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Let’s talk about “The Great White Replacement Theory.” If you would rather not, or if you believe it’s too ridiculous a lie to confront, please consider just one simple and undeniable fact documented by new polling — how popular it is in America.
For the uninitiated, “The White Replacement Theory” claims that there is a grand plan to replace the white population of Western countries with people of color. “Since many white supremacists, particularly those in the United States, blame Jews for non-white immigration to the U.S. the replacement theory is now associated with antisemitism,” the Anti-Defamation League explains. In other words, white supremacists believe Jews are masterminding a plan to replace whites.
The “white replacement theory” is becoming a more and more mainstream belief in America — and it is colliding with other dangerous ideas, like the claim of election fraud.
A new Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that a whopping 32% of Americans believe that “a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.” This figure includes nearly half of Republicans polled.
I urge you to re-read that.
“A similar share (29%) also express concern that an increase in immigration is leading to native-born Americans losing economic, political, and cultural influence,” the Associated Press reported.
The AP spelled out why those two beliefs — “replacement” and loss of power — are so dangerous. “These two key measures tap into the core arguments of Replacement Theory, a decades old idea, which posits that there is a group of powerful people in this country who are trying to permanently alter the culture and voting strength of native-born Americans by bringing in large groups of immigrants — the study indicates about one in five (17%) adults agree with both of these central tenets.”
These statistics present a red-alarm moment.
Nearly one in five Americans agree with the Buffalo supermarket shooter, who made his belief in the “replacement theory” evident in his 180-page manifesto. And one in three hold beliefs that take them dangerously close to “the white replacement theory.”
This “theory” has inspired multiple mass shootings, including this weekend’s deadly and racist mass shooting in Buffalo which left 10 people murdered; the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in which 11 Jews were murdered; the 2019 New Zealand mosque shooting, in which 51 people were murdered, and the 2019 El Paso, Texas, Walmart mass shooting, targeting Latinos, in which 23 people were murdered.
Why is this false idea spreading?
Three mass phenomena are providing gasoline for this hatred, which combines the classic antisemitic canard that Jews are behind the scenes, controlling the world, with racist hatred of people who are not white.
First, “Tucker Carlson Tonight” program on Fox News with 3.39 million viewers according to Nielsen, is providing a gigantic nightly platforming of this lie. Even if you personally never watch Carlson, it matters that you acknowledge its reach. As a point of comparison, the widely respected “PBS News Hour” had 1.197 million viewers in 2020, according to Pew Research.
Second, social media platforms from Twitter to YouTube are reaching people like the Buffalo shooter and helping these lies take root in their brains. Live video of shooting has been broadcast, inspiring future shooters. It’s also important to understand that this hateful delusion is international; “Le grand remplacement” became popular in France a decade ago, and today, hundreds of thousands of tweets about this theory can be found in multiple languages.
“We identified around 1.5 million tweets referencing the Great Replacement theory between April 2012 and April 2019 in English, French and German language,” Jacob Davey and Julia Ebner of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue wrote in a research paper on the subject.
Third, politicians with national and international platforms are either using dog whistles invoking this theory or — astonishingly — openly mentioning it. In February, Valérie Pécresse, the center-right presidential candidate in France, said in a speech in Paris that France was not doomed to the “great replacement” and called on supporters “to rise up,” The New York Times reported.
Former President Trump’s shameful response to torch-bearing neo-Nazis yelling “Jews Will Not Replace Us!” was to claim that there are “very fine people” on “both sides.” The current third-ranking Republican in Congress, Representative Elise Stefanik, echoed the “replacement theory” in her ads, a move that has not gotten enough condemnation.
And of course, there is a fourth toxic element. Easy access to guns is making everything worse — and that’s how a conspiracy theory powers mass murder.
We must do something. It’s now clear that leaders of all communities must join forces and present a united front against these four scourges, all making a dangerous lie more dangerous.
Major media companies who give airtime to the lie of the “great replacement” — whether on television or on Twitter — must be treated as parties to mass murder by consumers and advertisers.
Politicians who use this theory to gain votes must be voted out, as part of a concerted joint effort between multiple communities whose leaders must be wise enough to recognize that lives are on the line. This must be a red line.
As a nation, and as an international community, we must get beyond the belief that this is the work of a few lone wolves. We must face the fact that horrifying as it is, a significant percentage of Americans adhere to this false belief.
We also must recognize that this idea reached the highest levels of national elections in France, and that Hungary has long been overrun by an obsessive focus on George Soros and the lie of “replacement.” This is a global problem, getting larger because of major media, social media, and politicians using it as a path to power. Only a great movement of responsible individuals, acting together, can stop it.
Jews have a special obligation at this moment. We must consider the threat of false yet wildly popular beliefs, a theme throughout Jewish history. We cannot hide behind the excuse of “that’s just absurd.”
I keep thinking back to the last Yom Kippur service I attended, not knowing the world would shut down by the time the next year rolled around. “To be Jewish is not to be popular,” the rabbi said.
I love that about Judaism. I love its centuries-long ability to withstand peer pressure. But I would add that to be Jewish is also to be aware of the allure — and deep danger — of the popular.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “Wolf Lamb Bomb” (Orison Books) and “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner