By Tod M.
The Great Replacement theory has once again been catapulted into the public consciousness by the tragic massacre in Buffalo at the end of May. The shooter joined a growing list of far-right terrorists who have cited versions of the conspiracy theory as a motivation for their crimes – a list that includes the perpetrators of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in 2018, the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019, and the El Paso Walmart mass shooting in 2019. But what does the theory entail? Where does it originate? And why does it inspire such violence and hatred in the most extreme of its believers.
To start with, an explanation of the Great Replacement theory: the idea is poorly defined in its popular use, in part because it isn’t particularly specific. It draws heavily on conspiratorial themes from across far-right spaces, with a particular focus on so-called ‘White Genocide’. The crux of the theory is that non-white immigration is being encouraged, and non-white people already living in Western countries are being encouraged to reproduce at a higher rate in order to actively dilute the ethnic makeup of these countries. There is also a suggestion that a group of elites is deliberately driving this, who are then vilified alongside ethnic minorities as a threat to the nation. The conspiracy theory has a wide range of varieties. The most extreme are openly white-supremacist, and are notable for their murderous followers. They often view this perceived ‘cultural genocide’ as an existential threat to their nation, and one that must be fought against. The less overt, particularly in the US, tend to take a more political angle, with politicians like Republican senate candidate JD Vance claiming that the Democrats ‘have decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here’.
So where does this idea come from? The term was coined by French writer Renaud Camus in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement. Camus said that the term needed no definition, but that it referred to the supposed phenomenon of the native French population being demographically replaced by immigrants from former French colonies in Africa and the Middle East. He describes this as ‘peopling immigration’ – calling it ‘genocide by substitution’. This is a revealing description, as it links it very clearly to the broader idea of ‘white genocide’. Camus also credits some of the ideas as originating in Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech about his horrific vision of future race relations. Camus very clearly envisages it as Islamic immigration that is the biggest threat to Western culture, a notable difference compared with the American versions in which Latinos or African-Americans are largely blamed. The theory also has very little basis in the real world – many of the statistics used by Camus were actually wrong, over-exaggerated, or extrapolated to the point of baring no resemblance to any actual possible future scenarios. American claims, such as the assertion that the US will no longer be majority white by 2042, have also been questioned. That one, for example stems not from any change in US demographic trends, but a change in who was classified as white in the 2008 census. It has gained popularity, particularly in its native France and in the US, despite this. It presents a slightly less obviously racist outlook than theories about ‘white genocide’, which are amongst other things openly anti-semitic, and has proved malleable as it doesn’t require any particular group to be blamed. This has allowed it to incorporate the predominant local prejudices of any area in which it establishes itself and thus to grow. These range from Republican vilification of Latino immigration to Indian persecution of Indian Muslims – taking the idea a long way from its anti-Arab and anti-African origins. Hence, since its establishment by Renaud Camus, the idea has proven capable of adapting and spreading, gaining traction around the world and amongst politicians who seek a reason to demonise minorities.
Finally, why is it capable of inspiring such violence in its most extreme (and insane) followers? It is, of course, difficult properly to understand what could drive anyone to commit such horrific crimes. But the Great Replacement theory has clearly played a role for three main reasons. The first is that, as previously mentioned, the theory is white supremacist. It views non-white immigration as a threat to majority-white countries – a view that can only be sustained by the belief that non-white people are, in some way, ‘lesser’. This means that those attracted to the theory are already amenable to white supremacy, and as a result often more comfortable with political violence and extremism. The second idea is that Western civilisation is under attack from outsiders. For those who buy into the combination of pseudoscience and white supremacy, this is a powerful idea, and often does inspire them to ‘defend’ the ethnic makeup of Western countries. Normally this takes the form of racially biased immigration policies and isolationism. But the third reason is that, in its most extreme forms, it presents vaguely defined ‘elites’ as completely in control – an insurmountable enemy. With the blame placed on these elites rather than just political groups, such as the Democrats or the EU, there develops a sense of dogmatic hopelessness in the most extreme spaces about the threat of a Great Replacement. The closest equivalent to this is the ‘black pill’ idea found in incel communities, another group notable for turning out a startling number of mass murderers. This toxic combination of a following already more amenable to extremist violence, an imaginary threat to be fought against, and a sense of hopelessness on a political level, leads a few to decide that if victory is impossible, then they should instead go out in a blaze of horrifying violence. The ideas of the Great Replacement have been slowly moving towards the mainstream over the past decade, particularly in Orban’s Hungary, the American right, and in its native France. With its roots in Islamophobia and pseudoscience, the theory has evolved into a variety of forms, ranging from the seemingly more palatable to the obviously repellant. But it is worth remembering that at its core is white supremacy, and that it is the same ideas, just taken to extremes, that have now driven some of the most horrific attacks on Western societies of the last few years.