The gunman who shot 13 people in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store on Saturday cited as his motivation the Great Replacement Theory,” a racist ideology that has inspired previous mass shootings and that, experts say, has gone increasingly mainstream in recent years.
The theory holds that white people are in peril of losing their power in the Western world. It originated in far-right literature from French authors Jean Raspail and Renaud Camus and moved from the fringes of conservative politics and far-right discussion platforms to airtime on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” At least half a dozen Republican Senate candidates have repeated the idea, according to a recent report on Vice.
Many Americans sympathize with elements of the theory. An AP-NORC poll released just five days before the shooting found that about 3 in 10 respondents worried that more immigration are causing native-born citizens to lose economic, political and cultural influence. It also found that 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats polled feared that loss of influence is due to immigration.
“I very much believe that the Democrats — from Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, all the way down — want to get the illegal immigrants in here and give them voting rights immediately,” Sally Gansz, an 80-year-old respondent to the study, told the Associated Press.
The AP-NORC poll also found that 17 percent of respondents believed in the theory, but the number spiked to 42 percent among the quarter of Americans most likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
The theory is spreading globally: A survey released in November 2021 found that 67 percent of the French population believed in the theory.
Spreading the theory
In a manifesto explaining his rampage, the shooter repeats the same ideas espoused by other shooters motivated by the replacement theory.
Carla Hill, senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told Grid that about 60 percent of the shooter’s screed was plagiarized from a similar polemic by the New Zealand mass shooter who killed 51 people and wounded dozens more by shooting into two mosques in 2019. His “manifesto was sort of like a blueprint or a pattern” for the shooter in Buffalo, she explained.
She said the text reveals a troubling relationship developing among mass shooters. “We found that he was also influenced by other white supremacist mass killers,” she explained. Names of several other mass shooters were all listed in the document.
Hill noted the shooter’s polemic could spur similar terroristic acts in the future, just like past racist shootings inspired him.
“What’s the most concerning thing about this incident is that he created this document intending to provide a rationale for these violent actions, to show his knowledge in preparation for that and to guide future shooters,” she told Grid. “It basically serves as a call to action, including extreme violent action.”
“It’s basically ... a call to action”
The theory’s growing popularity, combined with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol building by far-right rioters, has put law enforcement on notice for increased threats of domestic terrorism.
On March 2, 2021, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the growing threat of white nationalism to the public. He noted that since he first took over the agency in 2017, the FBI increased its number of domestic terrorism investigations from around 1,000 to 2,000 in 2021.
“I would certainly say, as I think I’ve said consistently in the past, that racially motivated violent extremism, specifically of the sort that advocates for the superiority of the white race, is a persistent, evolving threat,” he told the Senate panel. “It’s the biggest chunk of our racially motivated violent extremism cases for sure.”
A few months later, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a national strategy for combating domestic terrorism, citing the racist shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, and El Paso, Texas, as his motivation.
“In the FBI’s view, the top domestic violent extremist threat comes from ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocated for the superiority of the white race,” he said.
“Not generally welcomed in the mainstream media before”
The replacement theory has gotten more attention from voters in recent years thanks to its proliferation through the right-wing media ecosystem.
The theory was inspired by a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” depicting the fall of a white Western society at the hands of nonwhite immigrants. And while most Americans aren’t reading that for their book club, replacement theory has been popularized by former Trump strategists Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller during Donald Trump’s time in office in their attempts to sway immigration policy.
Hill said that over time, two versions of the theory have emerged: one that is “extreme and explicitly racist and antisemitic” and another that’s more mainstream, promoted by right-wing pundits and politicians to characterize America’s changing demographics.
“The extreme version filtered into the American consciousness after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017,” she told Grid. “We know that this extreme version … grew in popularity because white supremacists such as [the Christchurch shooter] and [the El Paso shooter] used the term in their ‘manifestos.’”
Antisemitism can be found at the theory’s core. “We see at the heart of the Great Replacement Theory the idea that some scheme run by Jews is trying to bring brown and Black people to basically overcome and erase the white majority in the U.S.,” said Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the People for the American Way.
Both Hill and Montgomery agree that belief in replacement theory is on the rise.
“When Trump ran for office with his attacks on immigrants, he energized the white nationalists in the country and sort of gave permission for people to openly express bigotry that was not generally welcomed in the mainstream media before,” Montgomery said.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article. This article has been updated to reflect Grid’s style rules regarding mass shootings.