The Long Game of White-Power Activists Isn’t Just About Violence
It’s not immediately obvious how the “great replacement” theory, often framed as anti-immigrant doctrine meant to preserve predominantly white societies, is connected to the shooting of Black customers and employees at a grocery store in Buffalo last weekend. Those at the store, who lived over 100 miles away from the man accused in the killings, were simply going about their lives (picking up groceries, buying a birthday cake, taking their children for ice cream).
But the explanation for both the choice of targets and the brutality of an attack that killed 10 people can be found in the history of the theory. In the American context, it has in its cross-hairs a host of future targets, among them democracy itself.
The great replacement is the latest incarnation of an old idea: the belief that elites are attempting to destroy the white race by overwhelming it with nonwhite groups and thinning them out with interbreeding until white people no longer exist. This idea is not, at its core, about any single threat, be it immigrants or people of color, but rather about the white race that it purports to protect. It’s important to be cautious and not too credulous when reading the writings of assailants in attacks motived by race, but we should note an important pattern: their obsession with protecting white birthrates.
For decades, white-power activists have worried about their status as a majority. They see a looming demographic crisis and talk about when their community, town or the United States will no longer be majority white. Even when demographic change slows, this fear has not abated.
This belief transforms social issues into direct threats: Immigration is a problem because immigrants will outbreed the white population. Abortion is a problem because white babies will be aborted. L.G.B.T.Q. rights and feminism will take women from the home and decrease the white birthrate. Integration, intermarriage and even the presence of Black people distant from a white community — an issue apparently of keen interest in the Buffalo attack — are seen as a threat to the white birthrate through the threat of miscegenation.
In the United States, it is clear that this is never only about immigration; when gunmen write about “replacers,” they might just as easily mean any person of color, whether they have American roots or not. Replacement theory is about the violent defense of whiteness.
The reason we often think of replacement theory as a specifically anti-immigrant ideology is because of two key writings — “The Great Replacement” by Renaud Camus and “The Camp of the Saints” by Jean Raspail. Both have gained currency in white-power and militant-right circles in the past decade. “The Camp of the Saints,” from 1973, is essentially a dystopian, fictional precursor to “The Great Replacement,” published in 2011 in French, which argues that white Europeans are being replaced in their countries by nonwhite immigrants. That “The Camp of the Saints” was recommended by Stephen Miller, who later became an architect of the Trump administration’s cruelest immigration policies, reveals that replacement theory is known, if not embraced, by some in the Republican Party. Both are built around the fear of nonwhite — including Islamic — immigration into Europe as a major threat of cultural collapse and extinction of whiteness.
White-power extremism reveals that the core of this ideology is not the victims it attacks, but rather the thing it attempts to preserve — and the mechanism that transfigures this ideology into racial violence. It imagines that a conspiracy of elites, usually imagined as Jewish “globalists,” are deliberately working to eradicate both white people and white culture. This is why white nationalism is so often virulently antisemitic, and also why it feeds on deep distrust of the media, education, science and other arbiters of expertise.
Replacement theory in America has domestic antecedents much older than Renaud Camus and Jean Raspail. Henry Ford, among other Americans, promoted “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which — through an entirely fictional depiction of a powerful Jewish conspiracy that controlled world events — has influenced racist theories and beliefs from its initial publication in the early 20th century.
Worries about the body politic and threats to the racial composition of the nation inspired eugenics campaigns, anti-immigration activists and other progressives, including Theodore Roosevelt. These ideas have been braided with environmentalism not only by ecofascists in the recent past, but also by late-19th- and early-20th-century environmentalists who worried about population burdens and wondered how to preserve nature for white people.
When neo-Nazis, Klansmen, militiamen and skinheads came together in the 1980s and 1990s, they worried about the “Zionist Occupational Government” or the “New World Order.” They also clarified that their nation was not the United States, but a transnational body politic of white people that had to be defended from these conspiratorial enemies and from racial threats — defended through violence and race war. That current still runs through the writings of those associated with the Charleston, Christchurch, Oslo, El Paso, Pittsburgh and Buffalo attacks.
It is impossible to separate replacement theory from its violent implications, as decades of terrorism by its adherents shows us. The mainstreaming of replacement theory, whether through Tucker Carlson’s show or in Elise Stefanik’s campaign ads, will continue to have disastrous consequences.
The long game of white-power activists isn’t just to terrorize and intimidate nonwhites: As “The Camp of the Saints” shows, these activists fear apocalyptic extinction if they don’t take up arms. The American equivalent, “The Turner Diaries,” imagines what it would be like to establish a white-dominated world through race war and genocide.
Why wouldn’t people immediately condemn such an idea? Thoughts and prayers are never enough after a mass shooting, but even these messages seem sparser than usual. Wendy Rogers, an Arizona state senator and member of the far-right extralegal Oath Keepers militia that was involved in the storming of the Capitol, suggested online that the shooting had been a false flag operation perpetrated by a federal agent.
Clearly this is not a fringe idea anymore. Decades of violence at the hands of extremists tell us that such ideas will lead to further violence. Mainstreaming of the idea means that the window for action is closing.
[Kathleen Belew is the author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America” and an incoming associate professor of history at Northwestern University.]