Racism captures young minds, and right-wing media shouts encouragement

What is there to say about cynical opportunists like Tucker Carlson and his Fox News colleagues ,who peddle this poison for fun and profit?

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Payton Gendron appears before a judge at the Erie County Courthouse on May 19, 2022 in Buffalo, New York. Gendron is accused of killing 10 people and wounding another 3 during a shooting at a Tops supermarket on May 14 in Buffalo.

Accused mass murderer Payton Gendron appears before a judge at the Erie County Courthouse on May 19 in Buffalo, New York.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chances are, deluded mass murder suspect Payton Gendron doesn’t actually know any Black people to speak of. According to the 2020 census, his hometown of Conklin, New York, roughly 200 miles from the Buffalo supermarket where he allegedly acted out his deadly fantasies, has an African American population smaller than 1%. Gendron needed to drive for hours to locate a Black neighborhood to shoot up.

No matter. The killer wasn’t shooting individual human beings. He was shooting symbols, imaginary projections of his own twisted mind.

Republican thinkers today call it “replacement theory,” the notion that Democrats are scheming to subvert American democracy by importing nonwhite immigrants to support leftist ideology.

It’s the particular passion of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The New York Times has documented more than 400 mentions of the theory on his program since 2016 — keeping his audience of suspicious old coots sitting there anxiously clutching the TV remote.

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There’s no sign Gendron was directly influenced by Carlson. This particular delusional system has a long history in the United States. Only the identity of the racial enemy changes. Back in the 1840s, it was my own Irish Catholic forbearers that threatened to contaminate the nation. According to the Know-Nothing party, the pope was conspiring to destroy America’s Protestant democracy by flooding the country with Irish and German immigrants.

Blacks, of course, were already here centuries earlier. Indeed, the Know-Nothings died out as a political party partly because they could never agree about slavery. Abraham Lincoln once wrote a private letter to a friend explaining why he couldn’t join the movement: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.”’

Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a Know-Nothing as well as a Confederate sympathizer.

The idea of subversive immigrants has never gone away. The Ku Klux Klan exploited many of the same impulses; so did George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968. More recently, Donald Trump’s “birther” movement portrayed President Barack Obama as racially and religiously unfit. Indeed, Obama’s election caused millions of bigots to lose their collective minds.

What’s more, you don’t have to be an exponent of critical race theory to notice that as other immigrants (such as the Irish) become honorary white people, Blacks remain permanently suspect to the kinds of losers and lone dementos who populate the fringes of the online, nativist far right.

Which brings us back to 18-year-old Payton Gendron with his soldier costume, his largely plagiarized 180-page manifesto and his arsenal of semi-automatic rifles. He’s too young to buy a six-pack, but Gendron had no difficulty arming himself like a one-man infantry platoon.

It’s entirely mad, yes, but it’s also the American Way: the Second Amendment as a constitutional death pact.

“White supremacy is a poison,” President Joe Biden said in an impassioned speech in Buffalo, “and it’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes. No more.”

Well, it’s a nice thought.

Alas, I fear that for a substantial fraction of the population, race remains a key component of American identity. Gendron’s online manifesto shows that he avidly consumed what I call “race porn.” In his fractured mind, he saw himself as a heroic figure, linking himself with mass shooters worldwide: the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand shooter who killed 51 Muslims in a mosque; the punk white supremacist who murdered nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; the anti-Semite who slaughtered 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018; and the shooter who killed 23 people in 2019 at an El Paso Walmart in an effort to defeat the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Saner minds, of course, recognize these deadly sad sacks for what they are: fearful weaklings whose only legacy is sorrow and destruction.

Meanwhile, what is there to say about cynical opportunists like Tucker Carlson and his Fox News colleagues ,who peddle this poison for fun and profit? Laura Ingraham, also a prime-time Fox News host, tells viewers that Democrats are conspiring to “replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever-increasing number of chain migrants.”

Supposedly, it’s Hollywood celebrities and shadowy billionaires who are behind the unholy scheme.

Author Ann Coulter peddles the same line. One of her recent books was entitled “Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole.” GOP politicians such as J.D. Vance, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene have gotten aboard as well, painting imaginary targets on real people for self-intoxicated young men to shoot.

One prominent Republican has dissented. “The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and antisemitism,” Rep. Liz Cheney tweeted. “History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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