It has become a grotesque ritual in American life that whenever a white nationalist kills enough people to briefly seize the attention of the national media, conservatives will quickly focus on defending the most prominent white-nationalist voice in America: Tucker Carlson.
Carlson’s allies on the right wish to exculpate him of any blame for the violence committed by his adherents. Their defenses amount to lawyerly haggling, collapsing important distinctions in service of avoiding the obvious: Carlson explicitly advocates “great-replacement theory,” a belief system that has inspired a string of mass murders.
The conservative effort to wall off Carlson from the ideas that animated Payton Gendron begins by pretending that Carlson is merely taking note of the fact that immigration has political implications. Everybody talks about how the declining white share of the population will put pressure on conservative politics, right? “So just to get this straight, the Left argues that demographics are destiny, that demographics change in America will inevitably lead to a progressive majority — and it’s Republicans who are echoing the Great Replacement Theory?” writes Ben Shapiro. “It is both commonplace and widely welcomed (among the mainstream media) to talk about this, so long as you’re in favor of it,” asserts National Review’s Dan McLaughlin.
But the banal notion that immigration has political implications is not the issue. Great-replacement theory distinguishes itself from commonplace observations of political demography in two ways. It casts the phenomenon as a sinister elite conspiracy often (though not necessarily) directed by Jews. Rather than complain about the difficulties or failures of immigration enforcement, or blaming Democrats for their unwillingness to accept the tough measures that might be needed to tighten enforcement, great-replacement theory believes a secret cabal has been directing this policy for its own benefit.
The other and more dangerous element of the conspiracy theory is its framing of immigrants as “replacing” the native population. Obviously, adding immigrants to the population is a completely different thing than replacing the current population. It is the difference between learning your employer is adding new staff and learning that you are being fired. The rhetorical move of casting immigration as a replacement turns a policy question with normal trade-offs into a zero-sum existential struggle, a war between nations and peoples.
These are the steps Carlson has taken repeatedly. He describes illegal immigration as a conflict between racial groups, with the arrival of one causing the elimination of the other. To wit:
“But why? To change the racial mix of the country. That’s the reason. To reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the Third World … This is the language of eugenics. It’s horrifying. But there’s a reason Biden said that. In political terms, this policy is called the ‘great replacement’ — the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”
And he presents this policy as a deliberate scheme masterminded by Democrats with, or at the behest of, global financiers such as George Soros, whom he attacks obsessively and accuses of “waging a kind of war — political, social, and demographic war on the West.” He has fingered Soros as the string-puller behind the great replacement:
“Since taking the White House six months ago, the Biden administration has, from the very beginning, used immigration to change the demographic mix of our country, not to improve the country or the lives of the people who come here but to flood the United States with loyal new Democratic voters so that America becomes a one-party state in perpetuity.
This is their version of democracy, or if you don’t like the outcome, you just change the electorate. That’s true. You’re absolutely not allowed to acknowledge this is happening. If you do, they will scream that you’re a conspiracy nut, you’re a bigot, you must be silenced forever.
We learned that the hard way a couple of months ago. ‘The great-replacement theory, it’s a lie,’ they yelled. ‘George Soros has nothing to do with that. Stop talking.’”
Carlson is not naming the Jews, but there is a paper-thin difference between blaming a Jewish financier who is the object of anti-Semitic obsession as the orchestrator of a global plot and naming the Jewish people.
A popular conservative podcaster highlights a portion of Gendron’s manifesto that attacks various Fox News personalities. In a lengthy apologia, frequent Carlson guest Glenn Greenwald makes the same point:
“Gendron explicitly describes his contempt for political conservatism. In a section entitled ‘CONSERVATISM IS DEAD, THANK GOD,’ he wrote: “Not a thing has been conserved other than corporate profits and the ever increasing wealth of the 1% that exploit the people for their own benefit. Conservatism is dead. Thank god. Now let us bury it and move on to something of worth.”
Yes, many right-wingers express contempt for conservatism — and even for Fox News. Donald Trump has done both. The idea that mainstream conservatism is weak (or has been hijacked by business interests) is a mainstay of rhetoric used by other Republicans engaged in factional struggle for control of the GOP. This divide has spilled over to Fox News itself, whose hosts have attacked one another implicitly and sometimes explicitly. The fact that Gendron has a problem with the likes of Chris Wallace and Jonah Goldberg is not a divide between him and Carlson but a point of common ground.
Greenwald likewise says that Gendron did not quote Carlson by name, thereby proving his ideas have no common origin:
“That Carlson was primarily responsible for the ten dead people in Buffalo was asserted despite the fact that there was no indication that Gendron even knew who Carlson was, that he had ever watched his show, that he was influenced by him in any way, or that he admired or even liked the Fox host.”
Except Gendron’s argument at times echoes some of Carlson’s rhetoric almost word for word. Here, one of Carlson’s favorite riffs:
“How, precisely, is diversity our strength? Since you’ve made this our new national motto, please be specific as you explain it. Can you think, for example, of other institutions such as, I don’t know, marriage or military units in which the less people have in common, the more cohesive they are?”
And here, via Max Boot, is Gendron’s version:
“Why is diversity said to be our greatest strength? Said throughout the media, spoken by politicians, educators and celebrities. But no one ever seems to give a reason why. What gives a nation strength? And how does diversity increase that strength?”
Ideas exist along a continuum. Almost any idea can be pushed to its extremism and repurposed for violent ends. Greenwald dwells at length on a 2017 incident of a man who listened to liberals like Rachel Maddow denouncing the Republican Party and then decided to try to murder them. “It is virtually impossible to find any ideology on any part of the political spectrum that has not spawned senseless violence and mass murder by adherents,” he writes.
But some ideas lend themselves more naturally than others to violent terrorism. In theory, a belief in a higher minimum wage could be turned into a rationale to murder employers who pay too little. In reality, the idea that a secret cabal is orchestrating a plot to replace — not expand — the population is especially conducive to violent terorrism. That particular ideology continues to breed violent terrorism regularly, while murderers inspired to bring about single-payer health care or lower capital-gains taxes remain vanishingly rare.
Carlson is not directing his audience to commit murder. But he is spreading an ideology that lends itself naturally to murderous tendencies and has accordingly spawned a violent wing. White nationalists see Carlson as their champion, and so too does the vast majority of the conservative movement. Carlson, like Trump, serves as a bridge between the Republican Party and a movement once seen as too extreme and marginal for the party to touch. The defenses of Carlson will ensure that the power of white nationalism continues to grow, along with its body count.