CW: Violence, racism, death, terrorism, anti-Semitism, child sexual abuse
Note: At no point do any of the hyperlinks provided include any direct link to right-wing sites. Perpetrators of the terrorist atrocities are deliberately not mentioned. It should be stressed that at no-point should the materials of terrorists be accessed, shared or distributed.
As the motives of the perpetrator of the Buffalo attack became clear in the aftermath of the shooting, recirculated clips from the Fox News programme Tucker Carlson Tonight – one of the most popular cable talk shows in America – emerged in which Carlson claims that high ranking members of the Democratic Party are seeking to replace “legacy Americans” through primarily non-white immigration. Carlson periodically refers to this conspiracy as “the Great Replacement.” The New York Times has catalogued over 400 instances from the show in which Carlson makes either direct reference to the ‘Great Replacement’ or views on deliberate demographic change found within the doctrine.
Though Carlson has stressed that no equivocation can be made between his use of ‘Great Replacement’ and the white supremacist conspiracy theory of the same name, and that he was unaware of the phrase’s origins, fundamentally, the mainstay of the conspiracy remains the same. Both stress the idea that shadowy ‘elites’ are attempting to replace the existing American population, with the term itself being inextricably linked to the extreme right, both in origin and as a centralising conspiracy.
While Carlson has been perhaps the most visible propagator of the conspiracy in the mainstream American right, he is by no means the only voice that has publicly amplified a version of the ‘Great Replacement’. While the US conservative movement’s use of the ‘Great Replacement’ has been slightly changed to suit partisan ends, the structure and term itself remains intact. Prominent voices within the Conservative media sphere, and Republican elected officials and prospective candidates for political office have all contributed to the conspiracy’s mainstreaming. This process of embedding extreme-right talking points within mainstream political and cultural discourse has resulted in polls indicating that nearly half of Republican voters, and one in three US citizens, now believe this conspiracy of deliberate demographic change.
The presence of the conspiracy in mainstream political discourse reflects a seizure of immigration by the US conservative right, particularly post-Trump, as a central political and cultural issue. But it also marks an increasing overlap and embeddedness within the conservative right with a wider conspiratorial milieu. This has seen conspiracies such as the ‘Big Lie’ (the belief that Donald Trump is the rightful winner of the 2020 Presidential Election), and QAnon (the notion of a good versus evil struggle between Trump and a cabal of child-abusing Democratic elites), become embraced by large sections of conservative media, the Republican Party, and conservative voters.
Build the Wall
The fear of non-white ‘invasion’ and interlinked notions of white ‘decline’, the fundamental concepts behind the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy, are by no means new phenomena in the United States. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts tightening restrictions on foreign nationals entering the United States, the presence of anti-miscegenation laws (banning interracial marriage) on the statute books in some states until 1967, and the revelation in 1972 that over 2000 poor Black women had experienced involuntary sterilisation, were all predicated on the fear of demographic change in the US.
In this vein, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 after a campaign which placed immigration at its centre, with depictions of primarily migration from Latin America as uncontrolled and detrimental to American citizens, was not unique. But it did signify an increased polarisation of immigration which has been ongoing from the 1990s. The writer Derek Thompson at The Atlantic sees the election of Trump as the culmination of this increased polarisation, particularly evident since 2006 (in which then President George W. Bush failed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill) which pitted a more nativist wing of the party against a pro-business, pro-immigration wing. Simultaneously, the Democratic Party has been increasingly moving to the left on immigration, shifting from the Clinton administration’s hard-line stance on immigration to the Obama administration’s more liberal position, with the creation of the DREAM Act and DACA, which respectively offer a path towards citizenship for non-registered migrants and protect those who arrived in the US as children from deportation.
The centrality of immigration to Trump’s campaign, present from the outset with his election promise to take a hard-line position on immigration into the United States, and his rallying cry of ‘build the wall’, has helped to cement these polarised views of immigration in the US. But it also moved extreme-right rhetoric into the political mainstream.
Throughout the Trump Presidency, migration was portrayed as a dangerous and overwhelming force. During a wave of increased migration in 2018 (just prior to the midterm elections) from South and Central America due to worsening conditions in countries including Honduras – the so-called ‘caravans’ – Trump denounced those seeking asylum as being part of an “invasion” and containing gang members, while also militarising the US’ southern border through the deployment of significant numbers of active military personnel.
This language of ‘invasion’, frequently invoked during the Trump administration, runs parallel to white supremacist conspiracies of migration, and overlaps strongly with ‘Great Replacement’ and ‘White Genocide’ narratives. The language of an ‘invasion’ by the migrant caravans could also be found in the manifestos of the perpetrators of a spate of Synagogue shootings in 2019, with the gunmen targeting synagogues due to the belief that Jews were behind this wave of migration as part of a deliberate war against white America.
This dangerous rhetoric, which sees mainstream politicians echoing white supremacist talking points, has continued in the post-Trump Republican party. Migration at the US-Mexico border during the Biden administration has been seized upon as a major strategy ahead of this year’s midterm elections in November. For example, Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott, a Trump ally, has launched ‘Operation Lone Star’ – a large crackdown on immigration which has bussed migrants to Washington D.C. Moreover, Elise Stefanik, the third–ranking House Republican, has been routinely criticised for espousing ‘Great Replacement’ theories, and has continued to push the idea that immigration on the US’ southern border is a deliberate effort by Democrats to change the electoral landscape. Not only does this indicate the centrality of immigration to the Republican party post-Trump, but the language of ‘invasion’ and the notion that Democrats are behind deliberate migration patterns, mainstreams and gives political legitimacy to white supremacist conspiracies and talking points.
The Trump administration also saw the appointment of advisors who routinely amplified white nationalist positions, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. It is these ties with the far-right, and associated discourse, which helped further propel their ideologies within sections of the Republican Party. Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist between 2016 and 2017, openly admitted in an interview with Mother Jones in 2016 that his website, Brietbart, was the “platform for the alt-right” – a loose grouping of the far-right which can be broadly categorised by the belief in racial distinctiveness, often tied to culture, which is chiefly mobilised online and ingrained in online sub-cultures. In a deluge of leaked emails, Miller, who was the chief architect of policies including family separation at the US-Mexico border, has been linked to white nationalists and espoused far-right positions including Great Replacement derivatives.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration consistently failed to denounce white supremacism, highlighted by the response to the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Unite the Right rally, a large gathering of around 600 members of the extreme-right, was an event specifically designed to bring together in-person disparate groups and positions within the extreme-right ecosystem in the United States, ranging from alt-right groups such as the Proud Boys to Neo-Nazi organisations like the National Socialist Movement. From the outset, the event was militaristic and centred around white nationalism, with attendees wielding shields (often daubed with extreme-right symbols) and weapons; and deliberately targeting counter-protesters who had gathered in opposition. The event also saw the large procession of attendees chanting “You/Jews will not replace us”. Despite the death of a counter-protester, Heather Hayer, after a car was driven into the crowd by a white supremacist, Trump equivocated blame over the violence and stated that there were “very fine people on both sides”.
The Conspiratorial Milieu
Similarly, the Trump Presidency overlapped with several conspiracy theories, either embraced or tolerated by Trump and elements of the Republican party, which have borrowed extreme-right concepts. In-turn, the mainstreaming of these conspiracies furthers an environment in which truth is contested and gives credibility to other conspiracies. During Trump’s Presidency, the QAnon conspiracy theory became embraced by a significant number of Republicans and Trump supporters. Not only did QAnon utilise existing extreme Christian right positions of messianic figures and Satan worshiping political enemies, but the conspiracy also placed Democrats at the heart of this nefarious plot. Emerging from the hacked Clinton emails and resulting ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy (whereby Clinton and Jon Podesta, Clinton’s Chief of Staff, were believed to be sexually abusing children in the non-existent basement of a Washington D.C pizzeria), the Democratic party in QAnon are essentially evil.
Trump’s routine failure to denounce QAnon, and his embracing of Republican politicians who openly support the conspiracy, like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, have solidified a post-truth landscape within the Republican party in which the Democratic party aren’t only political opponents, but enemies in a wider conflict of good versus evil. Trump also propagated the ‘Big Lie’ conspiracy, which, in some versions, falsely claims that Democrats used non-documented migrants to vote for Joe Biden. This overlaps with the core trope within the conservative right’s take on the ‘Great Replacement’. Despite initial backlash within the GOP to the ‘Stop the Steal’ insurrection of the US Capitol on January 6th 2021, the ‘Big Lie’ conspiracy has become a large mobilising force within the Republican Party. NPR/IPSOS polling from this January found 64% of registered Republican voters believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden get elected, and a slew of ‘Stop the Steal’ candidates have stood in this year’s Primary elections (though to mixed success).
The Feedback Loop
White supremacists have also had significant success in propagating their ideas into wider conservative media, and it is arguably this which has most contributed to the mainstreaming of the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy. Fox News in particular has been noted for the number of presenters who have echoed white supremacist talking points, and who throughout the Trump administration and after, described migration into the US as an ‘invasion’.
Fox News, particularly Tucker Carlson, have been most blamed for the proliferation of far-right talking points, which are repackaged to fit partisan goals with white supremacist dog-whistles often still present. White supremacists online have praised Carlson’s segments on demographic change as beneficial to their cause, and advantageous in propagating white supremacist positions to a wider audience. Laura Ingram, another prominent voice on Fox and the most watched solo female host on cable, claimed in 2018 that “Democrats want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever-increasing number of chain migrants”, and that “the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don’t like”.
These voices signify an increasing anti-immigration rhetoric, which appears to both be driven by, and is driving, Republican positions on immigration, which has seen immigration become the central issue for the Republican party in the run-up to the midterm elections later this year. This feedback-loop and media pressure on the party can be seen in the recent decision by Greg Abbott’s to mobilise the National Guard to the Texan border with Mexico with little warning. In the run-up to Abbott’s primary election, right-wing news figures, including Carlson chastised Abbott for not doing enough on immigration, with Carlson threatening to give a platform to Abbott’s Republican Primary rivals on his popular show, and Abbott mobilising the National Guard shortly after. This feedback loop has occurred previously, including the 2018 midterm elections which were heavily centred on the migrant ‘Caravans’ approaching the US southern border. A 2018 HuffPost article noted that in analysis of Fox News transcripts, the use of the term “invasion” or “invaders” when talking about migrants rose from 25 times in the entirety of 2015, 2016, and 2017, to 33 times in the 30 days before the midterm elections.
From the Living Room to the Ballot Box
This overlap comes at a time where the US conservative right seems increasingly fixated on the frequently interlinked bogeymen of supposed electoral fraud, migration, and US demographic change. US Census data indicates that the white population is declining relative to other racial and ethnic groups, a change that has been underway since the 1950s, with white Americans predicted to become a minority population in 2045. Sections of the Conservative right seem to believe that this change will benefit the Democratic party, resulting in a number of voter restrictions passed by GOP controlled States which disproportionately impact minorities, though it should go without saying that no racial or ethnic group is a homogenous voting bloc for one party or another. For example, in the 2020 election, Trump increased his vote share among voters of Latin American descent by 10 percentage points, with the non-College educated and Cubans most likely to vote Republican. Similarly, though still a small percentage (8% of the total vote), the number of Black voters casting ballots for Trump in 2020 increased by 2%.
With the midterm elections looming, and the process of choosing the next Republican Presidential candidate for 2024 commences, white supremacist talking points in some form or another will be on the ballot box. Mainstreaming is a core aim of white supremacists seeking to spread their ideas beyond their small and largely online platform. Such ideas pose a significant threat to democracy and life. That they have been so successful in mainstreaming the ’Great Replacement’ conspiracy and have been able to co-opt sections of the US Conservative movement, is indicative of a failure within the US political system.