The dark history of the "Great Replacement": Tucker Carlson's racist fantasy has deep roots

A conspiracy to "replace" white people? Fox News host channels a crackpot notion that has fueled mass shooters

Published August 21, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Tucker Carlson | The New Zealand flag is seen on the wall at the Botanic Gardens on March 18, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 50 people are confirmed dead, with with 36 injured still in hospital following shooting attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday, 15 March. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson | The New Zealand flag is seen on the wall at the Botanic Gardens on March 18, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 50 people are confirmed dead, with with 36 injured still in hospital following shooting attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on Friday, 15 March. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In April of this year, Tucker Carlson got into hot water after offering an impassioned expression of the white nationalist conspiracy theory known as the "Great Replacement" during a monologue on his Fox News prime-time show. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote to Fox News in response, citing just a small fragment of Carlson's long racist record, and noting that "Carlson has suggested that the very idea of white supremacy in the U.S. is a hoax." Greenblatt concluded, "Carlson's full-on embrace of the white supremacist replacement theory ... and his repeated allusions to racist themes in past segments are a bridge too far. Given his long record of race-baiting, we believe it is time for Carlson to go."  

Predictably enough, Fox News and its ownership refused to take this seriously. Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch responded by falsely claiming that "Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory." But the only evidence he offered didn't sound like rejection, only an attempt to sanitize Carlson's remarks through denial and reframing: "As Mr. Carlson himself stated during the guest interview: 'White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.'"

It's worth looking back at that episode now for several reasons. First, Carlson has again been pushing "Great Replacement" discourse more recently, this time by attacking the idea of bringing Afghan refugees to the U.S. in the wake of the Taliban's lightning conquest of that country. Second, because Fox News' defense of Carlson has only supported the spread of this racist conspiracy theory. Third, because that theory has a bloody record of inspiring mass murder — not incidentally, but as a logical consequence of its central argument.

"The great replacement is very simple," its originator, French conspiracy theorist Renaud Camus, has said. "You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people." In this formulation, immigration is equated with genocide, which logically requires or demands genocidal violence in response.

And then there's the final reason: Because the "Great Replacement" and a family of similar, almost interchangeable conspiracy theories — claiming that Western culture and civilization are being destroyed by immigration, which is permitted or enabled by weak or malicious cosmopolitan elites, often though not always identified as Jewish — effectively defines a radical shift in conservative ideology over the last few years. Indeed, one could almost call it a great replacement of previous conservative thought. 

Here's a key portion of what Carlson said in April:

Now I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term "replacement," if you suggest 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. But they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually. Let's just say it! That's true.

Renaud Camus could not have said it better. That was no rejection of the theory; if anything, it was an overt embrace. As conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson noted, "Nearly every phrase of Carlson's statement is the euphemistic expression of white-supremacist replacement doctrine." It was, Gerson wrote, "what modern, poll-tested, shrink-wrapped, mass-marketed racism looks like."

In fact, it's much more than that. For two decades Republicans have been screaming about organized voter fraud, while never producing any evidence. So here is a new and much darker conspiracy theory, so sweeping that it does not rely on hard evidence, but has even more sinister implications. 

This past week, Carlson helped spearhead right-wing opposition to welcoming Afghan refugees who aided the 20-year U.S. war effort. He understood that argument was a tough sell and framed it around a familiar trope, telling his millions of viewers they were being manipulated by unnamed conspiratorial elites: 

You should be happy you live in a country where your neighbors love children and dogs and want to help refugees. We are a generous and empathetic people and we can be proud. Unfortunately, there are many in our ruling class who are anxious to take advantage of our best qualities. They see our decency and weakness and they exploit those things and they do it relentlessly. "Let's try to save our loyal Afghan interpreters," we tell them. "Perfect," they think. "We'll open the borders and change the demographic balance of the country." 

There is no evidence for this, of course. It's pure paranoid fantasy — but not Carlson's alone. He's only a transmitter of extremist views into the mainstream. A key source for these views is the notorious 1973 novel "The Camp of the Saints" by French right-wing author Jean Raspail, which argued that mass migration is an invasion that will eventually destroy Western culture and replace Western populations, that Western political elites lack the moral strength to defend their civilization and therefore that the invaders must be physically removed or destroyed. When I interviewed retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci III last year, he described how the novel's paranoid vision has inspired an entire worldview:

The main variations within this "Camp of the Saints" worldview are whether the political elites lack moral strength to resist the invasions ("Great Replacement"), enact immoral policies which weaken Western societies to invasion ("demographic winter") or actively collaborate with the governments of the invading migrants to facilitate the invasion (as in John Tanton's network). The other variation distinguishes the neo-Nazis from all the other segments: whether or not the Jews are responsible for the destruction of their societies ("white genocide").

These variations can bleed together. Catchphrases like "great replacement" or "white genocide" easily cross the boundaries Scaminaci describes, as part of their lingua franca. So does the record of terrorism. Here are some examples.

On July 22, 2011, right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 Norwegian citizens (mostly teenagers) and injured an additional 319, at the same time electronically distributing a 1,518-page conspiracist manifesto calling for the deportation of Muslims from Europe, and dividing blame between Muslims themselves and "cultural Marxism," an alleged Jewish conspiracy to destroy Western culture and civilization by promoting multiculturalism and undermining traditional values. 

The manifesto used the terms "cultural Marxism" or "cultural Marxist" more than 600 times, and plagiarized almost the entirety of William Lind's 2004 Free Congress Foundation book "'Political Correctness': A Short History of an Ideology," the most significant text promoting the theory, which uses the terms "cultural Marxism," "political correctness" and "multiculturalism" almost interchangeably. The book disappeared from the FCF website shortly after the massacre. But Breivik was doing exactly what Lind had called for. He just did it a little too quickly.  

On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the deadliest attack against Jews in American history. Before the attack, he referenced the anti-Semitic variant, "white genocide." Bowers had a record of posting anti-Semitic comments on Gab attacking the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). One congregation at the synagogue had participated in HIAS's National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Republicans were trying to whip up hysteria about migrant "caravans" during the midterm election campaign. Referencing those, Bowers posted on Gab that "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

On March 2019, Brenton Tarrant live-streamed himself killing 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand. In advance, he released an 74-page online manifesto called "The Great Replacement," elaborating on Camus' ideas and citing Breivik as an inspiration. The manifesto included neo-Nazi symbols, although Tarrant denied being a Nazi, calling himself an "ethno-nationalist" and an "eco-fascist." Equating immigration with genocide, he wrote, "Radical, explosive action is the only desired, and required response  to an attempted genocide," underscoring the inherently violent nature of this worldview.

On April 27, 2019, the last day of Passover, white supremacist John Earnest killed one person and injured three others at a synagogue in Poway, California. He posted a letter of explanation, which the ADL summarizes:

The letter includes a laundry list of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including the longstanding white supremacist assertion that Jews are responsible for non-white immigration, which "threatens" the white race. "Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race," the letter states, adding "… For these crimes they deserve nothing but hell." This mirrors the language used by both Bowers and Tarrant prior to their attacks. 

On Aug. 3, 2019, white supremacist Patrick Crusius opened fire at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. The final death toll was 23, with almost two dozen others wounded. As the ADL reported, Crusius' manifesto claimed that his attack was a "response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas," and that he was merely defending his country from "cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion." What's more, he also claimed that "he did not intend to target the Hispanic community until he read 'The Great Replacement.'"

This is the conspiracy theory Tucker Carlson is spreading, with Fox's explicit blessing. More than that, what Scaminaci calls the "Camp of the Saints" worldview "is widespread in right-wing media, think tanks, and political parties." He continued:

Thus, there is very little difference between the rhetoric of right-wing media and the rhetoric of right-wing terrorists or mass murderers. The manifesto of the El Paso terrorist and nightly broadcasts of Fox News or the tweets of Donald Trump are remarkably similar. Right-wing elites may be "shocked" by these periodic massacres, but they keep priming the pump. In turn, these massacres create new right-wing "heroes" and "martyrs" and spur others to beat their "score" while spreading the conspiracy theory further.

Even more than the massacres noted above, this points to the most frightening aspect of all: a transformation in conservative ideology which promises more such massacres. In 2012, Arun Kundnani shed light on this in "Blind Spot? Security Narratives and Far-Right Violence in Europe," published by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague in the aftermath of Breivik's attack. 

"Every perception has a blind spot, the area that cannot be seen because it is part of the mechanism of perception itself," Kundnani writes. "This paper considers whether, since 9/11, the far‐right has been the blind spot of counter‐terrorism, the problem that could not be perceived clearly because it had begun to absorb significant elements from official security narratives themselves."

This absorption was in fact only one aspect of a longer-term transformational process Kundnani identified. He describes a threefold evolution of far-right ideology in Europe, which has allowed it to move into the mainstream from the fringes. Post-World War II neo-Nazi parties were ostracized for decades, but this began to shift from the 1980s onward, with a focus on culture rather than race, followed by the latest evolution in the wake of 9/11.

"In the 'counter-jihadist' narrative, the identity that needs to be defended is no longer a conservative notion of national identity but an idea of liberal values, seen as a civilizational inheritance," Kundnani explains. "Islam becomes the new threat to this identity, regarded as both an alien culture and an extremist political ideology. Multiculturalism is seen as enabling not just the weakening of national identity but 'Islamification,' a process of colonization leading to the rule of sharia law." 

Summing up, Kundnani writes, "In moving from neo‐Nazism to counter‐jihadism, the underlying structure of the narrative remains the same, but the protagonists have changed: the identity of Western liberal values has been substituted for white racial identity, Muslims have taken the place of blacks and multiculturalists are the new Jews."

That phrase, "the identity of Western liberal values," should set off alarm bells, coming from neo-Nazi-affiliated political activists. It's perhaps best understood in terms of something else promoted by the above-mentioned William Lind, a pioneer of white supremacist ideology, which I've written about before: fourth-generation warfare.

In 4GW — to use a shorthand familiar to aficionados — Carl von Clausewitz's distinctions between the government, the army and the population collapse. There is no clear dividing line between war and peace, combatant and non-combatant, or, as Tucker Carlson may see it, between immigration and invasion — or even genocide. It is, above all, a war of perceptions, a war for legitimacy. So when it comes to defining the identity of Western liberal values, the current Republican obsession with defining freedom as the freedom to infect others with a deadly virus shows just how ludicrous a war of perceptions can become — and still have a legitimate chance of succeeding. 

Scaminaci also told me that Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson, co-editors of the book "Doublespeak: The Rhetoric of the Far Right Since 1945," argue that far-right movements have engaged in what they call "fifth-column discourse," described as a "form of deception and political cunning intended to attack an enemy from within; in this case, by aping the language of liberal democracy." That's clearly similar to Kundnani's argument.

I asked Scaminaci whether racist right-wingers claiming to be defenders of Western values offer a paradigmatic example of fourth-generation warfare, and also whether that helps explain Tucker Carlson's man-crush on Viktor Orbán, Hungary's autocratic leader.

He agreed, adding that the version of 4GW articulated in this instance was "extremely clever." He turned to Kundnani's description:

This new "identitarian" narrative makes the defense of Western civilization and Enlightenment values from invading Muslims and Islam central to its appeal. The new internal enemy are the multiculturalists instead of the Jews. This is consistent with a larger conservative narrative of the "clash of civilizations." One consequence of this new narrative is that the Jews and Israel are now potential allies. But this new narrative is entirely consistent with the central argument of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview.

Indeed, support for Israel has a double appeal: First to fight Islam, second, to provide cover for continued anti-Semitism on the right. The older narratives haven't gone away just because new ones have emerged. For some, "cosmopolitans" may have replaced Jews on their enemies list. For others, that's just rhetorical code.  

As for Carlson's bromance with Orbán, Scaminaci said: 

Tucker Carlson is following a well-worn path. Orbán embraced this "Camp of the Saints" worldview and made it the centerpiece of his political strategy. Orbán and [Benjamin] Netanyahu were allies and white nationalists found encouragement in casting Israel as a white-settler enclave worth defending. When Donald Trump went to Poland in July 2017, he delivered a "Camp of the Saints" or "Great Replacement" speech.

There's another dimension to the story not yet mentioned, the "Eurabia" variation of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview, as explained by Scaminaci:

Trump and Orbán were following the path laid out by Egyptian-Jewish author Bat Ye'or in the 1990s. Ye'or, in her "Eurabia" writings, brought Jews and Christians together to fight against a Muslim invasion of Europe. Ye'or made common cause with proponents of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as did William Lind, the originator of fourth-generation war. This Serbian genocidal policy was then imported into the Republican Party and the Christian right. Tucker Carlson is just the latest in a long line of Bat Ye'or followers.

Kundnani's description of the evolution of neo-Nazi narratives into "counter-jihadist" narratives was framed in a European context, where multiparty democracies allowed extremists to use existing party structures to claw their ways into the political mainstream. America is locked into a two-party system that presents a different dynamic, and Nazi ideology was never strong in the U.S. So the lines weren't as clearly drawn and the evolution wasn't as obvious or direct. But a similar story can be told about American politics as well, Scaminaci said: 

By now everyone is familiar with Lee Atwater's observation that the Republican Party used sanitized and abstract concepts like taxes rather than more crass and vulgar white supremacist terminology. GOP rhetoric from the 1980s up to Trump used sanitized code words to appeal to ... voters feeling their status was being threatened from below or they were being abandoned from above by Democratic Party elites.

Trump dropped the dog whistles [and] never abandoned his central narrative that his key strategist, Steve Bannon, had borrowed and pushed into the conservative media ecosystem, namely, the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. Trump may not be a true card-carrying white nationalist, but he's close enough that they immediately recognized him as a kindred spirit.

The "Camp of the Saints" worldview provides a new framework for conservatism, an overarching narrative that connects things together more tightly than postwar conservatives ever managed in the past. If "invading hordes of immigrants" are the enemy, and falling white birthrates are key to the problem, then the right's misogynist agenda and its xenophobic agenda are much more tightly linked than ever before. 

Connections with Christian nationalism — an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities — are similarly strengthened. A 2018 paper, "Make America Christian Again," which I wrote about here in 2018, explained that "Christian nationalism … draws its roots from 'Old Testament' parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism." 

In short, all the major electoral facets of American conservatism are more tightly unified by the "Camp of the Saints" worldview than they ever were, or ever could have been, in the days of William F. Buckley or Ronald Reagan. What's more, the practical need to suppress voters of color becomes a central ingredient. 

As Scaminaci put it: "The underlying motivation of the Great Replacement and voter suppression is the same: Nonwhite voters are inherently illegitimate because they vote for an illegitimate political party that itself poses an existential threat to Western civilization or America or White America or White Americans, because it conspires with external nonwhites to destroy the country."

So the Great Replacement that has actually taken place is the replacement of the ideas, ideals and mores of conservatism. As debased and depraved as those had already become, they have now been supplanted by much darker principles, which have deadly real-world consequences and pose an existential threat to what remains of American democracy.

"The right wing wants to use the language of liberal democracy and of the Enlightenment," Scaminaci said in conclusion, "but the right wing is intellectually incoherent":

It no longer has a governing philosophy. Thus it must make its appeals to resentments, to frustrations, to anger and to fear, using liberal language in defense of Enlightenment values — while their arguments make little or no sense and cannot withstand scrutiny. But there is an underlying logic and that is the logic of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. And they continue to develop rhetorical and narrative strategies to make that worldview palatable and electable.

Those rhetorical and narrative strategies will necessarily involve doublespeak, of which Tucker Carlson is a master. For example, in June, David Neiwert, author most recently of "Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us," called out Carlson for inverting the reality of demographic change in the Mountain West, in a further extension of replacement theory.

Carlson had suggested on his prime-time show that Montana, Idaho and Nevada now face "similar problems" to the demographic change right-wingers view as catastrophic in California: "The affluent liberals who wrecked California aren't sticking around to see how that ends. They're running to the pallid hideaways of Boise and Bozeman, distorting local culture and real estate markets as they do it."

Neiwert responded that as "a fourth-generation Idaho native with family in Montana, I can tell you that this is a complete inversion of the historic demographic reality in those places":

It could only be accurate if viewed from a very short-term perspective — and even then, it's wrong. Idaho and Montana have only become deep-red Republican states in the past decade or two. Prior to that, they were classic "purple" states, electing a mix of Democrats and Republicans. What changed that was an in-migration of right-wing voters.

We can expect more such gaslighting arguments in the days ahead. The far right now finds itself deeply at odds with the Western values it pretends to defend. Even if it has convinced the vast majority of conservative voters to go along, it can only hope to gain and hold power by standing those values on their heads — including, most fundamentally, the biblical value of not bearing false witness.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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