WASHINGTON — In a visit to the grieving city of Buffalo, N.Y., President Biden consoled the families of the 10 people slain by a racist gunman who had driven hundreds of miles to specifically target an African American community last Saturday afternoon.
“It’s not the same, but we know, a little bit, what it’s like to lose a piece of your soul,” Biden said on Tuesday, in reference to the personal tragedies he and first lady Jill Biden, who stood beside him as he spoke, have suffered.
Biden also bluntly described the attack as part of a right-wing campaign meant to stoke whites’ fears of demographic change, a conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement.”
“Hate will not prevail,” the president said. “White supremacy will not have the last word.” Although he also argued that it was imperative to “keep assault rifles off our streets,” his emphasis on Tuesday was less on gun control — a perennially contentious issue in Washington — than on the racist motivation of the attack.
“What happened here is simple and straightforward terrorism. Domestic terrorism,” Biden said, a notable frame that lacks legal designation but could nevertheless serve as a way to understand the killings, which explicitly targeted African Americans.
In the past, similar attacks have been dismissed as the work of “lone wolves” not acting under the guise of a coherent ideology. Biden implicitly rejected that view of what had transpired in Buffalo. “White supremacy is a poison,” he said. “It’s a poison running through our body politic.”
Two days before his rampage, Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old suspect in the Buffalo attack, posted a 180-page screed reportedly rife with racist and antisemitic tropes. Those themes have become increasingly commonplace in parts of the conservative media ecosystem in recent years, with conspiracy theories about immigrants, Jews, people of color and the LGBTQ community proliferating with a seemingly free license.
Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, which battles antisemitism and other forms of extremism, said in a statement that Buffalo tragically amounted to “yet another predictable attack by an avowed white supremacist who imbibed hateful conspiracy theories online and then turned to violent action.”
One motivating fear is that the United States is on the cusp of becoming a majority non-white country. Extremists who subscribe to the so-called great replacement theory hold that these demographic changes are not the organic result of social factors but rather a ploy by Democrats to secure political domination.
During the far-right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, torch-bearing extremists chanted, “You will not replace us,” as they marched, purportedly in support of preventing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from being removed. The rally resulted in three deaths and inspired Biden to run for president, which he said he had not planned on doing.
Speaking on Tuesday, Biden condemned “those who spread the lie for power, political gain and for profit,” a seeming reference to conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson and Republican officials like Rep. Elise Stefanik of upstate New York, who have both openly trafficked in replacement-theory tropes.
“Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington,” a Stefanik ad said last year.
Carlson, for his part, dismissed the Buffalo killer as deranged. “The document is not recognizably left-wing or right-wing; it’s not really political at all,” he said of the killer’s writings. “The document is crazy.”