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From Deadly Torchlight Marches to Presidential Debate Stage, the Great Replacement Theory is Now an Animating Force Inside the GOP

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The first Republican Presidential primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hosted by Fox News channel, won’t be a regular debate about agendas to improve the country but a forum of extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories. Six years ago, Trump flung open the door of the GOP to the racists and neo-Nazis marching the street, chanting white nationalist slogans about the great replacement conspiracy theory. Tonight those same ideas will likely be paraded on stage in what will be the largest venue of the great replacement conspiracy theory yet. Over the last several months, the  GOP presidential candidates have made the rhetoric associated with this deadly racist lie a prominent part of their campaigns. We wouldn’t be surprised if the candidates find a way to bring this extremism to the debate stage. 

Donald Trump (who won’t be at tonight’s debate),  Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and Former Vice President Mike Pence have all made the white nationalist conspiracy theory that migrants seeking asylum and refuge in the United States constitute a literal “invasion” a central part of their immigration plans. No stranger to conspiracy theories, Vivek Ramaswamy has recently embraced the racist “invasion” conspiracy claiming on Fox at the beginning of the month that “we have an armed invasion across our own southern border that we are not doing a thing about.” Meanwhile, Tim Scott peddled a dog-whistle version of the great replacement conspiracy theory in a New York Post op-ed outlining his immigration stance in the primary. 

Once relegated to the far reaches of white nationalist, racist, and neo-nazi circles, the great replacement conspiracy theory these Republican presidential candidates are promoting comes with a steep body count. The conspiracy has motivated multiple deadly domestic terrorist attacks, including in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Buffalo. In spite of the racist violence that the rhetoric may inspire, at least one of the candidates is likely to falsely describe on-white migrants and asylum seekers as constituting a literal “invasion,” to the national audience of millions across the county. 

Words matter. Dehumanization and militaristic language are shown to have serious consequences. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently warned that “invasion” and “replacement” rhetoric from leaders “fuels the threat landscape” the agency he leads encounters. Experts agree that such militaristic, dehumanizing language creates a climate that encourages political violence. 

The candidates are likely to spread disinformation about the fentanyl crisis, as they have repeatedly done on the campaign trail, as part of a debunked legal theory that claims the Constitution grants states the ability to declare an “invasion” to repel migrants. 

Unfortunately, the moderators of  the debate are unlikely to rein in or provide the necessary context for any mention of the white nationalist conspiracy theories. New research compiled by Media Matters found that since the deadly attack in Buffalo, New York in May 2022, there have been over 170 instances of migrants falsely being described as an “invasion” or “invaders.” within the Fox News media ecosystem.  And in 2018, Media Matters noted that Martha MacCallum, one of the two moderators for Wednesday’s primary debate, vigorously defended describing migrant caravans as an “invasion.” 

For many Americans, their first exposure to white nationalists shouting “Great replacement” chants was in Charlottesville back in 2017. But, now that language once found in most extreme websites is very much part of the GOP dialogue. Republicans on Capitol Hill repeatedly invoke this extremist rhetoric. Earlier this year, Rep. Jamie Raskin called this out at an Oversight Committee hearing, then followed up with a letter to Republicans asking them to refrain from using white nationalist rhetoric. (None would.)

Since the summer of 2021, there has been an ascendant embrace of this deadly white nationalist conspiracy theory inside the GOP. We at America’s Voice have been closely tracking this movement of the great replacement theory from the margins to the mainstream.  And this movement cannot and should not be ignored. 

Xenophobic misinformation will play a prominent role in the debate, regardless of the topics outlined by the moderators. Needless to say, on immigration, the candidates will be driven by politics over solutions. None of the Republican approaches would advance real solutions or move us closer to the full-scale overhaul and modernize our immigration system needs – or even greater management or control of the southern border.  All of it is designed to keep a sense of crisis involving non-white immigrants in the headlines. It’s all politics and keeping the GOP base animated and inflamed. 

But beyond misinforming the American people and spreading pernicious lies on critical issues the extremism that will be on display at tonight’s debate will create a climate that dares any of their supporters with hate in their heart and a gun in their hand to act on the violent impulses towards the groups and individuals they dehumanize.