WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress aggressively pushed back against charges their rhetoric may have helped fuel the hate of the 18-year-old Buffalo shooter who allegedly committed one of the deadliest racist murder sprees in recent history Saturday, even as one of their GOP colleagues accused them of enabling white nationalism.
The House’s third-ranking Republican, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York tweeted out a statement on Monday morning decrying as false any attempt to blame her for the rampage targeting Black people — less than 30 minutes before posting a tweet that echoed tenets of the racist “great replacement” conspiracy theory that investigators believe may have motivated the shooter.
“Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote,” Stefanik said. “Like the vast majority of Americans, Republicans want to secure our borders and protect election integrity.”
The far-right theory reportedly cited by the shooter falsely asserts a conspiracy by liberals and Jews to “replace” white Americans with non-white people. It’s an idea that has journeyed from the mouths of white supremacists who chanted “Jews will not replace us” at their deadly rally in Charlottesville in 2017 to, in an altered form, the primetime of Fox News and social media feeds of Republican lawmakers and candidates who have darkly warned that Democrats plan to overwhelm GOP voters with immigrants.
But Republicans who have pushed parts of the theory expressed no remorse for their words two days after the shooting, which killed 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Even the charge Monday by Representative Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, that the “House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and antisemitism” was met largely with silence.
“Absolutely not,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said repeatedly when asked in the Capitol Monday whether he believed his rhetoric could have contributed to the belief system of the shooter. The senator suggested in a Fox Business interview last year that Democrats want to “remake the demographics of America” to “stay in power forever.” Johnson said reporters should ask Biden about immigration rather than “trying to drag up some weird theory.”
“Republican leaders have been very hesitant to be critical of the base,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. The party has changed significantly since 2015, when then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, responded to the killing of nine Black people at a Charleston church by a white supremacist by calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house grounds, he said.
“If somebody were to stand up and play that Nikki Haley role of 2015, would they be successful?” Heye said. “Probably not.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday declined to specifically criticize Republicans who have echoed the replacement theory but said President Biden was inspired to run for the White House in order to counter the hate he saw on display in Charlottesville. Biden, who will visit Buffalo Tuesday, is still determined “to fight back against those voices of hate and evil and violence,” she told reporters.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, blamed former president Trump’s Make America Great Again movement and its anti-immigrant rhetoric for advancing the theory.
“Not long ago, views like replacement theory were only found in the darkest places in deranged minds,” he said on the Senate floor Monday. “But unfortunately, with each passing year, it seems harder and harder to ignore that the echoes of replacement theory and other racially motivated views are increasingly coming out into the open and given purported legitimacy by some MAGA Republicans and cable news pundits.”
The great replacement theory, which began in France in the early 20th century, has been adopted and promoted by white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The theory has also fueled mass shootings, including one in 2018 that killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue and another in 2019 that killed 23 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas.
Payton Gendron, 18, the suspect in the Buffalo shooting, reportedly cited the theory repeatedly in a manifesto that laid out his plans to attack Black people at the supermarket. He wrote that people who shopped there were from a culture seeking to “ethnically replace my own people.”
The theory has been amplified by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who talked about it in various forms in more than 400 episodes of his show since 2016, according to a New York Times investigation. “In order to win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country,” Carlson said in April 2021. The ADL described his extensive comments that night as “an impassioned defense of the white supremacist ‘great replacement theory,’ ” and called for his firing.
The theory has gained traction, particularly among Republicans. An AP-NORC poll in December found that 47 percent of Republicans believe that a group of people in the United States are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views, compared with 22 percent of Democrats and independents.
Some Republican elected officials and candidates also have embraced the theory.
“@TuckerCarlson is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America,” Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, tweeted in September. Representatives Brian Babin of Texas, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Yvette Herrell of New Mexico, as well as GOP Senate candidates Josh Mandel in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona, among others, have alluded to the theory over the past year.
Stefanik has drawn the most heat because of her House leadership position. Her campaign ran a Facebook ad last year that accused Democrats of planning to “overthrow” the current electorate by allowing 11 million undocumented immigrants to vote in the United States.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, tweeted over the weekend, “Did you know: @EliseStefanik pushes white replacement theory?” He added that House minority leader Kevin McCarthy “should be asked about this.” A spokesman for McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment.
Did you know: @EliseStefanik pushes white replacement theory? The #3 in the house GOP. @Liz_Cheney got removed for demanding truth. @GOPLeader should be asked about this.— Adam Kinzinger (@AdamKinzinger) May 14, 2022
Stefanik Blasted for 'Despicable' Facebook Ads Pushing 'Replacement Theory' https://t.co/RcuzJ37BiE
Stefanik replaced Cheney, who was ousted from the No. 3 House leadership position last spring because she continued to challenge Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. She and Kinzinger voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and have been outspoken about the radicalization of some in the party. But they appeared to be alone among national Republican elected officials in their criticism of Stefanik and others for helping spread the great replacement theory.
“It will be more noteworthy to me if other people say that, or something less harsh,” Heye said of Republicans.
Pranav Baskar of the Globe staff contributed to this report.