MAGA media pushed "great replacement" theory to turn Republicans against their own immigration bill

The myth that "Biden won't enforce the law" has its roots in a white nationalist conspiracy theory

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published February 9, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Fox News Channel and radio talk show host Sean Hannity (L) interviews U.S. President Donald Trump before a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on September 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Fox News Channel and radio talk show host Sean Hannity (L) interviews U.S. President Donald Trump before a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on September 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

By any reality-based measure, the collapse of Republican support for the recent immigration bill is bizarre. For years, Republicans have been complaining that the U.S.-Mexican border is in "crisis." In recent months, that narrative has gained traction even among reasonable people, who may harbor no ill will towards refugees, but still understand that it's not great that the immigration system is collapsing under the weight of thousands of people crossing every week, asking for asylum. Having whipped voters into a frenzy over this issue, Republicans finally had a chance to pass a draconian immigration bill that was a veritable wish list of anti-immigrant policies they've been demanding for years. And yet, as any news consumer can tell you, the bill died this week, voted down by the very Republicans who wrote it

The reason for this isn't mysterious: Donald Trump demanded it because he believes the continuing chaos at the border will help his political chances in November. But that puts Republican leaders and right-wing media in what should be an impossible contradiction. On one hand, they keep telling their base that refugees are an existential threat and a national emergency. On the other hand, they now have to justify doing absolutely nothing to fix the problem. Even for a voting base as nihilistic as the GOP's, it's hard to square the circle between "we're in immediate danger!" and "but we won't do a damn thing to change that." 

To sidestep their self-contradiction, Republicans are employing their favorite tool when it comes to justifying their illogical and incoherent views: Conspiracy theory. In this case, a hateful lie that first got its start in neo-Nazi circles, but was mainstreamed by powerful right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson: The "great replacement" theory. This theory holds that a secret cabal — originally alleged to be Jews, but eventually just more vaguely "Democrats" — is deliberately trying to "replace" white Christians with darker-skinned foreigners. The racists who believe this theory argue that darker-skinned people are less intelligent than white people and easier to manipulate. Fictional conspirators, the far-right contends, are merely using these immigrants as tools to "take over" America.

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The new talking point to explain why it's OK for Republicans to do nothing on immigration? "President Joe Biden wouldn't enforce the bill anyway." It's an absurd argument on its face, but its immediate and widespread adoption in Republican circles is a sign of how much "great replacement" theory has become acceptable in the GOP. 

"This president is not going to use those tools anyway," Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told the Washington Post, justifying killing the bill. The corollary argument, echoed by Republicans in Congress and throughout right-wing media, is that Biden can already stop the migrant influx by "executive order" and is simply refusing to do so. 

It's an argument that doesn't make any sense in the real world, of course. In the real world, Biden has been desperate to make the refugee situation go away, understanding that the images of masses of people at the border are not going to help him in a general election. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported late last month, Biden has done far, far more than Trump ever did to get the situation under control. He's "taken more than 500 executive actions" on immigration, "already surpassing former president Donald Trump’s four-year total." 

But Republican voters won't believe any of this, because they've been swimming in "great replacement" theory for years now. Instead, they believe that Biden is part of this secret cabal that is "shipping" the immigrants in to "replace" white Americans. Steve Bannon was repeating this lie again on his podcast on Tuesday, claiming Democrats have a "partnership with the cartels" to traffic immigrants into the U.S. "to have Democrat votes." Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was raving on Fox Business last month that "Democrats are going to bring in millions and millions of illegals and turn them into Democrat voters." 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose efforts to conceal his true political opinions have collapsed under their own weight, is going all-in as well. On Tuesday, the white nationalist website VDare pushed the false claim that "4 million whites still in South Africa" need political asylum to the U.S. but are being denied by Biden. Of course, there are no photographs, videos, or other documentation to show that four million white South Africans are trying to escape their country. But Musk replied "True" to this lie on Twitter. Again, this is "great replacement" nonsense, based in the entirely false belief Democrats are deliberately manipulating the asylum system in order to change the complexion of American demographics. 

Having convinced themselves the refugees are puppets of this elaborate Jewish-Democratic conspiracy, Republican voters now reject all evidence that shows that no, actually, Biden is trying to find some way to slow down what is an overwhelming number of migrants. Conspiracy theories work as closed-loop systems in this way, repelling all counter-evidence that should, in a reasonable mind, dispel the false narrative. Yes, it may look like Biden is trying to pass a bill to deal with the border situation. But that's part of the larger conspiracy, man! Really, it's all a hoax so they can "ship" more people in!

In reality, of course, the migrants are mostly people from Central America who are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. No elaborate conspiracy is necessary to explain their presence. They are self-motivated and for obvious reasons. It's flat-out racist to argue these folks are incapable of knowing their own minds and thus must be pawns of a Democratic conspiracy. And any evidence that Democrats would like to help them — such as bill provisions expanding green card access or speeding up the asylum process — is rooted in compassion, an emotion that does exist, even if Republican pundits have never experienced it. 

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Hiding behind elaborate conspiracy theories seems like a lot of work, when, in theory, Republicans could just lie about the bill. And many have tried that. Fox News and other right-wing media are blasting disinformation, falsely painting the bill as "soft" on immigration. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., has been lying his head off, claiming it would "incentivize illegal immigration," when he knows full well it would do the opposite. 

But one reason simple lying isn't working so well is that there are Republicans out there, willing to tell the truth about the bill.

Far-right Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., helped write the bill and has done plenty of media explaining what is actually in the package. He went on Fox News and argued the bill would "dramatically increase detention beds, deportation flights, lock down the border, to be able to change the asylum laws to be able to accelerate the process." (All true!) Rep. Chip Roy, R-Tex. debunked the claim that a president can simply "shut down" the border, pointing out "that didn’t happen in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020," when Trump was president. 

Because it's Republicans saying it, these facts are leaking into the typically reality-averse bubble that is the right-wing media. That makes it that much harder for the MAGA media to lie about what's in the bill. So instead, they are turning to this "Biden won't enforce" lie, which only makes sense in light of a white nationalist conspiracy theory that has fueled multiple deadly terrorist attacks. The original Republican bill was repugnant in its many racist assumptions. But it's a sign of how depraved the party has become that, in order to kill their own bill, they are getting even more aggressive spreading white nationalist disinformation. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Great Replacement Theory Immigration Bill White Nationalism