Democratic leaders teed off on GOP leadership Tuesday morning, three days after a deadly mass shooting in Buffalo, saying Republicans have not only embraced the racist conspiracy theory that inspired the suspected gunman, they’ve made it central to the GOP brand.
“It is anti-Semitic; it is racist; and it is very destructive. And it is a pillar of the current GOP,” Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat, told reporters in the Capitol.
Clark was referring to “replacement theory,” a baseless conspiracy theory that maintains that nonwhite people are being brought to the United States to replace white voters and dilute their power.
That sentiment, popular in white nationalist circles, was at the heart of a racist screed reportedly posted online by the suspect in Saturday’s massacre, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, who is accused of shooting 13 people, 10 of them fatally, at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
While leaders in both parties have condemned the racist violence in clear terms, Republican leaders have remained silent on the issue of replacement theory, even as some members of their conference have flirted with — or outright promoted — the idea that American culture is under threat of a minority takeover.
Democrats on Tuesday accused Republicans of seeking all the political advantages that come with promoting nativism without accepting any of the consequences when someone takes the message too far.
“They won’t call it out. They won’t apologize. They won’t back off,” Clark said. “Their agenda right now is fueled by these very forces of white supremacy, of white nationalism, and they are not changing course.”
Republicans are pushing back hard against the accusations, denying all implications that their rhetoric fueled white supremacists or contributed to the Buffalo shooting.
“We have never supported white supremacy,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Monday. “What happened in New York is horrific, and I think everybody should be there to be uplifting the community. The suspect is the very worst of humanity.”
Republicans have also criticized Democrats for politicizing the Buffalo shooting.
“For political individuals to try to make some political game out of this shows how little they are from that aspect,” McCarthy said Monday.
President Biden on Tuesday visited Buffalo and the families of victims of the supermarket shooting. He described white supremacy as a “poison” on the nation during a speech.
Biden has repeatedly said he decided to challenge former President Trump in 2020 after the Republican equivocated in his reaction to violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, where torch-carrying participants had marched to chant “Jews will not replace us.” A woman was killed a day after that march after a driver raced his car through a group of counterprotesters. Trump days later said there were good people on both sides of the fighting.
Trump’s grip on the GOP remains, though there are different views on how tightly he controls the party.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, said the Republican shift to the right under Trump not only eroded public trust in national institutions, but also elevated white nationalism from the fringe to the mainstream. The “great replacement,” he said, is part of the trend.
“This broken ideology is animating today’s Republican Party,” he said. “What once would have been disqualifying is now a mainstream point of view. In fact, it’s a prerequisite, in many ways, to hold Republican leadership.”
Accusations cast across the aisle, of course, are hardly new on Capitol Hill, where the parties are constantly jockeying for political advantage on countless topics of national significance, particularly in an election year when both chambers of Congress could very well flip to GOP control.
But the tenor of the debate following the Buffalo shooting has been remarkable even for a Congress that’s practically defined by the hostility between the parties.
After Tuesday’s gathering of the GOP conference, other Republican leaders echoed McCarthy’s message, focusing on the shooter and warning against efforts to “politicize” the tragedy.
“This was an act of pure evil. The criminals should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the third-ranking House Republican, told reporters. “It is not the time to politicize this tragedy.”
Stefanik, since Saturday’s shooting, has come under intense scrutiny for campaign ads she posted last year warning that Democrats were fighting to maintain their power by offering “amnesty” to millions of undocumented immigrants — a strategy that would “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington,” read one of her ads.
Stefanik’s office has adamantly denied that her opposition to providing citizenship benefits to undocumented immigrants is related to race. An adviser, Alex deGrasse issued a statement accusing the media of fabricating such a connection.
“Despite sickening and false reporting, Congresswoman Stefanik has never advocated for any racist position or made a racist statement,” deGrasse said.
Democrats maintain there’s a straight line from the rhetoric of some Republicans to incidents of racist violence, including the recent shooting in Buffalo.
“There are too many people in this Congress who promote violence,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, singled out Stefanik in particular, saying she has “fanned the flames of hatred for her own political advantage.”
“History is going to condemn her behavior,” Jeffries said. “And she’s got to live with the consequences of her rhetoric and her action.”