On Saturday, a gunman murdered ten people and wounded three others at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. The suspect, who is eighteen, used a weapon painted with a white-supremacist slogan and live-streamed his attack. Prior to the shooting, he also allegedly posted a manifesto, which relies heavily on the so-called great replacement theory, a racist conspiracy that has become increasingly mainstream in a number of Western countries, from France to the United States. To help understand that theory, and the dangers of white-supremacist violence more broadly, I spoke by phone with Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the alleged shooter’s influences, why the notion of a “great replacement” has gained a foothold in the United States and elsewhere, and how the media and political actors have used the theory to their benefit.
This theory seems to be useful for people in many different countries, and to target many different groups. Can you describe what it is, how it has changed over time, and how it’s become so useful to people such as this alleged shooter?
We can get into the textual background of the term if you want to, but it’s basically a new language for the same set of ideas that have worked to connect many different kinds of social threats into one broadly motivating, violent, and frightening world view for people in the white-power movement and on the militant right. The idea is simply that many different kinds of social change are connected to a plot by a cabal of élites to eradicate the white race, which people in this movement believe is their nation. It connects things such as abortion, immigration, gay rights, feminism, residential integration—all of these are seen as part of a series of threats to the white birth rate. One thing you’ll notice in the manifestos and in the talking points, really going back through the twentieth century, is this focus on the reproductive capacity of white women in maintaining the white race as a nation.
You mean the manifestos generally, or the manifesto last night?
Generally, and also the manifesto last night. The manifesto last night is also, broadly, copied from the Christchurch manifesto. [In March, 2019, a white gunman killed fifty-one people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.] We’re dealing with a genre of writing in which these threats are brought up to paint a picture of a race under siege. It changes the logic for some of the issues that we think of as capital-“C” conservative. So opposition to immigration is not simply about national security. It’s about the reproductive capacity of immigrants and the fear that the white race will be overwhelmed and eradicated by intermixing. It is seen as an apocalyptic threat to their race.
The “great replacement” comes about relatively recently from “The Camp of the Saints,” a novel that depicts a surge of migrants that usurps European culture. But it’s really the same ideology as the New World Order conspiracy, the idea of the Zionist occupational government—which is how people talked about this in the nineteen-eighties and early nineties. We see versions of this going all the way back to the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century, the writings of Madison Grant, and things such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” All of these are the same set of beliefs packaged with the cultural context at the time.
The French origins interest me, because it seems like you can plug in these different “enemy” groups in different places, right?
It can be Muslims in France, and it can be Mexican Americans in the United States, or African Americans. Can you talk a little bit about that?
It allows an opportunism in selecting enemies so that you can tack to the scapegoat of a particular time and place, but it also follows the central motivating logic, which is to protect the thing on the inside, regardless of the enemy on the outside. It’s about the fundamental importance of the preservation and birth rate of the white race.