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The Insurrection on January 6, the Great Replacement Theory, and the Ongoing Threat to Democracy

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On January 6, 2021, after losing his reelection bid, President Donald Trump directed a mass of his radicalized supporters – who had been gorging on bigoted conspiracies that he helped legitimize for the last several years – to the U.S. Capitol in a last-ditch effort to overturn the election results. This violent coup attempt left five people dead and over 140 law enforcement officers injured. Baseless bigoted conspiracies about a corrupted democracy drove the violent insurrectionists to break into the Capitol building as they sought to stop the certification of the election. 

In the years preceding the Jan. 6 attack, Trump and his allies spread nativist conspiracies to justify subverting a democratic election amongst their supporters. Three years after the violent coup attempt failed, those same anti-democratic nativist conspiracies have only further solidified in the Republican party.  A year out from another presidential election, with Donald Trump on the ticket, he and his allies will continue to lay that dangerous foundation.  

At the heart of GOP-endorsed conspiracies is the notion that the American electorate cannot be trusted with electing the “right kind” of political leaders because it has been compromised through immigration and civil rights. To use the current front-runner’s terminology, “the blood of the nation has been poisoned.” Illegitimate voters, the conspiracies posit, are stealing democracy from the legitimate white Christian voters. There is a direct throughline from far-right Oath Keepers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2019 to the actions of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys convicted of seditious conspiracy for their attempt to undermine the democracy of the United States on January 6, 2021. The white nationalist movement believes in taking violent action to prevent “THEM” from “replacing” “US.” Jan. 6 was the stark manifestation of that belief.  

Despite the efforts of those responsible and their allies to whitewash and downplay the significance of the attack, it is vital to take stock of the ideas and lies that precipitated the attack because those lies and their threat to democracy have only solidified over the last three years.   

One of these baseless conspiracies that was pushed into the mainstream in the proceeding years by both the political leaders who incited the violence on Jan. 6 and the movement leaders who helped orchestrate that violence was the great replacement theory. That’s the white nationalist and antisemitic lie about a secret plot by elites (or the Jews, or the Democrats, or globalists, or the Left) to intentionally facilitate an invasion of non-white migrants to replace the white (or “real American”) voters. In fact, Trump began his presidency in January 2017 by outrageously 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.”

While not a new lie, the replacement theory had largely been confined to the dark corners of the web and behind closed doors of white nationalist circles. But throughout his campaign and time in the White House, Donald Trump promoted these ideas, giving them a tremendous legitimacy boost. In a telling move on this point, he elevated Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller,  both men who had previously championed the obscure replacement theory novel “The Camp of the Saints” as an important text and helped spread this bigoted conspiracy throughout the MAGA base. 

The white nationalist invasion and replacement conspiracy theories help underwrite the attacks on American democracy. Falsely asserting that forced global migration is part of a nefarious plot to secure a permanent electoral majority for Democrats strikes at the heart of the American promise of a multi-racial democracy. While often advanced in the mainstream as part of the push for extreme anti-immigrant policies, the great replacement theory reinforces the fictions of election deniers.   

Trump and other elected officials were legitimizing the invasion and replacement conspiracies, but they were also rampant amongst the MAGA movement base that supported him. 

Among the leaders of those on the ground on Jan. 6 and later convicted of seditious conspiracy in the attack was Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers and long-time promoter of the replacement and invasion conspiracies.  In December of 2018, SPLC reported that Rhodes was encouraging his supporters to travel to the southern border to thwart a perceived “invasion” of migrants outlining this replacement conspiratorial concerns claiming: “we know that’s the endgame for the Democratic Party, it’s what they want, which is to bring in more voters that they think will vote Democrat. That’s the whole point. And so we have to stop that. It’s an existential threat to the survival of our nation.” According to a detailed report from The Atlantic, “In 2016, when Trump had warned of election fraud, Rhodes put out a call for members to quietly monitor polling stations. When Trump warned of an invasion by undocumented immigrants, Rhodes traveled to the southern border with an Oath Keepers patrol.” 

Even before the Oath Keeper’s participation in the January 6 insurrection, they had participated in at least two armed standoffs with federal authorities and had a long history of racist, xenophobic, and violent rhetoric. Despite this, Republican Members of Congress continued to lend legitimacy to Rhodes and his Oath Keepers. In March of 2021, after the attack on the Capitol, the Republican Party of Texas hosted an anti-immigrant event featuring Rhodes and elevating his bigoted, violent, and conspiratorial views.

Regardless of the direction of the flow of conspiratorial propaganda, those who supported the attack on the Capitol mostly held replacement theory beliefs, according to research from the University of Chicago. The research found that the replacement theory beliefs were the “most important driver of the insurrectionist movement” – a segment of 21 million Americans who also believed the 2020 election was stolen and that force was necessary to restore Trump to the White House. 

This inherently anti-democratic and white nationalist lie about non-whites invading and replacing “real Americans” has also inspired multiple domestic terrorists to take the lives of dozens over the last few years. It was chanted in the streets of Charlottesville in 2017, posted online before a man murdered 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, shared in a racist screed before the murder of 23 at a Walmart in the Latino community in El Paso in 2019, and copied in his on-line postings by the gunman who killed ten people at a grocery store in an African-American neighborhood in Buffalo in 2022.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) astutely captured how these bigoted conspiracies can be weaponized into political violence, writing of his reaction as the mob approached the Capital on Jan. 6, “I remembered a quote from Voltaire that seemed to capture for me the madness unfolding in Trump’s party: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’”

Far from chastened by the deadly violence downstream of the promotion of bigoted conspiracies, Republicans have doubled down on the replacement conspiracy theory.  Speaker Mike Johnson has repeatedly promoted the replacement lie. He also released the videotapes of the Jan. 6 attack in the hopes of whitewashing the affair but blurred some facesbecause we don’t want them to be retaliated against and to be charged by the DOJ and to have other concerns and problems.”

Speaker Johnson, who was an instrumental supporter of Trump’s attempted coup, is far from alone as a Member of Congress promoting the conspiracy meant to undermine the faith in the democratic process. America’s Voice has identified 120 Members of Congress who amplified the replacement and invasion conspiracy in their official capacity just this last year. We identified over 1,040 times top GOP candidates, officials, or outfits that pushed the bigoted fiction in just the last year. We also identified this disturbing practice more than 700 times in 2022. In 2023 the Republican House majority also brought 13 witnesses to Congressional hearings who had promoted replacement and invasion conspiracies and even one witness who participated in Jan. 6 was asked by the Republicans to serve as a witness on one of their anti-immigrant hearings. 

During testimony on Capitol Hill, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeatedly warned about the threat of domestic terrorism that could be inspired by great replacement “invasion” language. This concern has gone unheeded. He said in response to questioning under oath that  when Members of Congress espouse the racist conspiracy theory, “It certainly fuels the threat landscape we encounter.”

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump hasn’t given up his rabid promotion of the bigoted conspiracies that seek to explain away his electoral failure, either. Over the last three years, he has kept up his promotion of the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him and made the replacement and invasion conspiracy a central part of his early campaign. Trump has promised pardons for the violent insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol. He also cited the shorthand for his radical immigration agenda and its implementation as justification for dictatorial rule. He said he would shut down the border on day one. “After that, I’m not a dictator,” he said. His dictatorial designs justified through his nativist vision came after his rhetoric over the last few months has drawn widespread comparisons to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as he called political enemies “vermin” and repeatedly said immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of Americans.

The American people appear to understand that looming political violence is on the horizon. Recent polling from Navigator found: “Two in three Americans are concerned that events like those on January 6th at the Capitol could happen again” and that “at least four in five Americans are concerned about political violence in the United States today.”

In spite of all the promises of violence and authoritarianism, three years later, a recent Washington Post and University of Maryland poll found even further movement to embrace Trump and discount Jan. 6 amongst Republicans. The bigoted and anti-democratic conspiracies and promises are not turning supporters off but radicalizing them further. 

Belief in the replacement theory is disturbingly widespread on the right as it has been mainstreamed and legitimized over the last several years. A recent Rand Corporation study of active US military members found one in three believed replacement conspiracy theories. In the fall of 2022, an NPR/Ipos poll similarly found about 28% of Americans believed the racist conspiracy theory and 68% of the Republican party, a fact that is not terribly surprising because that racist conspiracy theory is now regularly echoed by Members of Congress. And an analysis by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) at the end of 2023 found: 

  • “Republicans who have favorable views of Trump (41%) are nearly three times as likely as Republicans who have unfavorable views of Trump (16%) to agree that true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country.”
  • “More than six in ten Republicans (63%) continue to say that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump”
  • “Nearly four in ten Americans (38%) agree with the statement ‘Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background,’ compared with 57% who disagree…While Democrats (15%) have become less likely to agree with this idea — which is promoted in conservative circles as ‘the Great Replacement Theory’ — than they were in 2019 (20%), independents (37%) have grown more likely to agree with this sentiment (31% in 2019). Republican views (65%) have remained consistent since 2019 (63%).”

These polling numbers paint an undoubtedly disturbing picture of the reality we face. But they should be interpreted more as a call for urgency to combat the threat than as a cause for fatalistic despair.  While there is clearly a not insignificant minority persuaded by a bigoted, anti-democratic conspiracy, there is also an emerging new American majority opposed to conspiratorial bigotry and violent anti-democratic attacks.

As Rep. Raskin reminds us in the closing paragraphs of an epilogue written for the publication of the January 6th Report: “Most Americans passionately favor democracy, both as a set of existing practices and as a continuing pragmatic experiment in finding ways to link the people with the power. Most Americans reject MAGA appeals, whether directly or coded, to racism, anti-semitism, misogyny and immigrant-bashing.”

At the same time, that majority – especially one not organized against the threat  – is far from a predestined outcome. Instead, it represents the potential to reject the nativist attacks on our democracy;  a potential that the man who inspired the failed violent coup attempt on Jan. 6 is determined to test again this year.  

Writing the forward to the report produced by the Congressional Select Committee on the January 6 coup attempt, Chairman Bennie Thompson reminds us that “faith in our institutions and laws is what upholds our democracy.” He warned: “If that faith is broken – if those who seek power accept only the results of elections that they win – then American democracy, only a few centuries old, comes tumbling down. That’s the danger.” 

Jan. 6 wasn’t just a tragic day from a few years ago that we should consign to the history books. It is a potent reminder of the danger ahead and the need for the clear-eyed rejection of the nativist conspiracies that seek to justify the abandonment of the promise of American democracy.