The dull history of the New Zealand executioner’s ‘incredible substitution’
The purported manifesto of the man who killed 49 people at a pair of Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques on Thursday is laced throughout with trolling and diversions.
But look past these booby traps and you’ll find one earnestly stated idea that may sound familiar — because conservative media and political operatives have worked hard in recent years to launder it out of the white supremacist wilderness and into the mainstream marketplace of ideas.
The Christchurch murders were motivated by the killer’s belief that a “great replacement” is underway, as Caucasian birthrates slip behind those of other ethnic groups. The killer’s terminology is informative — though not in the manner he may have wished.
Instead, the manifesto — which was posted to the anonymous message-board collective 8chan moments before the Facebook livestream of his massacre began — illustrates how men like President Donald Trump, his advisers, and his media enablers have steered an obscure concept once called “white genocide” into more widely palatable cultural spaces than its ethno-fascist birthplace.
The killer’s term was coined in 2012 by a French right-wing author named Renaud Camus. His book, Le Grande Remplacement, quickly made its way across the ocean to join the grim canon of white supremacist literature alongside such dark inspirations as 1978’s The Turner Diaries and 1916’s The Passing of a Great Race.
“There’s actually a lot [of these texts],” Chapman University professor Pete Simi told ThinkProgress. Though it’s handy for liberals to assume that white supremacists are semi-literate slobs, Simi, a longtime ethnographer of radical race-hate movements made a point of noting that this is not the case. “In many cases they read quite a lot. But they’re reading within their own canon. They’re reading a specific genre and type of book that consistently reinforces this particular worldview.”
Camus’ concept of white babies being replaced by brown ones across various western countries has proved extraordinarily useful to the movement — which currently claims Trump as an inspirational figurehead — that’s captured conservative political power in the U.S. and Europe.
Former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon, who at one time served as Trump’s aide-de-camp, has leaned heavily on the idea that Muslim migrants are invading Europe during speaking tours of the region in recent years. The website he once ran offers extensive coverage of the conflict between conservatives and immigrants in France, all of which has centered Camus’ ideas and writings. White supremacist Rep. Steve King (R-IA) has repeatedly touted the same notion, most famously when he declared that the United States “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeatedly presented statistics about the near-record share of Americans who were born outside the country in speeches explaining his and Trump’s policy proposals for curbing both legal and illegal immigration.
And Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who inherited the prime time Fox News slot vacated by Bill O’Reilly, has used his new prominence to warn viewers about a feminist “genocide” of white men, and to depict immigration as a stalking horse for “demographic change” intended to replace the America you know with a different, worse, “dirtier” one.
And while Trump hasn’t always been as studious about his terminology as his associates and underlings — he once retweeted someone whose Twitter handle was “@WhiteGenocideTM” — he has nevertheless been at least as aggressive about portraying non-white migrants as an invading horde who have too many children.
As Trump vetoed the bipartisan resolution that would have cancelled the emergency declaration he is using as an end run around Congress to obtain funding for his border wall, he echoed the Christchurch gunman. “We’re on track for a million illegal aliens to rush our borders,” Trump said Friday. “People hate the word ‘invasion’ but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people. You have no idea who they are.”
FYI, the ‘Great Replacement’ – cited by the Christchurch terrorist – isn’t some sort of niche theory relegated to 8chan & other image boards. It’s a theory peddled by verified users on this site. pic.twitter.com/fmFxJjXYZK
— Mike Stuchbery💀🍷 (@MikeStuchbery_) March 15, 2019
The document uploaded just before the New Zealand killings portrays a similar set of anxieties, citing statistics about ethnic differentials in birth rates and portraying the author as a heroic avenger in a centuries-old war against “the ‘melting pot’ pipe dream.” It, too, contains dark warnings about an “invasion.”
The attacks and their apparent rationale suggest a culmination of an almost 20-year spiral of white supremacist arguments against multiculturalism into the vanguard ideology of the conservative electoral establishment of the United States, hate group experts told ThinkProgress.
“This was always part of the dialogue on the fringes and in the forums. Now we’re seeing it become part of our mainstream discussion,” Oren Segal, an extremism expert with the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview. “But it was [traditionally] framed almost as a response to the threat of violence from terrorists. Now, we’re seeing that just sort of applied to anybody who’s outside, who’s not white.”
The idea’s modern evolution is in part a rhetorical bank shot off the rage and fear conjured by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Simi said. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 afforded white supremacists an opportunity to merge the Islamophobia that had gained traction with moderate and conservative voters following the attacks.
“The birther movement was a really big step toward the mainstream in terms of helping to promote some of these ideas,” Simi said, noting that the current GOP House caucus includes birther-conspiracist figures like Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) who “despite his tears at being called a racist, was elected in part because of his birther statements at rallies.”
The conspiracy that Obama wasn’t really an American-born citizen, or the even more fanatical claims about secret pedophilia rings housed in fancy pizzerias that emerge today from the same online cesspools, may have helped far-right racists draw in new eyeballs. But the sheer kookiness of these claims and the outsize rhetoric that was often marshaled to promote them have kept these ideas at the fringes. The “great replacement” mythology, with its charts and statistics and high-brow airs and French castle-dwelling author, has proven to be a much more effective vector for this ideological virus.
White racists have obvious incentives to dress their views up as scientific. Once the segment of the white populace that’s instinctively inclined toward the hate movement has already gotten sized for a Klan robe, recruiting more broadly requires a new approach. And those who have studied the way these ideas travel from the margins to the mainstream note that the lab coat becomes a more useful costume for their promulgation, followed soon after by think tank tweed.
“This rebranding and mainstreaming effort is something white supremacists have been working on for decades. You have certain segments who wanted to present themselves and their ideas under the cloak of science, or in more coded terms, and have been advocating for that,” Simi said.
The long-running push to present race-hate as inconvenient truth has benefited substantially from new technology. The same internet that the New Zealand killer’s manifesto claims made him rich enough to plan his attack also generates important pre-conditions for radicalization.
“We know that this generation of young people spend more time alone than any generation in history. Teenagers right now are alone more than anyone ever has been. They’re online, connected, but not with other people,” American University professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss said. “Obviously I’m not saying this whole generation is going to be violent. That’s the fringe. But there are people who are finding connection and meaning, and there are people who don’t, and those people are more vulnerable to something that comes along and says hey here’s how you find connection, this is how your life will have meaning.”
The so-called “alt-right” iteration of online white supremacist thought and action, where participants eschew most traditional fascist symbols and take great care to present themselves as clean-cut young men who praise European culture rather than white skin, has marketed itself to the autodidactic potential of the internet as well.
Identity Evropa, one of the most prominent of the new wave of neo-Nazi organizations, has a whole section of its website touting educational materials your teacher kept secret when you were in school. Those materials help it draw in the young men that are then deployed at events like the 2017 torch rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — where bright young fascists in polo shirts and khakis chanted “you will not replace us” — all but quoting Camus.
Visitors to the group’s educational page, Miller-Idriss said, will find a mix of “very mainstream social science” alongside the freshly sanitized fringe notions Camus, Carlson, and Bannon have championed this decade. “There’s this much broader narrative about the threat of demographic change, whether that’s through immigration and invasion or through birthrates, it’s tied up and framed in a much more intelligent way,” she said. “It’s using language that talks about European heritage instead of whiteness. It sounds a little bit less racist, even though it’s not.”
The heroic and Manichean tones of the population-erasure, demographic-replacement landscape tap directly into a desire for solitude and an appetite for purpose, Miller-Idriss noted. In each slightly tweaked iteration, from the televised Carlson version to the high-gloss Camus text to the mass-killer manifesto reproduction, the panic over brown babies, invaders, and erasure invites the audience do something about it.
The replacement notion is “just one of the threads that gets woven into this much less logical narrative,” Miller-Idriss said. “It intersects with another narrative about what happens next: There needs to be a heroic act to save white people.”
Robert Bowers laid claim to a similar self-anointed heroism in describing his murderous attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last fall, she said, specifically connecting his actions to the north-bound migrant caravan which Trump and several Fox News pundits used as red meat ahead of the midterm elections.
“The language is really similar: This compulsion to take action and show heroism around saving their people. It’s tied up in language about invasion and immigration,” Miller-Idriss said. “The birth rates part is there, but they’re picking up on a whole lot of things and coming away with this urgent sense of a need for heroic action.”
Bowers had become convinced that rich and powerful Jewish donors were behind the caravan, using it as the means to bring down white civilization in much the same way the Christchurch killer’s writings depict Muslim immigrants and refugees in Oceania. In both cases, the internet played a significant part — for Bowers, it was the sheltering community of twitter-alternative Gab; in the case of the Christchurch gunman, it was the online communication networks that Norwegian white supremacist murderer Anders Breivik had used.
Large tech firms bear some “pretty substantial” responsibility for creating the infrastructure this self-radicalization pipeline relies upon, Simi said. People who spend any time this weekend searching the internet for traction on the hodge-podge of science-ish claims in the manifesto — including reporters looking for sources on the subject — will be more likely to get served the same radicalizing propaganda themselves when they visit YouTube, log into Facebook, or visit webpages supported by advertising. The algorithms that govern the margins of everyone’s web consumption will see those users have expressed an interest in the idea that white civilization is under threat.
“If you’re going to use algorithms that you know will promote… highly emotive text and images that are more likely to keep people coming back or staying longer,” Simi said, “I think there’s got to be some accountability and responsibility.”
And while the people and organizations that propagandize in that fashion persistently denounce responsibility for murderous action undertaken on behalf of the ideas they push, Simi said that post-facto distancing is a long-running ruse.
“This kind of [violence by] a small number of individuals or a single individual is a central part of the organizational culture and leadership of folks involved in these kinds of groups, and it has been for a long time,” the American Swastika author said. “We see it as isolated incidents, a deranged individual. But the strategy itself we have a hard time coming to terms with.”