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We need to focus on the real fight against 'great replacement' theory

Dismissing it as disinformation fails to confront the core issue: rotten, racist values.
Image: Man in the centre wearing a blazer with American flag colors amidst attendees at a rally.
People bow their heads in prayer at a rally for former President Donald Trump at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Conroe, Texas, on Jan. 29.Sergio Flores / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file

It is common in left-of-center circles to refer to the white supremacist "great replacement" theory — the nonsensical and racist claim that white Americans are deliberately being "replaced" by nonwhite immigrants — as a conspiracy theory. But a striking new poll suggests the left is better off focusing on the racist and antidemocratic principles behind the claim rather than trying to dismiss it primarily as disinformation.

There's a risk of dodging or implicitly conceding the most dangerous ideas that underlie and fuel the conspiratorial thinking.

A survey released by the Southern Poverty Law Center last week had an eye-popping finding: An overwhelming majority of Republicans report believing in key tenets of “great replacement” theory. According to the poll, which was conducted with Tulchin Research, a Democratic polling firm, via online panel in late April, 68 percent of Republicans agree with the statement that “the recent change in our national demographic makeup is not a natural change but has been motivated by progressive and liberal leaders actively trying to leverage political power by replacing more conservative white voters.”


It seems that efforts by “great replacement” theory-backing pundits and politicos like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and No. 3 House Republican Elise Stefanik of New York are paying off; the idea that liberals are seeking to remake American political and cultural life by replacing white people appears to be not just mainstream, but in fact dominant on the right.

To be fair, one explanatory factor is likely the design of the question itself. It’s complicated and wordy, and it includes partisan signaling (“progressive and liberal leaders”) without offering an alternative. I suspect some Republicans and Democrats responding to the question may really have responded less to the specifics and more to the idea of whether or not they generally favor progressive leaders’ ideas and actions on immigration.

But even if we grant that this survey question is not well-designed, this poll isn't a massive outlier. According to December poll from AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 47 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants who agree with their political views.”

The reality we have to face is that these ideas that originate on the white supremacist right really are going more mainstream. That means showing careful judgment in fighting them. And the fundamental threat of “great replacement” theory isn’t disinformation. It’s rotten, racist values.

To be clear, “great replacement” thinking does of course involve advancing falsehoods. In its classic form it posits the antisemitic trope that porous borders are engineered by shadowy Jewish financiers. And the claim that immigration-friendliness on the left is driven purely by a quest for political advantage is of course false.

The racism is the point.

But if progressives focus on calling "great replacement" thinking a conspiracy theory, there's a risk of dodging or implicitly conceding the most dangerous ideas that underlie and fuel the conspiratorial thinking. Replacement theory proponents conceive of white people as constituting a single, coherent civilization under siege by people whom they've deemed nonwhite. Culturally, they view whiteness as something that is corroded by diversity and racial integration, and politically they view whiteness as a basis for entitlement to power. Even if you disprove the false conspiracies to import immigrants to change the nature of the country, those troubling concepts of racial purity and hierarchy will remain.

When Tucker Carlson warns against the advent of “obedient voters from the Third World,” he’s trafficking in racist and essentialist ideas about the perceived character of nonwhite immigrants. Of course in reality, first-generation Americans often take quite naturally to Republicans, nonwhite voters can often be conservative, and Donald Trump’s support from Latinos grew even as his bigotry intensified. But that's beside the point. Carlson and his fellow travelers are simply using conspiracies to mobilize people around a generalized hostility to immigrants and people of color. The racism is the point.

And thus antiracism must be at the forefront of the fight against these ideas. The core issue isn't the lack of evidence regarding a conspiracy theory, it's that the very premise of the "great replacement" conspiracy depends on a racist worldview. The left should make the positive case for a society that's welcoming to immigrants and their path to citizenship, from cultural enrichment to civic health to greater prosperity. It might require more effort than calling right-wingers paranoid, but it will keep the left grounded in the most critical principles at stake.