Democrats Must Respond to this Threat to Democracy and the Well-Being of All Working Families
On the evening of August 11, 2017, an organized mass of white supremacists marched with tiki torches through Charlottesville, Virginia. This Ku Klux Klan simulacrum chanted anti-Semitic and white nationalist slogans including “Jews will not replace us! You will not replace us!” The terrifying scene, followed by the murderous political violence the next day forced an obscure racist fiction into mainstream discussion. This angry mob were defending the ideas of the Confederacy that day in Charlottesville and were promoting a bigoted conspiracy theory generally known as the “great replacement.”
This racist lie holds that non-whites migrants from the global south, are an existential and immediate threat, leading an “invasion” resulting in crime, disease, and the destruction of democracy. We were reminded again of this horrific event last year during a trial that found its white supremacists leaders liable for inciting violence. The plaintiffs in the case were awarded $25 million in damages.
In spite of the rank bigotry, fatal violence, and blatant falseness of ‘replacement theory,’ leading Republicans spent 2021 fully embracing the idea for their own cynical and craven ends.
Now,‘replacement theory’ has become a mainstay of the GOP. At America’s Voice, we monitor and track GOP messaging and advertising on immigration and xenophobia and have seen a dramatic increase in the use of the “replacement theory.”
Last April, CNN ran a column, How the ugly, racist White ‘replacement theory’ came to Congress, that was one of the first to note that members of Congress were espousing the racist theory and, by “Congress,” the reality is that this was solely Republicans in Congress. In the fall, after the third-ranking House Republican, Elise Stefanik, embraced the replacement theory in her ads, there was a spate of media attention: Washington Post on September 27: How Republicans learned to stop worrying and embrace ‘replacement theory’ — by name; MSNBC also on September 27: Republicans become more brazen about embracing ‘replacement theory’; and CNN, September 30, 2021: Fringe conspiracy theory has now become mainstream.
After Donald Trump spoke in Phoenix, Arizona on January 15, 2022, John Harwood, the White House correspondent for CNN, tweeted, “the resentments of white people who fear non-whites are eclipsing them in 21st century America is, now overtly, the engine of the Trump-era Republican political/media apparatus.”
Writing for Vox, Zack Beauchamp’s piece, “How Does This End?” traces the reinvigorated militia movement and the willingness of some to engage in mass racist political violence, providing a terrifying backdrop to these ideas. As Beauchamp notes, these incidents of deadly violence are tied directly to the replacement theory beliefs of the shooters:
Fears of white displacement — the anxieties that Walter and other scholars pinpoint as root causes of political violence — have already fueled horrific mass shootings. In 2018, a gunman who believed that Jews were responsible for mass nonwhite immigration opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11. The next year, a shooter who claimed Latinos were “replacing” whites in America murdered 23 shoppers at an El Paso Walmart that has a heavily Latino clientele.
These are the real world consequences of the GOP’s new message.
As 2022 unfolds, Democratic office holders and candidates should expect attacks using ‘replacement theory’ messaging and be fully prepared to call it out and tie Republicans to the violent racists who act on these ideas. A strong Democratic response has the benefit of being both good politics and being necessary to defend the foundational ideas of democracy and the promise of America. Democrats running at every level can and must tear down this horrid philosophy, which has become a mainstay of today’s GOP. Allowing it to fester will end very badly for our democracy and for every American concerned about the future and fate of our country.
MAINSTREAMING REPLACEMENT THEORY
It would be hard to argue that anyone has done more to mainstream ‘replacement theory’ than Tucker Carlson. While violent white nationalists’ horrific displays capture wide-ranging disgust, Carlson, the most popular and profitable Fox News Channel primetime host, among others, has labored to shroud the racist lie to make it palatable for a larger audience. The goal here is to be able to employ the terrifying boogeyman created by the replacement narrative for a wider audience which is needed to win elections. Deploying this boogeyman, Republicans can pervert their voter suppression agenda and their opposition to programs for working-class people as a noble defense of democracy and the safety of U.S. citizens. An explicit ‘replacement theory’ appeal would likely not garner the support needed to win congressional majorities, however using a coded version of that fear-based message could be a potent component of their voter mobilization efforts.
Though the goal is to soften the edges of the replacement message for a wider audience Carlson is still quite explicit at times. On his program, on September 22, Carlson warned about Democrats’ effort to create pathways to citizenship claiming “in political terms this policy is called the Great Replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with the more obedient people from far away countries.” The implication is that immigrants, Jews and people of color are less than and different from “Americans.”
Similarly, some Republican Members of Congress present little resistance to an all out embrace of replacement theory. In a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting in April, Rep. Scott Perry (PA-10) said “what seems to be happening or what they believe right now is happening is, what appears to them is we’re replacing national-born American — native-born Americans to permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation.” Or take Rep. Brian Babin (TX-36) who on September 24, went on FOX and Friends to claim Democrats “want to change America, they want to replace the American electorate with third-world immigrants that are coming in illegally, many of them are COVID positive.” For an even more explicit example, Rep. Matt Gaetz (FL-01) tweeted on September 25 that Tucker Carlson “is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America.”
However, many Republicans are a bit more strategic in their replacement theory messaging. They use euphemisms and coded messages that roughly sound like: ‘Democrats are intentionally encouraging millions of migrants to come across the border in order to make them voters and completely change the country.’
In one example, Sen. Bill Hagerty (TN) ran Facebook ads on August 8, 2021 where he warned “over a million illegal aliens have poured across our southern border. Now Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are pushing for a federal takeover of our elections that will make it easier for them to illegally vote. Every day this flood of illegal immigration continues we are allowing America’s faith in our elections to be compromised. We are allowing the very foundation of our American system to be eroded.” Sometimes the further implications of this message were left to be inferred by the voter. On October 1, Rep. Jim Banks chimed in to connect the GOP “Biden Border Crisis” talking point claiming President Biden is intentionally luring people to ask for asylum at the Southern Border in support of his ‘replacement’ objectives, simply tweeting “The Biden Border Crisis is intentional!”
2021 REPUBLICANS EMBRACE REPLACEMENT THEORY
The GOP’s ‘replacement theory’ problem is not one of vocal extremes but endemic to the party’s senior leadership. Other leaders, like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who personally refrained from amplifying explicit ‘replacement theory’ messaging, have also refused to raise their voice in opposition. Often a coded version of this message employed misleading interpretations of border apprehension numbers to make it seem like many more individuals were arriving at the border when they counted the same individual repeatedly. Here are a few examples:
- An August tweet from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) tweeted “@AP reports that roughly 210K migrants were stopped at the border in July – more than the population of major US cities. The Biden Admin let the border crisis they created spiral out of control, & they have no intention of fixing it. #BidenBorderCrisis”
- On September 15, 2021, the third-ranking GOP House Member Elise Stefanik (R-NY), ran Facebook ads shown over a million times that read “Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” warning “their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”
- On November 16, House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy tweeted: “Joe Biden has been president for less than 10 months—and in that time he has let 1.6 million illegal immigrants cross our border illegally. That’s equal to the population of the 6th largest city in the United States.
A prominent argument in the “replacement theory” narrative presents the fiction that migrants are “invading” the southern border. The dangerous and misleading language of “invasion” looks to turn migrants fleeing violence and seeking asylum into an imminent, dehumanizing threat that can be resisted with any manner of cruelty and violence.
Embracing this line in 2021, some Republicans just promoted the white nationalist message, others argued for responding to the “invasion” in the scope of the constitution.
- On June 4, Rep. Jodey Arrington (TX-19) went on FOX to argue that “you have Article 4 that says the government will provide the sovereign states a republic and protect them against invasion … it’s absolutely an invasion, it’s a threat like we have never seen before.”
- On September 21, three different Congresswomen tweeted hyperbolic warnings of a migrant “invasion”: Rep. Beth Van Duyne (TX-24) “#DelRio is in crisis because Joe Biden has purposefully destroyed our border, allowed this invasion to occur, and is endangering our national security. #BidenBorderCrisis” Rep. Lauren Boebert (CO-03) “The Biden regime just extended America’s border closure with Canada to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, our southern border is wide open and millions of illegal immigrants, many with COVID, are invading the country.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA-14): “Joe Biden is responsible for the invasion at our Southern border. My articles of impeachment will hold Biden accountable!”
- On September 25, Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) ran Facebook ads fear-mongering about “an invasion of illegal immigrants.” Graham repeatedly employed the white nationalist “invasion” rhetoric throughout 2021.
- At a rally in Georgia on September 25, 2021, Donald Trump warned “Democrats are well on their way to turning America into a third-world nation…our country is being turned into a migrant camp…Biden is throwing the border wide open and our country is being invaded by hundreds of thousands of people every single month.”
MORE PAID AD MESSAGING
Throughout 2021, Republicans paid to amplify ‘replacement theory’ messaging believing that its political weaponization could benefit their campaign coffers and election prospects. Here a few examples:
- Mike Gibbons In the GOP Ohio Senate primary ran TV ads falsely claiming “this year 2 million iligal immigrants will enter America bringing drugs, crime, COVID, and what Democrats want most, their votes.”
- In the GOP Arizona Senate primary, Jim Lamon ran numerous TV and digital ads where Lamon does a voiceover claiming “this is an invasion” as images of migrants at the border show on screen.
- Sen. John Kennedy (LA), ran Facebook ads that claimed “Biden wants illegal immigrants to flood into America. Donate to stop the border invasion”
- On December 13, Republican Bernie Moreno announced a $4M ad buy in the GOP Ohio Senate primary. One ad claimed “illegals come for the freebies, free money from Biden, take your job, free passes for crime, because Democrats want their vote. They are bringing drugs and god-knows what else into your neighborhood. They are changing our nation, let’s stop them.”
- Rep. Madison Cawthorn (NC-11), repeatedly ran a fundraising Facebook video ad where he claims “I am going to put an end to the invasion at our southern border. People want to say its just a little illegal immigration. No! Look at the pictures going on right now, thousands of illegal immigrants who are poised to enter our country. That’s an invasion.”
We are not alone in raising concerns about Republican’s ‘replacement theory’ problems. Leading experts and columnists have been warning of the deep roots of this problem and its growing power within GOP and national political circles. Republican candidates fully embraced this white natiionalist conspiracy theory in 2021 for a reason. Forces pushing Republicans in this direction have been active for decades, as they tapped into much older currents running throughout American history. We excerpted some important analysis not to encourage despair in the face of the vastness of the problem, but to underscore the urgent seriousness in which to view Republicans’ full embrace of ‘replacement theory.’
Early in 2022, Jean Guerrero’s Los Angeles Times column, “How the insurrection’s ideology came straight out of 1990s California politics” enumerates how the modern anti-immigrant movement helped infuse nativism into the core of the current GOP:
One year ago, a mob of mostly white men stormed the Capitol to try to keep their race-baiting idol in power. The attack was not the ‘last gasp’ of white supremacy or Trumpism, as many might have wanted to believe. It was a national coming out party for the political right’s insurrectionist movement, whose roots were set decades ago and completely visible in California’s electoral politics and public battles in the 1990s.
…That’s not a new play for Republican leaders. They opened the Pandora’s box of ‘replacement’ paranoia in California in the 1990s with scaremongering about a decline in the state’s white population and an imagined Mexican ‘reconquista.’ Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller, for one, grew up in California during that time … Trump’s Big Lie — and its capacity to elicit violence — is inseparable from those biases.
In an interview with Slate reporter Aymann Ismail, University of Chicago researcher Robert Pape highlighted the role of the Great Replacement Theory in the January 6 insurrection and analyzing which U.S. counties saw large numbers of insurrectionists go to Washington.
The No. 1 feature of the county sending insurrectionists, aside from simply the size of the population overall, is that these are the counties losing the most white population in the United States. The more counties have lost non-Hispanic white population since 2010—that is, between 2010 and 2020—the significantly more likely is the county to send an insurrectionist.
There is a right-wing conspiracy theory called the great replacement, which says that white people are being overtaken by minorities and that this is going to cause a loss of rights for white people. It used to be on the fringe. It’s been around a long time, but what’s special now is that that theory is embraced in full-throated fashion by major political leaders and also by major media figures. If you live in an area that’s losing white population, you can start yourself to connect the dots to the spinning that’s going around with these narratives.
In November 2021, Teen Vogue’s Reece Jones dove deeper into the longer history placing these racist ideas into a larger context in an article titled, “The White Supremacist ‘Great Replacement Theory’ Has Deep Roots:
The fear of “the Great Replacement” connects the Chinese exclusion laws of the 1880s, the “Keep America American” nativism of the 1920s, and the “Build the Wall” chants of the 2010s. “The Great Replacement” is often associated with the French author Renaud Camus, who started using the term in the late 1990s to describe a conspiracy theory that globalists wanted to replace white, Western European civilization with non-Europeans. However, Camus was simply adding a new name to an old idea that had existed in the United States for centuries. The first Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized African-Americans in the south in the years after the Civil War, feared that Reconstruction would replace white dominance in business and government. The anti-Chinese agitators in the 1870s and 1880s feared that Asians would replace whites in the West. The nativist movement and the second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s feared that immigrants from around the world would replace the white Nordic population. The segregationists in the 1960s feared that the Civil Rights Movement would replace the political power of whites. The anti-Muslim movement of the early 2000s feared that Sharia law would replace American law. The anti-immigrant movement of John Tanton and Donald Trump in the 2010s feared that Mexicans and other immigrants would replace white Americans across the United States. From race suicide to white genocide, each era had its own name for “the Great Replacement,” but the fear of immigrants replacing whites was the driving force each time.
As uncomfortable as it may be for some to admit, the Republican Party has fully embraced the white nationalist ‘replacement theory,’ silence cannot be the response to this problem. It will not dissipate on its own, and Democrats must provide a counter-response. The post-factual GOP is driving race and racism into as many venues of American politics as they can, from school boards denouncing the fiction that “Critical Race Theory” is being taught to grade-schoolers to hyped up fears that protesting police violence is a bigger threat to American communities than the police violence itself.
While Republicans’ embrace of ‘replacement theory’ is not entirely new, it has disconcertingly grown to become a mainstay of the GOP, a central organizing principle. Heading into what will already be a difficult election for them, Democrats cannot be caught unaware of this challenge. They must be fully prepared to call it out and tie Republicans to the violent racists who act on these ideas and the lunatics, some of the celebrities and elected officials, who espouse them.
It is important to note that while Republicans echo violent white nationalist rhetoric, the danger facing American families is not just confined to sporadic violence. The embrace of this fear-based messaging is meant to disguise and legitimize Republican voter suppression efforts and the GOP’s complete opposition and obstruction of policies that would benefit all families, including COVID relief and economic investments.
The challenge to confront Republicans on’ ‘replacement theory’ will be difficult, but Democrats must rise to the occasion and meet it with an effective response. As they look to confront this particular challenge today, Democrats might reflect on the words of those who were forced to confront dangerous social ideas in the past.
In 1995, Eco, an Italian intellectual who grew up in fascist Italy, wrote an essay describing the ideas and social structures that could germinate into a Fascist state, what he called “ur-fascism.” In it he reflected on a quote for Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt who was forced to confront the rise of fascism. Eco wrote:
Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plain clothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.