The intensifying scrutiny of the role of “great replacement theory” in helping to inspire the horrific mass shooting in Buffalo is a reminder to the country: We could have seen it all coming.
Alleged mass shooter Payton Gendron’s online screed trafficked heavily in this theory. He even labeled what Whites are facing as “genocide.”
Amy Spitalnick is well positioned to discuss the role of these ideas in mass shootings and in broader ongoing white-power movements. She is executive director of Integrity First for America, which successfully held organizers of the Unite the Right rally liable in court for damages.
That effort employed a new tool in the fight to break violent white supremacy. But what has followed since then has been profoundly dispiriting about how challenging it will be to prevail.
Follow Greg Sargent‘s opinionsFollow
Indeed, despite the nation’s horror over Charlottesville, that toxic “great replacement” ideology subsequently motivated numerous mass shootings, including in Pittsburgh, El Paso and elsewhere. Even amid the Buffalo shooting, some Republicans and right-wing media personalities are currently mainstreaming those ideas.
So now what? I reached out to Spitalnick to help provide a look ahead. An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.
Greg Sargent: When you first took on the organizers of the Charlottesville march, what was your sense of this movement? Did you expect it to continue growing and metastasizing the way it has?
Amy Spitalnick: Many Americans were perplexed by this idea of “Jews will not replace us” or the “great replacement” that we heard in Charlottesville. It felt like a fringe conspiracy theory.
What has become clear is that “Unite the Right” really was a harbinger of the extremism that’s followed, and that’s become wholly mainstreamed in our politics and society in many ways.
Sargent: There’s a tendency in the culture and in the media to see these mass shootings as isolated events. But in many of these cases — and particularly Jan. 6 — organizers and shooters see them as part of a much larger struggle. They fully intend for them to be galvanizing of more such events later.
Spitalnick: That’s exactly right. They’re not lone wolves. They’re part of a broader extremist network in which each attack is used to inspire the next one.
Sargent: The shooters themselves see their own big event interfacing with the public as something that hopefully — from their point of view — will inspire more to come.
Spitalnick: That is why you see them livestreaming. That’s why you see them putting their diatribes online. That’s why you see things like this Buffalo attacker using Discord to effectively create a log of his planning. It’s all part of the cycle of stochastic terrorism.
At the end of the day, it’s about providing both a road map for how to do this, and making this sort of violence increasingly commonplace, so that it perpetuates.
Sargent: What’s the end goal of inspiring future attacks?
Spitalnick: The end goal is a White ethnostate that includes this very far-right extremist vision for what this country should be: a White, Christian, straight, male nation. All others are no longer part of that country — or subjugated.
That feels fantastical to say. But if you read everything these extremists have written — and if you even read the supposedly more mainstream versions — it’s all about protecting this very narrow vision of what this country should be.
Sargent: Let me ask about your use of the term “ethnostate.” Because it seems to me there’s a basic failure of terminology when we use the phrase “white nationalism.”
Important strands of this movement see the American state as the enemy, right? By “nation,” they mean the Aryan nation, not the U.S. nation-state. So when you say “White ethnostate,” you’re not talking about the U.S. state — they would stand up a separate nation-state entirely.
Spitalnick: That is true for many of these extremists. As we see this ideology become increasingly mainstream, there are some — particularly Republican officials — who are trying to do this within the bounds of the United States, within our country right now. But the end goal for those deep in the movement is exactly what you describe.
Language has failed us in many ways. “White nationalism” is not a term that sufficiently conveys the horrific violent nature of this movement.
Sargent: Some people hear the phrase “white nationalism,” and they think it’s just a conception of national identity that imagines whiteness as core to it. But it’s really much more revolutionary and separatist, isn’t it?
Spitalnick: Absolutely. For example, Matthew Heimbach, who was one of the key Charlottesville organizers, had a very specific vision for a separate, White ethnostate.
Sargent: When Republicans float versions of “great replacement theory” — usually something like, “Democrats want to import immigrants to bring in more Democratic voters” — it smuggles these ideas into the mainstream in a sanitized form, which could lead people to start exploring the more virulent ideological core of this movement.
Spitalnick: That’s exactly how these avowed white supremacists see it. They’ve repeatedly celebrated this mainstreaming of extremism. They’re out there saying that Tucker Carlson and these elected officials have gone where no one has gone before.
Sargent: Where is this all going? Is it irrational to worry that we might see a more serious and sustained white terrorism movement?
Spitalnick: It’s not irrational at all. It’s what many in this space have been warning about for years, that we’re only going to see more acts of mass violence by extremists. It goes hand in hand with the rise in hate crimes we’ve seen.
Accountability is crucial — but you can’t prosecute or sue your way out of this crisis. You need to be building structures into our society to prevent this sort of extremism in the first place.
Sargent: What does that look like?
Spitalnick: A variety of tools. It’s anti-racist education. It includes media and digital literacy training. It means giving caregivers, parents and educators the tools to identify and prevent this sort of extremism. It means dealing with the ways in which extremism has infiltrated law enforcement and has preyed on the veterans’ community.
Sargent: What are the prospects for having any real success? There’s cause for deep alarm, no?
Spitalnick: That’s putting it lightly. The Democratic leadership needs to be making it crystal clear to the entire country that what we’re talking about here is a broader, far-right, extremist, authoritarian effort that puts our democracy and all of us at risk.
That’s one of the most important things we could see: an unequivocal acknowledgment that this is not normal, this is not okay — and it’s dangerous to all of us.