Would this Buffalo shooting have happened if Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson didn’t exist? Maybe. But the gunman, Payton Gendron, is still alive and in police custody—a somewhat unusual set of circumstances. I’m very interested in learning where and how he got his racist and fascist ideas, and where he first heard about “replacement theory,” a recurring topic on Carlson’s Fox News show. Buffalo authorities owe it to America to ask him detailed questions along these lines and videotape it and show it to us so we can see how this poison infects angry young brains.
White supremacist hatred is a global phenomenon, of course—this shooter said he was inspired by the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter, who killed 51 people. What’s notable about New Zealand, Norway, and other countries where mass shootings inspired by racist ideas have occurred is there is broad consensus among the governing and media elites that such occurrences are bad. Here, the Trump-Carlson faction of America is no doubt celebrating.
Yes, they’ll denounce the shooter publicly. It’s likely that Carlson will go on his show tonight and say he condemns the killing and abhors violence. But he incites such violence all the time. White rage is the heart of his message; Trump’s as well.
It’s the heart of the Republican Party’s message, and it has been for decades. The press tends to gloss over the dog whistles, but years of this malpractice have led to the whistles becoming as loud as bullhorns. The very word extremist means that the person in question is well out among the societal fringes, which in turn tends to exonerate the mainstream, which by implication is not extremist. But the GOP mainstream is extremist on race. It has been since Barry Goldwater. That doesn’t mean that every individual in the party is a racist on a personal level—clearly this is not the case. But it does mean that the party, in terms of its behaviors and policies, is a racist party.
When you stop and think about this country’s history from this perspective, the story is pretty bleak. From its founding until roughly 1960—that is, around 180 years—racist violence was frequent, and it was almost never punished. And racial discrimination, of course, existed in every nook and cranny of American life: education, employment, housing, recreation, you name it. Once upon a time, as we know, it was the Democratic Party that harbored the worst of the racial separatists.
America then set about correcting this. It was the greatest project on which we as a nation have ever embarked. Discrimination was and remains so embedded in our laws, our tax code, our zoning regulations, and so on that we’ve barely scratched the surface in many ways; but much good was done. And from about the mid-’60s to mid-’70s, there was a consensus that this project was a good and necessary thing.
Crucially, this was true even in the South, where most states in the 1970s were governed by Democrats who were moderate-to-conservative in general but who were pretty good on race, if for no other reason than that there were now all these thousands upon thousands of Black citizens who could vote, and these governors wanted their votes. In Florida, Reubin Askew put a Black man on the state Supreme Court. In Mississippi, William Waller disbanded the notorious Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which used state funds to openly defend segregation. Atlanta declared itself, in the late 1970s, “the city too busy to hate.”
But no sooner did this progress occur than the backlash took hold, and we’ve been living with it ever since. It started in the suburbs of the South, where Newt Gingrich was poisoning minds, but it spread everywhere. Orange County, California, became one of the hotbeds of the new right, as did upstate New York, where Gendron is from; and of course Donald Trump’s Queens, where the fictional Archie Bunker represented on prime-time television every week a worldview that was all too common and real.
The backlash grew over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, although it hadn’t yet fully consumed the Republican Party: Ronald Reagan and the congressional GOP backed the Voting Rights Act, for instance. But then came the election of Barack Obama, and nativist America lost its shit.
In retrospect, we were so stupid and naïve. I never thought for a second that Obama’s victory “solved” our racial problems; no serious person thought that. But I did think that by and large, America would accept his victory and his legitimacy and that even most people who didn’t agree with his politics would take some amount of pride in the fact that the United States had reached this milestone.
Well, that was pretty galactically wrong. Historians will note that after electing its first Black president, America turned right around and elected an open racist who made his political bones and built his political fan base specifically by falsely questioning the Black president’s provenance and legitimacy.
And now racism is more out in the open in this country than it’s been since the 1950s. The culture has changed for the better in a number of ways, and certain manifestations of racism that were permissible then are now verboten. And sure, in some ways woke political correctness goes too far. But that’s a minor problem compared to the real crisis. Woke college students may shout down conservative speakers, but they don’t charge into supermarkets in Black neighborhoods with hundreds of rounds of ammo and shoot people up because of their skin color.
When I was a young man, I believed that we were getting somewhere on race relations in this country. Now I see very little hope for improvement, at least in our political culture. The backlash grows more intense all the time. The right-wing media and social media are unregulated and unstoppable. As we move toward becoming a majority-minority country in the 2040s, the backlash will metastasize, and violence, I believe, will grow. So this white rage is going to get worse and worse for at least the next 20 years.
Oh, and by the way. That Black justice in Florida appointed by Governor Askew? His name was Joseph Hatchett. He died last month. An effort was mounted—which, to be fair, I should note that Marco Rubio and Rick Scott backed—to name the federal courthouse in Tallahassee after him. It needed two-thirds of the House of Representatives to pass. It failed, with 186 Republicans, all but about 20, voting against. And America’s voters appear likely to reward this sort of behavior this fall.