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Opinion How Elise Stefanik and the GOP sanitize ‘great replacement’ ugliness

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). (Ting Shen/Bloomberg News)

Nothing gets Republicans like Rep. Elise Stefanik angrier than reciting their own words back to them at a politically inconvenient moment. So it is that the New York lawmaker is lashing out at critics who have noted her flirtation with “great replacement theory” in the wake of the horrific racist shooting in her home state.

The online screed of alleged Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron posits a conspiracy to exterminate and replace native-born Whites in Western nations. He explicitly labels this a planned “genocide."

Stefanik, meanwhile, declared in ads last September that Democrats would legalize undocumented immigrants in a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION.” That’s a vile replacement trope pushed by the No. 3 in the House GOP leadership.

Confronted by this in the wake of Gendron’s alleged mass murder of mostly Black victims, a Stefanik adviser insisted she has “never advocated for any racist position,” while raging against “sickening” reporting and a “disgusting low for the left.”

Actually, the “disgusting low” was committed by Stefanik herself. Because in this episode we see how Republicans like Stefanik launder and sanitize these ideas in ways that insinuate them ever deeper into mainstream discourse.

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The extent to which “great replacement” ideas have migrated from the fringe into something more routine among Republican lawmakers appears new. As many have noted, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson has relentlessly promoted versions of the idea, and numerous Republican officials have done the same.

What’s different is the careful mainstreaming of fantasies about a deliberate plot to replace native-born Americans. That puts a new spin on garden-variety nativism or even on various forms of racial nationalism that envision Whiteness as central to American identity, notes Yale professor Philip Gorski, an expert in these movements.

“It’s been gradually moving from the fringes into the mainstream,” Gorski told me. “First it was the entertainment wing of the GOP. Now it’s the political wing as well.”

Local and federal lawmakers called for action on gun control and for social media companies to crack down on hate speech on May 15 after a supermarket shooting. (Video: The Washington Post)

Let’s note that this doesn’t mean Republicans are to blame for the shooting. The point is that “great replacement” ideas — which apparently inspired other racist mass shootings in Pittsburgh, El Paso and elsewhere — have gained diffusion beyond the fringes via various processes, and Republicans like Stefanik have played a part in them.

How does this mainstreaming happen? Experts have described several mechanisms.

Case in point: A speaker floats “great replacement” ideas — then claims it is intended as racially neutral. Carlson is an expert at this ruse: Oozing with phony piety, he insists he’s just disinterestedly observing what Democrats, in supporting immigration, actually want to happen.

Of course, Democrats support immigration for many reasons utterly unconnected to electoral politics. What’s more, given that Latinos may be shifting Republican — and that gaining citizenship takes many years — Carlson cannot even claim with any certainty that this will electorally benefit Democrats in the immediate or long term.

So his motive for railing about this cannot be chalked up to a mere disinterested observation about Democrats’ political incentives. What exactly is the true nature of his warning to native-born Americans? What is he trying to get them to fear?

Stefanik also plays this sanctimonious game: How dare anyone discern any racial overtones in her warning that native-born Americans should fear permanent subjugation from the largely non-White immigrants in their midst! What an absolutely outrageous suggestion!

Similarly, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas has declared that Democrats would effect a “silent revolution” by “allowing” an “invasion” of migrants. Patrick carefully couched this as a warning about “millions of voters” set to impose their will on the current population, and we’ve heard talk about imported voters from other Republicans, including Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Or take J.D. Vance, the GOP Senate nominee from Ohio. He recently claimed that President Biden’s “open border” will ensure “more Democrat voters pouring into this country.”

But once again, for the same reasons that Carlson and Stefanik cannot be permitted to get away with this scam of feigning racial neutrality, none of these Republicans can pretend to be warning only of electoral consequences.

This sort of trickery works on still another level: It recasts racist conspiracy theorizing in a more acceptable form. As Gorski puts it, the talk about new voters is really a “fig leaf to hide white supremacy.”

“By wrapping up ‘great replacement theory’ in concerns about democracy, they’re injecting the theory into our public conversation,” Gorski told me, noting that this moves it “from the white supremacist fringes into the conservative mainstream.”

Nicole Hemmer, a historian of the right, adds a crucial point. She notes that when high-profile figures float these ideas in a more benign form, it seduces people into being more accepting of them than they otherwise might be.

Once this tactic “legitimates those ideas” and makes them “seem less radical," notes Hemmer, this might lead people to explore them further, slowly acclimating them to their more virulent ideological core. Meanwhile, as fascism scholar Jason Stanley details, even the sanitized, coded version will be entirely legible and extremely energizing to the movement’s true believers.

So when Stefanik declares herself shocked, shocked that anyone would suggest that nefarious intentions undergird her “great replacement” parroting, remember: This is a key feature of how the whole sordid game is supposed to work.