Republicans and the Great Replacement

The idea that they're being "replaced" is now part of the core GOP ideology

In August of 2017, far-right demonstrators marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “You will not replace us!”.

That rally’s organizers called it the Unite the Right rally. At the time, it seemed like this name was more than a little aspirational; the marchers, according to Wikipedia, included “the alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and various right-wing militias.” That motley crew seemed unlikely to become the thought leaders of one of the United States’ two great political parties.

And yet fast forward four years, and the idea that the people of the U.S. are being “replaced” is now a core part of conservative messaging:

An in a House subcommittee meeting on April 14th, Representative Scott Perry of Florida said the following:

“For many Americans,” Perry began, “what seems to be happening or what they believe right now is happening is, what appears to them is we’re replacing national-born American — native-born Americans to permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation.”

So what started as a fringe neo-Nazi chant is now a mainstream idea in the GOP. Given the taboo around the idea, it’s probably even more common among Republican voters themselves; Tucker is a savvy operator who knows how to speak to his audience’s fears, so if he feels confident enough to support the idea despite the taboo, you can bet a lot of Republicans are worried about the exact same thing.

So how did we get here? Why is the Great Replacement now increasingly core to the conservative worldview? First, it makes sense to ask who or what the folks on the right think is actually being replaced.


Racial or political replacement?

The obvious answer to the question of “who or what is actually being replaced”, in the minds of conservatives, is “White people”. In fact, many commentators jumped straight to this explanation. And there’s plenty of evidence for this conclusion.

For example, the people at the Unite the Right rally were obviously talking about a racial replacement. Richard Spencer, America’s most famous explicit white-nationalist, posted a video of the chant on his website. And the chant occasionally veered into “Jews will not replace us”, reflecting a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory that Jews are puppet-masters using immigration to destroy the White race.

And there’s plenty of evidence that a fear of racial replacement is somewhat common, especially among White voters who strongly identify as White. Here’s the result of a 2016 paper by Major et al., entitled “The threat of increasing diversity: Why many White Americans support Trump in the 2016 presidential election”:

What accounts for the widespread support for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential race? This experiment demonstrates that the changing racial demographics of America contribute to Trump’s success as a presidential candidate among White Americans whose race/ethnicity is central to their identity. Reminding White Americans high in ethnic identification that non-White racial groups will outnumber Whites in the United States by 2042 caused them to become more concerned about the declining status and influence of White Americans as a group (i.e., experience group status threat), and caused them to report increased support for Trump and anti-immigrant policies, as well as greater opposition to political correctness…Among Whites low in ethnic identification, in contrast, the racial shift condition had no effect on group status threat or support for anti-immigrant policies, but did cause decreased positivity toward Trump and decreased opposition to political correctness…Reminders of the changing racial demographics had comparable effects for Democrats and Republicans.

Other papers generally find the same. This is consistent with the theory that the White vote is realigning around racial issues, with “low ethnic identification” Whites moving to the Democrats and “high ethnic identification Whites” moving to the Republicans.

This would certainly not be the first time that anxiety over demographic replacement has become prominent in U.S. politics. As historian John Higham details in his famous book Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, fear of demographic replacement of Anglo-Saxons and Nordics played a big role in the immigration restriction legislation of the 1920s — legislation that Trumpists often praise to this day. In the 19th century, there was anxiety over replacement of Protestants with Catholics, which intertwined with racial replacement fears related to Irish and German immigrants.

But race isn’t the only thing that people fear might be replaced; many Republicans are also worried about political replacement. Note that Tucker couches his replacement theory in explicitly electoral terms:

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.”…

“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.”

This is also not a new sentiment in American politics. In the 19th century, Federalists and Whigs both worried that immigration represented Democratic party vote-importing on a mass scale. Here are some excerpts from Daniel Tichenor’s Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America:

As the book notes, the fears of vote-importing were not entirely unfounded. Nor are they in America, either; many Democrats were explicitly excited in the 2000s about the possibility that immigration would deliver them an enduring majority. The most famous example of this is the 2004 book The Emerging Democratic Majority by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira.

Of course, the shift in Hispanic and Asian voters toward the Republicans in the 2020 election should theoretically blunt those fears. But it remains to be seen if the shift is a blip or the start of a trend. And even if Hispanics only go for Democrats by 55-45 instead of 70-30, Hispanic immigration will still statistically tend to hurt Republicans. If Hispanic voters actually flipped to the GOP overall, as Italian Americans did, it might be a different story, but even if that eventually happens it’s decades away.

Race is an important factor in politics, but never discount the power of negative partisanship. Republicans have been taught all their lives to see the Democrats as a baleful, threatening force, so the idea that waves of newcomers will propel the Democrats to eternal dominance is naturally terrifying.

In fact, racial and electoral worries are probably intertwined in conservative minds, rather than being distinct and separate issues. Here’s an excerpt from Michael Anton’s famous essay “The Flight 93 Election”:

The sacredness of mass immigration is the mystic chord that unites America’s ruling and intellectual classes. Their reasons vary somewhat. The Left and the Democrats seek ringers to form a permanent electoral majority. They, or many of them, also believe the academic-intellectual lie that America’s inherently racist and evil nature can be expiated only through ever greater “diversity.” The junta of course craves cheaper and more docile labor. It also seeks to legitimize, and deflect unwanted attention from, its wealth and power by pretending that its open borders stance is a form of noblesse oblige…

This is insane. This is the mark of a party, a society, a country, a people, a civilization that wants to die. Trump, alone among candidates for high office in this or in the last seven (at least) cycles, has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live.

And both of these are intertwined with a more nebulous worry about cultural replacement. When former congressman Steve King of Iowa declared in 2017 that “You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies,” he repeatedly claimed that it was about cultural preservation rather than race, saying “it’s the culture, not the blood.” Most were not convinced, but it seems clear he thinks of it this way.

And when I recently asked a conservative friend if British Americans had been replaced by Irish and German immigration in the 19th century, or Anglo-Saxon Americans by East and South European immigration in the early 20th, he replied that this did not constitute a “replacement”, because the older groups asserted their cultural hegemony over the new groups by means of mass violence (including the KKK!). So it’s not just about genes, or just about votes; cultural domination and forced one-way assimilation are clearly part of the imagined antidote to “replacement”.

In fact, I suspect that one reason the “Great Replacement” theory has gained such currency in the conservative world is that the cultural pillars of conservatism are failing.

The vacuum on the Right

What is conservatism really about these days? Small government and low taxes are rapidly going out of favor as the limitations of their economic benefits have become apparent. The muscular, confident jingoism of Reagan died with the Iraq War, replaced with Trump’s cagey isolationism. But the biggest change by far has been the rapid decline of Christianity in the U.S.:

Over the last decade or so, substantial fractions of Americans have stopped identifying as Christian:

The decline has been slightly smaller, but still apparent, among Evangelicals relative to mainline Protestants.

And a recent Gallup report found that the number of Americans who say they belong to a church or other house of worship, after holding roughly steady through the turn of the century, is now nosediving:

The obvious cause here is the internet (that’s a post for another day). But for old people like Steve King who don’t understand the impact of new technologies, maybe it’s natural to think that inflows of new, non-assimilating immigrants are the reason that a culture they valued for their entire life is now dying out.

What’s more, if it had remained a political and cultural juggernaut, Christianity might have offered a natural way to bring Hispanics and Asians — many of whom are Christian — into the conservative fold. But without it, there’s one less identity to transcend racial divisions on the right.

But beyond all that, the decline of Christianity as a cultural and political force simply gives conservatives one less thing to define themselves and their movement and their values. I’m thinking of this prophetic tweet:

With nothing else left to hold onto — no economic program, no religion, no flag — is it any wonder that conservatives are looking for something new to unite around? And here comes the Great Replacement theory, offering one unified explanation of why conservatives are declining in cultural and political power. It’s all about Them. The newcomers. Resist the inflow of aliens, and perhaps the center-right nation you remember can be restored.

This is why I expect GOP opposition to immigration to be ongoing, fierce, and unyielding. Great Replacement theory is no longer peripheral to conservative ideology; it has become core. Even if immigration halts completely, the idea of immigration will remain as a proxy for all the social and cultural changes that dismay conservatives. Continued inflows are a flashpoint, but the heart of the issue goes beyond any policy. It’s about identity. The Right has united around the idea that they are a people who has been collectively dispossessed.

And I don’t know what to do about that. If Hispanics and Asians shift closer to 50-50 partisan voting, it will take the edge off of the feeling of electoral dispossession, but I don’t know if anything can bring Christian America back from the grave. And the vision of forced one-way assimilation that many on the right imagine tamed previous immigration waves will never come to pass (in fact it never happened even back then, as assimilation has always been a two-way street). I hope some more positive, future-oriented conservative movement emerges, but I can’t imagine what it might coalesce around.

So perhaps there’s just nothing to be done. Maybe the Right, or a faction of it, will simply carry this identity of dispossession into the indefinite future — the ghosts haunting the wreckage of a Flight 93 that long since crashed.