rate of American citizens. He claims they are twice as likely to be convicted of crimes of all kinds in Arizona. That’s not true either, as it turns out. In 2018, the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh found that an illegal immigrant in Texas, the state with the best data, was 50% less likely to be convicted of a crime than a native-born American.
But Carlson is not done. He pivots to Bracamontes and shows footage from the trial in which Bracamontes, a particularly evil and remorseless sociopath, repeatedly shouts his desire to escape from prison and murder more police officers. If there is any doubt that Carlson is trying to dehumanize, as per the second D, all undocumented immigrants by turning Bracamontes into their emblem, his accompanying monologue removes it. He asks why should we extend amnesty to these immigrants—not just the violent ones like Bracamontes, mind you, but all of them—when they commit crimes and murder police? Its the bogus belief that Democrats push about diversity being our strength, he says, the very point that both Tarrant and Gendron cite in their manifestos. In other words, by depicting “illegal immigrants” dishonestly as murderers and cop killers, Carlson also accomplishes the third D, desensitizing potential killers to using violence. Indeed, murdering illegals and other “replacers,” among whom Gendron explicitly counts Blacks, becomes a veritable act of self-defense.
Even taken in isolation, this episode of Carlson’s show qualifies as an incitement to stochastic terrorism because it depicts Democrats and their commitment to Third World immigrants, including undocumented ones, as part of a conspiracy to replace natives; all undocumented immigrants as potential Luis Bracamontes’; and natives as threatened by sinister forces of self-righteous liberals who want to oppress and rule them.
These characteristics distinguish Carlson’s approach from what amounts to no more than harsh political criticism by other hosts. For instance, Greenwald suggests that if Carlson’s rants about the Great Replacement Theory are behind the Buffalo massacre, then why aren’t MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s “virulently anti-Trump pundits” ones behind the 2017 shooting of Republican lawmakers in a DC baseball park? After all, that shooter actually cited Maddow as his favorite cable host.
While Maddow is certainly overly simplistic and can be over the top, there is no evidence that she has engaged in the kind of demonization and dehumanization of groups that Carlson has. So there is simply no comparison.
Mainstreaming Extremism Leads to Violence, Duh!
Since Carlson started peddling the Great Replacement Theory, it has become a standard talking point for many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, Senator Ron Johnson, Rep. Elise Stefanik, Rep. Matt Gaetz and many Republican Senate candidates.
It is hardly surprising, then, that a 2021 analysis by The Washington Post and the Center for Strategic and International studies found that domestic terrorism in the country has gone up since 2015, driven chiefly, though not solely, by white-supremacist, anti-Muslim and anti-government extremists. Since 2015, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities, the report found, while the far left accounted for 66 incidents leading to 19 deaths. Indeed, 2020 was the peak year for both right-wing and left-wing attacks, with the far right accounting for 73 attacks—the highest since 1994 — and the far left, 20. Victims of the right included Blacks, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, Asians and other people of color.
But even as ideological leaders pump extremist ideas into the body politic and increase the possibility of violence, it becomes harder to assign responsibility, making the fourth D—denialism—all the easier to achieve. Indeed, when right-wing ideas were confined to websites like Stormfront or obscure and difficult-to-navigate boards like 4chan, any violence that resulted was easier to trace to the source. But when Tucker Carlson and others inject similar themes and tropes into the infosphere and create an entire right-wing ecosystem around them, they can far more easily deny any moral responsibility because tracing particular acts of violence to particular sources becomes far more difficult unless the perpetrator cites the sources explicitly. This is precisely how the process of radicalization works—something that the right had no trouble acknowledging when it came to the spread of Islamic extremism in Muslim countries.
And there is another reason that the purveyors of the Great Replacement Theory are able to dodge responsibility for the violence they might be spurring: The killers tend to be lone actors or small, self-organized groups. They operate as a “leaderless resistance,” rather than a hierarchical body. Sure, groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and neo-Nazi organizations exist, and they organize visible protests and engage in visible violence. But mass killers usually act stealthily and on their own initiative, without direction from a superior. Placing any moral blame beyond the individual becomes more difficult. Incidentally, a lone-wolf strategy was actively advocated by white supremacist Louis Beam, Jr., who feared that organized groups were too vulnerable to government infiltration.
But whatever their modus operandi, we should not be surprised that some troubled individuals who are being repeatedly told by celebrity media figures and political leaders that their country is being invaded by groups brought to their country for the specific purpose of disempowering and disenfranchising them would resort to violence. Some of them stormed the Capitol to stop the “liberal elites” supposedly admitting the invaders from stealing the election—and a few of them are committing heinous massacres against the “invaders” themselves and other minorities who supposedly threaten their status.
While Tucker Carlson did not call for—and may not have wanted—mass violence, he is responsible for peddling an ideology that motivated the slaughter. And while he might not bear legal culpability for their actions, he and other purveyors of the Great Replacement Theory deserve lots of moral blame. Anything else is pure denialism.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.