Right-Wing Mass Shooters and Deaths of Despair

6 min read

As of the publication of this article, there have been 251 mass shootings in 2019. That’s more than one per day. A large number of these mass-shootings were carried out by young white men professing fringe right-wing views. How did they get to that point? Do we believe they are simply suffering from mental illness, or is it a much deeper problem?

A manifesto based on a flawed analysis

The El Paso shooter, who murdered 22 people over the weekend and was taken into custody “without incident,” released a manifesto shortly before his violent act where he correctly identified many of the political and economic problems facing America today: corrupt elected officials in both parties, unchecked corporations (and their desire to import low-wage labor), looming threats of automation, runaway environmental destruction driving climate change, attacks on social programs like Social Security and Medicare, the increasing costs of college education, and the decreasing value of college-educated workers.

My whole life I’ve been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist. The job of my dreams will likely be automated.

El Paso shooter’s manifesto

Unfortunately, the shooter’s analysis of these problems is flawed. His conclusion mirrors that of the right-wing fringe theory known as “The Great Replacement,” which blames social and economic despair on immigrants and claims there’s some sort of secret plot to increase immigration and replace white workers. In short, a right-wing identity politics based in paranoia, bigotry, and demagoguery.

No class-based analysis of the world around them

The lack of education amongst white working-class young men of how to deal with frustration in a constructive way and a lack of access to class-based analysis (due to years of “Red-Baiting” attacks against leftist thought in the United States) is culminating in the identity-based idealist notion that nothing can be done for them. It is said that because they are white, they aren’t actually oppressed and can’t possibly be suffering the same sort of economic pain as people of color or other marginalized groups.

These individuals are told that they are in a sort of limbo where they are somehow both too privileged to feel the effects of socioeconomic problems while simultaneously left feeling powerless when they do feel them. They are driven to find belonging or people who feel the way they do, and often find it in the darkest corners of the internet, or in recent years, in the words coming from the mouth of President Donald Trump.

They latch onto the demagoguery that immigrants and asylum seekers are to blame because there is a basic lack of education around the facts, such as apprehensions in illegal US southern border crossings are at an almost 50 year low. Right-wing politicians push the false narrative that we’re being “invaded,” or that “open borders” is actually a realistic policy proposal being hashed out by Democrats in the halls of Congress, not by a fringe minority on the left and a handful of pro-corporatist libertarians.

Illegal US southern border crossings by year

Source: US Customs and Border Patrol

Another fringe belief is that there is mass voter fraud being carried out by immigrants, and enabled by Democrats. The truth is voter fraud is extremely rare. Unfortunately, the Democrats obsession with the “Russian Hacking” conspiracy theory as a convenient excuse for their loss of the 2016 election predictably plays into the narrative that our democracy and voting system are susceptible to foreign attack.

Trump jokes after a supporter at his rally suggests that immigrants be shot.

When hopeless thoughts are reinforced and one is led to believe they have no future, it is possible for some to cross the moral event horizon and turn to nihilism. Despair and suicidal thoughts for some could turn to homicidal thoughts, and demagoguery steers these homicidal thoughts towards immigrants and people of color. These desperate white men decide there’s no reason to live and figure they’ll do the world a favor by killing as many people as they can on their way out the door. Mass shootings, in this way, are deaths of despair.

The fetishization of guns on both the left and the right drives mass shootings

The right pushes to sell more guns (via NRA lobbying, which more than doubled the year after Obama was elected) while gun control measures from the center-left have historically focused on disarming marginalized gun owners, such as women and people of color. Gun control measures play into right-wing talking points that the left wants to take your guns away and drive gun sales due to a perceived fear that guns may soon be outlawed. What’s ironic here is that mass shootings are only a tiny part of all gun violence; more than half of the shootings in the US every year are actually suicides, and fewer than 1% of gun-related homicides are mass shootings.

Gun deaths by cause

Source: CDC (2016)

Late-stage capitalism is creating a sick society

Capitalism consumes with no end: growing numbers of workers are starting to see for themselves that corporations will never stop pushing for higher and higher profits, and are often citing the exact same problems as the El Paso shooter did in his manifesto. This societal rot caused by late-stage capitalism goes unaddressed by our often-bribed elected officials; technocrats on both sides offer solutions to monetize the rot, such as requiring gun insurance, without actually addressing the underlying problem of capitalism and increasing despair amongst the working class.

Presidential Candidate John Delaney suggests we tax mass shootings. Source: Twitter

The El Paso shooter stated in his manifesto that when the government does a mass-shooting, it is branded as war, and deemed acceptable. He states that his shooting is really no different than when governments murder people in other countries to advance capitalism, and unfortunately, he is right. Politicians on the left and the right glorify war as if it is somehow different than any other form of violence. The right encourages people who would participate in a mass shooting to instead join the military, while the left paints mass-shootings in war zones as acceptable but identical violence carried out in America as unacceptable.

US Rep. Steve Cohen glorifying gun violence (as long as it’s someplace else). Source: Twitter
Mayor Pete Buttigieg glorifying gun violence (as long as it’s someplace else). Source: Twitter

Despair cannot be addressed with identity politics

The left is not offering anything to address this despair amongst white working-class men. The biggest group claiming to be for the working class, Democratic Socialists of America, held their national convention over the weekend. Videos of their meeting are being mocked across the internet, and show that the organization is entirely focused on identity politics, tone policing, and internal virtue signaling, rather than advancing any empowerment of the working class.

DSA’s preoccupation with identity politics and general narcissism means they are squandering their chance to form a mass worker movement for socialism. Their fixation with concepts such as progressive stack, calling out “microaggressions,” and centering individuals perceived as being marginalized, while potentially good-intentioned, creates an internal fringe majority. This fringe then acts to attack members who want to focus away from idealism and identity and grow a working-class movement, effectively sabotaging the entire organization’s mission.

This virtue-based process derails all class-based discussion while simultaneously pushing working-class members away and towards the fringe right-wing. In addition, there’s an inverse trend of reactionary forces infiltrating leftist movements and applying identity politics in bad faith, attacking workers and working-class consciousness from the opposite direction. Both good and bad-faith versions of this behavior results in the same wrecking of any hope of a mass worker movement.

Related Article: Can Democratic Socialists of America Be Salvaged?

Mass shootings are a complex issue in our nation, but addressing despair before it leads to violence needs to be taken seriously if we ever want to solve the underlying problems caused by capitalism. We need a mass working-class movement which is focused on improving the material conditions of working people. This movement needs to be accessible to the entire working class, not just a vocal minority, and it needs to be accessible to them before they go down the dark path toward a fringe white supremacist ideology. Until we do that, we will never attract workers or the majority of Americans, and we’ll continue to see growing despair and increasing apathy.

Related viewing: Why ‘Deaths of Despair’ May Be a Warning Sign for America
(Moving Upstream, Wall Street Journal)