Sullivan: Racist theory drove mass murders, Fox News’ ratings

Tucker Carlson lectures against violence, but he pushes a philosophy with dangerous consequences.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

BUFFALO — A steady rain fell from leaden skies Monday over the cordoned-off Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue. Suitably depressing as the weather was, it somehow didn’t extinguish the dozens of pillar candles that glowed amid memorial displays of balloons and stuffed animals.

Nor did the rain shrivel the signs featuring doves in flight that read, “Nonviolence begins with me!”

I admire that sentiment. I wish the solution was anywhere near that simple. I wish that addressing the slaughter of 10 local people last Saturday was as straightforward as what neighborhood resident John Vines suggested to me as a starting point.

“Conversation,” said the 57-year-old, who works for an East Side social justice organization called Open Buffalo. “We should try to understand where this hatred comes from.”

I got a more radical suggestion from Antonio Wells, who was out in the rain delivering free bagged copies of the Buffalo News to every neighborhood home. The 27-year-old described Saturday’s mass murder as “an attack on Black people.” How to stop it from happening again? “Keep the guns out of the hands of anybody like that,” he said, without hesitating.

Sensible. Correct. Unlikely.

On Sunday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul — like me, a Buffalo native — had expressed her hope to the grieving congregation at the city’s True Bethel Baptist Church that one day the world will remember Buffalo “as the last place this ever happened.” She promised to close loopholes on state laws that regulate gun purchases, and she called upon social media executives to rein in the hateful content that flourishes on their sites virtually unchecked. The 18-year-old suspect wrote in a document posted online that he was radicalized by racist theories he encountered on the Internet about Black people and immigrants supposedly “replacing” white people.

Hochul’s ideas for reform should certainly be implemented. But they would never be enough.

“It’s the guns, but it’s not just the guns. It’s the racism, but it’s not just the racism,” wrote journalist and author David Rothkopf in a sweeping Twitter thread that concluded that “what happened in Buffalo is not just about some isolated shooter, some deranged sociopath.”

No, it was fueled by a burgeoning ideology of the radical right. The shooting suspect may have picked up his noxious worldview from some fever-plagued backwater of the Internet rather than cable television. But his hideous “replacement theory” has been echoed nearly beat-for-beat during Fox News’s prime time hours, where the network’s chief rainmaker, Tucker Carlson, does his best to encourage it. To be sure, Carlson stops short of calling for violence — in fact, he’ll smugly and self-protectively lecture against it — but he nevertheless leads the charge.

Carlson has referenced replacement theory in more than 400 episodes since 2016, according to a New York Times analysis. Last April, for example, he alleged on Fox News that people from the “Third World” are immigrating to the United States “to replace the current electorate” and “dilute the political power of the people who live there”; language that essentially distills the replacement thesis.

The host was even more explicit on his nightly show in September, claiming that President Biden was masterminding a conspiracy to lure immigrants in a scheme “to change the racial mix of the country … to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the Third World.”

Now, right-wing politicians are increasingly adopting this philosophy, and many a Republican voter believes there’s something to it.

How do you even begin to root that out? Not by shrugging off responsibility, which is what Fox’s brass seems to want to do. They’ll point to Carlson’s having discouraged violence but they won’t address the corrosive effects of his conspiracy-minded rhetoric, and that of other Fox pundits who tout the same ideas.

As for those members of the Murdoch family who make the rules at Fox, they seem content to rake in the profits Carlson and his ilk generate. When Lachlan Murdoch gave a rare speech in Australia recently, it amounted to “a monologue that could have fit in seamlessly with the lineup of right-wing commentary served up every night by Fox News’s prime-time opinion hosts,” The Post’s Sarah Ellison reported.

With that, any hope faded quickly that Murdoch the Younger would have a more responsible view than his 91-year-old father, Rupert, the network’s founder.

None of this, of course, was in the foreground for the scores of people gathered on Buffalo’s East Side on Monday near the supermarket. They were focused on mourning, on supporting each other with bags of groceries and tearful hugs, all while wondering if they would ever feel reasonably safe walking into their local Tops again.

But the hate — and the demented ideology — that has killed their neighbors and wounded a city forever has many sources of power. One of them is the nightly swill served up on Fox News.

Changing that — unlike regulating social media platforms or reforming gun laws — is something that could be accomplished overnight, with a mere wave of a Murdoch’s hand.

But it won’t be. And Buffalo, I’m sorry to say, will not be “the last place this ever happened.”

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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