“The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
These are not the words of the teenager who walked into a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday to hunt down Black Americans, although they might as well be. These are the words of Tom Buchanan, a rich, repugnant character in the 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.
Shortly before the massacre in Buffalo, authorities say, the shooter published a 180-page document that is an unpleasant mixture of the disconcertingly new and the horribly familiar. Underneath the superficial novelty of the suspect’s alleged actions (livestreaming the atrocity on Twitch, publishing the manifesto on Google Docs) and his vocabulary (his complaint about buying a “cucked” assault rifle that he had to modify, for example) is a sprawling, discredited ideology that was once entertained by respectable people and has now crept back toward the mainstream.
The manifesto is steeped in early-20th-century scientific racism—which motivated Gatsby’s Buchanan—and the anti-Semitism that so often accompanied it. The document contains pages of memes about Jewish control of the world, plus scientific-looking scattergraphs of IQs broken down by racial group. Call this the intersectionality of hate: Just as academics have pointed out that marginalized identities (race, class, sex, disability) can overlap and reinforce one another, so too can old hatreds. Far-right movements are flexible about identifying the “other” from which their adherents are supposedly under threat. Many fascists see liberated women as a symbol of social decadence and decline. The KKK also targeted Jews. That an anti-Black racist like the Buffalo shooter would also be in thrall to anti-Semitic tropes might seem surprising, but intersectional hate is a totalizing ideology. Every new talking point is woven into the same tapestry, in which white men are at the center, protecting “their” women, and everyone else is at the margins.
The Buffalo shooter is open about the source of his radicalization. It was the internet, and specifically an anonymous discussion board on 4chan. “There I learned through infographics, shitposts, and memes that the White race is dying out,” he writes. He distributes the blame among Black Americans—whom he depicts as violent and lazy—and “the Jews and the elite” who control them.
Although he doesn’t mention them by name, the shooter’s grievance also lies with white women, through his invocation of falling birth rates and the “Great Replacement,” a conspiracy theory that accuses left-wing politicians of encouraging immigration to undermine majority white, Christian societies and create new, obedient voter bases. In his mythology, Black Americans are among “the replacers”—a dehumanizing term repeatedly invoked in the document—while the masterminds of the replacement are Jews. This is one example of how hatreds amplify one another: If Black Americans are so inferior, how can they be a threat to the glorious white race? Ah, because they are being directed by shadowy puppet masters. And which group has been cast in this role throughout history? The Jews.
Although the American strain of white supremacy is distinctive, recent terrorists have been influenced by many overlapping ideas. The man who massacred 51 people at a New Zealand mosque in 2019 subscribed to the European version of Great Replacement theory, in which the demographic attack comes from Muslims, and Jews do not prominently feature. The gunman who killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the same year released a manifesto warning of a “Hispanic invasion.” The man who set fire to a mosque and shot four people in a synagogue in Poway, California, insisted in his own screed that Jews deserved to die “for their role in feminism which has enslaved women in sin.”
The ideology might be flexible, but it always returns the same answer: The West is in decline; the white race is under threat, and it must be protected by violence. In place of the messy truth that migration is a continuous churn driven by war, famine, and individuals’ desire for a better life, the Great Replacement suggests a coherent plan controlled by knowable forces. Such theories thrive in hard times, because they offer themselves as an antidote to chaos.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Francis Galton and other then-respected scientists talked earnestly about classifying humans into “superior” and “inferior” races. Galton’s heirs used the new technology of the IQ test, originally developed to identify children struggling at school, to collect proof of the alleged superiority of Europeans. Their work depended on definitions of whiteness, and rigid racial categories, that have since been debunked. (At various times in American history, Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants would not have been considered white in the same way as those of “Nordic stock.”) Today’s geneticists know better than to build their work on such shifting sands.
Nevertheless, the blithe assertions of early eugenicists and scientific racists are now being recast, a century later, in the clunky visual style of the modern internet, with its homemade cut-and-paste jobs of text overlaid on graphics. The anti-Semitic tropes in the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto could come straight from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text about a minority with disproportionate powers to control the world, or Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent. But these ideas are presented in picture form. Page after page identifies people who hold important jobs as Jews; readers are left to form their own (predestined) conclusion. Also included are tables of supposedly Jewish facial features that could have come straight from a 19th-century phrenology handbook. “He’s saying something that I’ve never seen so clearly expressed before,” Adam Rutherford, a British geneticist who writes about scientific racism, told me. “He was radicalized by infographics.”
The slapdash, collage style of the manifesto is the true novelty here; the author discusses his underwear, his lunch plans, and his Myers-Briggs profile alongside his murderous hatred of Black Americans, Jews, and other races. This format underscores how today’s terrorists tend to radicalize themselves, alone, at home. They are technically “lone wolves” but are in constant dialogue with the internet’s bleakest corners. The blizzard of facts and figures on far-right websites flatters them into thinking they have followed a trail of clues and arrived at the truth themselves, unlike the blinkered herd. It is a narcissistic fantasy that casts the young radical as the hero of his own quest—a detective story in which he is an active participant. Many mass shooters have a sense of grievance in search of a mythology. The manifesto’s author claims that he found communism at age 12 but rejected it when he found something more useful to his psychological needs.
Rutherford, the author of the book How to Argue With a Racist, studies how academic research into intelligence and population genetics is laundered for use on white-supremacist websites. He cites the example of a mainstream paper on inheritance that featured a scatterplot on characteristics of people of Jewish descent, and ended up in racist internet posts. The simple addition of group labels such as “quadroon Jews”—a term repurposed from Jim Crow–era America—transformed a careful scientific study into a piece of racist propaganda. “This is using science to prop up a preexisting ideology. It’s exactly what happened in the 1900s with the [genetics] work of Gregor Mendel—the eugenicists seized on it,” Rutherford said. “It’s the same as it ever was. New techniques, old story.”
People drawn to intersectional omni-hatred can find multiple on-ramps online. One way into this mindset is through tasteless jokes—many users of sites such as 4chan see mocking the Holocaust as thrillingly transgressive. But ironic anti-Semitism expressed for shock value can shade into overt, unironic anti-Semitism expressed as a genuine belief. Another on-ramp is the debate, now simmering for more than a century, about the supposed connection between race and intelligence. Modern geneticists are reluctant to make sweeping statements about populations, but their nuanced disputes about the influence of environment versus heredity are presented instead by the far right as the left-wing suppression of obvious but unspeakable facts. (The resurgence of scientific racism as a political force poses a challenge to genetics researchers, many of whom would prefer to dodge these controversial questions altogether but risk leaving the field clear for cranks.)
Anti-feminism is also a route to the far right. Nearly all mass shooters are men, and the tone of many far-right sites assumes that all their readers are male. White women mainly exist in this ideology to be protected from rape by “invaders” or from their own desire to have children with nonwhite men. Feminism is a threat because it frees women from men’s economic control and might encourage them to pursue careers at the expense of motherhood. The Buffalo shooter invoked a white-supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The “we” are white men, framed as soldiers and martyrs, posing as the heroic defenders of the weak. A power fantasy is baked into this ideology, but so is fear—a clammy horror of becoming redundant and obsolete.
In the 1920s and ’30s, a prominent man could voice his discriminatory thoughts about “inferior” races and “the international Jew” out loud, in public; Gatsby’s fictional Buchanan had real-life counterparts in Ford and Father Coughlin. In the century since, pseudoscientific racism has been driven to the margins of society and appears instead in watered-down forms, in allusions, winks, and dog whistles. (Especially after the Buffalo shooting, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been widely criticized for promoting the Great Replacement theory. But as my colleague Graeme Wood notes, Carlson could not keep his job if he presented it in the grotesque terms expressed in the shooter’s manifesto.) Yet the banishment of overt scientific racism from the public square has given it a new glamour online, where it marinates alongside other forms of hatred and draws adherents who convince themselves that urgent truths are being suppressed. That mindset allows young men to brick themselves inside a mental castle of half-truths and old lies, fed by their own sense that they deserved better, and they could be remembered as a hero, if only they picked up a gun.