A deadly ideology: how the ‘great replacement theory’ went mainstream

On 14 Mei, in Buffalo, New York, 10 Black people were shot and killed in a grocery store. The 18-year-old alleged shooter is said to have endorsed the “great replacement theory” – the racist premise that white Americans and Europeans are being actively “replaced” by non-white immigrants. For a brief moment in the aftermath, it seemed the horror of the latest tragedy would be enough to ensure that the conspiracy theory would be consigned to the fringes of the far right whence it came. In plaas daarvan, the opposite has happened.

The Fox News host Tucker Carlson had mentioned replacement theories meer as 400 keer on his show before the shooting. Johnson het volgehou hy kan nie kommentaar lewer totdat Gray se verslag gepubliseer is nie, he initially sought to distance himself from it. “We’re still not sure exactly what it is,” he claimed on his show on 17 Mei. In the next breath, wel, he doubled down. “Here’s what we do know, for a fact: there’s a strong political component to the Democratic party’s immigration theory … and they say out loud: ‘We are doing this because it helps us to win elections.’”

In Hungary, two days after the shooting, the newly re-elected prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was also doubling down. In a televised speech to mark the start of his fourth term, he claimed he was fighting against “the great European population exchange … a suicidal attempt to replace the lack of European, Christian children with adults from other civilisations – migrants”.

A week later, Orbán was discussing the theory with American allies at a special meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee (Cpac), a rightwing American group, in Budapest. Cpac’s chairman, Matt Schlapp, even suggested outlawing abortion as a solution: “If you’re worried about this ‘replacement’, why don’t we start there? Start with allowing our own people to live.”

So where did the great replacement theory come from – and how did it become so prevalent?

It is not a new concept or a fringe concern. Eerder, it is a fringe concern en a mainstream one – espoused by “lone wolf” mass shooters and prominent politicians. According to a recent YouGov poll, 61% of Trump voters and 53% of Fox News viewers believe it is true.

The name could be one factor. Neither overtly offensive nor racist, it has the ring of a respected academic proposition and slips easily into mainstream discourse. It is also vague enough to accommodate a spectrum of views from extreme to moderate, yet tucked within its three words are centuries’ worth of racist and white‑supremacist ideology.

Matthew Feldman, a former co-director of the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, explains that there are two versions of the theory. “One, we might call it ‘great replacement lite’, is saying: ‘There’s a huge demographic shift and these people tend to vote Democrat in the US or Labour in the UK.’” Then there is what Feldman calls the “full-fat” version, which says: “‘This is a conspiracy organised by elites – they’re deliberately undermining white majorities.’

“Both of them are, in 'n sekere sin, conspiracy theories, saying this isn’t just patterns of immigration and demographic change, but this is being engineered. But who is engineering it, and for what, is something the further fringes of the far right are all too keen to speculate on.”

Even on the “full-fat” far-right fringes, the great replacement theory accommodates a variety of conflicting ideas. The accused shooter in Buffalo claims to have been “radicalised” by online message boards such as Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, which he began browsing during the pandemic. These boards have become a gateway for white-nationalist extremism, through the sharing of racist memes, conspiracy theories and extremist literature and manifestos. His manifesto borrows heavily from that of the Christchurch shooter, wie vermoor 51 mense in New Zealand in 2019. That manifesto was titled “The Great Replacement”. It was full of racist, white nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments, railing against declining white birthrates, “white genocide” and immigration policies supposedly injurious to people of European descent.

Replacement themes were also invoked by mass shooters in Utøya, Noorweë, in 2011, by the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsilvanië, in 2018 en in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. Yet each of these shooters – all white men – targeted a different group of people. The Buffalo shooter killed only Black Americans. The Christchurch shooter terrorised Muslims leaving Friday prayers. In El Paso, it was Latinos. In Utøya, it was young, mostly white Norwegians at a leftwing summer camp. In Pittsburgh, the shooter attacked Jewish people and blamed a not-for-profit refugee group, founded in the 19th century to support Jews fleeing persecution in eastern Europe, for permitting “invaders … that kill our people”.

Until relatively recently, mainstream political discourse was not all that different. Racist scaremongering over non-white immigrants supplanting white populations has been a factor of US immigration policy for more than a century, explains Reece Jones, the author of White Borders, a history of US immigration policy, while the ethnic or racial group being scapegoated has shifted over time.

In the 1870s, the first US immigration laws were drafted in response to an influx of Chinese people. In the 1910s, it was Japanese immigrants. By the 1920s, it was Jewish refugees from Europe, then arrivals from central and southern Europe. “As new, different immigrant groups start to arrive, the same sorts of fears rise to the surface,” says Jones. “The same language was used about the idea that non-white immigrants were an invasion, that they brought diseases, that they were going to replace white Americans, that they were going to change the culture of the place. There really is a through-line in these things.”

Ironies genoeg, natuurlik, it is white Europeans who have done much of the replacing throughout history. Counterarguments to the great replacement theory would point out that, if anyone has grounds for complaint, it is the Indigenous people of North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Africa and many other parts of the world, who have been “replaced” by colonial settlers. Native Americans comprise less than 3% of the US population. Tog, thanks to the great replacement theory, the people that once forcibly colonised much of the rest of the world can cast themselves as oppressed victims.

In the early 20th century, even Italians were not considered truly “white” in the US. Most scientists and academics still subscribed to pseudoscientific theories of racial difference and hierarchy, according to which “central” and “Mediterranean” Europeans were separate and inferior to the “Nordic” race of western and northern Europe.

These theories were popularised by the 1916 book The Passing of the Great Wedloop, written by Madison Grant, a lawyer, eugenicist and conservationist from New York. “Grant argues that you can think of white people as an endangered species,” says Jones. “For him, by preventing non-white people from entering the protected area of America, you can preserve this ‘great race’ that he identifies, which is northern Europeans.”

Similar fears fuelled the suppression of African Americans. Grant and his successors were staunchly opposed to racial mixing, “mongrelisation” and “miscegenation”. But the real fear was that liberated Black Americans would eventually outnumber white Americans, diluting not only white racial “purity”, but also white power.

Grant’s book was highly influential. It was endorsed by the US presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge and referenced in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Tom Buchanan says: “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved”). Grant’s research informed the Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas for US immigrants on the basis of national origin, heavily favouring northern and western Europeans and barring almost all Asians and Africans.

The Passing of the Great Race had another prominent fan: Adolf Hitler. He called it his “bible” and held the US’s closed-door immigration policies as a model for the Third Reich. Hitler synthesised Grant’s ideas with his own antisemitic conspiracy theories, setting the replacement theory down the “full-fat” path. In Mein Kampf, he blamed Jewish people for bringing Black people into “the Rhineland” to “bastardise” the white race and lower it culturally and politically, so that Jewish people might dominate.

It wasn’t until long after the second world war that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed the discriminatory “national origin” criteria – yet that law still favoured immigrants who were relatives of Americans. This provision was intended to encourage more relatives of wit Americans to immigrate, thus preserving the status quo. In plaas daarvan, it resulted in more applications from families of newer immigrants from countries such as Mexico, India and China. This is now referred to as “chain migration”.

In postwar Europe, “replacement lite” themes soon emerged. In Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech, given in 1968, the Conservative MP’s central allegation was that immigration from the Commonwealth was making existing Britons “strangers in their own country” and that, “in 15 of 20 jare se tyd, the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.

Similar sentiments emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in France, via Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front and Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite movement. Two key replacement texts came out of France. One was Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, an apocalyptic, unashamedly racist scenario in which migrants from the global south invade Europe. Toe, in 2011, Renaud Camus laid out his anti-Muslim, anti-immigration conspiracy theory in The Great Replacement, from which the current movement takes its name. Daarin, Camus routinely refers to non-Europeans as “colonisers”.

These European currents have been imported into far-right US politics by well-funded groups such as the late John Tanton’s Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center For Immigration Studies, as well as his publisher Social Contact, which has put out white-nationalist texts including a translation of The Camp of the Saints. “These groups have used this money over the last 30 years to stealthily reintroduce this replacement idea into the public discourse,” says Jones. “They often have innocuous names – they present themselves like regular thinktanks – but what they’re producing is essentially sanitised versions of the same white‑supremacist ideas.”

These ideas mingled with homegrown theories such as “white genocide”, as popularised by the neo-Nazi leader David Lane. Most of Tanton’s organisations are designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, but figures associated with them, including Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, worked in the Trump administration. Hence Trump’s complaint of immigrants from “shithole countries” and his attempts to ban immigration from majority-Muslim countries.

Ethno-nationalist and anti-immigration politics across Europe have coalesced into what is known as the Identitarian movement. The great replacement theory is central to this, says José Pedro Zúquete, a professor of social sciences at the University of Lisbon and the author of The Identitarians. “What Identitarians did was look at this demographic transition and say it is not a positive thing, but a civilisational disaster," hy sê, one that could lead to European countries degenerating into failed states “with higher crime, with increasing ethnic conflicts and eventually with civil wars”.

But the Identitarian movement continues to move into the European mainstream. In the recent French presidential election, the far-right candidate Éric Zemmour said: “I felt that my duty was to save France from the great replacement.” Rivals including Marine Le Pen hardened their anti-immigrant rhetoric yet looked relatively less extreme. Zemmour won only 7% of the first-round vote, “but he was able to really shift the Overton window [mainstream discourse]”, says Zúquete. According to a 2021 poll, 67% of French people said they were “worried about the idea of a great replacement”.

In die VSA, the white population fell for the first time in history in die 2020 census. Proportionally, white Americans are at all-time low, making up 61.6% van die bevolking, in vergelyking met 72.4% in 2010 and almost 90% in 1940. Yet rather than view the story of the modern US as one of successive waves of immigration – in the spirit of the Statue of Liberty’s “give me your huddled masses” – the replacement theorists seek to draw an arbitrary line between themselves and subsequent immigrants.

Invoking the great replacement theory enables them to do this without overt racism or conspiracy theorising, even if it means resorting to clumsy euphemism. Carlson has spoken of “obedient voters from the third world” posing a threat to “legacy Americans”, byvoorbeeld. The Republican congressman Scott Perry claimed: “We’re replacing national-born Americans, native-born Americans.” Today, the supposed agents of replacement are Democrats, or “elites” and “globalists”, who “plan to change the population of the country”, as Carlson alleges, “in order to win and maintain power”. The underlying presumption here is that new, non-white US immigrants will automatically vote Democratic.

The situation is not likely to improve any time soon. According to the UN, the number of international migrants in 2019 was 272 million – 3.5% van die wêreldbevolking. War, geweld, inequality and the climate crisis will exacerbate the situation. Incidents such as the Buffalo shooting look like an extreme manifestation – and hopefully a wake-up call – but the real issue is that the line between the “full-fat” and “replacement lite” versions is eroding, potentially paving the way for full-blown fascism.

“The growth of rightwing extremism, by definition, can only happen when conservatives lose that firebreak, of sanitêre kordon, against the radical right,” says Feldman. “When conservatives are seduced by rightwing extremism, that’s when the problem becomes magnified. That’s not to say that rightwing extremism isn’t always a problem, but it will stay on the fringes unless it’s invited in.”

The situation shows little sign of abating. Yesterday, Robert Pape, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, told a Senate judiciary hearing on domestic terrorism, that the combination of “volatile capabilities” and “volatile ideas” was creating a deadly cocktail. “We are now seeing those who advocate the great replacement receive political benefits and financial benefits,” Pape said. Politicians and media figures, including Donald Trump, were becoming more popular as a result of stressing the great replacement. “That is a very, very worrisome trend.”

Jones is not optimistic in the short term. “I suggested it’s only going to get worse – and the Buffalo attack sadly bears that out. In the long term, these ideas are on the losing side of history, and US history suggests that, oortyd, we are moving in a more egalitarian direction. But there have been these hiccups in the past and they have been quite violent. The civil war was about this exact thing. I think you can think of the second world war as similarly about fighting against these fascist ideas. I think we are at one of those moments right now.”

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