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Will The El Paso Shooting Change How Politicians Talk About White Extremism?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Over the weekend at least 31 people were killed in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. In the Texas shooting, the gunman’s attack appears to have been motivated by his white supremacist beliefs; the 21-year-old white man allegedly wrote that his attack was in response to the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” echoing language that President Trump has used to talk about immigrants. (So far, there’s no indication of a similar motive in the Ohio shooting.)

On Monday, Trump addressed the attacks, saying “our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.” But many people believe Trump helped fuel the Texas shooter, and this isn’t the first time his rhetoric has been criticized for sparking violence. Some 2020 presidential candidates, like Beto O’Rourke, squarely place the blame for what happened in El Paso at the feet of the president. At the same time, many Democrats have called for increased restrictions on gun ownership in the U.S. — an issue that seems unlikely to get passed by this Congress.

So how will what happened in El Paso affect the conversation around gun laws — and immigration — in 2020? And what does this mean for the growing problem of violent white extremism in the U.S.?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Well, we can probably expect a spike in support for stricter gun laws. Previous mass shootings, like Parkland, have certainly had that effect.

Although those spikes do tend to fade after a few weeks — probably because the shootings fade from the headlines. That said, overall support for gun regulations has increased this decade.

And we might even be starting to see the dam of gridlocked legislative action break as a result. After the Parkland shooting, for instance, Florida’s all-Republican government passed some moderate gun-control laws.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): That’s right. There is a cumulative effect even if there’s also a short-term boom-and-bust cycle after significant events. During the midterm elections, for instance, more Democrats than Republicans rated gun policy as a high-priority issue, which is a departure from the old-school conventional wisdom that guns were supposed to rally Republican voters.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): It’ll be interesting, too, to see how much of the conversation going forward is about gun control and how much is about the issue of combating white nationalist extremism and terrorism.

The two are related insofar as white nationalist attacks like the one in El Paso are committed using guns, but the El Paso attack also highlighted just how common deadly white nationalist extremist attacks are becoming and how the government seems pretty ill-equipped to respond — separate from broader conversations on stricter gun laws.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): One thing I think might happen is that even some anti-gun-control Republicans will stop describing illegal immigration from Mexico as an “invasion,” which is language the alleged shooter reportedly used to describe the motivations for his attack.

But even though some Republicans — maybe even Trump, I’m not sure — will probably dial down the white nationalist rhetoric, I think the only movement on gun control will happen on the left. Or Democrats will become even more unabashedly party of gun control.

natesilver: Do any of the Democratic candidates have really aggressive policies on guns, e.g. a proposal to ban handguns? It seems like there actually isn’t that much daylight between the various Democrats on policy solutions, so it’s mostly a matter of how much they emphasize guns versus other issues. And how much they are willing to talk about race versus other issues.

perry: Cory Booker has a proposal to require a license to own a gun that I am not sure Joe Biden would endorse (since Biden is running as the person who can appeal to more conservative voters). But generally most Democrats support: 1) expanding background checks, 2) banning assault weapons, and 3) ban high-capacity magazines.

nrakich: And these proposals are overwhelmingly popular not just with Democrats, but the public as a whole, too.

ameliatd: And also fairly effective! At least according to this round-up of experts from 2017.

nrakich: But given how far left (and into unpopular general-election territory) Democrats have gone on some other issues, like decriminalizing border crossings, I guess it’s somewhat surprising that no one has gone further left on guns? But we still have several months to go.

perry: In reaction to the shooting in El Paso, I think the Democratic candidates are going to speak more openly about racism. O’Rourke in particular is really speaking bluntly about how Trump has fomented white nationalism in a way that I expect other candidates will mirror.

sarahf: So something we’re all touching on here is that this conversation isn’t just going to be about increased calls for stricter gun laws. It’s also going to be about how the president’s rhetoric may be driving some of the violence we’re seeing, especially as it pertains to intolerance regarding immigrants in the U.S.

Is that fair?

ameliatd: I think that’s fair, Sarah. After other mass shootings, it’s been easier for the public and politicians to seize on lots of different explanations (and make lots of different arguments about how to respond) because the shooter’s motive wasn’t clear. Here, the link to white supremacy was so obvious that Trump condemned it as such, although he didn’t do it in a way that addressed his own inflammatory rhetoric. But it does mean that the conversation may end up focusing on race and Trump’s rhetoric rather than gun control.

natesilver: And you already had several of the Democratic candidates happy to call the president a racist. In fact, it’s arguably a pretty core part of the strategy for Democrats who are running on liberal identity politics, for lack of a better term, or who are saying Trump is a historic evil or anomaly who must be stopped.

nrakich: Agreed, Amelia. And I think both those issues play well for Democrats politically in places like the suburbs, where they hope to build on 2018 gains in 2020.

Although swing voters may feel that some racial-justice issues, like reparations, go too far, I still think that many can get behind condemning racist and violence-inciting rhetoric.

Even some of Trump supporters say they wish he would tweet less!

ameliatd: Not to mention, a majority of Americans already think Trump encourages white supremacists.

perry: This gets into the whole debate about how Democrats won in 2018 and how they should run in 2020. Broadly speaking, there is a bloc of Democrats who thinks 2018 was won on health care and that the party should continue to focus on populist issues and avoid talking too much talk about Trump’s comments, which they think would focus the debate on the country’s growing racial diversity and drive away some white voters. And then there is the bloc who thinks we are already in a national debate about race and identity because of Trump and there is no way to sidestep that.

Both camps have valid arguments, and there are obviously ways to both run an anti-racist and populist campaign, but I also think this incident increases the salience of racial issues.

nrakich: Right, Perry, but I think there are safer ways to run on race (e.g., condemning white supremacy) and riskier ways (e.g., calling for reparations).

Nor is decrying racist rhetoric mutually exclusive with talking about issues like health care.

Voters are smart enough to vote on multiple things at once, and since health care is a policy question and rhetoric is a question of tone, I think they’re especially non-mutually-exclusive.

natesilver: It’s not the conversation that, say, Pete Buttigieg wants to be having, though. Or Bernie Sanders. Or Elizabeth Warren.

sarahf: And why is that? Is it because it risks politicizing the topic of gun violence in the U.S. even more?

natesilver: Maybe they’re in different categories. But I think Buttigieg has had trouble relating to voters of color, for all sorts of reasons. For Warren and Sanders, they’re running on a platform of economic change — or “economic justice,” if you prefer — which of course is correlated in lots of ways with racial justice, but that’s nonetheless a real point of debate in Democratic circles, and maybe one they’d rather avoid.

sarahf: So as Amelia mentioned earlier, what sets this shooting apart from some other (although not all) mass shootings is its link to white extremist ideology. And so I wonder what impact that will have on public opinion moving forward, including how Americans think about aspects of Trump’s rhetoric.

ameliatd: It’s really hard to draw a direct line between a politician’s rhetoric and a particular act of violence. But I’m working on a story looking at the research on this topic, and pretty much all of the social scientists I’ve spoken with agree that hostile political rhetoric, particularly from someone as influential as a president, can embolden people who already had prejudiced views or were prone to violence.

perry: This is really a conversation about Trump, right?

The general public is against white supremacist language and against mass shootings. So the core question is whether Trump will stop invoking the ideas expressed by the shooter in El Paso, and whether he can reframe his rhetoric and approach to make it clear he is against increased immigration, and not Latinos and nonwhite people in the U.S.

natesilver: Yeah, it’s a conversation about Trump. I feel like people are beating around the bush too much. It’s a conversation about Trump.

sarahf: That’s fair, but it’s more than Trump, too. It’s also some of the commentary on Fox News and in right-wing conspiracy theories. Granted, Trump has had a role in bringing these ideas into the mainstream, but I’d say the problem is bigger than him, too.

perry: But we had a person kill a lot of people while invoking language that the president and his team have regularly used. I don’t think that most Americans view the country as facing an “invasion” of immigrants. Or that most Americans approve of Trump’s language. Other Republicans, like Mitch McConnell, are not talking about immigrant invasions all the time.

So my big questions are: “Will Trump stop invoking these ideas?” and “Will the Republican Party push him to stop?” I think the answer to both these questions is maybe.

Do others agree?

sarahf: I don’t know. Right now there seems to be more of a distancing from the language Trump and his team has used more than a rebuke. Trump’s acting White House chief of staff, for instance, told ABC News that he doesn’t think it’s fair to blame Trump and that the problem predates his administration.

ameliatd: Right, the answer so far seems to be that these shootings haven’t yet convinced Trump’s allies to start condemning his language.

natesilver: Not to be too both-sides-y, but let’s not forget the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting in this discussion where a gunman targeted Republican legislators. So, yes, maybe we have a rising tide of political violence overall, of which Trump’s rhetoric plays an important part, but it’s not necessarily the only cause.

perry: But if the White House is emphasizing that it’s opposed to white supremacy Trump may have to stop saying things white nationalists say.

Trump’s re-election campaign has already put out more than 2,000 Facebook ads that include the word “invasion” this year as part of his message on immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to an analysis by The New York Times. So did Saturday end that? I think the answer might be yes. I’m not sure, but that could be at least one potential shift.

natesilver: Do we really expect Trump to back down though? He seems to be convinced that this stuff is central to his re-election efforts. And he’s not the sort of guy who stops doing something just because people tell him to stop doing it.

ameliatd: I also think the fact that he’s being attacked as racist by many of the Democratic candidates could make him dig in even further.

nrakich: The White House also condemned white supremacy after Charlottesville, but of course, Trump later returned to his inflammatory rhetoric.

perry: I think this shooting is different than Charlottesville, though. Or anything else that has happened. People were literally killed by someone who invoked the same language as the president.

I don’t want to suggest something is a game-changer, but I think this is potentially an important moment. Because even if, say, Trump does not change, maybe the Republican Party shifts in some way?

nrakich: A woman died in Charlottesville, too.

I am just skeptical of any claims that “this time it’s different.”

The “invasion” language may disappear in the short term because it will be seen as too inflammatory for the next couple months. But I don’t think there will be any kind of permanent shift.

perry: That’s a reasonable position, and probably the right one.

But if Trump stops describing what’s happening at the southern border as an “invasion,” that would be significant. Words, in my view, do matter.

And that “invasion” framing is really racist.

What I’m really trying to isolate here is that a person killed people using the same words the president has used to stoke fears about immigrants in the U.S.

Does that make what happened in El Paso different than what happened in Charlottesville? “No” is probably the right answer. But I’m not sure.

nrakich: Also, this isn’t the first time during the Trump administration that a gun was used to murder multiple people as part of a hate crime — the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting targeted Jews, for example.

ameliatd: I do think the lack of condemnation from Republicans is significant. When the response is distancing, not censure, that sends a signal to Trump. But I do think you’re right, Perry, that this is an important moment for Trump and the GOP.

sarahf: The gunman also allegedly wrote that his views “predate Trump,” perhaps in anticipation of the blowback. And given that more Republicans haven’t spoken out, I’m not sure how this will change the conversation around gun violence or the fact that Trump’s rhetoric can inspire violence, other than maybe Republicans and Democrats further retreat into their partisan camps.

perry: I don’t think that Americans’ views on gun will change much, in part because most Americans, even a significant bloc of Republicans, already favor a lot of gun control measures. Americans overall are also supportive of immigration and on average are growing less prejudiced since Trump’s election (not more), so I think incidents like the El Paso shooting are likely to further those those trends — not reverse them.

And so I think we’re likely to see more polls showing that certain kinds of racial rhetoric should be out of bounds. For instance, Trump telling female congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries was very unpopular (although a majority of Republicans said that the attacks were acceptable).

natesilver: The gun control discussion is also REALLY complicated by the fact that Wyoming has as many senators as California. The Senate has big, built-in bias toward rural states, and few issues have a stronger urban-rural divide than guns do.

ameliatd: It’s at least possible that we’ll see some more movement on something like red-flag laws, though, right? These are laws that would help temporarily take guns away from people who are at a high risk of violence, and that have passed in a significant number of states since the Parkland shooting last year. And they seem to be getting some support from Republicans in Congress.

nrakich: The (Republican) governor of Ohio proposed one on Tuesday.

ameliatd: And that’s a policy that the NRA has supported in the abstract — although they’ve also worked to water them down when they’ve actually been introduced.

natesilver: There is some bipartisan support for those kinds of laws. But does it have McConnell’s support? I’d defer to Perry on all things McConnell, but it does seem as if McConnell isn’t the kind of guy who wants to give any victory to gun control advocates, even a small one.

perry: I think the gun policy debate is basically intractable for now. Republicans control the Senate, the presidency and a lot of state governments, and they are not moving on that issue — even if the public becomes even more pro-gun control.

sarahf: So if the debate on gun policy is intractable, like Perry says, where do you see the conversation on Americans’ tolerance for racist rhetoric headed?

perry: I think this racist rhetoric from Trump, Fox News and other parts of the Republican Party can change. And I think it will. Will Trump say racist things in the future? Of course. But I think the worst of it, i.e. the “invasion” rhetoric and telling members of Congress to go back to their countries, might die down.

I’m also not totally convinced that Trump is confident that his racial rhetoric makes great politics. So I think he might try harder to figure out how to speak and act in ways that are critical of immigration but also don’t seem targeted at people of color.

ameliatd: I agree that the conversation about Trump’s rhetoric has more staying power — both because it’s so inflammatory and racist and because it’s connected to his broader anti-immigrant posture. You can’t definitively say that Trump’s language is directly sparking violence, but I do think people intuitively understand that when a president talks this way, it brings radical, fringe-y voices into the mainstream and normalizes them. I guess I’m just not convinced he’s going to tone down his language.

nrakich: I think the answer is “at the margin”? Maybe we see a couple more minor gun laws, maybe a pause in racist rhetoric. But overall, I don’t think the big picture will change very much.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Can Trump’s words incite violence?

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.