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What is ‘great replacement’ theory and how did its racist lies spread in the US?

People leave messages at a makeshift memorial near a Tops Grocery store in Buffalo, New York, the day after a gunman shot dead 10 people.
People leave messages at a makeshift memorial near a Tops Grocery store in Buffalo, New York, the day after a gunman shot dead 10 people. Photograph: Usman Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Why are we talking about the ‘great replacement’ theory?

On Saturday, a white man armed with an AR-15-style rifle entered a supermarket in Buffalo in New York state and killed 10 people, almost all of whom were African American. The gunman is suspected of having posted a 180-page racist diatribe in which he repeatedly referenced the extremist conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement”.

The Buffalo shooter drew heavily on the white supremacist rantings of the gunman in the 2019 massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 people were killed. His similarly hate-filled statement was titled “The Great Replacement”.

At its heart, the theory claims falsely that white people are being stripped of their power through the demographic rise of communities of color, driven by immigration. The lie has been integral to many of the most horrifying recent acts of white supremacist violence in the US.

Far-right protesters at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which led to the killing of a woman, chanted “You will not replace us”. Replacement theory featured in the rants of mass shooters at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 in which 11 people were murdered; a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in which 23 were killed in 2019; and a synagogue in Poway, California, the same year in which one person died.

What is the theory and how did it emerge?

Replacement theory is a set of racist and antisemitic paranoid lies and delusions that has cropped up around the world in the past decade. In the US it is expressed as the false idea that an elite cabal of Jews and Democrats is “replacing” white Americans with Black, Hispanic and other people of color by encouraging immigration and interracial marriage – with the end goal being the eventual extinction of the white race.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) traces replacement theory back to early 20th century French nationalism. It began to receive popular attention in 2011 with the writings of the French critic Renaud Camus.

In the US, the racist ideas were initially adopted by fringe websites including the chat boards 4chan and the technically now defunct 8chan.

How has it spread through US society?

More recently, the idea has been enthusiastically embraced by rightwing news outlets that have injected these hate-infused falsehoods into the mainstream of American public life.

In particular attention is now falling on Tucker Carlson, the most avidly watched host on Fox News. A recent deep exploration by the New York Times found that his show, Tucker Carlson Tonight, had on occasion drawn inspiration from white supremacist sites such as the neo-Nazi Stormfront.

The newspaper found that in more than 400 episodes Carlson took up the idea that immigration was being exploited by elites to change the demographics of the US. Last year the ADL called for the TV host to be fired after he accused the Democrats on-air of “trying to replace the current electorate … with more obedient voters from the third world”.

What has the theory done to American political debate?

Having metastasized from fringe websites to Fox News, the idea of the imperiled white voter has spread its tentacles through the nation. An opinion poll last week by the Associated Press and the NORC center for public affairs research found that one in three US adults now subscribe to the false idea that a plot is under way to replace US-born Americans with immigrants, and that those US-born citizens are losing influence and power as a result.

The notion has been taken up by Republican politicians at the highest levels. In the wake of the Buffalo shooting Liz Cheney, the Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, accused the leadership of her own party in the House of enabling “white nationalism, white supremacy, and antisemitism”.

Cheney did not mention by name Elise Stefanik, who took over the number three role in the Republican House leadership from her after Cheney was ousted for having criticized former president Donald Trump. Stefanik has promoted a politicised version of replacement theory, claiming that Democrats are attempting a “permanent election insurrection” by seeking citizenship for undocumented immigrants in order to “overthrow our current electorate”.

Other prominent Republicans who have amplified the lie include Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, and far-right members of Congress, including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar.

Is pressure mounting for something to be done about this?

Cheney has called for Republican leaders to “renounce and reject” white supremacy. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican member of Congress from Illinois, has gone further, calling for several top Republicans themselves to be replaced.

“The replacement theory they are pushing/tolerating is getting people killed,” he said.

Charlie Sykes, a moderate conservative commentator who edits The Bulwark, wrote that responsibility for the Buffalo murders “lies with the murderer himself … But as conservatives once understood, ideas also have consequences; and poisonous demagoguery can have deadly results”.

Such comments reflect a growing unease about the accommodation with replacement theory within rightwing politics and media. So far though the criticism is coming from individuals who have been pushed into the margins of the conservative movement, with no sign of change coming from the top.