By Susan Milligan
(USN) – No one was harder on Republicans’ lack of outreach to minority communities, and the party’s accompanying losses at the polls, than the GOP itself. In a brutally frank self-examination, the party concluded in a 100-page “autopsy” of the 2012 election that it was focusing too much attention on white, Christian, straight Americans, ignoring the demographic changes that threatened to make an unchanged GOP irrelevant.
“If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence. It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy,” the 2013 report warned. “If Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door.”
Nine years later, the dialogue has taken a far uglier turn, with a substantial number of Americans buying into the “great replacement” theory, the discredited argument that policies welcoming immigrants are a disguise for a plot to “replace” native-born (and generally white) Americans with minority groups. In its most extreme and violent form, the great replacement conspiracy theory has been cited by racist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and in an online screed that authorities say was penned by the shooter who killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket last Saturday.
The “great replacement” is similar to the “racial suicide” premise of the 19th century, the worry that Catholics coming from Ireland would, through higher birth rates, overwhelm the Protestant population, says Villanova University professor Travis Foster, author of the book “Genre and White Supremacy in the Post-Emancipation United States.”
“It’s a different version of what we’re seeing today – this notion that Democrats are going to open the border, and it will, therefore, lead to South and Central Americans becoming the dominant race in the United States,” Foster says.
Far from the racist “separate but equal” policies of the mid-20th century (which were endorsed by conservative Southern Democrats), devotees of replacement theory don’t want separate lives for minorities, experts say. They want to keep non-whites from the country entirely.
“White supremacism is really seeing itself on the defensive and needing to transform through action” as the country becomes more diverse, says Brandeis University sociology professor David Cunningham, author of the book “Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan.”
“They’re ready to take action against what they see as a threat to white supremacist world, what they think of as a traditional world,” he adds.
In Republican politics, the idea – if not the exact language – of the “great replacement” has been woven into the campaigns against Democrats.
Several GOP candidates have used the word “replace” when talking about immigration and demographics changes, while elected officials have been more circumspect, warning about the threat of unchecked immigration while refusing to denounce, specifically, the concept of the “great replacement” theory.
J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for Senate in Ohio, told Fox News that Democrats “have decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here.” In Arizona, GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters said Democrats wanted to increase immigration “to change the demographics of our country.” Missouri’s Republican state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is running for Senate, also accused Democrats of “fundamentally trying to change the country” through immigration.
Those remarks were all made before the shooting in Buffalo.
Since the attack at the Tops supermarket in a heavily Black neighborhood in Buffalo, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was asked by reporters on Capitol Hill if he denounced the theory. McConnell condemned racism in general and called the shooter “a deranged young man” but declined to explicitly reject the concept of “great replacement.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican who is on the GOP’s House leadership team, has also come under criticism for buying Facebook ads that accused Democrats of encouraging illegal immigration to “overthrow our current electorate.”
The ads and comments do not call for violence of any kind and do not specifically reference the “great replacement.” But it taps into a fear of immigrants and “others,” political analysts and social scientists say, running completely counter to the GOP’s own course-correction document.
“It’s so much easier to get people to identify with what they’re not than by who they are – to point at other people and say, ‘We don’t want to be them’ is the easy thing to do,” says Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign.
But that strategy is bound to fail, ultimately, for the GOP, Tyler notes.
“The irony is that the whole idea of replacement theory is that the other groups will treat you as badly as you treated them when they get into the majority,” he says.
Echoing the great replacement themes “doesn’t make political sense. It’s just pure racism, that’s all it is. It’s the fear of the loss of identity, loss of privilege, the fear of the loss of dominance. It’s incredibly anti-American,” says Republican consultant Mike Madrid, who is at work on a book about the Latinization of America.
Republicans appeal to that part of the electorate – aggrieved white voters who feel they are being subsumed by other cultures and races – “because it works. It’s working,” Madrid says, referring to Donald Trump’s 2016 election and the success of like-minded Republicans in some primaries this year.
An AP/NORC poll earlier this month found that 32% of adults believe a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains. That group is more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, says NORC spokeswoman Jennifer Benz, and that group is also more likely to get its news from right-wing sources.
On paper, directing a political message to exploit the fears of a group of white voters does not add up. The country is expected to become majority-minority by 2044, the Census Bureau projects, and – as the GOP autopsy found – a party that does not accommodate those demographic changes will lose.
Long term, the GOP risks alienating voter groups it will need to win elections, Tyler says. But for now, whipping up that element of the white vote – increasing turnout in key races – can make a short-term difference.
GOP candidates “can win elections by getting people ginned up about who they are not,” Tyler says. “The answer is always the same,” he says. “It’s (what works) this cycle.”
Future election cycles will almost certainly include more voters of color. But for now, it is Democrats who appear poised to be replaced this fall – by Republicans.