Joe Biden did not mention Tucker Carlson’s name this week as the US president sought to meld outrage with comfort in a speech to Americans reeling from the deadly shooting rampage in Buffalo, New York.
Yet the conservative firebrand Fox News host, along with other figures in rightwing American media and politics, was clearly front of mind for Biden and many fellow Democrats as they reacted to the latest episode of white supremacist violence in the country.
“We have to not only talk about how we’re going to end the hate, but who’s responsible for generating it,” Biden said on Tuesday during a visit to Buffalo. “You have folks on television stations talking about the ‘replacement theory’, scaring the living hell out of people who don’t have a whole lot of emotional stability.”
The Buffalo rampage — in which a lone 18-year-old gunman killed 10 people, eight of them African-American — has resulted in fresh scrutiny of conservative media figures and Republican lawmakers accused of embracing, sympathising with and acquiescing to views on race and immigration that have moved into the terrain of extremist falsehoods.
The most prominent of these is the “great replacement” theory, which has been gaining ground over the past decade within the conservative Republican base and among supporters of former president Donald Trump. Echoing rhetoric that has emerged on the European far right in connection with migration, it falsely contends that minorities are plotting with Democrats to illegitimately seize political power by gaining a demographic advantage in the country.
“Those who espouse this replacement theory are trying to redefine who can be and who is an American, and redefine those who are not white as outsiders and as invaders,” said Danilo Zak, a policy and advocacy manager at the National Immigration Forum, a Washington think-tank.
“It has become a more mainstream idea and . . . that’s because the dialogue around immigration and immigrants has become increasingly unhealthy,” he added.
In Buffalo, the suspected killer posted a 180-page document online endorsing the replacement theory. Once confined to 4chan and other social media sites, it has since become standard fare for conservative media hosts such as Carlson and fellow presenter Jeanine Pirro.
“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement’ . . . if you suggest that the Democratic party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots with new people, more obedient voters from the third world,” Carlson told viewers last year. “But they become hysterical because that is what’s happening actually.”
Carlson, who is the most-watched host on Fox News and draws more than 2mn viewers to his primetime evening show, on Monday addressed the Buffalo massacre in the first 20 minutes of his programme. He said the shooter had a “diseased mind” and described the 180-page document as “a rambling pastiche of slogans” before pivoting to blame Democrats for using the tragedy to criticise the Republican party.
“You’ve heard a lot about the great replacement theory recently. It’s everywhere in the last two days and we’re still not sure exactly what it is,” he said. “Here’s what we do know for a fact: there is a strong political component to the Democratic party’s immigration policy.”
Democrats are putting pressure on Republicans and some media outlets, particularly Fox News, to denounce the replacement theory. Chuck Schumer, the New York senator and leader of the Democratic majority in the upper chamber of Congress, this week sent a letter to top executives at Fox, including chair Rupert Murdoch, criticising the rhetoric that airs on its channels and pleading for them to halt it.
“For years, these types of beliefs have existed at the fringes of American life. However, this pernicious theory, which has no basis in fact, has been injected into the mainstream thanks in large part to a dangerous level of amplification by your network and its anchors,” Schumer wrote.
Fox News declined to comment, instead pointing to Carlson’s on-air comments this week.
Democrats are facing a dim prognosis ahead of the November midterm elections and low approval ratings for Biden, driven by dissatisfaction with high inflation and surging migration from Mexico. In an attempt to regain some political ground, they have tried to depict Republicans as extreme on a wide range of social issues such as abortion.
Some Republicans have fully championed the replacement theory, including House lawmakers such as Matt Gaetz of Florida and Brian Babin of Texas, who last year said during a television interview: “They want to replace the American electorate with a third world electorate that will be on welfare.”
The idea also crept into the Senate campaigns of JD Vance and Blake Masters, who are running for seats in Congress to represent Ohio and Arizona, and appeared in Facebook ads posted by Elise Stefanik, chair of the Republican conference in the House of Representatives.
Stefanik wrote that “radical” Democrats were planning a “permanent election insurrection” that would “grant amnesty to 11mn illegal immigrants [who] will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington”. Asked by CNN this week if she disavowed those words, Stefanik answered: “I’ve never made a racist comment.”
The views of Republican voters are becoming more entrenched on the issue. According to an AP-NORC poll published late last year, one in three voters, including almost half of Republicans, agreed either “strongly” or “somewhat” that “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views”.
So far, Republican congressional leaders have for the most part refused to explicitly reject the replacement theory in a way that might upset their supporter base, preferring to denounce racism more generally after attacks such as the one in Buffalo.
“Look, racism of any sort is abhorrent in America and ought to be stood up to by everybody, both Republicans, Democrats, all Americans,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, said this week.