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Opinion: The racist theory that is animating some Trump backers

Also known as the Great Replacement Theory, this idea lurked behind the “Unite the Right” rally of August 2017, which saw a small army of young White nationalist men carrying tiki torches while chanting “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” as they paraded in Charlottesville, Virginia. (The next day, a rally-goer rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters and killed a woman.)
Flash forward to 2021, and you find the concept, on Trump’s favorite major network, in postings from far-Right internet influencers and coming from the mouths of his fellow Republicans.
We have been here before. In the 2016 election campaign, it was the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who fed Trump ridiculous notions he used to woo voters. The process surprised even those who worked on Jones’s InfoWars program. On PBS’ Frontline, one of them said, “…really Trump, really? You’re taking his word for it?”
With the midterm elections on the horizon, influential talkers on Fox News and some of Trump’s more prominent surrogates are pushing the “Replacement Theory” in ways the former president could hardly miss. Tucker Carlson has even gone so far as to declare the Democrats are implementing an actual plan to change the nation’s racial makeup for some malign purpose.
“In political terms, this policy is called the great replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries,” said Carlson last month. He was immediately echoed by a fellow Trump booster, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who took to Twitter to declare Carlson was “CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America.”
What is actually happening is a decades-long demographic shift which has seen the non-White population grow due to higher birthrates and immigration patterns, while White birthrates have declined. The claim that these newcomers would somehow be more “obedient” is Carlson’s way of saying he assumes they would automatically vote for Democrats.
Trump has voiced racist paranoia about today’s new immigrants, referring to immigrants as rapists, drug traffickers and criminals, complaining of people coming to America from “sh****** countries” with large Black populations and suggested four Black and Brown women in Congress “go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Trump was, of course, imprecise. Three of the women he targeted were born in the US. But the point wasn’t precision, it was posturing in a way that showed.
Add Trump’s musing about wanting more immigrants from Norway and his vow to “take back our country” and it’s easy to see he has already stepped up to the thin line that separates him from White Replacement Theory. He might as well have said America should welcome White immigrants while barring others and even exiling some who are already citizens.
Thanks to networked technology, the cycle which can deliver paranoia to the masses spins at the speed of light. However, American nativism of this sort can be traced to a much slower age. Back in the 19th century, Irish immigrants were targeted with claims they would be more loyal to the Pope than their new country. In the same period Asians were so feared, a mob in Los Angeles carried out a massacre in Chinatown and Congress targeted Chinese women with its first anti-immigrant law.
White America’s fears of being subsumed by other racial groups were later supported in pseudoscientific terms with the 1916 publication of The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant, who warned against immigration and interracial marriage. Grant’s book, which expanded on ideas that originated from economist William Ripley, informed lawmakers who approved laws banning interracial marriage. He was also cited publicly by Adolf Hitler.
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Just as Grant borrowed from Ripley, advocates of today’s White Replacement Theory borrowed from French author Renaud Camus to make arguments now resonating with Republican officials, including Rep. Brian Babin of Texas and Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. In comments on Fox News last month, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told host Laura Ingraham President Joe Biden is purposely letting immigrants try to “take over our country without firing a shot.”

Ingraham is not just receptive to those spouting Replacement Theory, she is also a leading voice for this concept. In 2018, she said “In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She added, “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”

Although she subsequently said she wasn’t referring to race, and White nationalism is “antithetical” to her beliefs, Ingraham was embraced by racist agitator David Duke and later claimed on her show that a White supremacist was being “censored on social media.”
Before Ingraham and others mainstreamed it, Replacement Theory bounced around the internet. YouTube influencers, like Lauren Southern, built careers on attracting audiences with alarming claims. (Before it was taken down, her post titled The Great Replacement was viewed more than 500,000 times.)
The more visible alarmists like Ingraham and Carlson can function as the final link in a chain which leads from the likes of Southern to Trump. Last year, Axios documented five instances of what it termed a “mind meld” between Trump and Carlson. In each case, Trump seized upon issues Carslon stressed and used the terms he deployed to discuss them.
Trump has long made use of more general racist terms and attitudes. If he seizes upon White Replacement Theory, he will embrace an obviously paranoid and dangerous view of the future that has a ready-built network of supporters who are likely to be excited to hear he is joining them. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found White evangelical Protestants, who form a significant portion of Trump’s base, are particularly open to the idea that America is for people like them.
Slightly more than half agreed with the notion “God intended America to be a new promised land where European Christians could create a society that could be an example to the rest of the world” and most of them agreed today’s immigrants are “replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”

A shrewd politician who is willing to use fearmongering and racism to energize his supporters might use the language of Replacement Theory in an election campaign. Know anyone like that?

This version has been updated with a fuller description of the chants at the Charlottesville rally.

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