How the 'replacement' theory went mainstream on the political right
Following the shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., focus has been trained on the "replacement" theory, also known as "white replacement" theory.
That's because a white man, who killed 10 Black people and injured three others, posted a 180-page document online that promulgated racist conspiracy theories often referred to as the "great replacement."
And he allegedly used the conspiratorial idea that minorities were and would be replacing whites as a reason to justify what he did. The FBI is investigating it as a hate crime.
"I want to be clear, for my part, from everything we know, this was a targeted attack, a hate crime, and an act of racially motivated violent extremism," FBI Director Christopher Wray said Monday.
"Replacement" theory began in white supremacist circles, but has since moved more mainstream on the political right in this country and among many Republicans, explicitly or implicitly.
We explore that and how former President Donald Trump used it for political gain in a Q&A with an expert below, but, first, some background.
That mainstreaming of the theory has been building for a long time politically.
It can be seen by implication, for example, at least as far back as the "White Hands" ad that late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms ran during his 1990 reelection campaign.
"You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota," a narrator in the ad says as a man crumples up a piece of paper.
Since that time, changing demography has roiled American politics.
The country has become browner and more diverse. In 1990, for example, the population of whites not of Hispanic origin was about 76% of the U.S. population. Today, that is down to 60%.
Whites are heading toward minority status in the United States, even if all immigration was shut down today. In 2018, U.S. Census estimates showed for the first time that whites dropped to below 50% of the under-15 population.
Some politicians have tried to exploit a diversifying country to scare white Americans.
"I believe without a shadow of a doubt this is the last election," former Rep. Michele Bachmann, who failed to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody three months before the 2016 presidential election. "This is it. This is the last election. And the reason why I say that, David, is because it's a math problem. It's a math problem of demographics and a changing United States."
That's right in line with "replacement" theory, and Trump — who made immigration the foundation of his 2016 presidential campaign and arguably catered to and weaponized white grievance unlike any candidate in U.S. history — ran with it.
"I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning," Trump told Brody backstage at the Values Voter Summit shortly after Bachmann made the remarks, "because you're going to have people flowing across the border, you're going to have illegal immigrants coming in, and they're going to be legalized, and they're going to be able to vote and once that all happens you can forget it."
After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, in an effort to bolster his lie that he actually won when he didn't, he lied and said there were "illegal immigrant voters" in the election, which, of course, is not true.
Trump was later kicked off Twitter for the amount of misinformation and disinformation he was putting on the platform.
Conservative media amplified the message.
Republicans have become more explicit about embracing the actual words, helped by the amplification of Fox News, particularly prime-time host Tucker Carlson. Rather than implying it, as many on the right previously had, Carlson is explicit — even if he denies somehow that he's talking about the "racist fantasy," as he called it.
But just look at his words:
"I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term 'replacement,'" Carlson said in April 2021, "if you suggest 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. But they become hysterical because that's what's happening actually."
After that, the Anti-Defamation League called for Carlson to be pulled off the air.
That prompted Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to actually call the Anti-Defamation League "a racist organization."
Carlson's employer, Fox News, defended its most-watched host. And then, here was Carlson in September:
"In political terms, this policy is called the 'great replacement,' the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries."
Fox continues to defend Carlson, saying he does not advocate violence. Fox also successfully defended him in court in a 2020 defamation case, saying, he literally can't be believed.
Some Republicans are on the defensive.
After the Buffalo shooting, Republican Reps. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Liz Cheney of Wyoming pointed at GOP leadership for enabling this attitude among their lawmakers and voters.
Kinzinger specifically called out House No. 3 GOP leader Elise Stefanik of New York, saying she "pushes white replacement theory." The criticism centers on Facebook ads Stefanik's campaign committee ran, one of which read:
"Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION. Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington."
Stefanik, an upstate New York congresswoman, decried the shooting in Buffalo, but pinned it on an uptick in "violent crime" rather than the racist ideology to which the shooter ascribed.
"Any implication or attempt to blame the heinous shooting in Buffalo on the Congresswoman is a new disgusting low for the Left, their Never Trump allies, and the sycophant stenographers in the media," Stefanik senior adviser Alex DeGrasse said in a statement. "The shooting was an act of evil and the criminal should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
On Monday morning, Stefanik tweeted: "Democrats desperately want wide open borders and mass amnesty for illegals allowing them to vote."
Democrats — and some Republicans — say it's not about electoral politics, but that there's a broken immigration system that needs to be fixed with a path to citizenship for those immigrants in the U.S. illegally to come out of the shadows — and pay taxes.
The GOP has changed drastically on immigration.
It wasn't long ago that then-President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor (Texas), as well as the late Sen. John McCain, also from a border state (Arizona), advocated for comprehensive immigration reform.
During the Obama administration, a comprehensive plan actually passed the Senate with 68 votes, including many Republicans.
But that was nearly a decade ago. Trump ran on building "the wall," and the GOP hardline on immigration, which had always been latent, took hold as the party's policy — and a principal motivator to get the base to the polls.
Republicans — and conservative media consumers — are more likely to believe in the tenets of "replacement."
The sentiment is catching on, especially among Republicans.
A recent, large-sample AP/NORC poll found that a third of respondents agreed that there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.
Almost half of Republicans said so, compared to about one in five self-identified Democrats.
Belief that replacement is happening is also higher among viewers of right-wing media like OANN, Newsmax and Fox News than other outlets.
"Replacement" theory may have started in white supremacist circles, but the ground was laid for Trump to use white grievance to his political advantage. Here's how...
Casey Kelly — a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has studied Trump's language and is the author of Apocalypse man: The death drive and the rhetoric of white masculine victimhood — helped explain.
This conversation took place months before the Buffalo shooting, but just after a rally in which Trump said that white people were being asked to get to the "back of the line" for therapeutics in New York — something that was far exaggerated.
The Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length:
MONTANARO: Where did "white replacement" theory or the "great replacement" theory begin and how much has Trump been pushing it, at least implicitly?
KELLY: Certainly in white supremacist circles there's been a longstanding theory of white genocide or the great replacement, which is that by way of immigration laws that bring over large numbers of, quote, and I use this term of quotations, of high-fertility immigrants, meaning the idea that they are more likely to reproduce at greater rates than white populations, that that's an intentional effort to replace white people with diversity, with different people from different countries and people from different racial backgrounds. And that is longstanding.
There's lots of different roots, both in European white nationalism and American white nationalism, of that theory making its way throughout the culture. And what's interesting is that I don't know to what extent he's [Trump] aware of it, but I certainly know that his arguments are consistent.
If people are steeped in that culture, if they're aware of this this idea-- and people like Tucker Carlson will sort of trot out these talking points that came from white nationalists on his own show. So they do have a mainstream presence.
But he doesn't sort of call them that or cite them in a way that explicitly references it. But that's where that theory originates. And so when he talks about issues of displacement and replacement, that certainly resonates with people who, if they are steeped in white supremacist discourse, have absolutely heard this idea. And they're having the [former] president of the country who is also aligning and saying things that are, if they're not directly referencing it, are consistent with that theory.
MONTANARO: How does Trump capitalize on feelings of white resentment?
KELLY: One of the, I think, primary appeals of Trump is that he basically could take these abstract feelings of being dispossessed and displaced. And these are feelings that were felt over the decades, where automation and outsourcing were essentially destroying the Rust Belt of America, the places where there was manufacturing and industry in the United States. And that is a structural transformation in the economy that, while it happens to affect people in rural America, it was not designed as an explicit attempt to dispossess white Americans — even though that was the effect it's tended to have.
And so what he tends to do is to frame that dispossession of rural America. He attempts to frame it as if it were an explicit, racially motivated discrimination against white people, a sort of reverse discrimination or victimage. And he, of course, sort of blames Democrats for this, that it was a sort of systematic, structural effort to dispossess white America, to displace America, as they knew it. And so what he does — what he did — that is both troubling but also is effective, is he reframed the experiences of alienation that many people in rural America have, the belief that the culture doesn't reflect who they are anymore and that there are a lot of difference in otherness that they don't quite understand.
And that's happening concurrently with a burgeoning opioid crisis combined with the collapse of infrastructure and manufacturing and good quality union jobs in rural areas of the country. He enables them to view that as a systematic dispossession, that it's by design to hurt them, because it's an effort by progressives to institute their version of America, which is supposedly fundamentally different than their version of America.
And what he offers then is to alleviate their victimhood by putting them first, saying that for a change — they've been told that "they have white privilege" and that "whiteness is a problem" — but what has happened is that it's resulted in discrimination against white people. And so the way that he sells what is objectively bad things that are happening to people in rural America, he reframes them in a way that makes them feel like it's an identity politics, that actually there's a concerted effort on the part of progressives to supplant the values of rural white America with progressive values that don't necessarily match with their understanding of what America is — and that it's a purposeful effort and that it's malicious, that it's evil in its intent to displace white Americans. And so what he gets them to do is think about themselves as victims of this social change that, while regrettable in many ways, were not explicitly designed as racial discrimination against white people.
MONTANARO: He seems to have knack for identifying the things that will particularly play well as grievances.
KELLY: Trump seems to have a nose for white victimhood, meaning that he is very effective at finding issues that can easily be reframed as reverse discrimination against white people, meaning that he can sniff out white resentment, and he can tap into it by pointing out the ways in which certain kinds of social, economic, cultural and political change, whether they be the restructuring of the U.S. economy from outsourcing or whether they be a culture-war issue like the "war on Christmas" or about Confederate monuments and people wanting to take away people's history, he can find those moments that are big changes that may displace certain views of America that change and evolve America.
He is really good at representing those as a systemic effort to displace and discriminate against white people, which makes him so effective at garnering white resentment.
MONTANARO: Trump, of course, wouldn't be president if this line of reasoning didn't resonate with a base of supporters. Race seems to be at the underpinning of all of this. What should people know about that?
KELLY: I don't think that all of his supporters are racist. Really, what I think that what he does well is he frames issues that that sort of allows people to see their identities as being aggrieved in the way that other racial identities in America are aggrieved.
And so what he does effectively, I think, is permit white people who may have no overt white supremacist commitments to think about themselves as being discriminated against the same way that Latinos or African Americans may have been discriminated against. And therefore, they have entitlement to some sort of redress.
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