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A young man adds to a sidewalk chalk mural depicting the names of the people killed during a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, on May 15, 2022.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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A neo-Nazi idea to spark a race war inspired the Buffalo killings

The Buffalo shooting has roots in “accelerationism,” a neo-Nazi idea linked to a wave of recent hate killings.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The weekend’s mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, was not merely a random act of hate. It was the product of a violent strategy, formulated in obscure neo-Nazi magazines and disseminated on the internet’s darkest corners, that aims to bring about the destruction of American society.

This idea is called “accelerationism,” and violent white supremacists like the Buffalo shooter see it as their best chance to stop the so-called “Great Replacement”: the notion that the West’s white population is being “replaced” with nonwhites, a deliberate demographic shift often blamed on Jewish cabals. Accelerationists believe that race and ethnicity create inherent divisions within Western societies, which individual acts of violence can inflame. The idea is to “accelerate” the crackup of Western governments — and bring on a race war that culminates in white victory.

In a 180-page document, the Buffalo shooter who, per law enforcement, targeted Black people directly credits his actions to accelerationist thinking. In a section titled “destabilization and accelerationism: tactics for victory,” he claims that “stability and comfort are the enemies of revolutionary change. Therefore we must destabilize and discomfort society wherever possible.”

A view of a memorial outside of Tops Market, in Buffalo, New York.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

These passages are directly copied from writing by the 2019 Christchurch shooter in New Zealand, whose ideas previously influenced American mass shooters in Poway, California and El Paso, Texas. Militant neo-Nazi groups like Atomwaffen and The Base have built their ideology around accelerationism. Some scholars of the far right have even identified accelerationist thinking among the January 6 rioters.

It is important not to overstate the influence of accelerationism in America. At present, it is an idea confined to a tiny fringe that has virtually no prospect of successfully toppling the US government or fomenting a race war.

But the fact is that we are in a period of intense political polarization driven primarily by racial and cultural divides. And abhorrent extremist theories are increasingly finding purchase in mainstream spaces. Neo-Nazi killings may not be able to incite a race war, but they are horrific events — and they can intensify our divisions in ways that deepen America’s political crisis.

Accelerationism, from a neo-Nazi journal to the streets of Buffalo

Some journalistic accounts credit the origins of modern neo-Nazi accelerationism to The Turner Diaries, a 1978 white supremacist novel that envisions the downfall of American democracy. The Turner Diaries is indeed extremely influential on the fringe right, playing a role in inspiring the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

But the text most responsible for accelerationism as we know it today is the 1980s newsletter Siege, in which neo-Nazi writer James Mason argues for the white supremacist movement to pick up where the serial killer Charles Manson left off. Manson, who exchanged letters with Mason, believed in a coming race war that he termed “Helter Skelter.” The murders committed by Manson and his disciples served, in Mason’s mind, as a model of decentralized violent action that could hasten the coming of such an event — and would be hard for authorities to stop.

If neo-Nazis emulated Manson on an individual level, acting alone rather than as part of organizations, eventually they could help spur a white uprising against the system, Mason thought. These killings, he believed, would accelerate the pace of a societal collapse already made inevitable by Jewish and nonwhite corruption, and set the stage for its replacement by a Fourth Reich.

Mason mostly languished in obscurity until 2017, when members of the militant neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen tracked him down at his home in Denver. The group was founded in 2015 and had long admired him; Atomwaffen and like-minded neo-Nazis appropriated the term “accelerationism” (which is also used by a family of academic theories on the nature of late capitalism) for their adaptation of Mason’s thinking.

After linking up with Mason, they received his blessing to continue aggressively promoting his ideas. The accelerationism they preached centered on heightening the contradictions, using violence both to target their enemies and force a harsh response from the political system. It’s an idea with clear influences on the Buffalo shooter, who claims he used a gun in the attack, which killed 10, partly because “the changes to gun laws that will be pushed [afterward] my case” by inspiring a backlash against the government.

In the last half-decade or so, accelerationist ideas spread rapidly through both dedicated websites and forums with names like “Siege Culture” and “Fascist Forge,” as well as more mainstream social networks. During that time span, Atomwaffen members were linked to at least five murders.

But the white supremacist version of accelerationism does not require any organized plot or group to lead to mass murder. Accelerationist justifications for violence have so thoroughly suffused online white nationalist spaces that anyone could encounter it and draw their own murderous conclusions — as the accused Buffalo gunman did.

Christchurch and its copycats

In March 2019, a heavily armed man walked into a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and killed 51 Muslims while they prayed. It was one of the deadliest white supremacist terror attacks in modern history — and one of the most consequential.

The shooter, Brenton Tarrant, believed nonwhite population growth was an existential threat to his race. He wrote a screed titled “The Great Replacement,” and his plan for stopping the alleged “replacement” drew liberally from accelerationist ideas.

“Why did you carry out the attack? ... To add momentum to the pendulum swings of history, further destabilizing and polarizing Western society in order to eventually destroy the current nihilistic, hedonistic, individualistic insanity that has taken control of Western thought,” he writes, a passage that would later be copied by the Buffalo shooter.

A Muslim man adjusts flowers memorializing the 51 people killed at Masjid An-Nur mosque during a mass shooting on March 15, 2020, in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of the Christchurch shooter’s attack and writings on the internet’s racist right. The sheer violence of the assault on New Zealand’s small Muslim community turned his writings into a must-read on the racist right — and made accelerationism into one of the dominant ideas on the fringe right today.

And it inspired copycats.

In April 2019, a man named John Earnest entered a synagogue in Poway, California, and began firing on worshippers. Earnest’s writings, a mix of old-school Christian antisemitism and internet-era hatred, borrow some of Tarrant’s accelerationist ideas and cite him as a direct influence (“Tarrant was a catalyst for me personally,” he wrote).

Several months later, another white nationalist named Patrick Crusius attacked a Walmart in El Paso, specifically targeting Hispanic patrons. Like the Christchurch shooter, Crusius appeared obsessed with the idea of a demographic threat from nonwhite immigrants. He pledged his allegiance to the New Zealand killer’s way of thinking.

“I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto,” he wrote in a pre-attack screed. “The Hispanic community was not my target before I read The Great Replacement.”

After this wave of violence in 2019, the threat from accelerationist-inflected violence seemingly subsided. Atomwaffen formally disbanded its US presence in 2020 after a series of law enforcement raids targeted their leadership, though some members refounded a version of it in 2021 under the name National Socialist Order. In both 2020 and 2021, data from the Anti-Defamation League showed a significant decline in white supremacist killings from prior years — primarily because neither year saw a mass casualty attack linked to this ideology (the pandemic may well have been a factor as well).

But the threat did not go away. The shooter in Buffalo followed the 2019 pattern to a T, from citing the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory to outlining explicitly accelerationist tactical thinking to liberally plagiarizing Tarrant’s writings. The danger now is this killer inspires a new round of racist and antisemitic violence at a time when American democracy is in even greater danger.

The accelerationist threat after Buffalo

Accelerationist ideas have not stayed confined to the neo-Nazi right. The notion of sparking social collapse and a second civil war is the central premise of the “boogaloo” subculture, an all-purpose anti-government ideology that contains some neo-Nazi elements but is not fully part of the movement. This kind of adoption by other groups underscores how accelerationism is more of a broad strategic vision than a specific political program.

“Accelerationism is best understood as an anti-ideology, directed toward the destruction of the current ideological order and the political-economic system that expresses and creates that order. But in its anti-ideological thrust, accelerationism makes possible what had once been so difficult: to move the many varieties of extreme far-right tendencies in unison,” scholars Brian Hughes and Cynthia Miller-Idriss write in a 2021 brief on the idea.

In their article, Hughes and Miller-Idriss are especially concerned with accelerationism and the January 6 assault on the Capitol. They cite evidence that a broad range of accelerationist ideological tendencies participated in the attack, including some Mason-style neo-Nazis. Their survey of white supremacist social media channels after January 6 found that the most violent accelerationists saw it as evidence that their goals are actually attainable.

“January 6 represented an apotheosis for this new extreme far-right accelerationist network,” they write. “It has also become a source of renewed momentum and energy for the extreme far-right. It is a unifying symbol, an example of a victory that almost was and might still be. It has empowered and emboldened its admirers while offering an opportunity to exercise the common terrorist tactic of studying and learning from failed actions.”

Notably, January 6 was not an event primarily or even largely inspired by neo-Nazi thinking. It was a riot spurred on by Donald Trump and his allies on the right; most of the rioters were not Siege readers but rather committed MAGA believers. The radicalism of the mainstream incited a kind of violence the fringe could join in and pick up on.

In the immediate months following January 6, many (including myself) worried about a wave of ideologically driven violence that did not emerge. But the Buffalo attack proves that the danger is still there, as are the links to the mainstream. Leading conservative figures, including Tucker Carlson and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), have recently pushed sanitized versions of the Great Replacement idea that motivated accelerationist killers from Christchurch on.

The point is not that these figures literally inspired the Buffalo shooting. Rather, it’s that post-January 6 America is marked by conditions accelerationists have dreamed of: a rising receptivity to fringe racist ideas in the mass public combined with partisans of a major party demonstrating a willingness to use violence against the US government.

This does not mean that the accelerationists are likely to succeed in their goal of toppling the government; they are not. But even short of that, the persistence of the idea portends a more dangerous American future.

A child draws on the street with sidewalk chalk, as people gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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