Opinion | ‘Replacement Theory,’ Mainstreamed

Tucker Carlson and other right-wing voices continue to tout this old antisemitic trope.
Headshot of Tucker Carlson.

White replacement theory, the repugnant racist trope that claims America’s white population is being displaced by people of color, is once again receiving a wide audience among those feeling malnourished by Donald Trump’s absence from their social media feeds. Filling the void is Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who years ago fooled the media world into thinking he was a cerebral bow-tie-wearing partisan rather than a conspiracy-spewing white nationalist. In a September broadcast, the culmination of months of racist rants, Carlson accused President Joe Biden of cultivating the “great replacement” by enacting immigration policies “to reduce the political power of the people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the Third World.”

This “replacement” claim, which frequently includes the accusation that Jews in particular are masterminding non-white immigration, has its roots in 20th-century French nationalism. It was cited by the Tree of Life Synagogue gunman as a motive for his massacre. After the broadcast, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) renewed its previous calls for Fox to fire Carlson; his response was, “Fuck them.”

Everything old is new again—and with a cable news megaphone, even more ominously toxic.

If it is difficult to imagine one of the most prominent American conservatives saying this to the leading watchdog of antisemitism without consequences, the exchange shows clearly where the mainstream conservative movement stands in 2021. Politicians and activists may claim to love Israel and the Jewish people, but when they look at antisemitism in the mirror, they push back with whataboutism. Matt Gaetz, the Republican Congressman from Florida, defended Carlson by tweeting that the ADL “is a racist organization.”

It’s not just Carlson’s execrable dismissal of the ADL, though, that shows how closely right-wing nativist rhetoric is intertwined with antisemitism. The false claim that George Soros finances caravans of migrant “invaders” has received saturation coverage in right-wing media, which depict the Jewish Soros as a wealthy and conniving mastermind of the “replacement.” It’s all part of the racist conspiracy theory that white people are the real victims of any social change that seeks to combat racism and xenophobia. Such theories are frighteningly effective with a base energized and enraged in the Trump era.

Carlson is not the first seemingly respectable conservative media figure to propagate white nationalist ideology—with its unmistakable antisemitic undertones—to broad audiences. In the 1970s and 1980s, William Rusher, the politically connected publisher of William F. Buckley’s National Review, helped promote the careers of writers who similarly peddled these “great replacement” conspiracies.

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He befriended Peter Brimelow, an openly xenophobic writer who had praised French writer Jean Raspail’s racist 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, which glorifies a violent race war arising out of “invasions” of non-white immigrants. (The book later became a must-read of the Trumpist right, promoted heavily by Steve Bannon at Breitbart.) Rusher helped Brimelow to a perch at National Review, where he contributed nativist dispatches in the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout a “mainstream” career at National Review, Forbes and elsewhere, Brimelow, who had immigrated to the U.S. from England, issued dire warnings about U.S. immigration policies that “opened the Third World floodgates” and would cause “the proportion of whites” in the U.S. to fall.

By 1997, Buckley, finding Brimelow politically inconvenient, let him go. Brimelow resurfaced in the Trump-era alt-right, founding the virulently anti-immigrant website VDare and promoting alt-right ideologies. Buckley’s efforts to expel extremists like Brimelow were only episodic—as when he famously denounced the extremist John Birch Society—and ultimately fell short of eliminating the contagion of racism and white nationalism that was revitalized in the Trump era.

Rusher also mentored a young activist named Robert Whitaker, helping him publish his 1976 book A Plague on Both Your Houses, a screed against liberalism and a conservative movement that Whitaker deemed too cowed by it.

He defended anti-busing activists, lauded eugenicists, fretted that “white concern with racial survival” was considered “taboo” and held up Raspail’s book as a warning that whites were “doomed to extinction through racial mixture.” Whitaker went on to work on Capitol Hill and in the Reagan administration.

Many years later, he also reemerged as a hero to the alt-right, after he authored a “mantra,” widely circulated online, claiming that white people in the United States were victims of genocide (the word choice suggests persistent preoccupation with one-upping Jewish discourse about the Holocaust). “If I tell that obvious truth,” Whitaker wrote, “liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.”

Everything old is new again—and with a cable news megaphone, even more ominously toxic. A “respectable” middle of the American right, capable of reining in this rising extremism, has all but disappeared, ensuring that what used to be the fringe—with all its baggage—is increasingly mainstreamed in the conservatism of the 21st century.

Sarah Posner is the author of Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind. 

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