The massacre in El Paso is the consequence of growing racist extremism in the United States. As president, Donald Trump’s task should be that of uniting the country, but he himself has contributed to the climate of hate.
It’s a warm summer evening not long after the massacres in El Paso and Dayton and several hundred demonstrators have gathered on an arterial in Fairfax, Virginia, and are holding candles. Behind them is a blue building of steel and glass that is visible from the highway out of town. High up on the facade are five words in red lettering: National Rifle Association of America.
Inside, nobody seems particularly interested in the protesters. The lights are still on in some of the offices, but it’s quiet otherwise. NRA employees, the most powerful weapons lobby in the world, know the drill: Every time a gunman mows down some people in the latest mass killing, the protesters show up. Following the two massacres that took place in the first weekend of August, the NRA posted a brief note on its website, saying that its “deepest sympathies” were with the victims and their families, but the organization would continue defending the right of Americans to bear arms. Six lines for 31 deaths. Plenty.
On the street down below, a woman begins singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a song from the Civil Rights movement. Then, the Rev. David Miller steps onto a small, improvised podium. He’s a muscular man in a dark gray, collared shirt. Empty phrases are no longer enough, he says. “The time for thoughts and prayers has come to an end. The time for us to act is now!”
“Amen,” the crowd responds, “Amen! Amen!” The reverend seems to feed off the passion of those surrounding him on this evening. There are schoolchildren, university students and a Democratic lawmaker in the audience. One of the signs reads: “Our blood, your hands.” Many marchers are holding pictures of those who died in the El Paso bloodbath.
There have been so many massacres, the reverend says. But after the attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, in which 26 people died, 20 of them children, he says he actually thought that things would finally change. He thought the same after the massacre in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, with 17 deaths. But even the protests by the students who survived in Parkland didn’t result in any changes to U.S. gun laws. Now, though, the reverend says, we have really reached a decisive moment. “Now, the tanker is beginning to turn.” He stops for a moment and looks at the evening sky: “At least I hope so.”
There has been no lack this week of warnings to finally come to reason in the face of ongoing hate and violence in the U.S. In 2019 alone, some 250 people have already been killed in mass shootings in America.
Spreading a Racist Ideology
The phrase “mass shooting” doesn’t adequately describe the massacre carried out by Patrick Wood Crusius in El Paso, just as it is insufficient in other such bloodbaths. The suspected shooter was angry, but he didn’t choose his victims at random. He drove 10 hours from a Dallas suburb to the Mexican border, where the Latino share of the population is particularly high. The target of his attack was a Walmart, which does excellent business on cross-border traffic.
Crusius didn’t just want to kill people, he wanted to send a political message. And he had a role model: the gunman from Christchurch, who killed 51 people in two New Zealand mosques earlier this year — and who invoked the right-wing extremist Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and on the island of Utoya in 2011.
Crusius’ assault was intended as a terrorist attack. He wanted to frighten all those who aren’t white, and he wanted to spread his racist ideology. In the four-page manifesto posted online shortly before he opened fire, he wrote that he was “simply trying to defend my country from a supposed ethnic and cultural replacement brought on by an invasion.” The theory of cultural replacement is one that has been circulating for some time among right-wing extremists in the United States.
Following the Islamist terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush launched two wars that would cost the lives of thousands of soldiers. He also created the Department of Homeland Security, which employs 240,000 people and has a budget of at least $40 billion (35.7 billion euros) per year. It’s mission was primarily that of protecting the U.S. from foreign terrorists, but now, it has become increasingly clear that a perhaps more dangerous threat is developing. And it is coming from what seems to be an extremely unlikely source: quiet, leafy suburbs like Allen, Texas, where Crusius lived and became radicalized — until he ultimately packed an assault rifle into his car and headed for the Mexican border.
Holger Esser couldn’t believe it when he heard the news from El Paso. The software engineer from the German town of Düren has lived in the U.S. for 20 years and he lived on the same street as Crusius. They would say hello to each other when Esser took his dog Millie for her morning walk. Esser never really thought much about Crusius, a quiet, inconspicuous young man in his early 20s who went to nearby Collin College. He parked his Honda Civic in front of his grandparents’ place, where he lived most of the time.
‘Rotting From the Inside Out’
“I was shocked just like everyone was when I heard about the shooting. I knew the grandparents — nice, friendly people,” Esser says. Larry and Cynthia Brown, regular churchgoers according to Esser, live seven houses down from Esser. The two of them, he says, took in their grandson Patrick around two years ago, shortly after he graduated from high school. In his senior yearbook, it says that Crusius finds the “world of law enforcement” to be quite fascinating. Former classmates have described him as a quiet loner who was avoided by many and made fun of by some.
Esser has read Crusius’ manifesto, saying he wanted to understand what was going on inside his neighbor’s head. “When you live here, how can you seriously be worried that Mexicans are going to take your job?” Esser asks. Homes in the area cost up to a million dollars and those who live here have come pretty close to achieving the American dream. It’s a place of two-car garages with a third car parked out front and perfectly tended front yards. But Crusius apparently saw it as a world that was approaching collapse: “America is rotting from the inside out, and peaceful means to stop this seem to be nearly impossible,” he wrote in his manifesto.
Terror attacks perpetrated by whites against the country’s minorities have plagued the United States from the very beginning. In 1787, the country agreed on the first democratic constitution in the modern era, but the document was only able to find support from all 13 founding colonies because it bowed to pressure from the southern states and allowed them to continue their brutal system of slavery. It was only in 1865, with the North’s victory over the South in the Civil War, that slavery was abolished. Yet it was only just over a week ago that police on horseback in the Texan city of Galveston led a black suspect on a leash through town — almost as though the abolishment of slavery had never taken place. The image triggered widespread anger and the police department was forced to apologize.
Right-wing terror in the U.S. has a long history. Up until the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Timothy McVeigh held the dark record for the bloodiest terrorist attack in U.S. history. An eager consumer of right-wing conspiracy theories, McVeigh set off a bomb in 1995 at a federal administration building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The nongovernmental organization ADL has calculated that in the last 10 years, three quarters of all murders motivated by extremist ideologies have been committed by right-wing extremists.
Just how clear-and-present the danger is, was demonstrated in August 2017 when racists paraded through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, while chanting: “Jews will not replace us!” One woman died when a Hitler-admirer sped his car into a group of counterdemonstrators. Donald Trump, though, didn’t find it necessary to assign blame, instead saying that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
Fine Nazis? Charlottesville made it clearer than ever that Trump willingly flirts with the extreme right fringe of the American political spectrum and that he is unwilling to criticize those who praise him. The result is that many white racists feel they have found an ally in Donald Trump.
Relying on Divisiveness
The president did read out a speech on the El Paso mass shooting, saying on Monday, fully 48 hours after the attacks: “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”
But can Trump, whose political survival depends on divisiveness, suddenly play the role of reconciler? If he took his role seriously and meant what he said about mourning the victims, then he would push Republicans in Congress to finally pass stronger gun laws.
There is little to indicate, however, that the president is even considering a change to his political approach. His predecessor Barack Obama had one of the greatest moments of his presidency in summer 2015 when he sang “Amazing Grace” during the services for the victims of the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, before then reading the names of the victims.
When Trump visited Dayton and El Paso last Wednesday to visit with those wounded in the attacks and with first responders, he took advantage of a break between appointments to make fun of his Democratic challenger Joe Biden. “Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring! The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks with this guy,” he tweeted, showing about as much respect as a loud belch at a funeral. Just a few moments earlier, he had said: “I think my rhetoric brings people together.”
Nothing is sacred anymore in the Trump era. The president has lied so often and contaminated the country with malice and ridicule to such a degree that serious political discourse is no longer possible. Facts and measured consideration are becoming rare. The only thing that matters is attention, spin and slogans. And it would seem that the suspect from El Paso was paying close attention to the new rules of the Trump Era.
Before Crusius jumped into action, he thought carefully about the media coverage it would generate. He wrote that he developed his opinions long before Trump. “I know that the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news. Their reaction to this attack will likely just confirm that.”
Nothing can be further from the truth than calling Crusius a mentally ill loner as Trump decided to do. Crusius precisely planned his attack along with the message he wanted the attack to send. Because of the high birthrate among Latinos, he wrote, the U.S. was in danger of becoming a “one-party country” and believed that a conspiracy was behind it.
One could point to the French author Renaud Camus as being the intellectual father of Crusius’ manifesto, a man who once tried to make a living from writing homoerotic literature. On several occasions, Camus has sought to distance himself from violence that has been committed in the name of his ideas, but he has never renounced the ideas themselves. His book “Le Grand Remplacement” comes to the absurd conclusion that “European native peoples” are intentionally being replaced by immigrants from outside of Europe.
No Single Explanation
In reference to Camus, the Christchurch attacker called his manifesto “The Great Replacement.” It begins with the words: “It’s the birthrates. It’s the birthrates. It’s the birthrates.” Crusius wrote: “Actually, the Hispanic community was not my target before I read The Great Replacement.”
Renaud Camus picked up an idea prevalent among the new right which no longer focuses first and foremost on the alleged superiority of the white race. The justification for their actions has become a kind of self-defense against the presumed takeover of their country by immigrants. Crusius wrote that he wanted America to be divided up so that each race would have its own territory.
Some Democratic presidential candidates only needed a day before accusing Trump of being partly to blame for the terrorist attack. The authenticity of the manifesto hadn’t even been confirmed before Cory Booker, a Senator from New Jersey who is making a run for the White House, said: “I believe this president is responsible.”
When somebody leaves behind all civilizational inhibitions and opens fire on families who are buying school supplies for their children at the end of summer vacation, there can be no single explanation. But Trump has created a climate of malice and anger and has repeatedly used the word “invasion” when discussing immigration, a word that also found its way into Crusius’ manifesto. Indeed, Trump began his political career with the conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t actually born in the United States.
Whether Trump is a convinced racist or not is ultimately of almost no importance. But he has decided to serve the basest instincts of his political supporters. It was a nadir of recent American history when Trump stood silently at a mid-July campaign appearance in North Carolina as the crowd chanted: “Send her back!” The reference was to U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. as a child. Earlier, Trump had suggested that she and three other Congresswoman — none of them white — go back to their home countries even though all of them are Americans.
For that reason, it is tough to imagine Trump being the one to take on the kind of white terrorism that even the FBI is warning of. Indeed, it is likely he has no intention of doing so since it would ruin his re-election strategy, which depends on fomenting acrimony and ill will.
Trump is also well aware that white Americans, in particular, are heavily invested in their right to own firearms, no matter how powerful. If reason held sway in Washington, then a path would quickly be found to slow down the epidemic of violence. Almost everyone who is driven by dark thoughts can just walk into the closest gun shop and launch their own personal civil war.
“If as many whites as blacks were killed by firearms, then something would happen very quickly,” says David Hemenway, 74, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Hardly anybody knows as much about the American obsession with guns as Hemenway, who has studied the issue for 30 years. The right to bear arms was ratified as the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution over 200 years ago, on Dec. 15, 1791. Many view it as being sacred. Even Hemenway doesn’t demand that firearms be banned, but he does believe that sensible regulations would be a huge step for the country.
‘No Political Appetite’
An important first step, he argues, should be banning large-capacity magazines, a demand that was also made by the students of Parkland after the massacre there. At both recent mass shootings, the attackers used weapons that had originally been designed for the military and the Dayton shooter had a weapon whose magazine could hold up to 100 cartridges. “Nobody needs these weapons for self-defense,” Hemenway says. “Their only purpose is to kill many people quickly.” Last week, though, Trump said that there was “no political appetite” in Congress for an assault weapons ban — as though he had no recourse to try to convince Republicans otherwise.
Trump will also have a problem with regulating the internet platforms where Crusius and his ilk become radicalized. The infamous forum 8chan, where Crusius and many before him disseminated their manifestos, was taken offline soon after the recent attacks — but only because its provider pulled the plug. In closed groups on the messaging app Telegram, Crusius is still being celebrated. “Today will go down in history as a turning point in the self-confidence of the white race,” wrote one user after the El Paso massacre.
“We must recognize that the internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” Trump said on the Monday after the attacks. He seems to believe that the many mass shootings in the U.S. are due to mental illness and not because of lax gun laws and a growing right-wing extremist fringe.
Plus, Trump said last Wednesday, the attacker from Dayton, Connor Betts, is a fan of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and not from the right wing. It is true that Betts did post such tweets on Twitter, but the FBI has found that his sympathies lay primarily with a number of different violent ideologies. Investigators are also looking into possible connections with so-called incels (“involuntary celibates”), who harbor a radical hatred of women. In contrast to Crusius, Betts did not offer a political justification for his deed and his motive remains unclear. His own sister is among the nine he killed in the attack.
After El Paso, many members of minority communities are afraid. Not only do they feel that the president isn’t protecting them, they have the impression that he has declared open season on them. Trump has left little doubt that he sees himself primarily as the president of the whites, and especially of the 30 percent of voters who will definitely vote for him next fall no matter what.
But can Trump win re-election if he only appeals to white voters and their prejudices? Whites only make up two-thirds of the U.S. population, and many of them hate Trump. Meanwhile, 18 percent of the electorate is Latino, and 13 percent is black. Trump’s victory in 2016 was largely a function of the peculiarities of the Electoral College, which gives more leverage to less populated states in the Midwest where more whites live. He won even though Hillary Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than he did.
A ‘Hater’ and an ‘Idiot’
The American political landscape is changing, and behind that shift is not some conspiracy, but simple demographics. Nowhere can that be seen more clearly than in Texas, the state in which Crusius lived. For the last several decades, Texas has been a Republican and NRA stronghold, the home of rednecks in cowboy boots, as the cliche would have it. Increasingly, though, reality looks quite a bit different. Today, 41.5 percent of Texans are white with no familial roots in Latin America. But the Latinos are quickly catching up and already make up a 39.6 percent share of the Texan population.
In the 2018 midterm elections, 64 percent of Hispanics in Texas cast their ballots for the Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, a native of El Paso. He ultimately lost a close race, but Texan Hispanics were a significant factor in the Republicans losing their majority in the House of Representatives. Indeed, if the Republicans lose their Texan stronghold, it could have serious consequences for the party. With 38 electoral votes, it is a key stepping stone to the presidency — and should it fall into the hands of the Democrats, their path to the White House would be much more direct. The demographic shift evident in Texas can also be seen in states like Arizona and Georgia, both of which are becoming more Democratic even as traditionally working-class states in the Midwest are beginning to lean more Republican. The question is which trend will develop more quickly ahead of the 2020 elections.
Raul Arenas is standing in his house in El Paso and shaking his head. No, he says, there is no way he will be voting for Donald Trump. He is a “hater” and an “idiot,” he says. “The nicest thing you can say about our president is that he is childish.” Arenas has been a U.S. citizen for around 30 years. He entered the country illegally as a 19-year-old from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, which is visible from the El Paso Walmart’s parking lot.
He bought a fake Green Card, found a job and then applied for citizenship five years later. He has three children, all of whom were born in the U.S. and are thus citizens. They all got good grades and went on to college. These days, Arenas has his own roofing company in El Paso and has done very well for himself. His own private invasion was clearly beneficial to the U.S.
“The real invaders of Texas,” Arenas says laughing, are the whites. They came to Texas in the 19th century, he says, and pushed out the Mexicans. But Arenas isn’t in the mood for polemics. He prefers to leave that up to the president.