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Has the Left Been Pushing Its Own Version of ‘Great Replacement’ Theory?

Talking about demographics and politics is not the same as Tucker Carlson’s creepy conspiracism.
May 20, 2022
Has the Left Been Pushing Its Own Version of ‘Great Replacement’ Theory?
BUFFALO, NY - MAY 16: Bullet holes are seen in the window of Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street, as federal investigators work the scene of a mass shooting on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. The fatal shooting of 10 people at a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood of Buffalo by a young white gunman is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, according to federal officials. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Last Saturday’s horrific act of racial terrorism in Buffalo, New York—where ten people were killed and three wounded in a shooting spree that specifically targeted the city’s black residents—has reignited polemics about so-called “Great Replacement theory,” which holds that nefarious elites are trying to “replace” native-born Americans or Europeans with Third World migrants. A lengthy manifesto reportedly written by the accused shooter, 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron, reveals an obsession with the idea that white people in America are being replaced by nonwhites (“We are doomed by low birth rates and high rates of immigration”). Now many progressive commentators claim that a somewhat toned-down version of this obsession has become standard fare in the Republican party and in the right-wing media. Most conservatives reject the charge as a dishonest attempt to exploit a tragedy.

The progressives are mostly right—though, as often happens, they overreach and undercut their own argument by reductio ad absurdum. And the conservatives have some valid points—but their overall argument amounts to spinning the unpalatable. Let’s address each side in turn.

The accurate substance of the progressive argument is this: For the last few years, a number of leading conservative pundits and prominent Republican politicians have been stoking a demographic panic that closely echoes “Great Replacement” themes.

Tucker Carlson leads the pack. An analysis recently published in the New York Times claims that he has discussed various elements of this theory over 400 times on his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson Tonight. Is it possible that some of these examples are connected to “Great Replacement” rhetoric only in the loosest sense? Maybe, but there is plenty of fire behind the smoke. The most infamous example is the April 8, 2021 broadcast in which Carlson openly addressed claims that he was promoting “replacement theory” and offered the defense that it’s the truth:

Now, I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term “replacement,” 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. Let’s just say it: That’s true.

If you change the population, you dilute the political power of the people who live there. So every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter. So I don’t understand what we don’t understand cause, I mean, everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, you know, the white replacement theory? No, no, no. This is a voting right question. I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?

Of course, if it’s just a matter of “the more voters there are, the less weight your individual vote has”—regardless of the voters’ race or origin—then high birth rates are also bad, as is long life expectancy. Every time someone’s kid turns reaches voting age and every time an elderly voter lives to see another election year, another bite gets taken out of Tucker Carlson’s political power. Is there a reason immigrant votes bother him in particular? Could it have something to do with “the Third World”? (Also: the “voters now casting ballots” aren’t going anywhere.) And is there a reason Carlson believes those “Third World” voters are singularly “obedient”? It’s something of a Carlson leitmotif, by the way: About three weeks earlier, on March 16, 2021, he snarkily suggested that the Biden administration’s immigration policies amounted to covertly “working to import as many new citizens as we can in the United States to replace all the disobedient ones who didn’t vote for us.”

And then there was this in September 2021:

In political terms, this policy is called the “Great Replacement,” the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.

Besides the obsession with the obedience of immigrant voters, what’s remarkable about this comment is the extent to which Carlson normalizes the “Great Replacement” as a legitimate term in respectable political discourse, rather than the province of racist crankdom. As Thomas Chatterton Williams documented in the New Yorker in 2017, the phrase was coined in 2012 by far-right French writer Renaud Camus, who claimed that European countries were being flooded with so many Arab and African immigrants that “in the space of a generation you have a different people.”

It’s worth noting that Carlson was pretty outspoken about his views long before he started using the R-word. Here he is in January 2018, fulminating against that noted lefty prog Sen. Lindsey Graham for saying that “diversity is our strength” while discussing immigration: “Our leaders are radically and permanently changing our country, wholly on the basis of their faith that diversity is, in fact, our strength.” By the way, Carlson’s objections to Graham’s anodyne statement are laughable: He earnestly argues that diversity is not a strength if you and your spouse have “radically different beliefs,” if you and your kids “share no common points of reference,” or if you don’t “speak the same language as your best friend.” But first of all, who said anything about no common points of reference or not speaking the same language? And second, isn’t it pretty obvious that while “radically different beliefs” are probably not great for a marriage, they can (within reason) enrich a culture?

Ben Shapiro laments that “skepticism about illegal immigration or concerns about the cultural assimilation of immigrants” are being lumped together with white supremacism and Great Replacement fearmongering. It’s true that it should be possible to express such concerns without being labeled a bigot. The problem is that, in both tone and substance, the anti-immigration rhetoric in the GOP and in conservative punditry has gone way, way beyond reasonable concerns. Sorry, but if you’re going to do “filthy foreigners” porn—like the 2017 segment about the struggles of Roma/gypsy refugees in a Pennsylvania town in which Carlson seemed particularly fixated on alleged incidents of children defecating in the street—don’t be surprised when people aren’t inclined to treat you like a reasonable skeptic.

No, there is no evidence that Carlson or other mainstream conservative pundits influenced the Buffalo shooter; per Gendron’s own manifesto, he was radicalized by much more fringe material on the Internet. But those pundits have been assiduously helping to normalize rhetoric that portrays immigrants as invaders and “replacers” (as Gendron puts it), as a force that is being brought to the United States for “evil” reasons and is changing our country beyond recognition. Is this rhetoric contributing to a social climate in which radicalization happens more easily? Very likely. Is it lending respectability to ugly nativist hatreds, even if they don’t spill over into violent extremism? Of course it is.

And of course it isn’t just Carlson, or just the nutcase Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers who tweets stuff like “We are being replaced and invaded.” It’s erstwhile New York moderate and No. 3 House Republican Elise Stefanik accusing the Democrats, in Facebook ads, of planning to “grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants” in order to “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” It’s Ohio Senate candidate and former Never Trumper J.D. Vance crying invasion on Carlson’s show and lambasting “Democrat politicians who have decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here.” Apparently, they’re planning to bring in all those “new voters” and grant them citizenship by this November; who knew the Biden administration was that efficient? This is lunacy, and Vance knows it, as does Carlson (who chimed in to say, “I couldn’t agree with you more”). But there’s more of the same from Arizona GOP Senate candidate and Peter Thiel protégé Blake Masters. And from Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, who tells us “replacement” is not about race but about “importing new voters.”

That’s also the spin from a lot of conservative commentators, who have all repeated various versions of the same claim: that Democrats and liberals have repeatedly bragged about the invincible electoral advantage they would get from immigration, only to turn around and play innocent when they get called on it.

Have some Democrats fallen into the “demography is destiny” trap? Sure, though there’s a difference between the demographics of immigration favor us and we should bring in even more immigrants who will vote for us. It should also be noted that the claims about favorable demographics were never just about immigration. For instance, commentators citing the 2004 book The Emerging Democratic Majority by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira as an example of immigration-based triumphalism probably haven’t actually read it: Only a fairly small portion of the book focused on immigration. What’s more, Judis and Teixeira noted that immigrant groups had traditionally followed a variety of political trajectories: Asian Americans, for instance, used to lean Republican because of their aversion to communism. While the authors did discuss the immigrant shift toward Democrats in the 1990s and early 2000s, their prediction that the immigrant bloc could “constitute a formidable advantage for any Democratic candidate” was hedged with a pretty big caveat: “if these voters remain solidly Democratic” (emphasis added). And most of the trends discussed in the book had nothing to do with immigration: Judis and Teixeira argued that Democrats were favored by the growth of post-industrial “ideopolises,” that is, centers of the knowledge economy; by an increasingly educated, employed, and liberated female population; and even by what they saw as the return of the white working class to the Democratic party.

Other supposed examples of what we might term “replacement theory, but as a good thing” also frequently turn out, upon close inspection, to be . . . not exactly that. Carlson’s most recent smoking gun, for instance, is that in 2013, the Center for American Progress “announced that ‘supporting real immigration reform that contains a pathway to citizenship for our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants is the only way to maintain electoral strength in the future.’”

Yes, CAP really did say that in an April 2013 report titled, “Immigration Is Changing the Political Landscape in Key States.” The report also said that several “red states” could turn “blue” as a result of the immigrant vote. But, once again, there is a big caveat: “Whether or not these states turn blue in the future has a lot to do with how politicians in both parties act and what they talk about on the subject of immigration reform.” The report treats a GOP shift to a more immigrant-friendly stance as a very real possibility in the wake of the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney was the anti-immigration baddie (remember “self-deportation”?).

The CAP report reads like a dispatch from an alternate universe. (It talks about prominent conservatives—not only John McCain and Marco Rubio but Rand Paul and Sean Hannity—rushing to ‘evolve’ on immigration reform.) But the point is that CAP wasn’t talking about the Democrats needing amnesty to maintain their electoral strength; it was saying that neither party could maintain electoral strength without supporting some form of amnesty. (Obviously, it was wrong, at least as regards the decade that followed.)

The same theme is present in other media items that have been cited as evidence of liberal “replacement talk,” such as a December 2012 CBS News story on a Census prediction that the United States would no longer have a white majority by 2043:

Republicans have been seeking to broaden their appeal to minorities, who made up 28 percent of the electorate this year, after faring poorly among non-whites on Election Day, when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried only about 20 percent of non-white votes.

Interestingly, the piece also predicted that the eclipse of a white majority would likely lead to the dismantling of affirmative action programs intended to aid the advancement of minorities.

Or take this viral “supercut” of clips that show Democratic politicians and liberal pundits discussing, and even cheering for, predictions that white people are on their way to being a minority in America.

Notably, the vast majority of these clips say nothing about Democratic electoral advantage; they simply comment on changing demographics. (The only person shown saying, twice, that “demographics is destiny” is Republican-turned-independent Joe Scarborough.) Yes, liberal and progressive cheerleading for the “majority-minority America” can be obnoxiously starry-eyed and filled with knee-jerk assumptions about population changes; among other things, it ignores tensions among nonwhite and ethnic groups, treating all blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans as one big happy rainbow family of “people of color.” In some cases, depending on tone, it can be polarizing (more on that later). In an ironic twist, it also tends to greatly overstate minorities’ commitment to progressive politics.

In fact, in recent elections Republicans have been faring better among nonwhites despite the GOP moving right on immigration. There is talk of Hispanic voters shifting Republican, and the GOP is doing an elaborate two-step to improve Hispanic outreach without losing the anti-immigration base. Rep. Stefanik said this, presumably with a straight face, just the other day:

I believe that 2022 will be dubbed the year of the most diverse Republican Party ever with a historic majority with women, veterans, Hispanic candidates, Asian American candidates, Black American candidates, all Republicans leading the way.

Is there something that locks amnestied illegal immigrants into a permanent Democratic vote, other than conservative rhetoric demonizing them? And is there any doubt that Carlson and the other replacement theorists are emphatically not limiting their hostility to immigration to only the illegal kind?

Another bit of spin, from Ben Shapiro in particular, is that “replacement theory” requires anti-Semitism—the view that the “replacement” is being engineered by a nefarious Jewish elite—as one of its components.

First of all, that’s not necessarily the case; any other “globalist elite” will do. Renaud Camus’s 2012 version of le grand replacement, for instance, does not mention Jews as the culprit (though he inherited the concept from earlier French ultra-rightists who were virulent anti-Semites, such as the early-twentieth-century novelist Maurice Barrès). Second, I’m not sure that “it’s not replacement theory unless you mention Jews!” gets Carlson off the hook at this point. Last year, after the Anti-Defamation League denounced his “replacement” talk, Carlson hit back by accusing the ADL of hypocrisy for supporting immigration to the United States but opposing the Palestinian “right of return” in Israel. This false equivalency echoes the alt-right’s sarcastic “open borders for Israel” trope, with its implication that American Jews support “open borders” in the United States while fully aware that such policies would be destructive in Israel.

(The same trope, by the way, was invoked in Ann Coulter’s 2015 anti-immigration screed ¡Adios, America!. For good measure, Coulter also summed up one of the main reasons the elites support mass immigration as, “Sheldon Adelson wants to pay his maid even less!” No doubt it’s pure coincidence that her example of the cheap rich guy was a Jewish businessman—one who, ironically, would later become a major supporter of Donald Trump.)

One could debate whether Carlson’s obsessive attacks on George Soros, partly over his support for immigration, qualify as having an anti-Semitic subtext. But it is worth noting that even Tablet contributor Liel Leibovitz, who has been strongly sympathetic to Trump and to Trump-style conservative populism in recent years, accused Carlson of promoting “overt, dangerous anti-Semitism” in a December 2019 segment that contrasted the virtuous and patriotic capitalism of rabid Jew-hater Henry Ford to the supposedly rapacious and amoral ways of modern American capitalist elites—as represented by Paul Singer, a financier who just happens to be Jewish.

And, of course, if you look at the fringier “Great Replacement” peddlers in conservative and Republican ranks, it won’t be too hard to find evidence of far more overt nods to a Jewish conspiracy. Does J.D. Vance know, for example, that a mere two years before she won a congressional seat, his new bestie Marjorie Taylor Greene shared on Facebook a video (made by someone else) that unabashedly blamed “an unholy alliance of leftists, capitalists and Zionist supremacists” for a scheme to “promote immigration and miscegenation, with the deliberate aim of breeding us out of existence in our own homelands”?

Even without a connection to episodes of terrible violence—last weekend’s shooting in Buffalo, the 2019 El Paso shooting in which 23 Hispanics were killed, the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in which 11 were killed, and others—the “Great Replacement” theory is odious. As Bret Stephens compellingly argues, it seeks to “weaponize America against itself,” turning the quintessentially American process of renewal through migration into a dark conspiracy.

President Joe Biden, in remarks on Tuesday, criticized this vile, un-American ideology. He invoked American patriotism—the patriotism of “the most multiracial, most dynamic nation in the history of the world”—and affirmed that “the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America.”

But others further on the left side of American politics have had less reasonable things to say about the Great Replacement theory. At least two commentators, Talia Lavin in Rolling Stone and Brian Broome in the Washington Post, have suggested that Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade is steeped in “great replacement” ideology because it’s all about protecting “white babies.” Lavin cites the false claim that Alito’s draft spoke of ensuring a “domestic supply of infants.” (He was actually quoting from a 2002 Centers for Disease Control report while making the point that infants placed for adoption would not lack for willing parents.) Broome cites no evidence and simply asserts that “the Supreme Court draft decision is about protecting what conservatives believe is a diminishing demographic and their most valuable resource: White people.” To the contrary, the draft references the belief that abortion is a form of black genocide because black women have abortions at a far higher rate than white women.

Or take the article decrying “American Racism and the Buffalo Shooting” in the New Yorker by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, which makes valid points about race-baiting from Trump and the right-wing media but also flattens the complex landscape of American life into a simple white supremacist hellscape. Thus, Taylor mentions Dylann Roof’s 2015 shooting of nine black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina as part of “the growing normalization of racism and political violence in the U.S.”—but leaves out the fact that Roof is currently on death row. She does, however, mention the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, after a surreally fact-free recap claiming that the teenager “menaced a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin” with a semi-automatic rifle and “killed two unarmed men.” (One need not lionize Rittenhouse as a hero to recognize that he was in the middle of a riot, not a protest, and that he had been attacked by each of the men he fatally shot.) Taylor also seems to suggest that all opposition to progressive framings of history and social policy is essentially complicit in the hate that sparked the Buffalo massacre:

Discussions of America’s racist history lend important insights into the patterns of poverty, unemployment, and social deprivation that exist today. They underlie the arguments for the creation or expansion of public programs intended to alleviate racial exclusion. Without this context—evaded even by some liberals afraid of being tagged as favoring “big government” and actively suppressed by the right—the Buffalo shooter’s notion, rendered euphemistically in mainstream Republican discourse, that Black people are undeserving takers, becomes a kind of common sense.

This is not the place to debate anti-racist school curricula or the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs. But it’s pretty safe to say that concerns about big government don’t lead people down the road of obsessive racial hatred: in his “manifesto,” Gerndon styles himself a socialist.

There are also bad progressive responses that really do seem to embrace something like “replacement theory, but as a good thing,” by suggesting that more nonwhite immigration is needed to reduce white people’s “unfair numerical advantage” which has been leveraged into “unearned dominance.” This view is rarely stated so blatantly; but even less confrontational talk of the future nonwhite majority in America can have deeply counterproductive overtones. As scholars Richard Alba, Morris Levy, and Dowell Myers pointed out in the Atlantic last year, the “majority-minority” framing of demographic change can be inherently polarizing and even lend credence to racist “replacement theory.” What’s more:

By rigidly splitting Americans into two groups, white versus nonwhite, it reinvents the discredited 19th-century “one-drop rule” and applies it to a 21st-century society in which the color line is more fluid than it has ever been.

A far better approach, write Alba, Levy, and Myers, is to frame the shift as a transition to a blended multiracial society, not to “minoritizing” whites—who would obviously still be the largest population group. Wording makes a difference: When asked in a 2021 Pew survey of American adults whether “the declining share of white people in the U.S. is good or bad for society,” 22 percent of the respondents (including 36 percent of white respondents) picked “bad”; but when the question was turned around in a 2021 Pew survey, asking whether it’s good or bad for the country that “Black Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans will make up a majority of the population,” the proportion picking “bad” dropped to 11 percent of all respondents (including 14 percent of whites). Either way, the most common answer is “neither good nor bad.”

The polarizing effect is worsened when predictions of a white minority are accompanied by a brand of “anti-racism” that promotes fixation on racial identities and uses language like “dismantling whiteness,” or by other misbegotten efforts to promote “diversity.” However, it’s one thing to acknowledge that progressive identity politics can be toxic and quite another to suggest that there is some kind of moral equivalency between affirming the worth of a multiracial society and portraying demographic change as an insidious “replacement” plot.

The good news is that, despite alarming reports of “replacement theory” gaining mainstream acceptance in the Republican party, most Republicans (more than 80 percent, as of the 2020 Pew poll) do not see a prospective nonwhite majority as bad for the country.

In 2022, we live in an incredibly diverse and complex society whose racial dynamics cannot be reduced to any single narrative. This is true even of racial hate; around the same time that the tragedy in Buffalo unfolded, a black man in Dallas was arrested in a hate-motivated attack that left three Korean-American women wounded, while a shooting at a Taiwanese-American congregation in California that left one person dead and three wounded was apparently related to the Chinese-American suspect’s political animus against Taiwan.

Such complexities can and should be recognized. Conservatives and other skeptics are right to criticize progressive narratives and point out the complexities that the left ignores. In understanding violence like the shooting in Buffalo, “racism … is not the whole story,” writes Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Fair enough. But conservatives’ criticism will ring hollow unless they also acknowledge that racism is part of the story and confront the race-baiting on the right.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.