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Immigration 101: What is the Great Replacement Theory?

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If you’ve heard Republican elected officials or members of the right-wing media talk about immigrants lately, you’ve probably heard some version of the Great Replacement Theory.

The Great Replacement Theory, also known as “white replacement theory” or just “replacement theory” is, in short, a conspiracy theory about how “elites,” “globalists,” or Democrats are intentionally facilitating an invasion of non-white immigrants into the US to reduce white Americans’ cultural, demographic, and electoral power.

It’s bigoted, racist, extremist, and antisemitic. It was once a fringe idea but is now pervasive among Republicans and the right. And it has extremely dangerous real-world consequences. 

We’ll examine each of these points in turn.

The Language of Great Replacement Theory

When Republicans refer to replacement theory, they usually don’t literally say the words “Great Replacement Theory.” Instead, they often use coded dog-whistle language involving “invasions,” “replacement,” people who want to “conquer” America, and the fear that white Americans are going to be outvoted and supplanted in “their” own country.

An excellent resource from Human Rights First explains that “dog whistles for this conspiracy include ‘voter replacement’ or statements claiming [that] increases in border crossings are ‘intentional.’” 

Replacement theory, of course, is not real. The language of “invasion” denotes an intentional and forceful overtaking. Migrants coming to the US are seeking a better life and in no way constitute an “invasion.” (A US district judge even said this; when the state of Texas tried to push through the extremist, anti-immigrant SB 4 law, claiming that it was necessary to combat an “invasion” of migrants, the judge wrote that “I don’t see evidence that Texas is at war.”)

But the use of replacement theory poses a threat to American democracy in two ways. First, it advances the widely debunked myth that there are or have been significant numbers of non-citizens casting ballots, leading to calls for voter suppression efforts. Worse, it adds fuel to the claims of election deniers that elections cannot be trusted, undermining the very ability of a democracy to function.   

Where Does Replacement Theory Come From?

You can trace the core elements of Great Replacement Theory back a century or more in the United States, with an ugly history involving the Chinese Exclusion Act and the eugenics movement. 

For decades, replacement theory was the province of extremist fringe figures. David Lane, an American neo-Nazi who was convicted of murder in 1984, is thought to be the source of the term “white genocide.” A racist book called The Turner Diaries was published in 1978, inspiring a domestic terrorist group, and a French novel called The Camp of the Saints (about immigrants destroying white, Western society) was published in 1973. Today, such books are core texts for white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups, and their devotees include people like Trump White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller

There are different versions of replacement theory. In this blog, we focus on the extremist belief that people are conspiring to bring immigrants to the country to overwhelm white Americans. However a closely related replacement theory says that Jewish elites are responsible for the “replacement” plot. Thus, the replacement theory is antisemitic as well as racist and xenophobic. 

In recent years, Great Replacement Theory has been propelled by people like Donald Trump, who ran a famously anti-immigrant 2016 campaign and implemented a slew of anti-immigrant policies in office. In January 2017, Trump began his presidency with a statement based on replacement theory, falsely claiming he “would have won the popular vote in the 2016 election if 3 million to 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally hadn’t voted.” 

Extremists have taken up the message from there. In 2017, white supremacists chanted, “you will not replace us” in Charlottesville, Virginia — where a neo-Nazi deliberately rammed his car into anti-racist protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer

Replacement Theory in the Republican Party

Unfortunately, the Great Replacement Theory — thanks to Trump, the MAGA crowd, and right-wing media — has moved far beyond fringe figures and taken root with elected Republican officials and conservative media.

Trump himself has only doubled down on anti-immigrant and replacement theory rhetoric, recently saying that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country” – a choice of words rooted in white supremacy and xenophobia.

Most of the Republicans who ran in the 2024 GOP primary echoed this language, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Former Vice President Mike Pence both claiming that migrants seeking asylum and refuge in the US constitute a literal “invasion.” Vivek Ramaswamy once told Fox News that “we have an armed invasion across our own southern border that we are not doing a thing about.” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) wrote a whole op-ed about how Democrats are not doing anything to stop immigrants from coming across the border.

Republican members of Congress and GOP elected officials have used replacement theory to demonize immigrants as well.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) said during a 2021 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing: “For many Americans, what seems to be happening, or what they believe right now is happening, is…we’re replacing national-born American — native-born Americans, to permanently transform the landscape of this very nation.”

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) said on Fox News that “they want to change America; they want to replace the American electorate with third-world immigrants that are coming in illegally.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in 2021 told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that President Biden’s immigration policy would eventually create a giant new group of Democratic voters and “every one of them [will have] two or three children.”

In the first three months of 2024, America’s Voice identified 786 social media posts from leading Republicans, elected officials, and candidates that peddled a version of the replacement theory.

Fox News and the right-wing media ecosystem have been frequent proponents of the replacement theory. Conservative radio host Charlie Kirk and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson have often spoken about the theory. Media Matters found that between 2022 and 2023, Fox News described migrants as an “invasion” or “invaders” over 170 times. 

Finally, X owner Elon Musk – an entrepreneur with a cult following and an incredibly large megaphone – has recently become a major promoter of replacement theory, posting wildly outlandish and unsubstantiated tweets about immigrants.

The Consequences of extremist language

Words matter. When elected officials use Great Replacement Theory to whip up antagonism against immigrants for political purposes, that rhetoric has consequences. Hate crimes against Latinos have risen, and such crimes spike when there is extensive media coverage involving Latinos, including migrants coming from Latin America.

Sometimes, the consequences are deadly. At least three deadly acts of domestic terror in recent years can be directly attributable to the rise of replacement theory.

In 2022, a mass shooter targeted a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing ten. The shooter left behind a manifesto directly citing replacement theory, saying that he feared “mass immigration will disenfranchise us.”

In 2019, a shooter opened fire in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 23. His manifesto railed against the “Hispanic invasion of Texas”; he also said he “wanted to shoot as many Mexicans as possible.”

In 2018, a gunman with a history of spreading antisemitic slurs online shot eleven people in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue. Online, he’d blamed Jewish groups for allowing “invaders in that kill our people.”

And yet, despite these incredibly dangerous real-world consequences, Republicans haven’t backed down from their use of the false, racist, and extremist replacement theory. This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was rife with mentions of immigrant “voters” and “invasions.” This year’s GOP political ads will likely heavily utilize replacement theory.

What can we do? As this guide from the Immigration Forum explains, we can: 

  • Learn more about the history
  • Help others understand where replacement theory originates
  • Amplify the voices of those who speak out against it 
  • Ask questions
  • Get involved in your community to support immigrants, refugees, and migrants.

For more, check out Debunking White Nationalist Narratives About Immigration and the Border – A Short Resource Guide