America now has a President who will call evil by its name.
But Joe Biden’s pleas for citizens to unite in purging White supremacy, which he warned on Tuesday was poisoning the nation, were quickly undermined by a backlash from conservative media stars who accused him of exploiting the murder of 10 Black Americans in Buffalo by a right-wing extremist.
The disconnect reflected how the aching polarization and tribalism of the country’s politics preclude any hope of common ground, even after the horror that unfolded in a supermarket in the western New York city on Saturday. Far from bringing America together, every successive tragedy appears to pull it further apart.
Biden traveled to Buffalo to mourn with the relatives of those killed by a gunman who allegedly drove 200 miles to massacre them while wallowing in a self-described stew of self-radicalization, racism and fascism.
In a striking address, the President drew a line between racist massacres of Black, Hispanic and Jewish Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, El Paso, Texas, and Pittsburgh to spell out what is now awfully obvious. The United States faces a significant scourge of White supremacist extremism that erupts periodically and results in the mass, racially motivated murder of innocent people. The bile is being exacerbated by online propaganda and conspiracies that White Americans could be replaced by a tide of immigration. Such claims are often legitimized on conservative media and have been hinted at by some GOP politicians.
“What happened here is simple and straightforward – terrorism, terrorism, domestic terrorism, violence inflicted in the service of hate and the vicious thirst for power that defines one group of people being inherently inferior to any other group,” Biden said in an emotional speech laced with grief and anger.
The President condemned a “hate” percolating in politics, the media, and on the internet, which he said had convinced isolated individuals that they will be “replaced” by non-White immigrants.
Biden was referring to the so-called great replacement theory, which follows false claims advanced by QAnon conspiracists that top Democrats are involved in a pedophile ring and the out-of-control lies now believed by millions of Americans that the 2020 election was stolen. It is just the latest sign of how deeply untruths and conspiracies have hijacked US politics.
In the grieving city at the eastern end of Lake Erie, Biden didn’t identify the specific culprits he blames for advancing that poison. But by the time he arrived back at the White House, he was coming closer to naming names.
“You have folks on television stations talking about the replacement theory – they’re scaring the living hell out of people who don’t have a whole lot of emotional stability, taking advantage of … the internet and other means by talking about how we’re going to be overtaken,” Biden said at a reception honoring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a group that has also faced racial hate.
Biden’s sharp condemnation of those forces created a sharp contrast with the equivocation and linguistic fuzziness that his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, often showed when asked about White supremacy – and that still runs through conservative media.
The amplification of great replacement theory rhetoric, sometimes used to fire up anger among the GOP activist base, has been especially notable on primetime Fox shows in recent months. There was no sign of a change of tone on the network on Tuesday following Biden’s comments. Quite the opposite.
Before Biden spoke, Fox host Tucker Carlson, who has repeatedly highlighted the fringe theory, said on Monday that a document attributed to the shooter, which dripped with references to great replacement theory, was not political at all and accused his critics of trying to shut down free speech rights. On Tuesday, he condemned a “murder spree by a demented teenager” and accused Biden of trying to suppress the freedom of speech of millions of Americans. Another Fox host, Jesse Watters, said Tuesday that Biden was a “Divider in Chief” who hadn’t healed the country as he had promised and who “doesn’t care about the soul of America.” He accused Biden of exploiting the tragedy to deflect from his own political woes.
His colleague, Laura Ingraham, accused Biden of playing a “demonization game” against conservative Americans to disguise his own low approval ratings and of ignoring gun violence in liberal cities like Chicago.
The comments came after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, wrote to Rupert Murdoch and senior Fox executives imploring them to halt the propagation of great replacement theory segments on the network.
There is no indication that specific Fox hosts influenced the alleged shooter in the Buffalo massacre, Payton Gendron, who is facing charges of first degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty. But the idea that network hosts have been amplifying similar theories to those that seem to have shaped the suspected shooter’s beliefs underscores the chasm that cleaves US politics – and means that Biden’s pleas are unlikely to be realized.
Many Republican politicians have condemned the Buffalo massacre. But most have done so in vague terms and have not specifically called out the alleged White supremacist sentiments of the suspected shooter. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, said Tuesday that “racism of any sort is abhorrent in America.” But the Kentucky Republican did not address questions about some in his party using rhetoric akin to great replacement theory and suggested that the massacre in Buffalo was the work of a “completely deranged young man.”
His reluctance reflected the difficulty some Republicans find in equivocally condemning views that have strong traction in a sector of the Republican base and that are advanced by media organizations that support Trump, who remains the dominant figure in the party and the likely frontrunner in the 2024 presidential primary.
There is a clear pattern over the past four years of Republicans who do not share the authoritarian tastes of Trump nonetheless being unwilling to condemn his rhetoric for political gain.
For instance, the campaign of GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 House Republican, last year ran a Facebook ad that suggested Democrats wanted a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to create a “permanent election insurrection” to overthrow the electorate.
Challenged by CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday, Stefanik said she had “never made a racist statement,” and said, “I condemn racism.”
It is hardly a coincidence that Republicans who have already broken with Trump – over the January 6, 2021, insurrection and his election lies – found it much easier to point out the party’s refusal to outright condemn White extremism. “The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-semitism,” Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, who was booted from GOP leadership and replaced with Stefanik, wrote on Twitter on Monday.
The tolerance for White extremism in the GOP cannot be separated from the rise of Trump.
After violence at White supremacists’ 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia, for example, the then-President suggested that there were “some very fine people, on both sides.” Trump said at the time that he was not sparing White nationalists or neo-Nazis from criticism but argued that not everyone in the crowd protesting the toppling of Civil War statues was evil. His comment suggested he was seeking to appease extremism while avoiding accusations that he was cosseting such behavior.
Similarly, in a presidential debate in 2020, when asked to condemn White supremacists, Trump declined to clearly do so and told the far-right group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2016 with a hardline screed against Mexican immigrants. The undercurrent of much of his political rhetoric, back then and today, relies on a sense that outsiders are threatening American culture and history and that the rights and heritage of White citizens are under threat.
By contrast, Biden’s appeal to Americans to unite against the threat of White supremacy was a case of a President using his platform to make an appeal to the country’s moral conscience.
“We have to refuse to live in a country where Black people going about a weekly grocery shopping can be gunned down by weapons of war deployed in a racist cause,” the President said in Buffalo. “We have to refuse to live in a country where fear and lies are packaged for power and for profit,” he added in a clear swipe at Republicans and conservative media.
But Democrats lack the power to pass laws in Washington, owing to the Senate filibuster, to try to stop future deadly shootings, like restricting the kind of weapon that was used in Saturday’s attack. And Biden’s calls for moderation on conservative media have already failed. In fact, they may be most effective in fueling critics’ attacks that he is trying to restrict freedom of speech guarantees.
Biden has attended sufficient memorials to know that his words alone – after yet another mass shooting – will not be able to quell the forces that cause such outbursts of hate.
“Look, I’m not naive. I know tragedy will come again,” he said in Buffalo.