On Saturday, a gunman opened fire in a supermarket in a black neighborhood in Buffalo, killing ten people. The eighteen-year-old alleged gunman, Payton S. Gendron, is said to have scrawled racial slurs onto the barrel of his gun and to have published a racist manifesto that runs into the hundreds of pages. Gendron seems to have placed a special emphasis on “great replacement theory,” the right-wing belief that “elites” are deliberately trying to replace white Europeans and Americans with immigrants and other people of color.
Once relegated to the fringes, great replacement theory has made its way to the mainstream of the conservative movement, with a third of respondents in one poll saying they believed in it. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, in particular, has constantly brought the conspiracy theory into the homes of millions of nightly viewers, as the New York Times has extensively documented. The Times also cites numerous elected officials who have espoused some version of great replacement theory.
But while many articles in the Times and elsewhere have addressed the mainstreaming of the repugnant great replacement theory, fewer have addressed how it fits into the broader antidemocratic right-wing agenda. (Matthew Cunningham-Cook in Jacobin and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in the the New Yorker are notable exceptions.) Great replacement theory is, at bottom, a tool for increasingly unpopular conservative elites to justify to their base the use of increasingly extreme, antidemocratic, and yes, occasionally violent measures to maintain their power.
The American right has never been concerned with democracy, and since Donald Trump’s election and subsequent loss, it has accelerated its attempts to insulate its ability to exercise power from democratic checks. Specifically, that means ensuring white conservatives remain the dominant political force regardless of the popularity of their ideas. To do this, conservatives skillfully take advantage of the undemocratic American political system in perfectly banal ways. But they also increasingly rig it in their favor by engaging in heavy gerrymandering and voter suppression, restricting civil rights and the right to protest for leftists and people of color while praising violent right-wing protests, and tapping a virtually unlimited pool of dark money that a decade of conservative court rulings has made it legal to accept.
All of these tactics show that if the Right hasn’t yet completely given up on democracy, it is certainly building the infrastructure to allow it to do so. Critical to this effort is the idea that not only are white conservatives the only legitimate voters but that they are being oppressed and undermined by people of color. Therefore, the reasoning goes, measures like denying immigrants access to public schools, removing serious discussion about slavery and racism from curricula, and simply throwing out votes for Democrats are actually just rebalancing the scales — defensive measures by “legitimate” Americans under attack by those who want to replace them.
This idea is pounded into the conservative base constantly by mass media and elected officials. Tucker Carlson summed up great replacement theory with surprising bluntness, saying “The Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.”
As vile and contemptible as their rhetoric is, it is unlikely that people like Carlson, Trump, and other high-level conservatives espousing great replacement theory actively want their followers to commit racist murder. But as the 2021 storming of the Capitol shows — along with the much longer history of violence by the antiabortion movement and racist militias like the Ku Klux Klan — the “respectable” right is adept at maintaining ties with the violent fringe of its base while keeping just enough distance to portray any questions about their sympathies as further evidence of their supposed persecution.
Again, Carlson demonstrated this tactic with bracing directness. On his Monday evening program, he managed to turn himself into the victim of the Buffalo shootings, saying in response to reports that his show heavily influenced the shooter, “So, what is hate speech? Well, it’s speech that our leaders hate. So because a mentally ill teenager murdered strangers, you cannot be allowed to express your political views out loud. That’s what they’re telling you.”
The callousness and self-pity is shocking but not surprising. Great replacement theory and related ideas have inspired multiple mass murders before Saturday, and there is no reason to think Buffalo’s will be the last. Its proponents simply don’t care, as long as they can use the theory to help them stay in power.