Supreme Nihilism: the El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Mick Mulvaney staunchly defended President Trump after the shootings in Ohio and Texas, claiming he was horrified by the actions but had said nothing that could be construed as provoking them. Trump did come out strongly two days later against hate groups and “white supremacy,” a little late for many who contend these shootings demonstrate his inflammatory rhetoric was at least partially to blame for the incidents. Hopefully this will be a real change from his irresponsibly-quick tweets that often lead to reversals and clumsy apologies for misguided claims and send many of his supporters ducking for cover; or his history of hesitancy to condemn the actions of “far right” groups like those in Charlottesville.

There’s the rhetoric and then there’s the ideology of “white supremacy.” Several Democrats vying for the presidential nomination have said flatly that Trump is a white supremacist, reinforced by a media chorus that included the shooters as well, especially the El Paso shooter. The Democrats as a whole tend to accuse Republicans and conservatives of having strong racist leanings if not “white supremacist” ones, which they deny. It makes sense that if Trump is a white supremacist his loose tongue would inspire the like-minded.

Ross Douthat claims the political motivations of the shooters are less important than the personal ones, that the white nationalism of these “internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath” (“The Nihilist in Chief,” New York Times, 8/6/19).

The El Paso shooter performs with words to justify his actions, a split performance prefacing his deed: a reactionary rant against migrants that’s patched with comments on important issues of the day. Then he’s fifteen minutes of a Reality TV star.

He is white and his “manifesto” reveals that he’s an “America First” nationalist. His rant is against recent Hispanic “invaders,” though curiously not longtime legal residents. The non-whites who’ve helped build this country are not his target. His allegiance is with the Christchurch shooter’s notion of “replacement,” the threat of ethnic cultures from elsewhere overcoming and weakening the existing, indigenous residents. So something went wrong when the Europeans invaded and destroyed Native American culture and he sides with it against the white “invaders.” These “invaders” of course are now the privileged, indigenous residents! But he doesn’t want this to repeat since he’s against “race-mixing,” which destroys genetic diversity, creates identity problems, and invites the stronger cultures to overtake the weaker. He therefore supports a confederation of ethnic tribes into some mysterious formula of segregated coexistence.

He echoes Trump’s language, itself an echo of a long trail of screeds. The invaders need to be “removed,” and we need to “get rid of” the illegals already here so that “our way of life can become more sustainable.” There are too many bodies to be absorbed into the mix, a problem compounded by the oncoming displacement from automation. He contends that if we have fewer people here there will be a better market for workers, a tangent from Trump’s “America First” imaginary. He’s also a fan of the “fake news” concept, claiming that the media will blame him for being influenced by Trump and racism, even though he isn’t. But his pre-processed answers are perhaps the equivalent of tweeting a welter of conflicting claims that finally only question the sender’s motives.

A significant segment of the media has reported endlessly about the dreadful border conditions and how people are treated so horrifically as virtual prisoners, but the drumbeat of “invasion” from many conservative outlets transforms this problem into something different. “Invasion” can certainly inspire a call to arms. And as Jeffrey St. Clair shows, since January the Trump campaign has “posted more than 2,000 ads on Facebook that include the word ‘invasion’.” These were specifically targeted immigration spots, costing $1.25 million (“Roaming Charges,” CounterPunch, 8/9/19).

The shooter says he’s no fan of either the Democrats or Republicans. The former swell their base with the invading hordes of migrants—which have close to the highest birth rate—to secure a permanent “one party state” while evading our real problems. The latter are too friendly with corporations that willingly absorb migrants to the detriment of those here who have a difficult time competing. He seems to be suggesting that the two are in cahoots. And clearly the Democrats are hardly super-critical of corporate America. The Republicans bring in the unskilled and flood the market with new bodies to the detriment of those here and their progeny, who will go to college and secure the means to succeed in corporate America. These unskilled newcomers and their skilled successors will “replace” those here, the previously migrated, those struggling to pay back student loans and facing a struggle for survival. Poverty and displacement will be the result, even civil unrest.

The takeover of America by “unchecked” corporations is a strong theme in his document. In his view their over-expansion of consumer culture is responsible for urban sprawl and excessive waste, as well as environmental degradation. Regarding the latter, we can perhaps see the influence of eco-fascism (Natasha Lennard, “The El Paso Shooter Embraced Eco-Fascism,” The Intercept, 8/5/19). He sounds like a progressive here, but then claims that this expansion is integrally related to the self-propelling increase in migrants. The corporations need them for markets. So he justifies targeting innocent people in 81% Hispanic El Paso to start the removal as if this might reverse some sort of chain migration.

We’ve been whacked by some threatening force so let’s go whack whoever is available! No need to spend time targeting some potent symbol like a federal building.

Is the shooter a white male who believes he’s supreme or one who imagines a kind of perverse catch up through a symbolic leveling of competition? Is he merely suffering from a crippling inferiority complex and lashing out with simple, sub-premacy speculations, particularly a Malthusian misread of demographics? He heard everywhere that white supremacy is everywhere, so he wanted to join the parade, borrowing whatever snips of ideology that worked?

He would not likely be a candidate for writing the next serious manifesto for the white nationalists who’ve been shadowing the system since they took the baton from the left terrorists of the 70s, groups that mimicked the Weather Underground, rainbow internationalists reigning supreme over the values of community, equality and anti-capitalism. The right wing groups thrived in the 80s, especially late decade, and most prominently in the Bill Clinton 90s. But the biggest spike was between 2000 and 2010 when they grew from 602 to well over 1000 according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And they’ve been growing ever since, spiking again at the end of the Obama administration, from late 2014 into 2015 (Mark Potok, Intelligence Report, 3/4/13, and 2/17/16). They’ve become a mainstream presence since Trump’s emergence, many seeing him as their “glorious leader” (Yara Bayoumy and Kathy Gilsinan, “A Reformed White Nationalist Says The Worst Is Yet To Come,” The Atlantic, 8/8/19).

The persistence and growth of these groups can be correlated with the steady decline of liberalism—underway for some time now—as a countervailing force. And right-wing extremism is on the rise internationally. However we value the ingredients of the shooter’s conflicting script—was it cut and pasted from different dimensions of his brain, aided by variable web-surfing algorithms?—the tragedy is that his actions and notoriety will likely help recruit more for the white nationalist cause, especially given the media-christening he’s received.

If we can isolate parts of the manifesto that make some sense of our chaotic socio-economic and political climate and suspend the migrant rant for a moment, it’s difficult not to see this truncated critic as a stand-in for the population disenfranchised in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. He was perhaps a “loser” even before he crossed the line, but he’s very concerned about his generation, expressing the fears of many millennials over the past several years about employment and their future prospects. The rural Neo-Nazi skinheads in the 90s expressed similar fears of being left behind in the march of progress. Is the shooter’s imagined group those forgotten by the Democrats, part of their long-term abandonment of whites and the white working class? One of the big reasons why Trump won in 2016 is because he captured this group. Has the shooter perhaps now melted down from a disillusioned Trump supporter?

Severe inequities can transform victims into supporters who blindly follow leaders or, “a carapace, a flag of convenience,” as Ross Douthat suggests, since this shooter seems to pay allegiance to few. He’s apparently his own leader, and on par with governments. If government can commit mass murder so easily, he claims, then why not him? After all, he’s been endowed with authority to save our country by the Founding Fathers! This is megalomania so extreme that he’s become a mere digit of horror in the annals of massacre, all efforts to say something meaningful vaporized by the puffs of smoke from his assault weapon, and likely a great deal of the support that the 29% of Hispanics gave to Trump in the 2016 election as well.

To red-flag these looming threats will involve much more than monitoring groups from the far right fringe. We need to seek out the pockets of perverse socialization that are producing these scavengers and learn what transforms them from simmering anti-social victims of something amiss in our society into causes. As Cornell West claims, the racism we’re seeing expressed is a horror in itself but we need to grasp how it is produced and amplified through various institutions in order to eventually root it out (Democracy Now, 8/2/19).

And above all we need to find out what vaults these loners onto the stage of history to validate their fantasies instead of conversing with the stream of difference. If only the shooter had perfected his writing skills and gotten active to expand and improve society…

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class