Historical context: How did we get here?

In order to supplement my page Resources on Addressing White Nationalism as well as my op-ed published by Inside Higher Ed, I want to provide a brief history of some key moments of extremism in the US. It is a lot to process, especially seeing all of these horrific events together, but I think we need to understand the patterns of these events rather than see them as isolated. Also, I note that only in this history and only once each am I naming the perpetrator of a mass shooting, to avoid focusing too much on their name.

-by Karen Gaffney (email: dividednolonger AT gmail.com)

In the early 1900s, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published in Russia, and it spread a dangerous conspiracy theory that was entirely fabricated but intended to appear authentic. This fiction purported to be actual meeting minutes describing Jewish leaders planning global domination, and the purpose was to catalyze antisemitism by promoting belief in this myth. Despite being widely discredited due to complete lack of evidence, this antisemitic belief has persisted for more than a century and today fuels the far right. Henry Ford (founder of the Ford Motor Company) was notoriously antisemitic, and after he bought his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent (of Dearborn, Michigan), in the 1920s, he published antisemitic articles blaming Jewish people for every social problem, and he republished The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, presenting it as if it were real. Ford’s newspaper had an exceptionally high circulation, more than the New York Times during the same period, and was considered very influential. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was also a foundational document for Hitler. In How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Jason Stanley explains that the text “was at the basis of Nazi ideology” (68).

In 1915, the first feature-length silent film was released in the US called The Birth of a Nation, based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. The story is set in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, depicting Black people as villains and the KKK as heroes. It fueled the negative racial stereotype of Black men as violent criminals who threaten the purity of white women. It represented Black civil rights as a danger to white America and glamorized an antebellum period when everyone “knew their place.” The film boosted enrollment in the KKK. President Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House, and the film was in theatres for years, considered widely successful. Stanley explains that both Hitler and the KKK perpetuated the myth that Jewish people were orchestrating the rape of white women by Black men to contaminate the white race (139).

In 1973, a novel was published in France, The Camp of the Saints, that focused on an apocalyptic invasion of France from across the Mediterranean by immigrants of color, who are depicted as savages. This novel is popular among white supremacists, who see it as a call to arms to fight back against an existential threat to white people, a threat sometimes called “white genocide.” Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who both advised former President Trump, were known to speak highly of this novel. The very fear that a country that is “supposed” to be white and Christian is being “invaded” by immigrants of color and immigrants who are not Christian is the very fear that drove the Trump administration’s creation of what became known as the Muslim travel ban, the 2017 policy that banned travel into the US from seven majority-Muslim countries.

In the 1970s, as part of the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, the neo-Nazi organization the National Alliance became, for decades, one of the most influential of such groups in the US. In 1978, its founder, William Pierce, published a novel called The Turner Diaries that told a story of a white supremacist rebellion against a Jewish-led US government. The white insurgents believe the government was targeting white people with discriminatory laws, especially as it relates to taking away their guns, and they ultimately provoke a nuclear war that leads to the creation of a white ethnostate. They carry out a “Day of the Rope,” a public hanging of any “traitors,” white people who don’t actively support the white supremacist regime. The FBI considers this novel the “bible of the racist right.”

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more. He targeted this building because it was the FBI field office for Waco, Texas, and he blamed the federal government for the deaths of members of the religious cult the Branch Davidians during a siege with the FBI and ATF over the cult’s illegal weapons. He had been particularly influenced by The Turner Diaries, which he sold at gun shows, especially the fear it cultivated about the government taking away guns. Mogelson explains that a series of events “reinforced the right-wing narrative that white Christians were under attack” (86). These events included the 1992 federal siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (when federal agents became involved in a shootout and prolonged siege when trying to arrest white supremacist Randy Weaver), the 1993 federal siege in Waco, and the 1994 ban on assault weapons by the Clinton administration.

Malcolm Nance, in They Want to Kill Americans: The Militias, Terrorists, and Deranged Ideology of the Trump Insurgency, explains that the theme of fearing the government will take away guns reflects a major ideological shift in gun culture in the 1980s, “when the National Rifle Association began to advocate that citizens keep on hand an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle—or as they call it, the ‘Modern Minuteman’s Rifle’—to overthrow a tyrannical U.S. government. In all of American history, the Second Amendment to the Constitution was never interpreted as a license to fight the federal government” (151). Stockpiling weapons for fear that the government will take them away has only become more pervasive over time.

Furthermore, Mogelson writes, “The anti-government movement that emerged fatefully wedded white nationalism to gun-rights advocacy and apocalyptic survivalism. . . . The Michigan Militia ballooned after Waco, to an estimated seven thousand members, making it the largest in the country. A year later, Timothy McVeigh, a white supremacist who’d attended several Michigan Militia meetings, detonated a massive truck bomb in Oklahoma City on the anniversary of the Waco massacre” (86-87). I will also note that according to Mogelson, far-right host of Infowars Alex Jones was in high school during the siege in Waco, which contributed to his radicalization (175).

In 2004, the census reported that white people would become a statistical minority in 2050, and then in 2008, the census adjusted that year to 2042, which exacerbated the brewing fear on the far right. According to the New York Times, “For white nationalists, it signifies a kind of doomsday clock counting down to the end of racial and cultural dominance.” Likewise, Kathleen Belew, a scholar on the history of white supremacy, has said that these types of census announcements provoke fears of “apocalyptic threat” and “annihilation of the white race.”

It is noteworthy that this 2008 census announcement came in the midst of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. His campaign and then presidency provoked a serious backlash among white supremacists. The combination of fear that white people would soon become a statistical minority and the presence of a Black family in the White House incited significant activity among white nationalists. Such fear and hostility were only exacerbated by stagnant wages and the ensuing scapegoating of immigrants and people of color, who became targets, rather than the structures that perpetuate the significant gap between the rich and the poor.

Multiple conspiracies followed Obama’s election. Mogelson writes, “Nationally, Obama’s election spurred what came to be known as the Patriot Movement: a loose federation of hundreds of armed groups organized on the pretext of gun rights but often hostile to Muslims, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community” (87). In addition, Nance writes, “To neo-Nazis, Obama’s election was the culmination of a successful takeover of the government by ‘the Jews,’ who, the conspiracy contends, run a secret ‘Zionist occupation government’” (99). Finally, “‘Birtherism,’ the conspiracy theory that Obama was actually born in Kenya, took root, even though he was born in Hawaii to an American mother. The single most influential source of this lie was a rich white businessman named Donald Trump” (Nance 100). These conspiracies blended antisemitism, white supremacy, white nationalism, and Islamophobia because “Obama was also a visual reminder that the shifting demographics would make them a minority in a half century. For many white Americans, it was too much” (Nance 138).

On June 17, 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Black people at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to documents he left behind, including online materials, it appears that he was radicalized online after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. According to the New York Times, the shooter’s manifesto states: “It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.” This search appears to have led him to white supremacist websites that falsely focus on an epidemic of Black violence against white people, again reinforcing the false belief in “white genocide.”

In August 2017, at the Unite the Right rally, white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville with the goal of bringing together various far-right groups to protest the removal of the Confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. A participant drove his car into counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring dozens. One of the white supremacists’ chants was “Jews will not replace us.” This refers to the increasingly popular belief in “great replacement,” a belief that Jewish people are in control of a system to replace white people with immigrants, Muslims, and people of color, leading to “white genocide.”

That fall, in 2017, the QAnon conspiracy emerged when messages were posted to the extremist messaging board 4chan that purportedly were written by a government intelligence officer with top level clearance (Q-level). These posts focused on mysterious messages about the “deep state,” a secret part of the government, and those who followed Q became known as “Anons” for “anonymous” (Nance 167). Furthermore, adherents believed there would be a “storm,” a moment when then-President Trump “would institute martial law and preside over tribunals for all the deviants and Satanists. A ‘great awakening’ would then permit survivors of the purge to reconcile and live in harmony” (Mogelson 141). In other words, “This was the QAnon conspiracy belief that Trump should order the mass arrest and murder of Democrats, who they believed to be cannibalistic child killers” (Nance 24).

The conspiracy theory went even further: “Both Alex Jones and the QAnon community maintained that the Satanist pedophiles of the deep state practiced a modern form of blood libel, which involved kidnapping infants for their adrenochrome, a chemical compound that induced euphoria, prolonged youth, and allowed communion with fallen angels. Because the adrenal glands secreted the chemical only during states of extreme distress, torture preceded its extraction” (Mogelson 187).

This QAnon conspiracy is very much connected to centuries-old antisemitic conspiracy theories about blood libel (the false belief that Jewish people kill children for their blood), to the antisemitic conspiracy at the heart of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and to televangelist Pat Robertson’s conspiracy claiming that Jewish bankers were on a path to global domination, which he claimed in his 1991 book The New World Order. I want to note that sometimes “globalists” is used rather than explicitly naming Jewish people, but “globalists” is a “term that acts as coded speech for Jews” (Miller-Idriss 53). Furthermore, the “save the children” theme of QAnon is directly connected to the anti-LGBTQ+ movement accusing that community, especially trans people, of being “groomers.” In addition, this theme of “protecting children” (meaning white children) also relates directly to the current anti-Critical Race Theory movement sweeping K-12 schools, where some white parents are complaining about books and curricula that explore issues related to racism and LGBTQ+ identity, leading to book bans and state laws limiting the curricula.

On October 27, 2018, 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shooting and killing 11 people. He had posted online materials that blamed Jewish people for orchestrating Central American immigrant “invaders” in the US who “kill our people,” directly reflecting the antisemitic and racist belief in “great replacement.”

On March 15, 2019, 28-year-old Brenton Harrison Tarrant carried out mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people. He livestreamed the attacks and left behind a manifesto that focused on the danger of “great replacement.”

On August 3, 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Wood Crusius targeted a Walmart in a predominantly Latinx area of El Paso, Texas and shot and killed 23 people. He left behind a manifesto posted to 8chan identifying the Christchurch shooting as an influence, particularly that shooter’s belief in “great replacement.” He identified “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” as a threat, stating, “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement.” This shooter was a college student.

On January 6, 2020, insurrectionists attacked the Capitol with the goal of disrupting the Congressional certification of the presidential election. While there were a range of people at the Stop the Steal rally and who broke into the Capitol, notorious white nationalist groups were at the heart of the attack, especially the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leader, Stewart Rhodes, was recently found guilty of seditious conspiracy and other crimes. Rhodes started his far-right organization as a response to Obama’s election (Mogelson). While insurrectionists were attacking the Capitol, some of them set up large gallows with a noose for “traitors” as the crowd chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” Mogelson notes the parallels between The Turner Diaries’ “Day of the Rope” (the massive public hanging of supposed white traitors), QAnon’s “storm,” and the gallows and rope set up on January 6 (Mogelson 181, 228).

On May 14, 2022, 18-year-old Payton Gendron targeted and killed ten Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY and has since pleaded guilty to charges of murder and domestic terrorism motivated by hate. I am taking the time here to discuss the manifesto he left because he was a college student, an Engineering student at SUNY Broome, and because his manifesto reveals his radicalization. I find it relevant to identify his influences because his horrific crime should be considered a wakeup call to higher ed.

He explains his path to radicalization as being entirely online, beginning with 4chan and his interest in guns. He first noticed propaganda expressing the declining white birth rate as an existential threat, specifically the idea that white people will soon be a statistical minority. He also saw anti-Black posts that described Black people as committing crimes against white people and as disproportionately and unfairly getting government assistance. Racist and antisemitic posts not only described these as apocalyptic threats to white people but also as a plot by a Jewish cabal for world domination.

In addition to seeing these initial posts, one of the most fundamental catalysts of his early indoctrination was the video and manifesto by the shooter who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Once the Buffalo shooter saw this video and read the manifesto, he believed that white people were under threat and he needed to do whatever he could to save them, so he started planning his attack. He also explains being influenced by the shooters at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and in El Paso, Texas. The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto appears to serve as a manual to his followers, sharing both the ideology behind the attack as well as extremely detailed information about the attack itself, especially the weapons involved.

We need to identify the false racial myths mapped out in the manifesto because they clearly support his ideology, and these are exactly the kinds of false racial myths that we need to inoculate our students against. We must also develop a better understanding of how such false beliefs were conveyed that made them so appealing. The primary false racial myth is fear of “white genocide” or the “great replacement,” the belief that a Jewish cabal is orchestrating a system where white people are being replaced by people of color and Muslims. This antisemitic, racist, and anti-Muslim myth is in turn based on the myth that white people are the only people who are supposed to live in the US and Europe, a “manifest destiny” type of thinking. It is important to note that the “great replacement” conspiracy theory is also promoted by Tucker Carlson, the most-watched cable news host in the US, who also promotes a transphobic agenda.

The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto provides great detail on the many false racial myths that support this belief in “replacement.” The manifesto includes infographics, memes, cartoons, and posts copied from various online sources that focus on white people being genetically and culturally superior to Black people, who the shooter believes are less intelligent and more violent. He also focuses on the false belief that Black people are stealing white taxpayers’ money through unfair access to government assistance. The manifesto also includes a significant amount of antisemitic propaganda that focuses on Jewish people infiltrating the highest levels of power and controlling institutions of government, the media, and banking for the purposes of worldwide domination. It’s important to note that the way the propaganda was presented (especially through infographics, memes, and cartoons), which in turn got the shooter’s attention enough to copy and paste that material into his manifesto, reveals the appealing nature of these formats. He explicitly says how important memes and humor are to spreading this ideology. Miller-Idriss notes that “humor has been weaponized, especially through the creation and circulation of memes, jokes, and emoji” (151).

While the Buffalo shooter blames a Jewish cabal for orchestrating the replacement of white people, leading to “white genocide,” he is also critical of white people for their declining birthrate and for being in interracial relationships. He insists that white people need to marry each other, establish stricter patriarchal gender roles, develop greater Christian faith, and have more babies in order to preserve the white race. He explicitly attacks the existence of transgender people, presumably for defying the rigid gender and sexuality norms he thinks need to be established. He calls on white men to step up and defend the white race.

The manifesto explicitly describes in detail the shooter’s goal of killing as many Black people as possible and of getting as much publicity as possible in order to incite a civil war, a race war, that would lead to the creation of a white ethnostate. That is the shooter’s explicit goal, and he is trying to incite followers to carry out their own attacks through an accelerationist mentality, meaning to accelerate the arrival of that race war as soon as possible. He painstakingly located a city, neighborhood, and grocery store with the highest percentage of Black people within driving distance, and he planned out the attack for months, including his weapons, gear, and clothes, in elaborate detail, providing a blueprint for people to follow. Another important part of the shooter’s ideology is his anti-democratic mentality. He focuses on how democracy is “mob rule.” The anti-democratic nature of far-right extremism is very important to keep in mind, something that Western States Center reiterates in their trainings.

Unfortunately, the shooting in Buffalo was not the last mass shooting of 2022 where the shooter purposefully attacked a marginalized group. On Nov. 20, 2022, Anderson Lee Aldritch allegedly shot and killed five people and injured more than a dozen at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He had been arrested in 2021 for a bomb threat.

On October 27, 2022, Elon Musk completed his purchase of Twitter, and since that time, the New York Times reports that “hate speech’s rise on Twitter is unprecedented” and “problematic content and formerly barred accounts have increased sharply.”

On November 22, 2022, former President Trump had dinner with Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and Nick Fuentes. By this time, Ye had repeatedly made antisemitic comments, and Fuentes is an ardent white nationalist. While Trump said he didn’t know who Fuentes was, he did not denounce Fuentes once he did learn. Fuentes participated in the 2017 Unite the Right white supremacist march and the January 6, 2020 insurrection at the Capitol. He is also known for supporting beliefs in “white genocide” and “great replacement,” for supporting QAnon, and for denying the Holocaust, as well as making explicitly derogatory and hateful comments against Black people, Jewish people, Muslims, women, and LGBTQ+ people, especially in his America First show, a platform for vitriol.

On December 1, 2022, Ye and Fuentes appeared on Alex Jones’ conspiracy-driven show Infowars. Ye told Jones, “‘I like Hitler’,” and on the same day, Ye was suspended from Twitter for posting a swastika, the New York Times reports.

-Karen Gaffney