The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson’s espousal of ‘replacement’ theory is both toxic and ahistoric

The rhetoric of some Fox News personalities has at times overlapped with a racist conspiracy theory cited by two gunmen in 2019, according to a Post review. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Cesar Lombardi was 15 when he left his native Switzerland for the United States. He was Swiss but came from a town a few miles from the Italian border. He spoke only Italian and, in one of a series of letters he later wrote to his grandchildren, reports that he “felt like being deaf and dumb among people whose language I could not understand.”

“I also began to feel some of that desolate lonesomeness that comes of being completely out of relation with our surrounding,” he said of his arrival in New York.

Soon, though, he was on his way to family in New Orleans, a week-long journey by train that he reports overlapped with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Upon his arrival, he was sent to a Catholic school to learn English where he reports that “some of the boys disliked me because I was so different, I suppose, and teased me about my pronunciation and made life miserable for a time.”

Immigrants soon became the target of ferocious hostility from native-born Americans — including specifically those of Italian ancestry. They were seen as racially inferior to White northern Europeans and as a conduit for anarchism and Catholicism and socialism that undercut the United States. The largest mass lynching in American history occurred on March 14, 1891, when 11 Italian immigrants were pulled from a prison, shot and mutilated before a cheering crowd.

That occurred in New Orleans.

By then, Cesar Lombardi had already moved on to Texas. (He remained in Louisiana throughout the Civil War, where, he wrote, "[i]t was admitted, tacitly and otherwise, that the Slavery question was at the bottom of the difficulty, and the institution of Slavery was defended with vehemence, even in the pulpit” — though he “never became reconciled” to the owning of enslaved people.) He was also from a region near northern Italy, while much of the anti-Italian sentiment that emerged focused more heavily on those from the southern part of the country. It's likely, then that he escaped much of the hostility. He thrived in his new country, as did his children and children's children.

His great-great-granddaughter, born Lisa Lombardi, became an artist. She eventually married journalist Dick Carlson and had two sons. One of those sons is Fox News's Tucker Carlson.

On Thursday evening, Carlson opined about modern immigration into the United States.

“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term 'replacement,' if you suggest for the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World,” Carlson said. “But they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually. Let's just say it! That's true.”

“If you change the population, you dilute the political power of the people who live there,” he added later. “So every time they import a new voter, I’d become disenfranchised as a current voter. … Everyone wants to make a racial issue out of it. Oh, White replacement — No. This is a voting rights question. I have less political power because they’re importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?”

It hopefully goes without saying that this rhetoric is dangerous and toxic. It should also be noted that it is also ahistoric and ignorant.

The reason that people get agitated by claiming that “the people who live here” — mostly White people — are being “replaced” is that this is a central tenet of white nationalist rhetoric. Specifically, it’s a framing about immigration that’s specifically meant to agitate racial animus: “They” are taking over, as surely as dirty foreigners named “Lombardi” from uncivilized lands were mucking up the U.S. late in the 19th century.

Carlson has two more kids than I have, yet I do not feel as though his brood has disenfranchised me. The population of the United States has tripled in the last 100 years, a function, among other things, of immigration. Is Carlson arguing that we have, right at this moment, precisely the right amount of dilution in our votes? Or should we rewind the clock to, say, 1859 and exclude the progeny of any new arrivals from that point forward? My kids would get to vote, even if Carlson's might not be able to. Can't have the Carlsons diluting the votes of the Bumps!

What's particularly shortsighted about Carlson's spitting is that it ignores both how racial and ethnic identities evolve and how Hispanic immigrants to the United States vote. While the density of Hispanics in the United States is expected to increase in coming decades, that expectation is predicated on the idea that the children of those who identify as Hispanic now will continue to do so.

“Despite evidence that ethnic identifiers have generally become less salient over the course of generations,” researchers Tanya Golash-Boza and William Darity Jr. wrote in 2008, “the current predictions about the future demographics of the U.S. expect the children of Hispanics also to be Hispanics.”

What is more likely to happen — and, indeed, what has happened in the past — is that many Hispanic immigrant families will increasingly identify as more broadly American and as White. Just as the Lombardis became the Carlsons and the Boumpasses became the Bumps, many new migrants to the United States will eventually simply become another part of the American population. We don’t blink at Rudolph W. Giuliani being a high-profile political figure, but it seems likely that Americans would have 150 years ago. This opportunity to be part of a united nation is, to most, part of the American ideal.

On top of that, if Democrats are hoping to “replace” White Republicans with “Third World” Democrats, the data suggest that this is a risky strategy. Hispanic Americans who were born in the United States have often voted less heavily Democratic than other Hispanics. Research conducted by Equis Labs even found that in some areas of the country, support for President Donald Trump in 2020 was higher among new immigrants than among more established residents. Yes, on net, Hispanic voters tend to vote more heavily Democratic — but less so than Blacks, for example.

Carlson is adept at presenting his rhetoric. It's part of what makes him good on television; he's sharp and brash and energetic. But that shouldn't obscure that his rhetoric is wrong, shortsighted and potentially harmful.

“It is a difficult and delicate operation to transplant a human being already grown or partly grown,” Cesar Lombardi wrote in 1914. “All the little rootlets of sentiment which must be cut off in the process bleed and suffer and a period of desolation as well as isolation must ensue in all such cases. Even now, my heart goes out to the emigrant and his family.”

As we said, immigrants’ political views change over the generations.