At the core of the idea of American democracy is a promise of civic equality, initially extended just to a chosen few. The key political conflicts of American history have been over expanding that promise. The “white genocide” or “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory rests on the ideological principle that certain people should be excluded from that promise, or that extending it to them would constitute a form of bondage for those to whom the promise was originally kept. Because the threat of the interlopers—whether religious, racial, or ethnic—is existential, it justifies violence, in the form of murder, disenfranchisement, or dispossession. The ideology of the Great Replacement is a particular threat to democratic governance because it insists that entire categories of human beings can or should be exempt from democratic rights and protections. Any political cause can theoretically inspire terrorism, but this one is unlike others in that what it demands of its targets is their non-existence.
In 1916, the American immigration restrictionist Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race, which argued that immigration was destroying America’s traditional “Anglo-Saxon” population and along with it the tradition of self-governance. Grant’s ideas were popular and influential. They provided the impetus for racist immigration laws passed in the 1920s, which sought to limit not only African and Asian immigration but also that of Eastern and Southern Europeans, who were deemed genetically inferior to their Northern European counterparts. Adolf Hitler cited these racist laws as an inspiration, but some ascendant nativist intellectuals on the right now commonly refer to their repeal as a great catastrophe.
There are two versions of the “replacement” conspiracy theory, but both of them share the same basic premise. The first version is the idea that a secret cabal (typically one that is composed of Jews) is fostering demographic change in the United States through immigration in order to replace its white population—the motive of mass murderers in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and now Buffalo. The second is that liberals are fostering demographic change in the United States through immigration in order to replace its white population. Both conceive of America as fundamentally white and Christian, and in so doing posit not only a racial conception of citizenship but a racial hierarchy, one that must be maintained if America’s true nature is to endure. That these theories are now embraced by the descendants of some of the very European immigrants whom Grant considered racially inferior might have shocked him, but that just shows how arbitrary and socially determined such categories are.
This conspiracy theory has grown so popular among key GOP figures that the conservative elite can no longer condemn it unreservedly. Instead, some prominent conservatives have chosen to defend it in sanitized form, arguing that the Democratic Party’s support for immigration reform is a plot to, as Representative Elise Stefanik of New York put it in an ad last year, “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” Note the notion that an “electorate” can be “overthrown” by being outvoted, as though Republican electoral defeat is by definition illegitimate—especially if that victory is enabled by the wrong kind of voters.
But all versions of this conspiracy theory are not only racist; they are also false. Democrats and Republicans alike have, at various times, sought comprehensive immigration reform as a way to win over Latino and Asian American voters—and implicit in this is the idea that they need to be won over.