Replacement theory, the white nationalist conspiracy that has been co-opted by the mainstream Right and espoused by mass murderers, is not uncommon in today’s political discourse. In particular, it has been used by right-wing populists, including Donald Trump, to cement their “us” versus “them” narratives and solidify their bases.
The mass shooting that occurred at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. earlier this month is just one in a string of tragic, racially motivated murder sprees that have been connected to a white nationalist conspiracy theory. The 18-year-old shooter, who killed 10 and wounded 3, published a 180-page manifesto online prior to the shooting, in which he targeted Black shoppers. In this document, the shooter espoused the “great replacement” theory, an increasingly popular conspiracy that, according to the New York Times, was also cited by the perpetrators of hate-motivated shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and an El Paso Walmart the following year.
Replacement theory states that white people are being disempowered and replaced by non-white immigrants, who are increasingly brought into the country by elites in order to achieve a certain political agenda. In some iterations, the elites are being manipulated by Jews. Though the conspiracy was once contained to obscure white nationalist internet forums, its influence has expanded, going beyond influencing domestic terrorists and entering the mainstream of conservative American politics. Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News host, has promoted the idea that the Democratic party is trying to use immigration to “force demographic change” in more than 400 episodes. A December 2021 Associated Press poll found that about one-third of American adults believe “a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.” Politicians, ranging from former House speaker Newt Gingrich to current Congressman Matt Gaetz, have hinted at replacement theory and, in the case of the latter, mentioned it by name.
These conservatives will claim that their iteration of replacement theory, sanded down and lacking explicit antisemitic or anti-Black language, is about keeping Democrats from unfairly consolidating political power and not about promoting racism and xenophobia. In an interview with Megyn Kelly, Carlson said “Oh, f– them,” in response to the Anti-Defamation League’s call for Fox to fire him over his promotion of the theory. Carlson argued that the ADL and liberal politicians are making it about race, while he is trying to protect the country from a process he deems “anti-democratic.” Nevertheless, the theory, in action, has been used by politicians to divide society and turn racial minorities and immigrants into their supporters’ enemies.
The theory and its roots may seem extreme, but its underlying ideology has become almost commonplace in a world where right-wing populism is increasingly prevalent. Replacement theory has become part of the tool kit populists use to make their supporters feel that only they, the populist leaders, can protect them from political and cultural threats. In the U.S., the growing popularity of replacement theory is simply a holdover from Donald Trump’s particular brand of populism that established white, Christian Americans as the “us” and immigrants and minorities as the “them.”
Populism comes in many varieties, but it is always characterized by a division of society into “the people” and “the other.” Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser identify three core concepts of populism: the people, the elite, and the general will. A populist leader associates himself with the people and refers to the other, a corrupt elite, as an enemy working against the general will of the people. Populists construct a fantasy of a homogenous “silent majority” that only they can understand or serve. This community, of course, is imagined – in diverse societies, the idea that a general will among citizens would exist is absurd. So, to achieve this illusion, leaders must establish the homogeneity of the people they represent by excluding anyone who does not fit in.
Right-wing populists have done this by maintaining that the “true people” belong to the ethnic, religious, and cultural majorities of their countries. This leaves immigrants and minorities to join the elite in the category of “other.” And because the “others” are obstacles to carrying out the will of the people, anyone who does not look, behave, and believe like the majority is deemed an enemy. Populist rhetoric, in its quest to make one group feel that their grievances are heard and their desires are represented, easily becomes racialized.
Replacement theory places the villains of populism together in a scheme to gain political power. It is no wonder, then, that its underlying concerns have been frequently touted by populist parties and leaders. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has regularly used xenophobic rhetoric, warning in 2019 that Europe’s “anti-immigration forces” needed to protect “Christian culture” and referring to refugees as “Muslim invaders.” Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, the Netherlands’ right-wing populist party, tweeted in 2018, “we are being replaced with mass immigration from non-western Islamic countries.” The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2017 released a series of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic campaign posters, one of which displayed a pregnant white woman with the slogan, “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.” In this provocative ad, the party implicitly defined a “true German” by showing a white woman, while hinting at the replacement theory fear that migrants will repopulate and overtake Germany with “the other.”
Donald Trump also espoused replacement theory rhetoric during his 2016 campaign and subsequent time in office. Before the 2016 presidential election, he told a reporter that it would be the last election Republicans could ever win because immigrants coming across the southern border would “be legalized” and given the right to vote. At campaign rallies before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump described immigrants at the southern border as invaders, proclaiming at one rally, “You look at what is marching up, that is an invasion!” After losing the 2020 election, he claimed that “illegal immigrant voters” had contributed to Joe Biden’s win. His message has spread to his supporters. A poll published this month found that 61 percent of Trump supporters agree that, “a group of people in this country are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants and people of color who share their political views.”
In these populists’ quests to construct and guarantee the support of their bases, they must exclude those who do not fit into their definition of “the people.” Replacement theory is just a tool they have co-opted from more extreme ideologies and deployed to bolster their sides’ contempt for the “other.” Using fears of displacement and power loss, the populists are able to strengthen the loyalty felt to them by their supporters. After all, if everyone in a society got along, populists would have no grievances to capitalize on.
For many people, the aftermath of hate crimes may be the only time they think or hear about replacement theory by name. But politicians are using this rhetoric frequently, even if it is a sanitized version. It makes one wonder, what other ideology is the mainstream Right absorbing from white nationalists? And how else will populist leaders use incognito rhetoric to divide society further into “us” and “them”?