What Oprah Winfrey Knows About American History That Tucker Carlson Doesn’t

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Ms. Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia and the author of the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”
In Buffalo this past weekend — as in El Paso, Pittsburgh, Charleston and Christchurch, New Zealand, before it — the “great replacement” conspiracy theory appears to have inspired another mass shooting.
The theory argues that elites are using government policy to replace white people with nonwhite and non-Christian ones. Previous great replacement massacres prompted concerns about the radicalizing power of social media sites like YouTube and Twitch, Reddit and 4chan, Twitter and Gab. But because the conspiracy theory has become a major theme on Tucker Carlson’s popular prime-time show, as a recent New York Times investigation carefully detailed, the Buffalo massacre has also raised questions about what role a show like Mr. Carlson’s plays in the ecosystem of white-power violence.
It may seem appealing to explain the violence by drawing a straight line between an outlet and a massacre, but it’s not a particularly useful way of understanding radicalization. Not only because there are seldom such direct connections — there do not appear to be any in the Buffalo case — but also because that approach relies on a narrow way of thinking about how conspiracy theories spread and turn violent.
In the case of the great replacement conspiracy theory, the ideas are far older than Mr. Carlson’s show, or even the Fox News Channel, on which it appears. It repackages the mass of reactionary ideas and anxieties that have fed nativism, racism and antisemitism in the United States and Europe for centuries.
Those ideas, always present but periodically erupting into bouts of heightened panic and brutality, were embedded in legal systems and political institutions and enforced through a blend of state and extralegal violence. Jim Crow laws, for instance, had the veneer of a nonviolent system of legal segregation but required both police brutality and the vigilante violence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan to keep the system in place.
Racist conspiracy theories helped rationalize these systems: whispered rumors of Indigenous uprisings and slave rebellions justified eruptions of racist violence, fears of “Negro rule” fueled pogroms and insurrections across the late 19th century South, and in the 1910s, stories like Jack London’s “The Unparalleled Invasion” and J. Allen Dunn’s “The Peril of the Pacific” spread “yellow peril” talk of an imminent attack from places like China and Japan.
The great replacement conspiracy theory emerged in the early part of the 20th century, as both French and American nationalists fretted that white people were in danger of being replaced. It played a prominent role in Madison Grant’s best-selling 1916 book, “The Passing of the Great Race,” which obsessed over the falling birthrates of white Americans and the mass migration of people from southern and Eastern Europe, who at the time were not considered fully white (both birthrates and immigration are central themes of great replacement conspiracy theories).
Nor were these fringe beliefs. Within a few years of the publication of Mr. Grant’s book, its ideas could be found across the United States, from the resurgent Ku Klux Klan to the popular eugenics movement to the draconian, and explicitly racist, immigration restrictions put in place in the early 1920s.
In the 1970s, the great replacement served as the central idea for two profoundly racist and violent novels, Jean Raspail’s French novel, “The Camp of the Saints,” and William Luther Pierce’s American white-power tract, “The Turner Diaries.”
“The Turner Diaries” circulated widely in white-power circles, and it ultimately served as an inspiration for the Oklahoma City bombers in 1995. In that case, the book did not make nonviolent people suddenly turn violent — the bombers had been moving in white-power circles for a while. But it helped shape how their violence unfolded: “The Turner Diaries” includes a scene describing a bombing at F.B.I. headquarters that closely resembled the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
While “The Turner Diaries” has largely remained an obsession of white-power groups, “The Camp of the Saints” found new popularity in right-wing political circles in the 2010s. Steve Bannon, who was the executive chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart News and a senior counselor to President Donald Trump, regularly invoked the book to describe the flow of migrants and refugees in both Europe and the United States. “It’s not a migration,” he said in 2016. “It’s really an invasion. I call it the Camp of the Saints.” Stephen Miller, the hard-line nativist who served as a senior adviser to Mr. Trump throughout his presidency, also favored the book as a framework for talking about immigration to the United States.
Over the last decade, the great replacement conspiracy theory became institutionalized in right-wing nationalist politics in both America and Europe, where the publication of Renaud Camus’s “Le Grand Remplacement” in 2011 became the seed of a pan-European movement to oppose migration, especially nonwhite and Muslim migrants. In the United States, Mr. Bannon leaned heavily on the European forms of the conspiracy theory, which created an air of legitimacy and even sophistication around what were, at root, crude racist claims. Not only was the conspiracy theory nimble enough to cross borders, it also allowed for a broad range of targets: Muslims, Jews, African Americans, immigrants (notably, all targets of great replacement massacres).
But while books like “The Camp of the Saints” proved influential for far-right activists like Mr. Bannon, they did not become popular texts among people who were not already radicalized. Getting conspiracy theories like the great replacement into the mainstream took work.
For white-power groups, it has been a decades-long project to find outlets where they could spread their ideas. Sometimes, those strategies landed them in surprising places. In the 1980s and 1990s, members of neo-Nazi groups and the Klan found they could gain respectability and attention by appearing in some of the most popular television venues in the country.
Tom Metzger, a neo-Nazi and founder of the notoriously violent group White Aryan Resistance, not only hosted his own television show but landed appearances for himself and his followers across daytime television in the 1980s and 1990s, on shows hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera. Ms. Winfrey hosted an entire panel of skinheads on one of her shows in the late 1980s. She hoped the episode would expose their racism; her producers hoped it would be ratings gold.
The producers were right and Ms. Winfrey was wrong. Halfway through the taping, it occurred to her that the men were using her show to burnish their image and spread their ideas. “I realized in that moment that I was doing more to empower them than I was to expose them,” she said in an interview in 2011, “and since that moment, I’ve never done a show like that again.”
As Ms. Winfrey’s comments suggest, appearing on such shows was part of a deliberate media strategy by white-power groups. In these mainstream appearances, men like Mr. Metzger and the ex-Klan leader David Duke showed up in suits, speaking in cleaned-up language in an attempt to present their violent ideologies as mere political differences. Mr. Duke, for instance, spoke the language of “white rights,” attempting to launder his beliefs with a kind of legalistic advocacy language at odds with his former membership in a domestic terrorist organization, a mission that succeeded well enough for him to be elected as a Louisiana state representative and run as a candidate for senator, governor and president.
Part of the strategy was to present white-power ideas as more palatable. Another was to draw in new recruits attracted, or at least intrigued, by the ideas they heard. Potential recruits could, even in the 1980s and 1990s, find their way to a wide array of alternative media: newsletters, VHS tapes, internet message boards, radio shows. The arrival of more sophisticated digital and social media has made accessing this material easier, but the basic process of the mainstream bait luring recruits onto the hook of radicalism has remained the same.
To understand all this, it is useful to think about traditional and social media in tandem, part of an infrastructure of radicalization. Not only because they are part of the same strategy, but also because they overlap more than we generally think.
For instance, while Fox News’s audience skews much older, younger people encounter Tucker Carlson’s content on social media, where clips circulate regularly in right-wing and far-right spaces, and ideas from the more extreme parts of the internet often find their way on to the show. That such a prominent and charismatic media figure gives voice to those conspiracy theories gives them a power and legitimacy they might not have if they were just random ideas presented on 4chan or a meme-cluttered subreddit.
So how should we think about Mr. Carlson’s show and the radicalization around the great replacement conspiracy theory?
As a prime-time host on Fox News, Mr. Carlson has refashioned himself into a right-wing economic populist who emphasized and empathizes with people’s financial struggles, then offers pungent conspiracy theories to explain their plight. It’s a familiar figure in American politics. There was Tom Watson, the Georgia congressman who, after first attempting to build biracial alliances in the South, became an ardent white supremacist and antisemite in the early 20th century. And there was Father Charles Coughlin, who fought for a bountiful economic security program during the Great Depression while becoming increasingly antisemitic.
By arguing that white Americans face economic and cultural decline purposefully engineered by political elites, Mr. Carlson’s show plays an important role in spreading and legitimating the great replacement conspiracy theory and other white-supremacist ideas. He has regularly invoked great replacement, even after that same theory inspired a number of massacres. Rather than backing away, he has doubled down, insisting that white supremacy does not exist and that the great replacement conspiracy theory isn’t racist. On his Tuesday night show, Mr. Carlson first professed ignorance of the conspiracy theory, then said it was true, then insisted, “The great replacement theory is coming from the left.”
All of this has had an effect. In the years since Mr. Carlson began talking about the conspiracy theory, it has spread rapidly on the right, not just in the dark hollows of the violent white-power movement, but also among Republican politicians and voters. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Representative Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 Republican in the current House, have echoed the theory, and a recent Associated Press-NORC poll showed that nearly a third of Fox News viewers believe in the tenets of the great replacement conspiracy theory (for viewers of the far-right cable channels Newsmax and OANN, that number is even higher).
If Mr. Carlson truly were opposed to spreading the conspiracy theory, he could easily stop. As Ms. Winfrey showed, it is possible to opt out of far-right co-optation. While there will always be bad-faith actors ready to twist innocuous statements into weapons of radicalization, television hosts and producers have the ability to limit the usefulness of their programs to these extremist groups. All of which suggests that Mr. Carlson has no desire to remove his show from the infrastructure of radicalization, no matter how important a role it plays. And as the massacres continue, that becomes an ever more damning decision.
Nicole Hemmer (@pastpunditry) is an associate research scholar at Columbia University and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”
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