Two mass shootings in 24 hours. Three in the space of a week. How are we supposed to think about this? How do we make sense of it?
Some commentators and politicians on the left are blaming President Trump and the GOP for these shootings, as if that’s reasonable, as if one side of our political divide has a monopoly on divisiveness. Former representative Beto O’Rourke said President Trump was a “racist” and had “a lot to do with what happened in El Paso yesterday.” Sen. Cory Booker was yet more blunt, saying, “Donald Trump is responsible for this.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren called out the president “for advancing racism and white supremacy.” Plenty of others in prestige media echoed these sentiments.
But let’s take a step back. Who are these gunmen, and what do they say about what they’re doing? Like the Christchurch shooter, the El Paso shooter was an eco-fascist with strong anti-corporate and anti-immigrant views. Both were ideologically committed political terrorists—white nationalist terrorists, if you like. Like ISIS or al-Qaeda fighters, they might be profoundly wrong about everything, but they aren’t lunatics. The same was true of Dylann Roof no less than Osama bin Laden. We can’t sooth ourselves by saying these men are merely insane.
From ISIS to El Paso, then, the terrorists in question are driven by a purposeful—obviously evil—ideology. The Islamists feel it’s their duty to fight back against the West. The El Paso and Christchurch shooters feel it’s their duty to fight back against mass immigration and what they view as the “replacement” of their culture.
Indeed, the El Paso shooter expressed a feeling of invasion and occupation—a feeling usually associated with the anti-immigrant right in America but one not wholly alien to the left. After all, it is on exactly those grounds that Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, among others, justify the Palestinian liberation struggle.
Blaming Trump for such views is a brittle chain of reasoning because it’s the same reasoning that would blame Islamist terrorism on the Quran. One could argue that Islam isn’t the cause of Islamist terrorism, and that the latter is just a warped and extreme manifestation of certain relatively subdued strains in the latter. The ordinary Muslim understands he is called to worship Allah and keep his commands, even if it sets him apart or imposes obligations on him. In contrast, the Islamist terrorist understands his duty is to impose Islam on others, even if it means slaughtering civilians or other Muslims.
So too one might say that Trump is not the cause of the shootings, but that the shootings and Trump arise from the same root cause: the feeling among many Americans that their country and its heritage are under attack, and that nobody is fighting back. The ordinary patriot reacts to this by voting for Trump, maybe wearing a MAGA hat, maybe putting a Trump sign in his yard or attending a Trump rally. The anti-immigrant extremist reacts by publishing a manifesto and killing innocent people.
The admiration of some white nationalists for Trump is no more proof of Trump’s divisiveness than the admiration of al-Qaeda fighters for the Quran is proof of Islam’s divisiveness. The difference, of course, is that at least al-Qaeda fighters can point to passages in the Quran that back up their claims, whereas Trump has never once called for vigilante violence in the name of white supremacy or border security, and in fact has repeatedly and explicitly condemned it.
As for Trump’s rhetoric, let’s grant that his words and political posture are sometimes divisive. Indeed, let’s grant that it’s part and parcel of his entire approach to American politics. But are we not to breathe a word about the divisive rhetoric coming from the other side?
Is it not divisive and inflammatory for Democrats to refuse to enforce our borders while promising to give taxpayer-paid health care to illegal immigrants? Is it not divisive and inflammatory for sports stars and corporations to denounce the Betsy Ross flag and the national anthem as racist? Doesn’t that exacerbate a feeling of helplessness and dispossession, and fuel a whole spectrum of responses—from ordinary patriotism to outright xenophobia and racism?
Indeed, the left now treats even mild patriotism as racist, in effect saying to the ordinary patriot: “Either surrender to a left-wing ideology that neither respects nor loves your country, or embrace white nationalism.” Is it any wonder that a few isolated and angry young men will react to these pressures in the worst possible way?
This isn’t to lay all the blame on the left, of course, only to say that the divisive rhetoric cuts both ways. Consider the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” which the El Paso gunman cited as an inspiration for his attack. That document lays out what one might call a conspiracy theory, that international corporate and political elites in the West are intentionally replacing their native populations with immigrants in order to enrich themselves.
Ironically, the left often presents this idea not as a conspiracy theory but as a positive good. In October, the New York Times ran a Michelle Goldberg column under the headline, “We Can Replace Them,” which closed with this line: “In a week, American voters can do to white nationalists what they fear most. Show them they’re being replaced.”
This isn’t a new idea on the left, and it isn’t relegated to the fringe. Back in 2002, Ruy Teixeira and John Judis came out with “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which popularized and mainstreamed the idea that white Americans would be replaced by a permanent majority coalition of nonwhite voters. Ten years later, after President Obama’s reelection, Teixeira took to the the pages of The Atlantic to argue that things were playing out just as he had predicted, and that if Democrats could keep giving Americans what they truly wanted—more welfare, more regulation, more government control over daily life—then “the emerging Democratic majority could be here to stay.”
More recently, turning the white nationalists’ “replacement” rhetoric on its head has become commonplace among Antifa protestors chanting “we will replace you,” a sentiment powerfully reinforced by the anti-Immigration and Customs Enforcement protestors who recently tore down an American flag outside an ICE facility and replaced it with the Mexican flag.
Left-wing media takes the idea one step further. Last month, a blogger at Mother Jones wrote, “Reactionary American whites, as always, won’t give up their power unless it’s taken from them… Liberals need to be as Lincolnesque as possible in this endeavor, but we also need to be Lincolnesque in our commitment to winning America’s latest race war.”
The point here is that if you talk in terms of a race war, if you cast American politics as a zero-sum contest between racial groups, if you vilify half the country because they disagree with your radical views on immigration and welfare, then what you end up with isn’t just identity politics for minorities, you get identity politics for white people, too.