Updated at 10:54 a.m. ET on May 19, 2022.
Three years ago, when a white-supremacist fanatic killed dozens of people in El Paso, Texas, the reaction from the right was unreserved condemnation. When another white-supremacist fanatic killed 10 people at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, last week, the reaction from some figures on the right was to acknowledge that the guy had a point about this whole “replacement” thing.
Large sections of the manifesto attributed to the Buffalo shooter were plagiarized from the writings of the perpetrator of another racist massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. Both share the premise that violence against nonwhite people is justified to prevent “white genocide” or the “replacement” of white Americans by nonwhite immigrants. As the alleged Buffalo shooter put it, he carried out the attack because “all black people are replacers just by existing in White countries.” I would offer to explain how Black people got to the United States, but who knows if “critical race theory” remains legal where you’re reading this.
In recent years, Fox News has consciously amplified the same line of argument, with popular hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham echoing its logic. Carlson, for example, has said that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World,” while Ingraham has maintained that Democrats “want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever increasing number of chain migrants.” Having promoted the conspiracy theory for years, Carlson told his audience recently that “we’re still not sure what it is,” before reaffirming its veracity.
This noxious ideology is now too popular on the right to isolate without risking bitter intraconservative conflict, and so, as the New York writer Jonathan Chait notes, right-wing media figures have taken to defending and rationalizing the claims that motivated the shooter, while condemning the violence itself.
“So just to get this straight, the Left argues that demographics are destiny, that demographics change in America will inevitably lead to a progressive majority—and it’s Republicans who are echoing the Great Replacement Theory?” huffed the conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. National Review’s editor in chief, Rich Lowry, posited that it was true that “Democrats want higher levels of immigration to change national elections.”
At the core of the idea of American democracy is a promise of civic equality, initially extended just to a chosen few. The key political conflicts of American history have been over expanding that promise. The “white genocide” or “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory rests on the ideological principle that certain people should be excluded from that promise, or that extending it to them would constitute a form of bondage for those to whom the promise was originally kept. Because the threat of the interlopers—whether religious, racial, or ethnic—is existential, it justifies violence, in the form of murder, disenfranchisement, or dispossession. The ideology of the Great Replacement is a particular threat to democratic governance because it insists that entire categories of human beings can or should be excluded from democratic rights and protections. Any political cause can theoretically inspire terrorism, but this one is unlike others in that what it demands of its targets is their non-existence.
In 1916, the American immigration restrictionist Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race, which argued that immigration was destroying America’s traditional “Anglo-Saxon” population and along with it the tradition of self-governance. Grant’s ideas were popular and influential. They provided the impetus for racist immigration laws passed in the 1920s, which sought to limit not only African and Asian immigration but also that of Eastern and Southern Europeans, who were deemed genetically inferior to their Northern European counterparts. Adolf Hitler cited these racist laws as an inspiration, but some ascendant nativist intellectuals on the right now commonly refer to their repeal as a great catastrophe.
There are two versions of the “replacement” conspiracy theory, but both of them share the same basic premise. The first version is the idea that a secret cabal (typically one that is composed of Jews) is fostering demographic change in the United States through immigration in order to replace its white population—the motive of mass murderers in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and now Buffalo. The second is that liberals are fostering demographic change in the United States through immigration in order to replace its white population. Both conceive of America as fundamentally white and Christian, and in so doing posit not only a racial conception of citizenship but a racial hierarchy, one that must be maintained if America’s true nature is to endure. That these theories are now embraced by the descendants of some of the very European immigrants whom Grant considered racially inferior might have shocked him, but that just shows how arbitrary and socially determined such categories are.
This conspiracy theory has grown so popular among key GOP figures that the conservative elite can no longer condemn it unreservedly. Instead, some prominent conservatives have chosen to defend it in sanitized form, arguing that the Democratic Party’s support for immigration reform is a plot to, as Representative Elise Stefanik of New York put it in an ad last year, “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” Note the notion that an “electorate” can be “overthrown” by being outvoted, as though Republican electoral defeat is by definition illegitimate—especially if that victory is enabled by the wrong kind of voters.
But all versions of this conspiracy theory are not only racist; they are also false. Democrats and Republicans alike have, at various times, sought comprehensive immigration reform as a way to win over Latino and Asian American voters—and implicit in this is the idea that they need to be won over. George W. Bush tried to do it in 2006 and was foiled by a talk-radio revolt; Barack Obama tried to pass an immigration reform bill and failed because his ramping up of immigration enforcement and deportation did not bring Republicans to the negotiating table. Republicans briefly reconsidered the idea after losing the 2012 election, and instead walked the path of Trumpism. As with Obama, Biden’s decision to leave many of Trump’s immigration policies in place has done nothing to quiet conservative hysteria about “open borders.”
The argument that the growing nonwhite population is intrinsically advantageous to Democrats is itself absurd, because racial identities are no more fixed than political ones, the migration of mid-20th century “white ethnics” from the Democratic column to the Republican column being an object lesson. If any Democrats or Republicans believe that demographic change inherently advantages one party over the other, they are tremendously foolish. For any conservative worried that immigrants will lead to permanent Democratic rule, I’ve got some wonderful news: History has shown that will never happen.
The 2020 election, if anything, illustrated the persuadability of such voters, as Donald Trump amassed historic margins with Latino voters in Florida and along the Rio Grande valley. That communities in Texas, for example, where policing the border and extractive industries employ large numbers of residents, would choose Trump over Joe Biden should not be surprising. These voters are no less rational or independent than white people, and Republican nativism is clearly insufficient to make them reliable Democratic stalwarts. They are not mystically immune to conservative arguments about religion, culture, economics, or even immigration; in fact, many immigrants arrive in the United States sharing such premises. The hypothesis that immigration reform would be an overwhelming boon among such voters has been disproved; Trump won many of them over while enacting immigration policies that were both cruel and counterproductive.
Nevertheless, the conspiracy theory of a Great Replacement is now part of the Republican mainstream, as I warned it would become four years ago. During the Trump administration, conservative elites could distance themselves from Trump as an individual while still supporting his policies. But now that so many important Republicans have embraced the idea, the conservative elite must find a way to make the sanitized version of this genocidal nonsense respectable. A strain of self-implicating paranoia underlines the entire concept, the fear that once they are a minority, white people will be subject to revenge for the dark chapters of American history, a past that Republican-controlled states are attempting to erase.
Liberals can do nothing to prevent conservatives from embracing this conspiracy theory, beyond forcing Republicans to pay a political price at the ballot box. It would be better, by far, if prominent conservatives persuaded their comrades to reject this perverse ideology, rather than attempt to sanitize it for mainstream consumption. If their recent reaction to the Buffalo shooter is any guide, though, they have chosen a different path.
This article originally stated that the Buffalo shooter plagiarized his manifesto from the perpetrator of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas; it was in fact from the manifesto of the man who attacked Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand.