The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No one will apologize for hyping the ‘great replacement theory’

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) pictured during the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2019. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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The rhetoric Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) used in a fundraising appeal last September was not subtle.

“Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” it read, pairing its text with a photo of President Biden. “Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”

Not subtle — to the point of being ham-handed. The right wanted to muddy the water on what constituted an “insurrection” in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack at the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob so immigration is cast as the real insurrection. And after Fox News’s Tucker Carlson first started explicitly hyping the idea that Democrats were intentionally trying to drown the political power of native-born Americans without facing any repercussions — an idea that overlapped with a bit of racist rhetoric called “great replacement theory” — the idea began to get traction with elected officials. So Stefanik included it here.

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Consider how useful this line of argument is for her. It presumes not only that Democrats are allowing an increase in migration or even illegal migration, but that they are doing so intentionally. Why? Well, obviously because they’re devious and untrustworthy. But because there’s a real American majority — a powerful group of native-born Americans — that opposes the Democrats’ agenda. So the devious left has no choice but to “overthrow” the electorate by escorting as many immigrants as possible into the country and giving them the right to vote.

Ohio Republican Senate nominee J.D. Vance explained this idea to Carlson in March.

“These people are doing it by design,” he said, including, “ … Democrat politicians who have decided that they cant win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here. That’s what this is about.”

“It’s not bad policy, it’s evil,” Vance added.

Again: this is not subtle. The nefarious leftist elites are trying to ruin the country by allowing unchecked immigration. Never mind that they aren’t allowing unchecked immigration or that there’s no way that a law granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants or even immigrants broadly would pass Congress, and there’s clearly no way that’s happening before the midterms in November. But it’s useful rhetoric to amplify fears of immigration, anger at the left and a sense that those on the right are the real owners of American power and culture. And what’s the downside?

Well, the downside is when a guy drives to Buffalo and kills 10 people because he allegedly wants to foment a race war in defense of the embattled White race, at least according to a document that authorities believe the suspect wrote. Tell people that there’s an effort to diminish the power of real Americans by bringing immigrants to the country and some people are going to be able to hear the dog whistle quite clearly.

When the media, including The Washington Post, pointed out that the rhetoric in the document mirrored what had been said by Stefanik and Carlson, Stefanik was indignant. Her official response to the Buffalo shooting, in a statement and a tweet from her office, was sympathetic. She’s “heartbroken,” she is praying for those who lost their lives, etc. Her campaign, however, took a different tack.

“Statement on the Disgraceful, Dishonest, and Dangerous Media Smears,” its news release was titled.

“Any implication or attempt to blame the heinous shooting in Buffalo on the Congresswoman is a new disgusting low for the Left, their Never Trump allies, and the sycophant stenographers in the media,” adviser Alex DeGrasse wrote. “The shooting was an act of evil and the criminal should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Stefanik herself offered thoughts from her campaign Twitter account.

It’s great replacement theory — but leaving open the idea that maybe it’s all a coincidence. (An email sent to Stefanik’s office asking if she accepted or rejected the core tenet of the theory received only the campaign statement above in response.) She’s not saying this is an effort by elites to intentionally replace American voters. She’s just saying, you know, Democrats want to bring in a bunch of immigrants and let them vote. That’s all.

Notice, by the way, that even here Stefanik can’t avoid the Republican subject of the moment. Allowing immigrants to vote is about “protecting election integrity,” the sole object of Donald Trump’s interest over the past 20 months. Given that passing a law to allow immigrants to vote would not be a violation of election integrity in the sense of laws being broken, Stefanik is here simply looping “letting those people vote” in with “that taints our elections.”

It is, in fact, irresponsible to suggest that the shooter in Buffalo was influenced by Stefanik’s campaign ad; I suspect very few teenagers have heard of Stefanik, much less are the targets of fundraising pitches from her campaign. But she still gave — gives — oxygen to the idea in a way that helps normalize its adoption and spread its reach.

The most important point here is that Stefanik will not walk away from the rhetoric she used last September. Politicians have long been loath to own up to their errors, as are most humans. But there was at one time an expectation that elected leaders would do the right, difficult thing in acknowledging their mistakes. That’s no longer the case.

As Ezra Klein, then of Vox, wrote in 2016, Trump’s political gift was that he expressed no shame about what he did. For all of the incendiary and false things he said, for all of the indiscretions he committed, there were almost no occasions on which he apologized or admitted wrongdoing. He simply returned fire, attacking the media or his critics or his accusers. In one memorable passage from Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” he writes about the advice Trump gave a friend accused of sexual impropriety.

“If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead,” Trump said. Instead, he suggested, “you’ve got to deny, deny, deny.”

As president, that overlapped with his insistence on “counterpunching,” saying that the media reporting on his mistakes and dishonesty were the enemies of the people and that, by targeting him, they were targeting conservative Americans broadly. Over time, media criticism became a mark of success on the right, a sign you could offer to your base that you had the right enemies. That Stefanik’s response to reports about her echoing great replacement theory was purportedly about “Disgraceful, Dishonest, and Dangerous Media Smears” says it all.

This is why Trump attacked the press, of course. He wanted the press to be seen as oppositional to his politics and therefore simply another partisan pawn. And Republicans have since embraced it. Scott Pruitt, who resigned from Trump’s Cabinet following a string of scandals, is now seeking election to the Senate by touting how the media was out to get him. After the New York Times ran a lengthy series exposing Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric — including on great replacement theory — Carlson was giddy.

Deny, deny, deny. Lump the media in with critics on the left. Never acknowledge that you erred but, instead, argue that you are being unfairly accused of having erred because of bias. By now, it’s rote — even when the question is whether you stand by an argument that was allegedly deployed by a man accused of killing 10 people at a grocery store.

In 2016, Trump ran in explicit opposition to immigration, even at one point making an argument that the Democrats wanted to bring in uncountable numbers of immigrants who would vote for their party. He refused to admit his errors or his lies. And then he won. And then he retained enormous popularity with the base.

And lessons were imparted.