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Opinion | Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Gun reform alone won’t address white supremacist extremism

A man places flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 20 people were killed in a mass shooting. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Across the United States, Americans went to bed Saturday night grieving a mass shooting perpetrated by a white supremacist that killed 20 people in El Paso, Texas, and woke up to the news of another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, which left 10 dead. Although no ideological motive for the Dayton shooting is currently known, we do know it was not random; the shooter showed up in tactical armor, carrying extra magazines, prepared to inflict mass trauma.

Whether the Dayton shooting has clear ideological motivations or not, one thing is clear: It will help boost global white supremacy anyway.

Repeated mass shootings and far-right terrorist attacks are textbook cases of what white supremacists call “acceleration” — an imperative to sow chaos and societal disruption in order to bring about a race war, apocalyptic end times, and an eventual societal resurrection and rebirth. Within hours of the shootings, extremists were celebrating on social media with phrases like “it’s happening!” and “the fire rises!”

They are referring to the principle of acceleration. While most people know white supremacist extremism is based on dehumanizing and exclusionary ideologies — including racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant beliefs — fewer understand two other key aspects: the idea of existential threat from demographic change, and the doctrine of acceleration. Both ideas are key to understanding why so many attacks are happening.


The manifestos of the mass shooters in Oslo and Christchurch were rife with dystopian fantasies about demographic replacement and white genocide. Both texts referenced conspiracy theories related to the idea of a “Great Replacement” — which argues there is an intentional, global plan orchestrated by national and global elites to replace white, Christian, or European populations with nonwhite, immigrant or non-Christian ones. This conspiracy inspired the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter, as well as — according to initial reports — the El Paso shooter.


The Great Replacement is not a new concept. Decades ago, the American neo-Nazi David Lane introduced the idea of “white genocide,” arguing that white populations were dying out demographically. Lane coined the motto “14 Words” — “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” which became a global mantra for white supremacists and is essentially a call to defend whites against a coming genocide. Together with the “Great Replacement,” arguments about white genocide have helped inspire a sense of shared mission among the global far right, who see themselves as facing a shared demographic threat.

What’s different now is that we are closer to the demographic changes that underpin replacement and genocide conspiracy theories. It is well-documented that whites will be the ethnic minority in the United States in a couple of decades. But we also have national political leaders regularly framing that demographic reality as a threat and a problem, which reinforces and legitimizes white supremacists’ fears and sense of urgency.

Conspiracies like the Great Replacement and mottos like “14 Words” are used to inspire anger, resentment, and hate, coupled with fear of imminent and existential danger and a sense of betrayal and backlash against elites deemed responsible. But existential threats and dystopian fantasies are also used to call for cohesion, shared purpose, and meaning, offering youth who may be vulnerable to such rhetoric a sense of belonging, brotherhood, and the opportunity to engage in what is seen as heroic action to save one’s people. This combination is proving to be a deadly formula for recruitment and radicalization to far-right extremism.


What were once frequently written off as fringe conspiracy theories and doomsday cult fantasies about demographic replacement are now increasingly understood as underpinning global connections across the far right and inspiring individuals to engage in terrorist acts and violent action. This happens in part through a specific principle that motivates extreme violence — acceleration.

At the most extreme fringe, far-right extremists not only believe that a violent apocalypse is coming, but also argue they have an obligation to accelerate this societal collapse by speeding up polarization and engaging in violent acts in order to bring about the ultimate phase of rebirth and civilizational restoration more quickly. Terrorist attacks from other ideological sectors — like the recent Islamist-extremist attacks in Sri Lanka — feed the same narrative, sometimes leading to what is called “reciprocal radicalization” as far-right and Islamist extremists retaliate for each other’s acts.

Acceleration means that even if no far-right motive is clear in the Dayton case, the shooting serves global white supremacist goals anyway. Each mass attack feeds the narrative.

What can we do to interrupt this process?

In the short term, the media, scholars, and the general public must be more intentional about how we share information produced by the far right, in order to avoid being complicit in the spread of white supremacist ideas. Sharing links to full manifestos, publishing photos that show terrorists making white supremacist hand gestures, or glorifying the shooters in other ways can give too much oxygen to extremist propaganda, help extremists communicate with each other, and contribute to the far right’s valorization of violence.


Much of the public discourse will focus on the need for serious and transformative gun control legislation. This is, of course, essential. But gun control alone cannot address the fact that the dynamics fueling far-right extremism will continue to worsen, as we have more climate-driven and economic-driven migration to the global north and as immigrant birthrates continue to exceed those of native-born populations.

The only long-term solution to interrupt the growth of far-right extremism is sustained education — in schools, at home, in religious communities, sports teams, and anywhere youth gather — that reframes demographic change as a strength instead of a threat. We also need to elect political leaders who take every opportunity to reinforce this.

It may sound glib to say that our diversity is our strength. But the real question is: What will it take for white Americans to believe it?

Cynthia Miller-Idriss is professor of education and sociology at American University. Her most recent book is “The Extreme Gone Mainstream.”