The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Great Replacement Theory’ isn’t about voting. It’s about whiteness.

Donald Trump supporters listen to the national anthem during a rally in Des Moines in October. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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A few years ago, the idea known as “great replacement theory” — that liberal elites are scheming to “replace” native-born Americans with non-white immigrants — began to migrate from the far-right fringe into the outer reaches of the Republican Party.

A leading indicator of this came from Donald Trump advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller, who began touting “The Camp of the Saints,” a racist 1973 novel in which dark-skinned immigrants destroy France. Versions of these ideas found their way into Trump speeches, but at the time, few understood this development’s implications.

Now, this theory appears to be moving in sanitized forms toward the center of GOP ideology. So, we’ll need a fuller understanding of what Americans really think of these ideas.

New polling suggests disturbing answers to these questions. But it also illustrates how far we have to go in understanding the problem: We’re still not reckoning with the degree to which great replacement theory is all about the defense of whiteness.

For instance, a new Yahoo News-YouGov poll finds that 61 percent of Trump voters, and 54 percent of Republicans, believe that “a group of people in this country are trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants and people of color who share their political views.”

By contrast, “only” 34 percent of overall Americans agree with that statement. Meanwhile, an Associated Press poll in December found very similar percentages agreeing with an identical statement.

Yet, this polling doesn’t tell us enough. It doesn’t quite capture what “great replacement theory” is really about: The belief that whiteness is under threat.

One organization that does try to gauge that belief is the Public Religion Research Institute. Its polls ask whether respondents agree with this statement: “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.”

This measures whether people believe both that immigrants are “invaders” and that this is a threat to the country’s current cultural and ethnic makeup, which is to say, a threat to the country’s majority White status, with all the cultural implications that has.

“This is designed to get at the threat to White people,” Natalie Jackson, director of research at PRRI, told us. “The core of replacement theory is about whiteness.”

As Jackson noted, great replacement theory is centered on the idea that “White people, and very specifically White Christians, have always held the power in the United States.” Central to the theory, she said, is “fear of losing power to people of color coming in from other countries.”

There’s a reason polling should capture how widespread public adherence truly is to that particular set of sentiments. If it’s growing increasingly widespread, this will illustrate with more clarity how grotesquely irresponsible it is that media figures and Republican politicians are playing footsie with various versions of great replacement theory.

Republicans and right-wing media figures who push versions of this theory sanitize it by casting the threat posed by invading immigrants as primarily a political threat, not a racial one.

You can see this trick at play when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) says that Democrats “want to change the makeup of the electorate." You can see it when Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance claims that Democrats “have decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here.”

And you see this trick at work when Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 3 in the House GOP leadership, declares that Democrats would legalize undocumented immigrants in a “PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION.”

The smokescreen here works as follows: Republicans say Democrats are plotting to change the demographics of the country. Yet America has always changed demographically. And Republicans cannot say with any certainty that demographic change will primarily benefit Democrats over the long term, given all the talk about the Latino shift to the GOP.

And so Republicans have gotten away with avoiding the clear implications of their argument. If more immigrants come, what precisely is the threat their audiences are supposed to fear? What will be lost?

They do not directly say the answer is whiteness, or that the gathering threat is an America with a non-white majority. But that’s the obvious implication. At the very least, as experts in great replacement ideology point out, the goal is for listeners to grow more comfortable with sugarcoated versions of these ideas, so they begin to acclimate to their more virulent ideological core.

In a new piece, scholars Jason Stanley and Federico Finchelstein explain that great replacement theory, at its core, is about “racial paranoias.” While this worldview is often dressed up as concern about threats to cultural identity, they argue, ultimately it centers on perceived threats to understandings of the nation as “racially, ethnically or religiously homogeneous.”

Now that it’s clear that some version of this is getting mainstreamed in our political discourse, we need to understand how widespread the perceptions of this threat truly are.

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