The “Great Replacement,” also known as the White Replacement Theory, holds that liberals are deliberately pushing to change demographics in the United States for political gain. The theory is largely promoted by white supremacist groups, but it seeped into the conservative mainstream with the election of President Donald Trump.
Adherents of the “Great Replacement” believe that white Christians should remain the dominant political and economic class in the United States, and that other groups which seek political power are fundamentally illegitimate. The most infamous example of the theory came when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Tucker Carlson endorsed the theory on his show when he said: “In political terms, this policy is called the great replacement, the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”
The “Great Replacement” theory is toxic for a number of reasons. Its proponents fundamentally believe that racial and religious minorities are not legitimate political actors and that they should be politically and economically subjugated. They are also hostile to secularism and push for Christianity to be taught in public schools. These beliefs are incompatible with liberalism and democracy. If certain groups are politically illegitimate, then the next logical step is to deny them civil liberties and political participation.
These are the kinds of ideas that have historically been associated with segregation and voting restrictions on African Americans. They have also been associated with political violence to prevent political activity and economic prosperity. The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, where a white mob burned down over 1200 homes in a successful Black neighborhood, was motivated by these same fears. So have other attacks on racial minorities throughout U.S. history. “Great Replacement” ideas are tied to both white nationalism and Christian nationalism. These groups have seen increased influence as former President Trump shifted the Republican Party to the right on a host of social issues. Ideas about who is and isn’t politically legitimate are also wrapped in the former President’s bogus claims about election fraud and also in the January 6th insurrection and violence in the U.S. Capitol.
It is important to recognize that ideas about the “Great Replacement” are not confined to the U.S. They are also fairly prominent throughout Europe and other majority-white nations, such as Australia. In the U.S. the fears revolve around immigration from Latin America, but in Europe, those fears are more about immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. Fear of Muslim immigration has contributed to Islamophobic laws being passed in France, and some believe Islamophobia also played a key role in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
As demographic shifts become more prominent and salient throughout the western world, it is likely that right-wing narratives about immigration and replacement will continue to have some success with voters. But the growth of these sorts of ideas also threatens democracy and could potentially lead to certain groups being shut out of the political process. It will be critical for liberal leaders throughout the world to push back on the ideas behind replacement and fight for more equal and inclusive societies.