“You Will Not Replace Us”: The Great Replacement Theory and the Long History of Conspiratorial Nativism in America

By Andrew Heiser, J.D. Class of 2023

The past decade has seen a shocking rise of white nationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence in the United States. Much of it has been rooted in the so-called “great replacement theory,” the racist and delusional conspiracy theory that white Americans are being intentionally replaced by non-white immigrants.1 At the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, crowds of alt-right demonstrators chanted “You. Will not. Replace us,” (which later morphed into “Jews. Will not. Replace us.” and “One people. One nation. End to immigration.”).2 The perpetrators of the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018, El Paso in 2019, and Buffalo in 2022 all invoked the great replacement theory as justification for their horrific acts.3 Nor has the great replacement theory been limited to the chants of neo-Nazis and the manifestos of mass murderers. Influential media personalities such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News and politicians such as congressman Scott Perry of Pennsylvania have increasingly adopted talking points rooted in the great replacement theory.4

While the infection of American immigration discourse with this dangerous ideology is dispiriting, it is unfortunately not a novel situation. Indeed, a strain of conspiratorial nativism – a conviction that immigrants represent a plot to take over or fundamentally alter American society and culture – is a recurring trend in American history.5 Whether manifested as 19th Century paranoia about Catholic and Chinese immigrants or early 20th Century hostility to non-Western European immigration generally, ideas remarkably similar to the modern great replacement theory have shaped American attitudes towards and laws governing immigration for centuries.6 What we are seeing is not the sudden eruption of a new and unique kind of xenophobia but rather the reemergence of a deep vein of nativist bigotry within American political culture.

The first great eruption of conspiratorial nativism in America centered on Catholic immigrants in the first half of the 19th Century. Economic and political factors in Europe led to an influx of mostly Catholic Irish and German immigrants.7 Hostility from the Protestant majority quickly followed. Catholic immigrants were portrayed as unwashed, impoverished masses and a drain on American resources.8 Stories of Catholic convents as centers for the sexual exploitation of women ran rampant, fueling fears of Catholic attempts to convert Protestant women.9 Catholics were viewed as loyal to the Pope, not the United States, and Catholic immigration cast as a plot by the Jesuits to deliver America to the Pope.10 Episodes of mass violence against Catholics soon followed, in addition to political anti-immigration efforts.11 Conservative Whig politicians passed voter registration laws meant to limit the ability of Catholic immigrants to participate in elections.12 The Know Nothing Party swept to national prominence in the 1840s and 50s on an anti-immigration platform, winning numerous seats in Congress and state legislatures before fracturing under pressure of the slavery debate.13

More lasting effects on U.S. immigration law would arise out of subsequent nativist episodes. Significant Chinese immigration to the western United States began in the 1850s, sparking a wave of anti-Chinese violence and laws meant to curb Chinese immigration.14 Chinese immigrant labor was blamed for subsequent economic downturns, and Chinese immigrants were viewed as culturally and racially incapable of assimilating into American society, and as a threat to white American women.15 As with earlier anti-Catholic nativism, nativists portrayed immigration not as the result of political or economic conditions, but as a sinister plot to destroy America. Chinese immigrants were said to be loyal to the Chinese emperor, and Chinese immigration was thus viewed as an invasion force meant to turn the American West into a Chinese colony.16 The result of this racist paranoia was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred most Chinese immigration to America.17 Similarly, worries about “white extinction” from immigration and the dilution of America’s “Nordic” racial stock led to more restrictive immigration laws in in the early 20th century. Prominent proponents of these ideas, such as eugenicist Harry Laughlin, were instrumental in crafting the racist quota system of the Immigration Act of 1924, which remained in place until 1965.18

The great replacement theory is in many ways an elaboration on the white extinction narrative of the 1920s.19 It crystalized in its modern form in the works of French writer Renaud Camus, who wrote of a “great replacement” of white Europeans by Muslim immigrants, before being imported into the U.S. by far-right political activists.20 The great replacement theory demonstrates many of the tropes found in the previous nativist episodes described above. In its most explicitly white-supremacist form, the theory claims that Jews are using mass immigration to destroy and displace America’s white majority with non-white immigrants.21 In its more “moderate” form, promoted by conservative pundits and politicians, the theory claims that nebulous elites – variously described as big business, the Democratic Party, or others – are seeking to use immigration to replace native-born Americans with subservient immigrant populations they can more easily control.22 Regardless of the form, the theory dehumanizes immigrants in ways similar to anti-Catholic and anti-Chinese conspiracies of yore. Immigrants are reduced to a threatening “other,” inimical to American life. Rather than people responding to a variety of personal, political, and economic factors, immigrants are viewed as mere tools of a shadowy plot to destroy America. And as in nativist episodes past, this conspiratorial rhetoric has infected the national discussion on immigration and been adopted by politicians for their own political gain. At least one in five American adults believe in some part of the great replacement theory, and 36% of Americans now believe that immigration should be reduced.23 Several Republican politicians have openly embraced great replacement rhetoric. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio said that Democrats “have decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here.”24 Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York, the chair of the House Republican Conference, put out ads accusing Democrats of using illegal immigration to “overthrow our current electorate.”25

It can be tempting to dismiss the great replacement theory out of hand – surely something so baldly racist and nonsensical can’t really be believed by millions of Americans? History, however, shows that such beliefs can swiftly grab hold of the nation. Now, as in the 19th and 20the centuries, we are faced with increasing calls for more restrictive immigration laws, based not on any real policy concerns but instead on bigoted delusions. Will we repeat the mistakes of the past, and allow our worst instincts as a society to dictate our immigration policy? We can, and should, break with these shameful episodes of our history, and choose a better path.

[1] Steve Rose, A deadly ideology: how the ‘great replacement theory’ went mainstream, The Guardian (Jun. 8, 2022), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/08/a-deadly-ideology-how-the-great-replacement-theory-went-mainstream

[2] Reece Jones, White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Border Wall 5-6 (2021).

[3] Rose, supra.

[4] Id.

[5] Lorraine Boissoneault, How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics, Smithsonian Magazine (Jan. 26, 2017), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/immigrants-conspiracies-and-secret-society-launched-american-nativism-180961915/.

[6] Jones, supra at 13.

[7] Boissoneault, supra.

[8] Id.

[9] James A. Monroe, Conspiracies and American Democracy: What’s Old? What’s New? And What’s Dangerous?, 15 U. St. Thomas J. L. & Pub. Pol’y 412, 418-19 (2022).

[10] Lynn Bridges, The American Religious Experience: A concise History 92 (2006).

[11] Monroe, supra at 418.

[12] Id.

[13] Boissoneault, supra.

[14] Kenzo S. Kawanabe, American Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Against Asian Pacific Immigrants: The Present Repeats the Past, 10 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 681, 684 (1996).

[15] Id. at 693.

[16] Reese, supra at 43

[17] Kawanabe, supra at 685.

[18] Jason Wilson and Aaron Flanagan, The Racist ‘Great Replacement’ Conspiracy Theory Explained, SPLC (May 17, 2022), https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2022/05/17/racist-great-replacement-conspiracy-theory-explained.

[19] Id.

[20] Rose, supra.

[21] Wilson and Flanagan, supra.

[22] David Lauter, Essential Politics: Conspiracy theories and fear of immigrants – a toxic mix, L.A. Times (May 13, 2022), https://www.latimes.com/politics/newsletter/2022-05-13/conspiracy-theories-and-fear-of-immigrants-a-toxic-mix-essential-politics.

[23] Id.

[24] Susan Milligan, From Embrace to ‘Replace,’ U.S. News and World Rpt. (May 20, 2022), https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2022-05-20/the-republican-embrace-of-the-great-replacement-theory.

[25][25] Id.