It was about a year ago when Fox News’s Tucker Carlson first eagerly ripped off the mask.
“I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest for 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,” he said in April 2021. “But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually.”
This was an explicit evocation of a line of argument, once confined to the right-wing, white nationalist fringe, called “great replacement theory.” The idea, as Carlson makes clear, is not simply that immigration to the United States could reshape American politics but that some cadre of elites is intentionally encouraging that to happen. That there was a sinister plan to literally “replace” native-born Americans with immigrants.
Despite Carlson’s characteristic insistence about his own honesty, this is not what is happening. But the idea soon spread on the political right, first from one member of Congress — Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), one of Donald Trump’s allies in his bid to overturn the 2020 election — and then to Republicans more broadly. The idea that there was a plan to swap out native-born Americans with immigrants became increasingly taken for granted on the right.
Last December, the Associated Press and NORC conducted a large national poll examining conspiratorial ideas including this one. They found that nearly half of Republicans agree to at least some extent with the idea that there’s a deliberate intent to “replace” native-born Americans with immigrants.
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The AP-NORC poll included several other questions related to the idea. They asked whether respondents were concerned about native-born Americans losing economic, political and cultural influence as the number of immigrants increased and whether they were concerned that the system under which elections are conducted discriminates against White Americans.
About 3 in 10 Americans overall agreed with the idea that intentional replacement was occurring or that native-born Americans were losing influence. About 1 in 5 agreed that the election system discriminated against Whites. In each case, though, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express agreement or concern.
The pollsters also asked respondents what cable news channel they preferred. As might be expected, those who preferred Fox News were more likely than Americans overall or than those who preferred CNN or MSNBC to agree with the replacement theory idea. Three in 10 of those who prefer Fox News held the agree/concerned positions on the first two questions above. Among those who watched cable news closer to the right-wing fringe — One America News and Newsmax — the figure was 45 percent.
It’s worth noting that this is not simply a theoretical belief about elites hoping to reshape the country. The AP-NORC poll also gauged why Americans believed that immigrants were coming to the United States. They included traditional reasons, such as economic opportunity and political freedom. They also included reasons downstream from the idea that there was a nefarious intent to immigration: that immigrants were coming to the U.S. specifically to influence election outcomes or to change the American way of life.
More than half of Republicans thought that each of those was at least a minor reason for immigrants to seek to come to the United States. A quarter thought each was a major reason.
A substantial percentage of Democrats agreed, it’s worth noting. Half of Americans overall, for example, think that changing the American way of life is at least a minor reason for immigrants to come to the United States. But that more than half of Republicans think immigrants want to come to influence elections is obviously linked to the fact that nearly half of Republicans think a cabal of elites is encouraging them to come for that reason.
It also recasts the way in which this concept is sanitized. It’s not just that these nefarious elites want to swing open the doors to reshape the country, with those seeking to come to the United States unwitting pawns in their plan. Overlapping these two questions suggests that the immigrants are somehow complicit in this plan.
What was remarkable about Carlson’s assertion last year was that it failed to recognize the actual problem for his political allies. Hispanic voters do vote more heavily Democratic than Republican, but the margin by which that has occurred is looking increasingly wobbly. The real demographic threat to the GOP over the long term is that young Americans are much more heavily Democratic than Republican. That, too, might be shaky, but it was certainly more of a problem in April 2021 than Carlson’s feverish concerns about “replacement.”