How a dangerous right-wing conspiracy theory became part of the midterm election season

This week, the nation marked the fourth anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, which left 11 people dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.

The suspected white gunman, Robert Bowers, had a history of posting antisemitic slurs on social media associated with what is known as the “great replacement” conspiracy theory — including a rant blaming a Jewish American group that provides aid to refugees for bringing violent “invaders in that would kill our people.”

This theory, which promotes the baseless idea that there is a plot to weaken the influence of white people in America, has also been peddled by some mainstream Republican candidates during the 2022 midterm election season, including Arizona U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters, Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Eric Schmitt and Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance.

There used to be consequences for engaging in white supremacist rhetoric, but that kind of policing doesn’t happen anymore, Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told Yahoo News.

“I find it astounding that you can get away with pushing these ideas knowing that it's connected directly to mass killing,” Beirich said. “Could you imagine a politician pushing ISIS or al-Qaida beliefs when those are directly connected to terrorism? This is no different, and this is terrorism right here in our homeland.”

To help further explain just how dangerous the great replacement theory is, where it came from and how it made its way into mainstream politics, Yahoo News also spoke with Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, and Michael Edison Hayden, senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.)

Yahoo News: What is the great replacement conspiracy theory?

Heidi Beirich: The great replacement theory is a white supremacist idea that there is a plot either orchestrated by elites, or globalists, or sometimes Jews in an antisemitic version, to replace white populations in what they consider their home countries with people of color. Depending on which country you might be in, that might be Muslims, that might be refugees, that might be Latino immigrants here in the United States.

The key thing is this is viewed as an orchestrated plot — so there's something being done specifically by these terrible forces to basically wipe out white people in what they consider their countries.

Where did the theory come from?

Marilyn Mayo: The great replacement idea has been around for quite some time, but the most recent iteration really comes from a French writer named Renaud Camus, who wrote a book, and before that an essay, called "The Great Replacement." He was writing about Europe, and about immigrants from Africa and Arab countries replacing white Europeans. And, of course, white nationalists around the world were very much influenced by this essay.

There are somewhat different versions of the great replacement, and that's important to point out to people. For example, Renaud Camus, when he was writing about the great replacement, he did not mention Jews. He really focused on immigration and didn't talk about the Jewish population. However, as other people start talking about the great replacement, there are some people in the white nationalist or white supremacist movement who do blame Jews.

So there's an antisemitic version of the great replacement, in which Jews are blamed for bringing nonwhite immigrants into both the United States and Europe. This is, of course, based on antisemitic tropes, and it's this idea that Jews control world situations, or they're trying to manipulate situations to their advantage, and that they would bring in all these nonwhite immigrants with the idea that they would control them and then be able to control whatever countries they're in.

There is a third version of the great replacement that is being used quite a bit by, let's say, more mainstream figures, but still figures on the right or on the far right. And this version has a bit of a twist to it. It's not antisemitic, but what it basically says is that Democrats, or the left, or liberals are trying to bring immigrants from nonwhite countries. And they're doing this through open borders. And that the reason they're doing this is so that these immigrants coming through will then vote Democratic and replace what they call traditional Americans.

Why is the great replacement theory dangerous?

Mayo: The great replacement theory has inspired a number of extremist murderers, and we've seen a rash of horrendous extremists and mass murders in the last few years. Anders Breivik in Norway has inspired a lot of the people who came after him — he killed 77 people because he was opposed to immigration and wrote a manifesto about being opposed to immigrants coming into Norway and Europe, etc.

The people who came after him, and I'm talking about Brenton Tarrant [who shot and killed worshippers in a 2019 mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand], Patrick Crusius [accused of killing 23 shoppers in 2019 at an El Paso Walmart], as well as the shooter in Buffalo [Payton Gendron, who allegedly killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket in May] — they all mentioned the great replacement specifically, and actually said that this was a motivation for the act that they were carrying out.

How has the great replacement theory been promoted in mainstream media and politics?

Mayo: What we're seeing is that this idea of the great replacement is being mainstreamed by many different pundits, politicians, media personalities, etc. And it's part of the environment that we're seeing right now, of grievance and a kind of victimization in this sense. There's this idea that people, basically white Christian America, is losing out right now due to the influx of immigrants, and not just people that they don't consider American, but people that they don't feel can adapt to American culture, so that they feel they don't really belong here. But it's been weaponized in many ways because it's being talked about by these pundits and politicians and basically in the context of, these people are coming over and they're going to take either your position, your job or something away from you, and therefore you need to fear these people.

There may be legitimate issues around immigration and about the country absorbing a large number of immigrants, but that's different from saying that there's a plot to actually get these people to come over here and to vote a certain way and then take your place and control the country. And that's essentially what makes it a conspiracy theory.

Beirich: Tucker Carlson of Fox News has brought up the replacement theory many, many times and essentially endorsed that it is actually happening. And after the Buffalo mass shooting, where the shooter was inspired by the great replacement theory, Tucker Carlson tried to blame Democrats for engaging in replacement.

Beirich: I think the way that the great replacement has become so mainstreamed in terms of an electoral strategy for candidates goes back to Donald Trump making the decision to take on Latinos, take on immigrants, right from that first day when he announced his run, and also throughout the entire time that he was in office. He put in place some of the harshest immigrant measures. He had advisers like Steve Bannon who bought into this, and Stephen Miller, who bought into great replacement ideas as well and had relationships with white supremacists.

And by doing that, they injected a racial issue around immigration into campaigns. And so now conservatives are using this as a way to mobilize their base, by demonizing immigrants, by using the great replacement theory to argue that there's some sort of plot involved with people coming here, and to get their base riled up on a racial issue to come out and vote.

I've been looking at extremism networks for 30 years, and I have never seen this kind of white supremacist hate be mainstreamed like this.

Has this conspiracy theory been normalized?

Michael Edison Hayden: The Southern Poverty Law Center polling found that close to 70% of Republicans believe that this great replacement is being orchestrated by liberal elites — which is a subtext that means either wealthy people like George Soros and other people who have become bogeymen on the right, or in some cases that means Jews to people — but essentially that elites are stepping in to try to change the demographics of the United States to either gain a political advantage or to weaken white people and white people's political power in the United States.

This has been a trend that, while disappointing, is also not at all surprising given the kind of rhetoric that we've seen from people with massive audiences starting in 2015. And you can really think of Trump's first speech, in June 2015, when he spoke about Mexican people and referring to them as rapists and things like that — from that moment on until now, the normalization of that rhetoric is really undeniable.