Since the massacre at the Emanuel Baptist Church last month, there has been renewed public attention paid to the white, Christian, male terrorist. We are once again confronted by the violence of right-wing ideology in the attack on the audience of the film Trainwreck by John Russell “Rusty” Houser in Lafayette, LA. Houser appears to have consistently expressed racist, antisemitic, homophobic, and sexist beliefs in forums dedicated to fascist groups like the Greek Golden Dawn. He also praised David Duke and Adolph Hitler, as well as the notoriously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church. Even Houser’s choice of target is suspected to be ideological. Trainwreck has been praised for its gender-inversion in the genre of romantic comedy (and critiqued for its reproduction of dominant narratives about sexuality and monogamy, see here or here), and its star, Amy Schumer, is championed for her feminist comedy. It is no wonder then that a man who saw the United States as “sick” and believed that “sexual deviants” should be punished by exile would target the audience for this movie in his desire to affect change. So, why is this latest act of violence once again not being discussed as a terrorist attack? Clearly, race and religion have much to do with this lack of labeling with a concerted effort on the part of media professionals to avoid such labels even when the political motivations of the violence are clear. Additionally, there is a clear narrative when discussing white, Christian terrorists that is based on three broad myths perpetrated by mass media that make it virtually impossible to consider the actions of people like Rusty Houser as terrorist.
MYTH #1: Their actions are the product of mental illness.
Houser’s family and community point to a number of actions on his part that indicate mental illness, but to attribute his actions to mental illness is incredibly problematic and ignores the very nature of his violence and choice of target. Let us first debunk the mental illness and violence correlation. The majority of people with mental illness are non-violent, and the majority of people who are violent are not mentally ill. Violence is the product of a complex, intersecting set of factors. Mental illness is a terrible predictor of violence. Unsurprisingly, the intersectional dynamics of race, class, and gender are better predictors of violence, and mass violence. Men like Houser often feel that their social power is being taken away by changes in social norms as a result of the struggles by progressive activists. Combine the “strain” of these social changes with the precariousness of economic instability and you have the perfect formula for frustration, anger, and violence. Rather than blaming mental illness, we should be focusing on the conspiratorial ideas that Houser believed as the primary predictor of his violence. These ideas promote the belief that small, out-of-touch elites (read: Jews, the Illuminati, The Bilderberg Group, etc.) secretly control our society and violent action by those who understand the truth will awaken the “sheeple” to overthrow this illegitimate rule to restore the proper social order of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. Out-of-touch elites are by their nature hard to attack, so instead terrorists like Houser choose their supporters in the form of ordinary citizens in spaces like movie theaters watching movies with “feminist” themes. Yes, these ideas may seem strange and are clearly incorrect, but belief in strange or incorrect ideas is not a sign of mental illness. Houser may have been mentally ill, but it is not likely that this alone motivated him to violence or the choice of his target.
MYTH #2: They are acting on their own.
The myth of the lone gunman works almost in tandem with the myth of mental illness. Shooters like Houser are described as “deranged loners” in order to minimize the ideological motivations of their actions. While these people do act alone, their actions should be understood as part of a larger movement and community of like-minded individuals. As stated above, Houser was an active participant on fascist forums like the American support group of the Golden Dawn. He was also registered for David Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) Conference in New Orleans in 2005. The actions of white, Christian terrorists are explicitly linked to a core strategy at the heart of right-wing movements: leaderless resistance. In the wake of government repression and increasing social stigma, the far-right turned away from hierarchical organizations in favor of small, local organizing and individual action. Aided by the decentralized network of the Internet, the concept of leaderless resistance allows individuals to be exposed to far-right ideology and like-minded individuals. The movement is therefore more of a network that finds its home in somewhat obscure corners of the web rather than a series of formal organizations. These networks thrive on status and contribution, so individuals are encouraged to “take action” as Houser and dozens before him have. In this context, it becomes clear that the actions of “lone wolves” is linked to not only a broader movement, but also a core strategy in that movement.
MYTH #3: There is very little public support for their ideas and actions.
Upon first glance Houser’s beliefs seem “extreme” and outside of mainstream thinking on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Further investigation reveals that while most people do not publicly praise Hitler or the Golden Dawn, there is support for a number of his beliefs and even his actions. Let us first discuss his actions. As noted above, Houser’s violence must be understood in the context of a broader movement of white supremacists, misogynists, virulent homophobes, and other bigots and fascists. The number of individual supporters of these movements are hard to estimate, but the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates 1658 such groups in 2014. This represents a significant number of individuals who at least nominally adhere to ideologies that support violent action in advancement of their beliefs. Further, right-wing extremists are responsible for more domestic terrorist violence than any other ideology. Houser, however, was not limited to the underground corners of right-wing extremism. He actively participated in Tea Party online forums because he found ideological support in the movement. While Republican identification with the Tea Party is waning, it is still credited for the electoral gains of Republicans in the 2014 midterms. This apparent contradiction is easily reconciled once one begins to understand the shift within the mainstream of the party to the positions advocated by the Tea Party and others on the far-right. In addition to fiscal conservatism, Republican presidential candidates express opposition to same-sex marriage, restrictions on immigration, and restrictions on abortion. Mainstream politicians use coded racist language to build popular support for their campaigns and a number of conservative policy positions. In this political context, Houser looks less like an extremist and more like the base for many mainstream conservative politicians. These actions may be extreme and the support for Nazis and fascists may be over-the-top, but the core of ideas held by Houser has resonance with many American conservatives.
After debunking the common myths repeated by mainstream media about perpetrators of far-right violence, the attack in Lafayette begins to look more like part of coordinated terrorist movement rather than the actions of a “deranged loner.”
Stanislav Vysotsky, Ph.D.
Sociology, Criminology, and Anthropology Department
University of Wisconsin – Whitewater