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Substitute Theory, a Fringe Belief Fueled Online, Is Refashioned by G.O.P.


Inside a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, a white man with a history of antisemitic web posts gunned down 11 worshipers, blaming Jews for allowing immigrant “invaders” into america.

The subsequent 12 months, one other white man, offended over what he called “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” opened fire on shoppers at an El Paso Walmart, leaving 23 people dead, and later telling the police he had sought to kill Mexicans.

And in yet one more deadly mass shooting, unfolding in Buffalo on Saturday, a heavily armed white man is accused of killing 10 people after targeting a supermarket on town’s predominantly Black east side, writing in a lengthy screed posted online that the consumers there got here from a culture that sought to “ethnically replace my very own people.”

Three shootings, three different targets — but all linked by one sprawling, ever-mutating belief now commonly generally known as alternative theory. On the extremes of American life, alternative theory — the notion that Western elites, sometimes manipulated by Jews, need to “replace” and disempower white Americans — has develop into an engine of racist terror, helping encourage a wave of mass shootings in recent times and fueling the 2017 right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Va., that erupted in violence.

But alternative theory, once confined to the digital fever swamps of Reddit message boards and semi-obscure white nationalist sites, has gone mainstream. In sometimes more muted forms, the fear it crystallizes — of a future America by which white persons are not the numerical majority — has develop into a potent force in conservative media and politics, where the speculation has been borrowed and remixed to draw audiences, retweets and small-dollar donations.

By his own account, the Buffalo suspect, Payton S. Gendron, followed a lonelier path to radicalization, immersing himself in alternative theory and other forms of racist and antisemitic content easily found on web forums, and casting Black Americans, like Hispanic immigrants, as “replacers” of white Americans. Yet in recent months, versions of the identical ideas, sanded down and shorn of explicitly anti-Black and antisemitic themes, have develop into commonplace within the Republican Party — spoken aloud at congressional hearings, echoed in Republican campaign advertisements and embraced by a growing array of right-wing candidates and media personalities.

No public figure has promoted alternative theory more loudly or relentlessly than the Fox host Tucker Carlson, who has made elite-led demographic change a central theme of his show since joining Fox’s prime-time lineup in 2016. A Times investigation published this month showed that in greater than 400 episodes of his show, Mr. Carlson has amplified the notion that Democratic politicians and other assorted elites need to force demographic change through immigration, and his producers sometimes scoured his show’s raw material from the identical dark corners of the web that the Buffalo suspect did.

“It’s not a pipeline. It’s an open sewer,” said Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News political editor who was fired in 2020 after defending the network’s decision to call Arizona for then-candidate Joseph R. Biden, and who wrote a forthcoming book on how media outlets stoke anger to construct audiences.

“Cable hosts on the lookout for rankings and politicians looking for small-dollar donations can see which stories and narratives are drawing probably the most intense reactions amongst addicted users online,” Mr. Stirewalt said. Social media sites and web forums, he added, are “like a spotlight group for pure outrage.”

In only the past 12 months, Republican luminaries like Newt Gingrich, the previous House speaker and Georgia congressman, and Elise Stefanik, the center-right Latest York congresswoman turned Trump acolyte (and third-ranking House Republican), have echoed alternative theory. Appearing on Fox, Mr. Gingrich declared that leftists were attempting to “drown” out “classic Americans.”

In September, Ms. Stefanik released a campaign ad on Facebook claiming that Democrats were plotting “a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION” by granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants, which her ad said would “overthrow our current electorate and create a everlasting liberal majority in Washington.” That very same month, after the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group, called on Fox to fireside Mr. Carlson, Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, stood up each for the TV host and for alternative theory itself.

“@TuckerCarlson is CORRECT about Substitute Theory as he explains what is going on to America,” Mr. Gaetz wrote on Twitter. In an announcement after the Buffalo shooting, Mr. Gaetz said that he had “never spoken of alternative theory when it comes to race.”

One in three American adults now imagine that an effort is underway “to switch native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains,” in keeping with an Associated Press poll released this month. The poll also found that folks who mostly watched right-wing media outlets like Fox News, One American News Network and Newsmax were more prone to imagine in alternative theory than those that watched CNN or MSNBC.

Underlying all variations of alternative rhetoric is the growing diversity of america over the past decade, because the populations of people that discover as Hispanic and Asian surged and the number of people that said they were a couple of race greater than doubled, in keeping with the Census Bureau.

Democratic politicians have generally been more supportive of immigration than Republicans, especially within the post-Trump era, and have pushed for more humane treatment of migrants and refugees. However the variety of immigrants living in america illegally, which rose throughout the Nineties and 2000s, first began to decline under President Obama, a Democrat whom critics nicknamed the “deporter-in-chief.” There is no such thing as a evidence of widespread voting by noncitizens and others who’re ineligible. And while Mr. Biden has laid out plans to expand legal immigration, federal agencies have expelled greater than 1.3 million migrants on the southwest border on his watch, while continuing a number of the more restrictive immigration policies begun by former President Trump.

Throughout his presidency, Mr. Trump filled his public speeches and Twitter feed with often inflammatory, sometimes false rhetoric about immigrants, and he employed the term “invaders” in arguing for a border wall. Such language has been more broadly adopted by his most ardent supporters, comparable to Wendy Rogers, an Arizona state senator, who last summer said on Twitter, “We’re being replaced and invaded” by illegal immigrants.

Efforts to succeed in Ms. Rogers on Sunday were unsuccessful. Reached by email, Mr. Gingrich declared alternative theory “insane,” adding that he was against all anti-Semitism in addition to “the white racist violence in Buffalo.”

Responding to criticism of Ms. Stefanik’s ad within the wake of the Buffalo shooting, a senior adviser for the congresswoman sent two responses: a sorrowful statement from Ms. Stefanik concerning the killing in Buffalo, and a fiery rejoinder from the adviser that “despite sickening and false reporting,” the congresswoman “has never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement.”

Experts who study digital extremism and media described a posh interplay between the darker version of alternative theory that features on white nationalist or nativist web sites, and the attenuated versions now echoing around the standard right, including on cable news and in pro-Trump media outlets.

“Someone like Carlson can introduce viewers to ideas that they then explore more fully online, searches that lead them into far-right spaces that either reinforce their existing views or radicalize them,” said Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Columbia University. “But someone like Carlson can be necessary because he legitimates those ideas, making them seem less radical when viewers see them.”

Measuring the extent of Mr. Carlson’s influence in spreading alternative theory could also be unattainable. But controversies across the host’s use of “alternative” rhetoric appear to have no less than helped drive public curiosity concerning the idea. Until the Buffalo shootings, in keeping with Google data, there had been three big spikes in Google searches for “alternative theory” or “great alternative,” a European variation popularized by the French author Renaud Camus in recent times. Two followed the shootings in Christchurch, Latest Zealand, and El Paso, each covered by news outlets around the globe. The third got here in April 2021, when Mr. Carlson drew calls for Fox to fireside him after defending the concept of demographic “alternative” on the network.

The Buffalo suspect appears to have immersed himself on web forums like 4chan and 8chan, where versions of alternative theory abound. That can be where the suspect, before getting down to slaughter Black shoppers in Buffalo, posted a 180-page compendium of racist arguments and web memes.

He wrote that he got his news from Reddit. He began browsing 4chan in May 2020 “after extreme boredom,” he wrote, and quickly found a gateway to anti-Black and antisemitic alternative content. Reflecting probably the most extreme versions of alternative theory, the suspect deemed Black people, like immigrants, as “replacers”: individuals who “invade our lands, continue to exist our soil, continue to exist government support and attack and replace our people.”

Based on an in depth evaluation by the Anti-Defamation League provided to The Times, the suspect’s screed plagiarized almost two-thirds of one other manifesto — the one left by an Australian man who in 2019 murdered dozens of Muslims as they prayed in two mosques in Christchurch. In some instances, the Buffalo suspect replaced the Christchurch killer’s references to Angela Merkel, the previous German chancellor, with George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist. One page of the Australian’s document features a purported count of Jews working on the senior levels of major media outlets, including Fox itself.

Oren Segal, vice chairman of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said that the Buffalo suspect’s repurposing of the Christchurch manifesto to justify an attack on Black Americans “demonstrates the evolving and interactive nature of extremist propaganda.”

Mr. Carlson’s alternative rhetoric comes without the explicitly antisemitic elements common on racist web platforms. There is no such thing as a indication that the Buffalo gunman watched Mr. Carlson’s show, or every other on Fox, and Mr. Carlson has denounced political violence at the same time as he fans his viewers’ fears.

But there are also notable echoes between Mr. Carlson’s segments and the Buffalo suspect’s long litany of grievances, reflecting the blurry boundary between internet-fueled griping and contours of attack now common in conservative media and politics.

“Why is diversity said to be our biggest strength? Does anyone even ask why? It’s spoken like a mantra and repeated ad infinitum,” the suspect wrote. The road nearly matches considered one of Mr. Carlson’s go-to attacks on Fox. “How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” Mr. Carlson asked in a 2018 segment. considered one of many by which he has hit on the query. “Because you’ve made this our latest national motto, please be specific as you explain it.”

A Fox spokeswoman declined to comment.

Amy Spitalnick, the chief director of Integrity First for America, a bunch that waged a successful civil suit against organizers of the 2017 Charlottesville rally, argued that the broader promotion of alternative rhetoric normalized hate and emboldened violent extremists.

“That is the inevitable results of the normalization of white supremacist Substitute Theory in all its forms,” Ms. Spitalnick said. “Tucker Carlson may lead that charge — but he’s backed by Republican elected officials and other leaders desirous to amplify this deadly conspiracy.”

Alan Feuer, Emily Cochrane, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Chris Cameron and Azi Paybarah contributed reporting.

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