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Four Years Later, the White Nationalist Conspiracy Theory Espoused by the El Paso Shooter is a Centerpiece of the GOP Policy Agenda

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Thursday, August 3, 2023, will mark four years since a man from Allen, Texas, drove hundreds of miles to a Walmart in El Paso and murdered 23 people and injured 22 others, subscribing to false white nationalist conspiracy theories about a supposed “great replacement” and a “Hispanic invasion.” In February 2023, the man pleaded guilty to a 90-count indictment, including 45 counts of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and 45 counts of using a firearm during and in relation to crimes of violence in his federal case. And in June, he was sentenced to 90 consecutive life sentences. The state of Texas is also pursuing an ongoing capital murder case against the mass shooter, for which he faces the death penalty.   

Tragically, the horrific attack in El Paso is part of a larger pattern of racist political violence that was once relegated to white nationalist and neo-nazi websites. That is no longer the case. Now that rhetoric is being cultivated by elected leaders’ persistent dehumanization of non-white migrants. They consistently and repeatedly amplify the very same white nationalist conspiracy theories motivating domestic terrorists. That threat is ongoing. And four years after El Paso, the Republican Party has only become more radicalized, making the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy their central policy position towards the border.

America’s Voice has identified: 

  • Over 500 examples of elected Republicans or GOP campaigns that employed the white nationalist great replacement conspiracy theory over the last year from August 3 2022, through July 28, 2023.
  • 34 members of Congress amplified the “invasion” rhetoric, including 90 times by House Republicans in their official capacity this year. The Republican House Majority has also invited 15 witnesses who had previously promoted the racist fiction to testify before Congress.
  • Seven pieces of federal legislation that employ the “invasion” conspiracy theory that 47 different members have co-sponsored at least one of these pieces of legislation. On June 22, 2023, by a vote of 219 – 208, the House voted to refer H.Res.503, the Biden impeachment resolution sponsored by Rep. Lauren Boebert, to the Committees, even as it relied on the “invasion” conspiracy theory. All Republicans present voted yes, while all Democrats present voted no. 
  • Over 700 examples of Republicans echoing these white nationalist conspiracy theories in the ‘22 election cycle, alienating the majority of the electorate and contributing to their underperformance in the midterms.

The vile, bigoted fiction being amplified by elected Republicans generally hinges on the antisemitic and racist belief that Jews and “the Left” are looking to replace “real” Americans through an “invasion” of non-white migrants and non-white voters to undermine democracy and take over and transform the country. Most Americans first learned about this racist, anti-semitic ideology when they saw videos of white nationalists chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “you will not replace us” during the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017.

While most Republicans are not engaging in the most explicit versions of this bigoted lie, they are frequently employing the “invasion” rhetoric or more subtle dog whistles that are inexorably tied to the great replacement conspiracy theory. As an excellent resource from Human Rights First explains: “Dog whistles for this conspiracy include ‘voter replacement’ or statements claiming increases in border crossings are ‘intentional.’”

This racist conspiracy is not new but was once confined to the fringe and dark corners of the internet. And though it is directly linked to the white nationalist terror attacks in El Paso, Pittsburgh, Poway, and Buffalo, elected Republicans from leadership on down have come to fully embrace this racist fiction as part of their political attacks around immigration and the border.  As Dr. Elizabeth Yates, Senior Researcher on Antisemitism at Human Rights First, notes, “10 years ago, you would have seen this rhetoric on neo-Nazi websites that you now hear from members of Congress.”

Beyond the overall statistics, there have been several recent events that underscore the severity and depth of the GOP’s embrace of white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy theories: 

  • In the same week as the anniversary of the El Paso attack, Mike Pence’s Advancing American Freedom organization released their immigration and border plan, with the first point reading “DECLARE AN INVASION AT THE BORDER.” The dangers of the Former Vice President and current Presidential candidate leading his plan promising to turn the conspiracy theory into actual policy that motivated a terror attack while he was in office is hard to overstate. 
  • The Former Vice President isn’t alone in this call. Florida Governor and Presidential candidate Ron DeSantis’ immigration and border plan also led with the white nationalist slogan “stop the invasion.” Additionally,  DeSantis just recently fired his speechwriter over a video he made employing the same neo-Nazi logo that’s appeared on the cover of multiple of the white nationalist terrorists’ manifestos. 
  • In May, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), who has a long and extensive history associating with white nationalists, put out a graphic that said, “America is under a planned and sustained invasion – we must act accordingly.” This is an all but explicit call for racist political violence to stop this alleged “invasion.” 
  • Last week, members from the Texas Congressional delegation took to defending Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star – which included a directive to push children and pregnant women into a deadly river – with the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy.  This included Rep. August Pflueger (R-TX), at the House Homeland Security Committee hearing, who defended the program citing Article 4 Section 4 of the Constitution, which says every state “shall protect each of them against Invasion” to invoke the conspiracy theory. And eight other members of the Texas delegation held a press conference to similarly push “invasion” conspiracy defenses of the program. 
  • At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in mid-July, Rep. Delia Ramirez’ (D-IL) questioned Republican witness, Derek Maltz, who had previously promoted the white nationalist “invasion“ conspiracy theory, asking if he stood by the assessment even after Rep. Ramirez put the rhetoric in its context of the deadly violence it has inspired. Republican witness Maltz doubled down without any concern from the Republicans on the committee.  

On this anniversary, it is vital to remember that dehumanizing rhetoric from elected leaders creates a climate for more bigoted political violence. 

DHS has made it abundantly clear that violent domestic extremism motivated in part by white nationalist ideologies is the greatest terror threat facing the homeland. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in the House Judiciary Committee hearing on July 26th 2023 highlighted the link between mainstreaming political rhetoric that centers around white nationalist conspiracies like “invasion” and “replacement” to the rise of violent domestic terrorist attacks in recent years: 

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA): “When elected officials repeat great replacement rhetoric, including the language of invasion, are they putting a target on the backs of immigrants and people of color?”

Secretary Mayorkas: “It certainly fuels the threat landscape we encounter.”

The FBI and the Justice Department have also testified that the threat from violent domestic extremists is a leading terrorist concern. In November 2022 and again in December 2022, DHS issued memos warning about threats to migrants and infrastructure at the southern border in response to anti-immigrant-related concerns.

Academic research and experts agree that dangerous speech from elected officials creates a climate that courts violence and threatens public safety: 

  • Dr. Heidi Beirich, Co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, drew a direct connection between the rhetoric and the violence at the beginning of this year. “When migrants are described as invaders, that leads to violence,” she said, “Because how else does one stop an invasion?”
  • In May 2023, testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee, Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO, Amy Spitalnick said when “elected officials, pundits, candidates, others who have normalized and mainstreamed the white supremacist views like the Great Replacement theory, talking about things like an invasion… what that does is then give license to the violent extremists…” 
  • American University professor Susan Benesch, an expert in speech that can lead to violence, developed a framework to identify “dangerous speech” that the rhetoric that America’s Voice has tracked clearly falls under. In October 2018 she told the Washington Post that to rise to the level of dangerous speech, at least two of these five indicators must be true:
    • A powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience.
    • The audience has grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate.
    • A speech act that is clearly understood as a call to violence.
    • A social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for a variety of reasons, including long-standing competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances or previous episodes of violence.
    • A means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience.
  • In April 2021,  Daniel L. Byman,Director and Professor, Security Studies Program – Georgetown University, wrote: “Incendiary rhetoric also creates a more dangerous political climate in general. An analysis of the manifesto issued by El Paso Walmart shooter Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 people, mostly of Hispanic heritage, found that he used words like ‘invasion’ and ‘replacement,’ drawing on conspiracy theories promoted by conservative media hosts. Another study found  politicians’ hate speech increases political polarization and that this, in turn, makes domestic terrorism more likely.”
  • In October 2019, a paper titled “A Short Primer on Preventing Political Violence” by Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, wrote: “First, we should clearly assert that violence and violent rhetoric are unacceptable. Words matter, since behavior is influenced by what we believe other people think. People who have more status or popularity are particularly influential. Language normalizing violence from within one’s group is especially dangerous, because it suggests that supporting violence is part of belonging. Thus, we must all speak against violence, but Trump-supporting politicians are essential for voicing moderation.”
  • The New York Times summarized a conversation with Kleinfeld in August 2022, writing: “If political aggression is set in the context of a war, she suggested, ordinary people with no prior history of violence are more likely to accept it. Political violence can also be made more palatable by couching it as defensive action against a belligerent enemy. That is particularly true if an adversary is persistently described as irredeemably evil or less than human.” Kleinfeld continued:“The right, at this point, is doing all three of these things at once”. 
  • In a research paper from March 2018 titled “Follow the Racist? The Consequences of Trump’s Expressions of Prejudice for Mass Rhetoric” by Tufts University, Brian F. Schaffner found “exposure to Trump’s prejudiced statements made people more likely to write offensive things, not only about the groups targeted by Trump, but sometimes about other identity groups as well.”
  • In an October 2017, paper titled “Confronting Hate Collectively,”  Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Princeton University, and Michael Suk-Young Chwe, University of California, Los Angeles, write: “If communities do not stand collectively against hate speech, potential perpetrators will feel increasingly emboldened…Potential perpetrators must understand clearly that everyone around them, regardless of their political views, believes that hate is unacceptable.

And the predictable downstream white supremacist and xenophobic violence has continued as politicians and pundits continue to normalize these ideas. In May 2022, a man in Brownsville, Texas, while reportedly yelling xenophobic slurs, plowed his SUV into a group of migrants, killing eight. That same month, the Justice Department announced the arrest of a man with racist beliefs who was preparing to carry out an attack, while another mass shooter with racist beliefs killed people in Allen, Texas. And in September 2022, twin brothers reportedly hunted and shot a group of migrants in what was likely an act of targeted racist violence. One of the brothers was a former warden for a detention center with a history of abuses against detained migrants. 

Doubling down on these deadly racist lies over the last year hasn’t been Republicans’ only option.  As recently as 2019, then-GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy removed then-Rep. Steve King (R-IA) from his committee assignments because of his use of white nationalist language. They have also had ample opportunities to denounce the great replacement conspiracy theory this year, and have refused to do so. Earlier this year, after House Republicans made a stink about being called out for amplifying this bigoted lie in the House Oversight Committee in a hearing. Ranking Member Jamie Raskin asked Members to sign a bipartisan letter condemning the great replacement theory — and all 26 members pointedly refused

Several Democratic members have also repeatedly warned their Republican colleagues of the dangers of employing these dehumanizing conspiracy theories. Here are just three of many examples:

  • Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in his opening remarks at a Committee hearing last week with DHS Secretary Mayorkas, “we can draw a straight line from the hateful rhetoric we hear from some congressional Republicans to that [the white nationalist terror attack on El Paso in 2019] tragedy. Our words matter.”
  • Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) pushed back in a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing in June, saying: “I also want to take exception to the term ‘invasion’…there is a long history of that word of ‘invasion’ of immigrants coming into our country… by white supremacists in their fearmongering… I take incredible exception to that word ‘invasion.’ We are not being invaded, people are coming here to seek asylum, as is the history of the United States.”  
  • In a House Judiciary hearing on July  13, Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso said: “There is a serious consequence to painting immigrants as dangerous and threatening and making the country feel fearful of them. There is a promotion of hate of immigrants. I represent El Paso, Texas. Last week, a killer who drove ten hours from East Texas to El Paso … This individual, a domestic terrorist, a white nationalist, drove over 10 hours to my community, and he confessed that he did that in order to slaughter Mexicans and immigrants because of the ‘invasion.’ That is a word that is frequently used by my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and by politicians all over this country to promote xenophobia.” 

It is hard to admit and harder still to reconcile, but the Republican Party has come to fully embrace a white nationalist conspiratorial view towards the border and non-white migration. And through that view, they are actively courting racist terrorist violence towards migrants and the organizations and communities that support them. The downstream political violence may be predictable, but it is not the GOP’s embrace of white nationalist conspiracy theories inevitable. We did not get here overnight, but by the slow increase in the degrees of rhetoric pushing one hateful, dehumanizing message or policy after the other.  The GOP has made the choice over the last four years to prioritize misguided political expediency embracing this extreme xenophobia instead of condemning the deadly racist rhetoric to preserve the values and public safety of the nation.