The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Only one part of the Buffalo massacre deviated from right-wing rhetoric

Victims' names are written in chalk at a makeshift memorial outside the supermarket in Buffalo where a shooting occurred. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Tragedy can be clarifying.

The massacre of 10 shoppers and employees at a Tops supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo over the weekend was precisely the sort of extremist violence that authorities have been worried about for years. Late in 2020, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about domestic violent extremism that has been on the rise; when Joe Biden was inaugurated months later, he used his first speech as president to warn of “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” Polling from Pew Research Center conducted last month found that a third of Black Americans worried almost every day about being attacked for their race. In other words, both police and potential victims worried about an attack just like this one.

What’s clarifying, though, is that what appears to have occurred would at every step until the trigger was pulled have been defended with right-wing rhetoric that has increasingly filtered into mainstream Republican rhetoric. The shooting suspect allegedly purchased a highly regulated firearm in New York, modified it and — seemingly influenced by extremist online rhetoric and espousing a conspiracy theory about race — used the weapon to kill Black people in a heavily Black neighborhood miles from his house. It’s all there: access to guns, unmoderated rhetoric from the Internet, “replacement theory.” Each a focus of fervent advocacy in recent years despite the ways in which their overlap was demonstrably toxic.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

We can begin with “replacement theory,” the idea that there’s a coordinated effort from elite Americans to replace native-born voters with immigrants to gain an electoral advantage. In December, the Associated Press and NORC conducted a national poll evaluating the extent of belief in this idea. Nearly half of Republicans said they at least somewhat agreed this was happening. More than half said they thought immigrants came to the United States to some degree because they wanted to influence our elections.

Where did this idea come from? The idea of a deliberate effort to “replace” native-born voters — read, White voters — with immigrants was long a staple of the racist right-wing fringe. But with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson explicitly elevating the idea in early 2021, it became an acceptable part of Republican rhetoric from rank-and-file House Republicans, members of House Republican leadership and state executives.

Even in the wake of the Buffalo massacre, in which the alleged shooter apparently published a lengthy screed espousing the idea that White Americans were being “replaced,” right-wing pundits defended the idea. Joel Pollak, an editor at Breitbart (once described by former executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon as “the platform for the alt-right”), defended the idea.

“ ‘Replacement theory’ would be less of a problem,” he wrote, “if it did not offer a compelling explanation of why Democrats are trying to open the southern border to as many migrants as possible and offer them a ‘path to citizenship’ and voting. Note: no one ever provides a better explanation.”

The “better explanation,” of course, is reflected elsewhere in that AP-NORC poll: Migrants come to the United States seeking opportunity (91 percent of Americans understand this is a factor in migration), and our immigration laws generally mandate that their requests for admission receive consideration. Advocates promote a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to allow them to live legally in the United States with their families without threat of deportation. There’s no mystery to this; Pollak casting it that way is more a function of the right’s tendency to see the left as untrustworthy enemies than any consideration of the issue.

But note that Pollak offered this defense of “replacement theory” after the Buffalo massacre. Pollak is rationalizing the alleged shooter’s apparent motive, though not his actions. The defense ends just short of the trigger being pulled.

This is the pattern. The weapon apparently used in the shooting was purchased used at a small gun store near the alleged shooter’s home. That’s unusual: New York’s relatively strict gun laws mean that most guns recovered at crime scenes come from out of state. Those laws did mean, though, that he allegedly broke the law in modifying the weapon to use an expanded magazine. Had he been stopped with the rifle before going to Buffalo, it probably would have been confiscated.

That rule on how many rounds a magazine can hold was established by the 2013 Safe Act. It has been a repeated target of opposition from gun rights advocates calling for fewer restrictions on gun ownership. The National Rifle Association has more broadly opposed laws banning high-capacity magazines, including in California. The suspected shooter’s alleged firearm and modifications would have been defended by many on the right, with only about 4 in 10 Republicans indicating in 2021 polling that they supported restrictions on assault-style weapons like the one apparently used in Buffalo or a ban on expanded magazines. Until the trigger was pulled, the firearm itself would have evoked little objection.

That screed apparently published by the alleged shooter indicated that his racist views of Black Americans and immigrants were a function of indoctrination on websites such as 4chan. It was there, the document reads, that the suspect “learned through infographics … and memes that the White race is dying out.”

4chan has long been one of the best examples of the toxic effects of unmoderated online content. It is designed to be ephemeral and anonymous, a combination that would make moderation difficult even if it were desired. It sits, in other words, at the extreme of the extent to which online sites try to ensure that users are behaving responsibly.

In recent years, efforts within other online communities to moderate content have become infused with politics. After the 2016 election, both Twitter and Facebook began focusing more on abusive content and misinformation, triggering a backlash among conservative users who felt unfairly targeted. As president, Donald Trump amplified the idea that the political right was being unfairly singled out for moderation and censure despite a lack of evidence that this was happening. A 2020 poll from Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans object to social media sites labeling misinformation from users.

One person who accepts that argument, though, is the likely new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk. He has said that he will scale back moderation on Twitter, so that speech on the site follows no stricter edicts than what’s allowed by law in a region. In the United States, of course, that would mean very little moderation at all, given that the First Amendment makes legal restraints on speech rare. Would spreading racist misinformation and memes run afoul of Twitter’s rules under Musk? It’s hard to see why they would — meaning that rhetoric like that which apparently influenced the alleged Buffalo shooter might have a much larger audience.

Again: The path the alleged shooter appears to have taken to bring him to Buffalo was one that much of the political right has defended. Consumption of misinformation, particularly about White “replacement,” and ready access to a modified firearm. So the focus then turns to the alleged shooter’s mental health and failures on the part of law enforcement: Had he been stopped after an earlier threat, he would not have allegedly killed those people in western New York.

New York has a red-flag law aimed at preventing ownership of firearms from dangerous individuals that did not prevent the shooting suspect from allegedly buying a firearm. In a number of other states, similar proposed laws have been blocked by Republican lawmakers.