For the past few years, white nationalists around the world have been workshopping a new framing for a much older fear. According to these extremists, immigrants — primarily from developing, and predominately nonwhite, countries — are flooding into the West, seeking to “replace” the current body politic. The rhetoric, couched as the “great replacement” theory, has propelled fascistic massacres from New Zealand to San Diego to El Paso, Texas.
For the past few years, white nationalists around the world have been workshopping a new framing for a much older fear.
On Thursday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson seemingly answered whatever questions may remain about his willingness to carry water for these white supremacists. Carlson wailed that the Democratic Party was “trying to replace the current electorate” in the U.S. with “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” That, according to Carlson, is “what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it. That’s true.”
One problem? Carlson ignored the fact that the 2020 electorate turned out far more immigrant and nonwhite populations for Donald Trump than the U.S. had seen in years, or that the biggest gains in the Democratic camp in recent years have been among white, college-educated suburbanites. For Carlson, things such as facts and figures are mostly irrelevant. “Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter,” he continued. “I have less political power because they are importing a brand new electorate.”
The Fox News host tried during the segment to dodge the obvious racial overtones, arguing that “everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it.” Everyone is making this about race, because it is about race. And that’s easily proved by looking at the primary proponents of this rhetoric.
Take the perpetrator of the devastating 2019 massacre in New Zealand, who specifically cited this notion of a “great replacement” in his manifesto, claiming that he was targeting local Muslim populations for one reason: “This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement. This is racial replacement.” One month later, a white supremacist opened fire at a synagogue in San Diego, spinning similar lines. The perpetrator, as Salon reported, “was a devotee of the fascistic ‘replacement’ theory.”
And a few months thereafter, in one of the deadliest days in recent American history, a shooter slaughtered nearly two dozen bystanders in El Paso. In a manifesto, the shooter specifically cited the shifting demographics of Texas as his fascistic casus belli, writing that his actions were “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” — and to the political shifts currently under way in an increasingly purple Texas. Unsurprisingly, it’s that same misunderstanding — the notion that it is immigration, rather than native-born political shifts, that is changing Texas’ political map — that is now driving the upsurge in efforts to secede from the U.S.
The specific framing of this “great replacement” tracks back nearly a decade to a French author named Renaud Camus, centered on concerns about nonwhite immigration into Europe. But in the U.S., the bones of the idea — the notion that an entrenched white population now stands battered by an influx of outsiders, bent on upending traditional values and shifting America’s political dynamics – is nearly as old as the nation itself.
Such ideas have fired nativist movements since at least the mid-19th century, when a surge of migration from places like Ireland, coupled with an influx of new Mexican populations in territory the U.S. stole from Mexico, sparked xenophobic movements in the U.S. like the Know Nothings. A few decades later, American bigots met migration from places like southern Europe and east Asia with new immigration restrictions — including things like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first piece of legislation barring specific nationalities from entry. By the early 20th century, such racist restrictions were the norm. Indeed, the U.S.’ 1924 Immigration Act, which effectively closed off the world outside of western Europe to the U.S., was partly based on nativist advice provided by the author of “The Passing of the Great Race” — a book Adolf Hitler referred to as his “bible.”
Tucker Carlson, of course, would never acknowledge that his rhetoric is in any way identical to these generations of white supremacists, nor the deadliest strains recently manifest. (Nor would he ever acknowledge that white supremacists believe he’s “absolutely right,” or that they themselves admit to being avid fans.) But his predictable dance — claiming that he was simply raising questions and ideas — is becoming less and less credible in broader U.S. society. On Friday, the head of the Anti-Defamation League promptly called for Fox News to finally divest itself of Carlson’s rhetoric. “Given his long record of race-baiting, we believe it is time for Carlson to go,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. (Fox Corporation chief executive Lachlan Murdoch dismissed the demand.)
Nor is such rhetoric finding a widening audience in the U.S. In one of the great ironies of the past few years, the rise of Trump — the author of a movement that, boiled down, is little more than nativism wrapped in a personality cult — may have jump-started American support for immigration writ large. As Gallup found last year, 34 percent of Americans now say they would like to see immigration to the U.S. increased, the first time Gallup found that a plurality of Americans favored such expansion.
These racial revanchists believe they must do whatever it takes to hold on to their preferential place in the racial hierarchy.
Still, there are plenty of Americans seeking confirmation that their rank nativism is right: those (mostly) white Americans, terrified of change, who find succor in the anti-democratic racism of the American far-right. These racial revanchists believe they must do whatever it takes to hold on to their preferential place in the racial hierarchy.
This ideology — voiced by Carlson, embodied by Trump, but part of the American body politic for centuries — is clearly dangerous. Putting aside mass shootings, the Jan. 6 riot made that incredibly hard to ignore.
As one study in The Washington Post revealed, the clearest through-line among the insurrectionists wasn’t economic instability, or broader economic concerns. It was, rather, that “the people alleged by authorities to have taken the law into their hands on Jan. 6 typically hail from places where non-White populations are growing fastest.”
And it’s these communities that generations of nativists have targeted, have inflamed and have used to buttress the dominance of white America. It is, in a sense, nothing new. But as long as that rhetoric — that entire ideology, now stretching beyond America’s borders — continues, it will claim more bodies, and target more communities.
And until it is replaced, it will continue to threaten the rest of us, as well.