The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tucker Carlson plays dumb on ‘replacement theory’ — then espouses it

Fox News host Tucker Carlson in 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
6 min

Let’s begin with an analogy.

Imagine you are a farmer, worried about the state of your crops after a period with no rain. Then the forecast offers good news: the prediction of a heavy downpour. You remove the lid from your cistern to catch water for storage and feel relief as the rain starts to fall.

Then your neighbor shows up. He’s furious that it’s raining and furious at your reaction to it. And then he makes a bizarre claim: It started to rain because you invited it to happen. His evidence? You wanted the rain to come and even opened your cistern, sending a clear message to the clouds. The rain is your fault, and his chalk-art business is suffering because of you.

Perhaps you would agree that this is not a rational reaction to the change in weather.

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This analogy is necessarily oversimplified — it’s an analogy, after all — but it’s useful when considering Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s attempt to rationalize his long embrace of the toxic and dishonest idea that a nefarious group of elites is allowing immigrants to enter the United States to remake the electorate.

It’s an idea that’s deeply associated with Carlson for the obvious reason that he has presented this “great replacement theory,” both broadly and in detail, many times over the past several years. By the New York Times’s count, he has referred to the idea that left-wing elites are encouraging immigration to reshape American politics in more than 400 episodes of his show since 2016. After Carlson embraced the idea early last year, Republican legislators echoed it and helped it become a mainstream position with their voters.

On Sept. 22, Fox News host Tucker Carlson misrepresented past immigration remarks by President Biden to suggest the existence of the “great replacement theory.” (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Carlson faces no repercussions for advocating this baseless idea, one inextricable from white nationalist rhetoric. (You may recall the torch-lit neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville five years ago: “You will not replace us!”) But people who are perceived as the beneficiaries of a conspiracy to harm White Americans do. Last weekend, an 18-year-old man apparently convinced of the “great replacement theory” allegedly went to a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo and shot 10 people to death.

That tragedy sparked new attention on “replacement” rhetoric, rhetoric that not only makes incorrect assumptions about an elitist plot but also fundamentally misunderstands the pathway from immigration to citizenship. And because there was new attention on the rhetoric, there was new attention on Carlson, its caddie.

On Tuesday night, Carlson did what he always does when his rhetoric risks getting him in trouble: He claimed that it was simply a function of the Democratic elites trying to punish the right broadly. Carlson insisted that the alleged Buffalo shooter was not acting in response to anyone’s rhetoric but because he was mentally ill — and also that if he was “alienated,” it was the Democrats’ fault, because of school closures during the pandemic.

Immediately afterward, remarkably, Carlson tried to pretend that he was unfamiliar with this “great replacement theory” thing in the first place.

“You’ve heard a lot about the great replacement theory recently,” Carlson said. The theory, Carlson said, was “everywhere in the last two days and we’re still not sure exactly what it is.”

And then he articulated exactly what it is.

“Here’s what we do know for a fact: There is a strong political component to the Democratic Party’s immigration policy,” Carlson continued. “We’re not guessing this. We know this and we know it because they have said so.”

He doesn’t know what “replacement theory” is — but he does have this theory that the Democrats want to replace American voters.

Carlson proceeded to offer multiple examples of how Democrats tied immigration to politics. The intent here, particularly for a regular Carlson viewer, was clear. He knows what the discussion about “replacement theory” is, and he knows that his viewers understand that he thinks Democrats are engaged in a replacement effort, so he plucked various quotes that reinforce that presumed relationship.

Like this, from former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro: “In a couple of presidential cycles, you’ll be on election night, you’ll be announcing that we’re calling the 38 electoral votes of Texas for the Democratic nominee for president. It’s changing. It’s going to become a purple state and then a blue state because of the demographics.”

Notice, first, that this says nothing about immigration. Obviously, immigration plays a role in shaping Texas’s demographics, but Carlson doesn’t even bother masking the way in which he expects his audience to conflate “replacement” with “replacement of Whites.” That’s central to Carlson’s objection to immigration politics, of course, the idea that it is Whites who are being “replaced.” That he uses this example makes that obvious.

But also note what Castro is describing. He isn’t saying that Democrats will push for more immigration to change Texas’s demographics. He’s saying that Texas’s demographics are changing and that will likely change the state’s politics.

Castro saying that the forecast calls for rain and he thinks that’s beneficial. And Carlson is accusing him of affecting the weather.

It’s long been the case that devout patriots argue for America as the global ideal of governance and economic opportunity. People want to come to America because America is the greatest country on Earth. But Republicans — generally the group that is most likely to express that level of patriotic enthusiasm — somehow also see immigration as suspect. Why would people from significantly poorer, more oppressive countries want to come to the United States? Why, obviously, because Democrats are luring them here so they can vote in our elections.

Why are you opening your cistern? Why, obviously, to send a message to the clouds about what you expect from them.

The rest of Carlson’s monologue followed a similar thread: Democrats, by saying that they think their party will benefit from immigration, had proved that they were explicitly seeking to draw people to this country. He also pointed out, correctly, that Hispanic voters — since, again, this is all about race — seem to be less robustly supportive of Democratic candidates than in the past. But that speed bump was not a deterrent to his broader case that while he had no idea what this “great replacement” thing was, his viewers should scoff at how Democrats want to encourage immigration.

This is what Carlson does. He has one argument — the elites are out to get White Republicans — and he hammers away at any news event to make it fit that mold.

Carlson knows what “great replacement theory” is. He argued for it on Tuesday night.