Why does the myth of the 'Great Replacement' endure in the West?

A theory full of holes is inspiring the western world's growing white-supremacist terrorist threat

A memorial for victims of a terrorist attack in Buffalo New York, US, on May 18, 2022. Reuters
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On May 17, US President Joe Biden declared: “We need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America. None. Look, failure to saying that is going to be complicit. The silence is complicity.”

Mr Biden was speaking in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Buffalo, New York last week, in which a self-described white supremacist killed 10 people. Mr Biden further went on to condemn the so-called “great replacement theory”, which claims that white populations of western nations are going to become minorities in these places as people of colour become more numerous. But Mr Biden misspoke, because while white supremacy, and the great replacement theory, shouldn’t have places in American society, they do. Indeed, they underpin a lot of politics across many societies in the West – and if people are really going to tackle these problems, they ought to recognise the scale of them.

White supremacy has been part of western societies for many centuries – it is part and parcel of the original motivations around colonial enterprises, Nazism and other periods in western history that led to a great deal of suffering. In recent decades, white supremacy in the West has found an impressively effective vehicle: the concern around the “great replacement”. The theory, which has different permutations in different parts of the West, is summed up as such: the continued dominance of the “white race” in western states is being threatened by being “replaced” by people of colour, either due to the latter’s birth rates, or immigration, legal and otherwise. If that sounds familiar, it ought to – because this “theory”, which inspired not only the Buffalo terrorist attacker, but also the perpetrator of the New Zealand mosque massacre and many other hate crimes across North America and Europe, isn’t a rare trope. It’s not even particularly uncommon. Rather, it’s been mainstreamed in traditional political parties and media.

White supremacy has been part of western societies for many centuries

Perhaps the most famous pundit on the American right is Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who regularly touts the theme – and the actual phrase – of the “great replacement” to his incredibly wide audience in conservative America and internationally. But it isn’t just mainstream media in America – it’s mainstream political figures as well; the Republican party boasts a range of figures, such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and congresspersons Elise Stefanik and Matt Gaetz, who have openly defended the use of replacement theory in their politics. As Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, a non-profit group, said on the Buffalo killings: “This is the inevitable result of the normalization of white supremacist Replacement Theory in all its form… Tucker Carlson might lead that charge – but he’s backed by Republican elected officials and other leaders eager to amplify this deadly conspiracy.”

It goes beyond America. The phrase itself, indeed, originates in France, where a fascist writer, Renaud Camus, came up with it more than a decade ago. The theme, if not the phrase, of “replacement” motivated Serbian extremists during the Bosnian war, and continues to invigorate Balkan far-right and right-wing extremists. Canadian reactionaries like Mark Steyn encouraged a similar notion, speaking of Europe at the time. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is a contemporary great fan of the replacement theory, who has described Europe’s“suicidal” immigration policies. As a result, Mr Orban has many fans on the American right. Indeed, even after the massacre in Buffalo, he declared, in a speech following the beginning of his fourth successful prime ministerial election: “I see the great European population exchange as a suicidal attempt to replace the lack of European, Christian children with adults from other civilisations – migrants.”

It is an interesting fear, to be sure. Rather explicit is the white supremacist’s desire to remain a demographic majority – although “white” is defined in a rather exclusivist fashion, which would probably not include followers of other non-Christian religions that originate beyond Europe, even if they are white. Those would include converts and their descendants, recent or otherwise, such as the ancient Muslim populations of the Balkans. But it has an implicit claim as well – that minorities are not treated well, while these white supremacist figures are boldly proud of their abusive treatment of minorities.

It is a dangerous theory, not least because it is full of holes; the white populations of the West, however they are defined, are not, according to statistical data, at risk of becoming minorities in the West. But the growth of minority populations, particularly in the US, is a natural consequence of not only immigration, but interracial mixing. It has happened many times before in the great civilisations of the world; ethnic and national identities develop regularly over time. What is needed now is for political and social figures to not only admit that fluidity, but to embrace it. The alternative is to allow this bigotry to fester further. Europe has seen that danger before – it led to the Holocaust as well as countless colonial atrocities. We should not visit that period of our history ever again.

Published: May 20, 2022, 7:00 AM